Once considered the woo-woo practice of aging hippies, meditation has gone mainstream. But is all that deep breathing and mantra work really going to change your life? Amy Synnott explores the mindfulness revolution.
It's just past 7 on a Wednesday night in February, and N.Y.C.'s SoHo Synagogue is packed. More than 300 candles illuminate the cavernous sanctuary, their shadows dancing against the exposed brick-and-stone walls as new age music wafts through the air. On the floor, 50 or so young, well-dressed professionals sit cross-legged on cushions. As the stragglers take their places, the music stops and Dina Kaplan, a former tech entrepreneur and founder of the Path, a pop-up meditation practice, addresses the crowd. "I'm so happy you're all here," she says. "Tonight we're going to give you a well-rounded workout for your brain."
As she begins to explain how the 45-minute meditation class will be structured—a bit of mindfulness, some mantra work, and finally a guided visualization—I fidget on my cushion. Unlike most of the other people in the room, I don't do yoga, so my flexibility (not to mention my inner quietude) is limited. As everyone around me starts sniffing rapidly in sync—a breathing technique designated to "increase energy and focus your mind"—I work hard to stifle a giggle.
Let me be clear: No one else is laughing. Not Trey, the 40-something corporate exec emptying his mind beside me, or Skylar, the 28-year-old blond photographer in the lotus position behind me. No, these charismatic New Yorkers take their meditation seriously—and there isn't the faintest whiff of patchouli about them. "It's really not a hippie-dippie scene," says 36-year-old Nicole Thomas, who, when not meditating, is the director of retailing for Fendi. She tries to come to the Path at least once a week, which is exactly what Kaplan, who spent 10 days at a silent meditation retreat in Indonesia in 2011, wants: "My mission in life is to make meditation more accessible to mainstream people. I wanted to make it appealing to the old me—the girl who was running a tech company. I wasn't going to go to some weird space with pink pillows and incense, but I would go to a place that looked like the Apple store of meditation."
On the opposite side of the country, Suze Yalof Schwartz, a former magazine editor, had a similar idea. In 2015, she opened L.A.'s Unplug Meditation, which she describes as the "SoulCycle of meditation." At her spare all-white studio—bathed in soothing purple shades meant to evoke "Aten Reign," artist James Turrell's 2013 site-specific light installation at New York's Guggenheim—stressed-out mommies and venture capitalists drop in for "lunchtime quickie" spiritual reboots. "We designed it so people would feel like they were checking into heaven," says Yalof Schwartz, whose Web site offers the following "warning" on its home page: "Meditation may cause increased happiness, decreased stress, reduced anxiety, increased focus, higher test scores, optimism, better health, and inner peace."
This may seem like hyperbole, but reams of research now support that statement unequivocally. Studies show that meditation, particularly the mindfulness variety, can boost productivity and immunity while helping to reduce cortisol levels, lower blood pressure, combat insomnia, and fight depression. And with advances in neuroscience, scientists are finally starting to understand why it works: "By training yourself to become more neutrally aware of the present moment—allowing thoughts to bubble up without judgement or attachment—you can literally rewire your brain to be less reactive to stress," says Dean Sluyter, author of Natural Meditation: A Guide to Effortless Meditative Practice. No wonder everyone from 50 Cent to Jennifer Aniston is raving about it.
Of course, in this age of 24/7 media access, many people still find the idea of sitting quietly—and ostensibly doing nada—for any chunk of time daunting. "People have these preconceived notions about how hard it is to meditate," says Sluyter. "They think it needs to be uncomfortable, and they need the perfect place, and they need to do a certain number of minutes. But the truth is that meditating is something you can do anytime, anywhere. And it should be effortless." Since there are so many different kinds of mediation—and admittedly, some of them are a lot trickier than others—we asked Sluyter for some easy tips to help laypeople like me get started with a basic mindfullness routine. Consider this your field guide to living in the now.
1. Understand the Basics. Based in Buddhist traditions, mindfulness can best be described as hyper- (but nonjudgmental) awareness of the present moment. Most of us spend way too much time ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, and/or reacting reflexively (and often dysfunctionally) to the present; the more mindful you are, the more comfortable you are just being. Picture the typical overstressed brain as a salmon swimming upstream. Then imagine you tell that salmon to flip over on its back and try floating for a while. Now hand that salmon a margarita. Mindfulness is like a happy hour you can access anytime of the day—and it'll never leave you with a hangover.
2. Stop posing. If you're super-flexible and find the lotus position comfy, go for it. But there's no reason your butt needs to ache every time you meditate. Sit on whatever you want, wherever you want, however you want, says Sluyter. "No one is going to give you points for looking like a perfect yogi."
3. Focus on anything... for a while. When you first start your practice, it is helpful to have something to rest your attention on: your breath, an object, the repetition of a sound (or mantra). But don't get too hung up on what it should be. "These are simply on-ramps to meditation," says Sluyter. "Once you feel settled, you won't need these—you'll be able to just sit."
4. Seize the small moments. It's a great idea to establish a daily practice. But not everyone can carve out 20 or 40 minutes to sit on a pillow each morning. So get creative: Instead of quietly raging at the time wasted standing in line at the post office or sitting at a red light, take a few long, deep breaths, and try not to think about anything. When it comes to meditating, "consistency [even just a few minutes a day] is more important than quantity," says Sluyter.
5. Stop being so judgy. So you're sitting there, trying hard not to think, when your mind wanders to last night's email from your boss. Don't feel bad—it happens to everyone. The key is to glide right over that rabbit hole instead of diving in; gently bring your attention back to the meditation. By not freaking out, your mind settles down by itself. And don't worry if you get restless. "Whatever you're feeling, that's simply stuff that's passing through," says Sluyter. Studies show that even if you think your mind is wandering the entire time, you are still reaping the benefits of meditation.
6. Ignore your mood. Think you're too stressed to meditate? So happy you don't need it? News flash: It's good for everyone, so enjoy the (guilt-free) margarita.