Get away from it all... no matter who you are
Schools, offices, prisons and gyms are offering meditation classes as a way to find peace amid the bustle of daily life.
Alice Jolly is an author, playwrite and teaches creative writing at Oxford University. She is crowd-funding her own memoir of infertility and surrogacy with the publisher Unbound. 50 per cent of the proceeds of the book will be donated to SANDS (The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Foundation).
Wednesday 02 November 2011
Wednesday morning in central London, and I'm sitting, eyes closed, attempting to relax. To aid me in this quest, Mez Ainscow has me visualising the colour red. I am focusing on my body's chakras – the energy centres, according to Hindu traditions. Thoughts flow in and out of my head, but that's fine, says Ainscow. Just don't let them get to you, and relax. It is, essentially, meditation and it's very pleasant indeed.
Less pleasant is what comes next: a series of squats, a weighted bar balanced on my shoulder. We do one set with our eyes open, one set with them looking at the ground and another with our eyes closed. Oddly, there's no mirror in sight; we've got our backs turned to it. The focus is on us, our bodies and – most importantly – our "energy bodies". After the lifting, we go back to meditating. And after meditating, we do more lifting. The point is to get a workout – toning, stretching, improving our core strength – while relaxing. All too often, says Ainscow, we dash from busy job to busy gym, putting the body and brain under further strain. This is an altogether more holistic kind of fitness: a "mind-body" fitness.
It's called "Contempowerplation" and it's taught at the Third Space gym, just off Piccadilly Circus. The course is a collaboration with Psychologies magazine; it aims, says the magazine, to be "the ultimate mind- and body-boosting workout". If the combination sounds incongruous – well, you've obviously not been paying attention to the football lately. Because meditation and sport, increasingly, go hand in hand. Lionel Messi, for one, is said to be a fan. And who can blame him, with the shopping list of benefits it is said to impart? Reports have, variously, linked meditation with reduced risk of heart disease, lowered blood pressure, better skin and an improved mental state. No wonder Messi et al want in on the act. And if it works for him, why shouldn't it work for me, in need of some inner peace midway through a busy week? It's not just the sporting world that has embraced the calming influence of meditation. Schools, offices – even advertising campaigns – are attempting to harness the benefits. Meditation in the workplace has been a trend for some time, thanks in part to its ability to combat stress and offer focus. Schools have embraced it for similar reasons – first in the private sector and now increasingly in the mainstream. Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace and authority on all things meditative, is working with Yale and Brown universities to research a way of integrating the digital world with authentic meditation: "We're trialling it in a school in Thailand. The thing is, it's how kids relate to things. We're using animation, videos and so on to make meditation something they want to do."
Introduced into these new contexts, the benefits, says Puddicombe, are only amplified: "The biggest thing, really, is the shift in perspective you gain, whereby your thoughts and feelings are things that you are able to witness. You are able to respond, rather than react in a knee-jerk way. I've never met anyone who couldn't benefit from it." It's this change in perspective that Puddicombe et al hope to bring when they work with other organisations, be that corporate giants such as Twinings– with whom they collaborated in an online campaign – or the homeless charity Centrepoint, where they aim to offer "a sense of purpose and focus" to young people trying to get back on their feet. In the US, meditation programmes in prisons have resulted in reduced levels of violence among inmates. Operation Warrior Wellness, bolstered by the backing of an array of high-profile luminaries, has seen meditation classes rolled out among members of the armed forces.
Part of the reason behind this broadened appeal must surely be the shift in the way meditation has been interpreted. Gone are the days when it meant sitting in the lotus position, attempting to hold your thoughts for hours on end. Nowadays, the practice is available in much more flexible forms. "In fact, when people are just starting out, little and often is better than doing one long stretch," says Puddicombe. It's a sentiment echoed by Ainscow, who tells us to sit with our feet on the floor rather than cross-legged, "in order to feel more grounded". Whether or not I feel that, I do feel one thing: calm. Coming away from my session, the sleep deprivation and city crowds are less oppressive. Whether it's inner peace or endorphins, I'm not sure. But I like it.
Quick tips for clearing your head
"There is meditation, and there's mindfulness," says Andy Puddicomb, founder of Headspace. Both are important. Mindfulness is about being "in the moment", registering your experience – whether that's sitting down for a cup of tea or relishing a walk in the park.
The mind-body connection
Meditation isn't the only way to maximise your mind-body connection. Yoga, pilates and qigong are all recommended. Surveys indicate that regular practitioners are more likely to be motivated by the psychological benefits than the physical ones.
Headspace's "take 10" campaign aims for 10 minutes of meditation a day. It's about "sitting down and being quiet fora while".
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