Meditation is having its moment, as increasing numbers of people use the practice to cure what ails them
Photo by Amy Moore
I’m lying on my back in an airy, sun-drenched studio at The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda, trying to empty my mind. But an overwhelming to-do list with work deadlines, my parents’ health issues and other daily concerns keeps intruding.
Pay attention to your breathing, Deborah Norris, the center’s co-founder and executive director, tells me and the dozen strangers around me on this fall morning. She urges us to clear our minds, to release areas of tension in our bodies, and simply observe random thoughts as they float by without reacting or holding onto them.
Become conscious of your own internal energy, she says, and focus on the natural rhythms inside our bodies, the elements that make each of us unique.
It isn’t easy. But after engaging in a thorough stretching routine and focusing on my breathing, I find my frazzled mind feeling clearer, even calm.
For years, I’ve admired people who meditate regularly and envied their apparent serenity. But I’ve never thought it was for me. Sitting still, doing nothing for long periods of time seemed like an exercise in frustration. And chanting “om”? Um, I didn’t think so.
Then I tried it for the first time last summer during BodyFlow, a fusion class at Bethesda Sport & Health that incorporates elements of tai chi, yoga and Pilates. As I learned to clear my mind and focus on my breathing, I found myself enjoying shavasana, the final meditative phase of a yoga session.
I emerged feeling a calm, clear, focused energy that was both restorative and invigorating. And over time, my sleep improved, my stress levels diminished, and I felt more grounded physically and mentally.
I’m hardly alone in becoming a meditation convert. A 2007 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 20 million people in the U.S. had practiced meditation in the previous year. And that number has grown, experts say.
Since the nonprofit Mindfulness Center opened in Bethesda in 2009, some 8,000 people have attended its classes and retreats. Meditation classes also are being offered in schools, Marine Corps training programs and in corporations. Mindfulness programs—which train people to focus on what’s happening at a given moment, rather than on the past or future—are being introduced in many local schools, including Chevy Chase Elementary this year.
As part of the trend, there are labyrinths for walking meditation at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda and the Georgetown Waterfront Park in D.C., as well as at some local churches.
Several high-profile individuals have attributed their well-being and success to meditation, further promoting the trend. Last year, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) came out with A Mindful Nation (Hay House), urging people to adopt a mindfulness meditation practice. He says it helped him reduce stress, quiet his mind and harness more of his energy.
Similarly, Ray Dalio, considered one of the top hedge fund managers in the world and the founder of Westport, Conn.-based Bridgewater Associates, has attributed part of his success to a twice-a-day meditation habit. He has spoken on the subject at conferences for business executives over the past few years.
In 1998, Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist and well-known teacher of Western Buddhist meditation who lives in Great Falls, Va., began teaching a Wednesday night meditation class to a small group at the River Road Unitarian Universalist church in Bethesda. Today, about 250 people attend those weekly sessions.
“I’ve seen a high increase in the number of people coming in for meditation,” says Jenna Mahrha, director of the Meditation Museum in Silver Spring, which opened in 2009 and offers training programs to cultivate personal and spiritual growth. “People come because they want to feel better—but they discover that being more reflective also helps them focus faster and be more effective because their mind becomes clearer.”
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years in Eastern religions and cultures. But only in recent decades has it evolved into a secular practice, starting with transcendental meditation (TM) and continuing with the mindfulness meditation practice that’s becoming increasingly popular in this country.
Many modern approaches simply involve concentrating on your breath, a soothing saying, a sound or an image of your own choosing.
Studies funded by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda have found that practicing transcendental meditation significantly reduces blood pressure, improves insulin resistance (a risk factor for diabetes), reduces atherosclerosis (clogged arteries), and improves quality of life and functionality of patients with heart failure.
In 2011, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital reported that people who practiced mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes a day for eight weeks also gained measurable density in the parts of the brain associated with learning, memory, emotion regulation, empathy and stress.
Research at the University of California, San Francisco, has found that mindfulness meditation techniques may slow cellular aging, as well, perhaps by preserving the length of telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes.
“Telomeres are a marker of aging, because when telomeres start to get too short, DNA unravels and the biological aging process can accelerate,” says Dr. Charles Raison, associate professor of integrative mental health at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Scientists don’t yet know why meditation might affect telomeres, but in theory, a regular meditation practice could help people live longer and more healthfully.
Meditation also has been shown to alleviate chronic pain (from arthritis, for example), reduce anxiety and depression, ease insomnia, enhance immune function and facilitate the healing of wounds. In a study published in a 2003 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers found that people who participated in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program had a greater antibody response to a flu shot than those in a control group did.
“In every realm in which scientists have looked, we’ve seen beneficial effects,” says Norris, who happens to be a neuroscientist as well as director of the psychobiology of healing program at American University. “Sometimes it seems like it’s too good to be true, but it’s important to remember that meditation is not a pill, it’s a practice—and it fine-tunes the systems that are already regulating our bodies. But it does this according to our individual needs—that’s one way it’s different from medications.”
Brenda Sonneveldt, a Chevy Chase mother of two, has had epilepsy since age 23. Her seizures became so severe—along with migraines and TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder)—that she decided to leave her job as a technical writer in the summer of 2012 so she could have more time to relax and meditate.
She took classes, and then honed her ability to meditate on her own, practicing for an hour every morning. Over the last year, the frequency and severity of her seizures have decreased dramatically.
“Now I only get partial seizures that are so light—it’s like a flick of a light switch and I’m able to go back to my regular day,” she says. “It used to be like I’d have a hangover from them because they were so strong.”
Jane Scott has realized the benefits of meditation, as well. When she moved from Boston to Bethesda in 2007, she found her stress levels soaring as she adjusted to a new job and a new city. She experienced sleep disturbances, muscle tension in her shoulders, general restlessness and spasms in her right eye. Taking a group meditation class at The Mindfulness Center helped her learn to listen to her body and calm her mind.
After four weeks, the eyelid spasms ceased. “I hadn’t been a believer [in the power of meditation] until that point because I didn’t have anything objective to look at in terms of results,” says Scott, a program officer at the National Institutes of Health. “Being able to turn off those spasms was a big aha moment for me—it told me that I needed to pursue meditation, and I did.”
As she continued over the course of a year, the muscle tension in her body eased, her sleep improved and she learned how to release feelings of stress. The benefits were so great that Scott now meditates 10 to 15 minutes daily at home and occasionally takes group classes at The Mindfulness Center.
Meditation techniques can vary, from reciting a mantra to simply focusing on your breathing. Each approach has the same basic goal, however: to calm the mind and be in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or the future.
“People often have thoughts that are related to the past or to anticipating the future—but we’re better off living in the present and letting other thoughts pass like clouds in the sky,” says Lawrence Sank, a clinical psychologist with the Cognitive Therapy Center of Greater Washington in Bethesda. “Meditation can be an on-ramp to the ultimate goal of becoming more mindful in everyday life.”
Sank recommends the practice to patients who suffer from chronic pain, insomnia, depression and anxiety, as well as those who experience sexual problems related to performance anxiety.
“Many men who have sexual dysfunction issues are so focused on whether they can get or sustain an erection, they’re not focused on the sensations in their bodies,” says Sank, who is writing a book about cultivating mindfulness for people living in the fast lane. “Sex can be pleasurable with or without orgasms. Meditation helps people focus on the sensations in their bodies and being more experience-oriented than goal-oriented.”
Similarly, he says, meditation can help with pain management by bolstering people’s sense of control as well as their awareness of other sensations. That way, “pain doesn’t become the centerpiece of their lives,” he says.
Though scientists haven’t figured out how meditation alleviates various health conditions, there are several theories.
Transcendental meditation, for one, “settles down the sympathetic nervous system [which is responsible for mobilizing the body’s fight-or-flight response],” says Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatrist based in North Bethesda and author of Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation (Tarcher, 2011). “This lowers blood pressure and calms the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is activated by stress. TM will lower blood pressure while you’re meditating, but there is apparently a carry-through effect. That’s a huge deal, because high blood pressure is a big risk factor for cardiovascular disease.”
This reduction in blood pressure and calming of the sympathetic nervous system helps people react less to stressful events and reduces anxiety and depression, he says. In effect, “TM acts as a surge protector,” says Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine who has practiced TM for 20 minutes twice daily for decades.
About 10 years ago, Denise Keyes of Bethesda began doing TM daily for general stress relief and to calm her nerves before giving presentations. In 2011, she also began taking mindfulness meditation classes at The Mindfulness Center.
“It’s something I really can’t do without,” says Keyes, the senior associate dean of the division of professional communication at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies. “It’s given me a whole different perspective on the power of meditation. In the past, it was focused on the outside—on the mantra. By focusing on the breath, it brings it inside so quickly.”
The practice has reduced her blood pressure (from borderline high to “stellar,” she says), helped her follow a healthier diet and led to better sleep.
“I tend to be a very adrenaline-driven person, which is not good for any of us as we get older,” Keyes says. But now “I can feel a good physical balance in my body.”
A Silver Spring resident who asked not to be identified says mantra meditation was instrumental in his recovery from alcoholism. Since joining a 12-step program in 1988 and taking meditation classes, he has been meditating on his own for 10 to 20 minutes a day.
“In early recovery, when I was working hard to stay away from having a drink, meditation helped mitigate my cravings,” he says. “Now it helps quiet the mental chatter, it helps me feel centered, and it helps me be able to accept the events and people around me far better than I otherwise would.”
Another benefit of regular meditation: He no longer suffers from cluster headaches.
None of this is news to Norris. “The brain seems to be the pathway in [to these physical benefits],” she says. “Meditation has been shown to produce physiological changes—it elevates melatonin levels, reduces cortisol and adrenaline levels, and balances reproductive hormones. It also creates greater harmony between different parts of the brain.
“What meditation is really teaching us,” Norris says, “is to create the brain state of our own choosing.”
Stacey Colino lives in Chevy Chase and frequently writes about health for national magazines such as Family Circle and Real Simple. To comment on this story, email email@example.com.