Tina Turner does it. So does Katy Perry, Sting, supermodel Gisele Bundchen and a host of other celebrities. When not strutting the concert stage or cat walk, they’re sometimes grooving to meditation’s benefits.
While celebrity isn’t a reason to try meditation, it did make me a bit more curious. These are people who must surely have at least as much stress in their daily lives as many of us, right?
As we swing into the holiday season, stress can play as big a role in our lives as exchanging presents and expressions of good cheer. Our minds race with thoughts of travel plans, family gatherings, gift-buying and how to keep it all together without losing it — both mentally and physically.
And that included stressed-out me. According to health experts, stress that’s left unchecked can contribute to many health problems, such as heart disease, weight gain and mental health concerns.
Determined to bring my holiday-induced anxiety, not to mention my blood pressure, down to earth, I decided to consult the Oracle. I opened my Google page. Just the briefest of searches took me to a health-related news area that seemed as popular as sports – meditation. With the benefit of a little more research, I decided to explore a form of meditation known as “mindfulness meditation.”
“Mindfulness is one of dozens of types of meditation,” notes Diana Winston, UCLA’s director of Mindfulness Education. “Mindfulness is both a meditation practice and a quality of attention that you can bring to any moment in your day or life.”
Facing a growing list of unpurchased holiday gifts and unanswered invitations, I found the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center’s online description take on reducing stress to be particularly intriguing. Why not give it a try?
So, off I went to a free drop-in mindfulness meditation experience open to anyone interested in learning how to ‘live more presently’ in life. I was a bit nervous just attending the session, which I found ironic. It was not long after the ‘mindful’ leader began his introduction into meditation techniques, however, that I found myself listening to my breathing and the sounds around me, and relaxing a bit more than I had expected.
“Mindfulness awareness is the moment-by-moment process of actively and openly observing one’s physical, mental and emotional experiences,” says Marvin G. Belzer, PhD, associate director of the Mindful Awareness Center, who led the session.
According to researchers at the center interviewed in a recent UCLA U magazine article, mindfulness meditation can have a positive impact on stress-related conditions such as insomnia, depression and anxiety. Through randomly controlled studies, the center’s research has shown that mind-body interventions, such as mindfulness meditation, yoga and Tai Chi, reduce stress, improve sleep and possibly prevent chronic illnesses. Specifically, say the researchers, mind-body interventions target behavioral and biological pathways and can alter the molecular expression of genes that are involved in the regulation of inflammation, a known factor linked to many chronic diseases.
A 2015 Forbes magazine article highlighted seven ways meditation can actually change the brain and highlighted a UCLA study showing that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Another UCLA yoga and meditation study found that a three-month course of yoga and meditation practice helped minimize the cognitive and emotional problems that often precede Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. In order to truly experience the benefits of mindfulness, however, experts recommend that the techniques be practiced on a regular basis.
Winston began meditating 25 years ago. In just a few short years, she’s seen a dramatic increase in the center’s services. The program now reaches over a 100,000 people a month who access free guided mindfulness meditations on the center’s website and she often hears from people who find comfort from the online recordings.
The benefits described by the center are hard to ignore. So, I decided to attend another free mindfulness awareness session conducted by Winston at the Hammer Museum. And this time, I dragged two stressed-out, curious friends to accompany me.
Winston guided a packed auditorium through a half-hour session. She asked us to envision our brains like the sky filled with clouds floating by, some angry and some wispy, just like our thoughts. My friends and I all resonated with her message, and the experience was calming.
“Mindfulness is about paying attention in the present moment, not being lost in the past, not being lost in the future, but coming into this moment and finding a place of ease and well-being with things as they are,” says Winston.
My encounters with the Mindfulness Awareness center have made me feel as empowered as Beyoncé taking the stage at the The Grammys. As I look beyond the holidays and into 2017, I’m grateful to the center for giving me the tools to also stay firmly anchored to the present — with a newfound piece of mind that will pay dividends in the future.