Now among the fastest growing health trends in America, meditation can do everything from curb stress to improve concentration.
—by Andrea Bennett
MANY OF us stayed inside for long stretches this past year, so perhaps it’s no surprise that we’re turning inward to cope with stress, exploring mindfulness to find the peace that eludes us in daily life. “The line between work and home has been increasingly blurred. People are looking for ways to calm down and center their mind and body,” says Nina Smiley, director of Mindfulness Programming at Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Hudson Valley. “Meditation is a gateway to that state of mind.”
Anxiety, of course, predates the pandemic and unrest of 2020. As Vidya Shetty, the lead yoga and Ayurveda counselor at YO1 Wellness Resort & Spa in Monticello, New York, says, part of our problem is simply the unease that attends the consumerism of modern life. “Modernization leads to a lot of stress, as everyone is competing with each other at all possible levels.”
Research shows meditation can be an effective coping tool for chronic stress. In fact, studies suggest it can lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, curb insomnia, and help you heal faster, among other health benefits. With data on its health-boosting potential mounting up, everyone from therapists to beauty practitioners are tapping into meditation. “I’ve always included guided meditation in my spa treatments,” says Tammy Fender, a holistic skin-care guru whose celeb clients include Gwyneth Paltrow. “What has changed over the past decade, however, is [clients’] curiosity and interest in creating a meditation practice at home.” Numbers back the trend: Mindvalley, a digital learning platform for personal growth, enrolled more than 500,000 people in its online programs last year and launched more than 40 programs catering to topics like intuition, meditation, transformational therapy, and energy medicine. It now has 15 million students worldwide. “Today, meditation is practiced by sports stars, CEOs, and other top performers who have developed some of their best ideas and inventions while meditating,” says Vishen Lakhiani, Mindvalley’s CEO.
In a COVID-19-cautious world, apps that have already mainstreamed meditation on millions of handheld devices are reaching out to millions more. Headspace, a guided-meditation app with more than 65 million users in 190 countries, began giving away free subscriptions last year to healthcare professionals and people who lost their jobs in the U.S. and the U.K. It also teamed with Sesame Street on a series of videos aimed at combatting stress in children during the pandemic. The Calm app signed a deal to offer its meditation free to New Yorkers and to members of Kaiser Permanente. The quickly growing Breethe meditation app has created a free collection of 13 meditations called “Inner Wellness During Coronavirus.” Mindvalley’s series of YouTube talks hosts hundreds of long-form videos.
If turning inward inside our houses in recent months has taught us one thing, it’s that meditation can take many forms. “I think people are understanding that meditation isn’t dependent on a belief system or religion … you don’t have to be super bendy to do yoga postures, and the benefits can be life changing,” says Cristie Newhart, dean of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which recently launched an online platform that offers guided meditations. Jai Uttal, the Grammy-nominated sacred music composer whose kirtan (sacred chanting) practice headlines at the Bhakti Fest in Twentynine Palms, California, suggests finding the form of meditation that resonates with you. “What we’re seeing is a rise in people looking for new ways to calm themselves, and then understanding that once they’re calm, they’re better equipped to help others,” he says. He began twice-weekly online kirtan concerts at the beginning of quarantine. “I was honest about my own anxiety. I’ve been doing it because of the belief that doing what heals my own soul is also helpful for other people’s healing.”
Uttal stresses that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to meditation, but guided meditation is often a good choice for those suffering from mental anxiety. People whose anxiety is more emotional often respond well to kirtan and mantra chanting. (He recently released an album of instrumental music for meditation called Gauri’s Lullaby: Music for Healing and Other Joys.) Finally, if you experience anxiety physically, consider yoga, ecstatic dance, or meditative dance. “That’s what is so needed in this day and age—finding a place of inner calm, translating that into compassion, and translating that into action,” he says.