Health & Fitness

Mindfulness is suddenly in our apps, classrooms, gyms and offices. Does it work?

For Earth Day, 1,500 people gathered for group meditation at Brickell City Centre in downtown Miami.
For Earth Day, 1,500 people gathered for group meditation at Brickell City Centre in downtown Miami.

You don’t have to be particularly mindful to notice that these days that you can’t escape mindfulness.

It’s no longer tucked away in your local yoga studio. It’s in public spaces in downtown Miami, where hundreds recently gathered to meditate together. It’s in books and online videos, on apps you can download on iTunes. Your kids start their school days with mindful exercises — so do some of their teachers — and fitness instructors incorporate it into their classes. It’s a popular subject at law conferences around the country. If lawyers can benefit by being mindful, can’t we all?

So why has the concept settled so firmly into the spotlight?

“If you were to point to one thing that explains the boom in interest in mindfulness, it’s science,” says Rohan Gunatillake, creator of the buddhify app and author of the book “Modern Mindfulness: How to Be More Relaxed, Focused and Kind While Living in a Fast, Digital, Always-On World.”

“In the last couple of decades, we have had the world of healthcare get interested in using mindfulness to help people with a range of issues such as stress, anxiety and chronic pain. And when you’re looking to use something like mindfulness in a clinical context, in treatment or therapy, you need the evidence and science to back it up.”

Research has made a compelling case for mindfulness. The National Institute of Health reports that meditation can ease anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure, combat insomnia and offer relief to cancer and dementia patients. A 2015 Harvard study reported that participants in an eight-week mind-body relaxation program used 43 percent fewer medical services than they had the year before.

“We know the practice of mindfulness is associated with functional and structural changes to the regions of the brain that are connected to focus and concentration and regulation of emotion,” says Scott Rogers, founder and director of the Mindfulness and Law Program at the University of Miami School of Law. “That’s pretty startling. The structure of your brain changes. When I was in college, that was not recognized as even possible.”

Scott Rogers leads a meditation group at the Lowe Art Museum. CARL JUSTE

Co-founder of UMindfulness, the university’s inter-disciplinary collaboration that marries research to training, Rogers explains that mindfulness and meditation are two different things, particularly in his law courses: He teaches mindfulness as a form of meditative practice. He leads workshops for the public — one recently at the Lowe Art Museum on the UM campus — and was part of a panel on mindfulness at the Southern District of Florida Bench and Bar Conference this month at the Diplomat Hotel, discussing its implications with more than 700 attorneys and judges.

In his courses, he teaches law students about “the nature of the mind and its tendency to wander and the consequence of a wandering mind. Learning how to marshal the extraordinary resources of our attention can be a gamechanger,” Rogers says. “Mindfulness isn’t about stopping the mind from wandering or even calming down. It’s being more aware, and that is the important fork in the road that can lead one to a steadier state physically, emotionally and mentally.”

Rogers says a basic practice his students learn is a simple practice used by anyone who has ever tried to meditate: Concentrate on an object, and when your mind wanders bring your attention back to the object (Rogers calls this “exercising the muscle of attention”). Students then apply that concept to talking to a witness on the stand or answering a judge’s question. The idea is that an attentive attorney understands his or her own reactions more fully and thus is able to communicate more effectively in court.

But mindfulness training can start far earlier than law school. The nonprofit group Mindful Kids Miami aims to bring mindfulness practice to Miami-Dade students K-12. The organization offers two-part training sessions for teachers: The first program focuses on the teachers themselves, while the second offers methods of implementing mindfulness into the classroom.

Marlem Diaz-Brown, who teaches fourth grade at Sunset Elementary, completed both programs and has incorporated mindful activities into her class. Her students start their days with concentrating on breathing, short body scans to focus their attention and a clapping game in which the students sit in a circle and send out positive wishes to the world and their community.

The result? Students who weren’t so anxious at test time.

“With kids, you break it down. You can’t do a one-hour meditation to start the school day, but you can start with 10 minutes,” Diaz-Brown says. “I was gung ho about making sure we took 10 minutes a day in my class, whether or not I finished the lesson plans. We get caught up in saying ‘I have to finish this page.’ But I took a step back and decided I was going to carry this out through the year. The kids did phenomenal at test time. It teaches them to take a moment when they’re anxious.”

Such positive results are why Miami fitness instructor and health coach Mireya Pinzon, who teaches Pilates and other classes at Equinox and L.A. Fitness, ends her classes with a moment of meditation, sometimes dabbing a touch of lavender oil on the wrists of those in her class.

“It’s important to take a few minutes to relax and think about the work we do,” she says. “We scan the body, feel the energy, the blood, the adrenaline, the heart pumping. When we’re relaxed we catch all the information on the work we just did.”

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A large group meditated together at Brickell City Centre for Earth Day. Roberto Koltun

Self-described mindfulness entrepreneur Myk Likhov, founder of Green Monkey yoga studios and Modern OM, which hosted a group meditation at Brickell City Centre on Earth Day, says he too has noticed the rise in interest in mindfulness. Though he lives in Wynwood and thrives on its energy, he’s working bringing meditation groups to other neighborhoods (there’s one in Miami Shores and another planned for Pinecrest).

“People are recognizing that the current state of affairs and lifestyles aren’t working,” he says. “They’re not providing joy and satisfaction. If you’re always running from one thing to the next, you’re always stressed. ... In some ways mindfulness is returning back to where we were, experiencing the present moment.”

Gunatillake takes things a step further in his book, telling readers they can learn to be mindful even if they aren’t quite ready to put down their cell phones.

“The approach I encourage is what I call mobile mindfulness — namely learning how to meditate alongside activities you’re already doing,” he says. “Then the problem becomes knowing what to do and remembering to do it, and that’s much easier to solve than finding a quiet half an hour on a crazy work day. Instead of you having to change your life to fit in mindfulness, it comes to you. . . . At the same time you’re using your phone, try to be aware of what it feels like to use your phone, aware of the physical sensations. That is what is known as body awareness and is the most fundamental mindfulness technique there is. The same simple idea can be used when watching TV. They might sound like simple things to do, but they are also very powerful.”

Such simple practices are the key to learning how to live mindfully, Rogers says.

“It’s not about intellectually understanding something but practicing,” he says. “If you see what you’re doing is cultivating a greater awareness of mind and body that can be done every single moment of our life, that’s the shift.”

Marlem Diaz-Brown starts her fourth grade class out with 10 minutes of mindfulness at Sunset Elementary.

How to Grow More Mindful

Scott Rogers, founder and director of the Mindfulness and Law Program at the University of Miami School of Law, has these tips for incorporating mindfulness into your life.

▪ Read a good book on the subject. Rogers recommends ‘Mindfulness for Beginners’ by Jon Kabat-Zinn or ‘Real Happiness’ by Sharon Salzberg.

▪ Practice with a guided recording online or via an app. ‘That way, you can take what you’ve read and bring it to life,’ Rogers says.

▪ Attend a training session. ‘There are more and more trainings one can attend for hours or for a whole weekend, so you can take it to a deeper level of understanding and practice.’

▪ Bring mindfulness into your day. ‘Don’t see it as something reserved for a quiet room in the early morning.’