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Getting into the groove of meditation

As practice goes more mainstream, experts offer insight into what it is, how to start

By Abigail Green, For The Baltimore Sun

5:53 PM EDT, March 19, 2014

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Meditation seems to be everywhere lately — on talk shows, in yoga studios, even on our smartphones. A recent Time magazine cover story announced that we're in the midst of "The Mindful Revolution." Celebrities including hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Ellen DeGeneres promote the benefits of meditation, and how-to classes abound.

The ancient practice is gaining traction in the mainstream and in medicine. Studies show that regular meditators boast the ability to tune out distractions and even lower blood pressure and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

"A lot of people say their lives are really busy, and they need to take a moment to be with themselves and sit still for a period of quiet," says Chris Kreeger, director of the Baltimore Shambhala Meditation Center. "Some people talk about wanting to reduce stress. Others might feel that because of the pressures of everyday life, they're just going through the motions … [but] missing something important in their lives. I would say that all of those issues are related."

Baltimore resident Ruth Crystal has tried meditating periodically her entire adult life but began focusing more on meditation and yoga when she retired several years ago. Crystal swears by the guided meditations of Tara Brach, founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C. After attending a workshop, Crystal downloaded Brach's audio meditations, which she listens to when she's feeling stressed or can't sleep. "They help me turn off the background chatter that keeps me from being present," says Crystal.

But there can be confusion about what meditation is meant to be, and how to do it. To a lot of people, meditation looks like sitting around doing nothing. Practitioners say otherwise.

"It's a systematic process of increasing your awareness," says Dr. Madhav Goyal, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of a recent meditation study published by JAMA Internal Medicine. "It's not daydreaming. It's not just relaxing. It's an active process of going deeper into your mind and body and becoming aware of it."

Goyal and his colleagues reviewed 47 clinical trials from the past 50 years and found that "mindfulness meditation" — often used as a catchall term for Buddhist-based techniques — appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as antidepressants. Meditation also showed promise in alleviating some pain symptoms as well as stress.

Goyal notes, however, that in Eastern traditions, meditation is not meant to be a treatment for any health condition.

Some experts also say it's a misconception that you're supposed to erase or block all thoughts from your mind.

"Your thoughts don't have to be the enemy," says Susan Weis-Bohlen, owner of Hampden's Breathe Bookstore Cafe and longtime meditation teacher. "Meditation offers you tools to help you let go of the thoughts that cause stress and anxiety. It teaches you how to be in control of your mind rather than your mind being in control of you."

While books, apps and CDs can help new meditators, devotees believe it's important to learn from an experienced teacher, and note that "sangha" or practicing within a community, is one of the central tenets of Buddhist meditation. "Many people who come to our center are looking for a community of people who are on the same journey," says Kreeger.

Before you head off to your closest meditation class, here are a few pointers:

•Wear a comfortable outfit, but leave the workout clothes and yoga mat at home.

•You will probably be asked to remove your shoes. Depending on the class and your comfort, you might sit on a cushion on the floor or on a folding chair.

•Don't expect to dive into the deep breathing right away. Learning to meditate is harder than it seems. The instructor might start by discussing his or her particular brand of meditation — there are many.

•Don't get discouraged if meditation doesn't rock your world right off the bat. You may have to try a few different types before you find a fit, and like any new pursuit, you develop your skills over time.

"I really encourage people to go out and try it and see what works for them. And don't give up after one or two classes," says Weis-Bolen. But no matter what type of meditation you choose, the goal is the same, she says: "to be fully present and aware in the now — because the now is all we have. Meditation teaches you skills for engaging in life, not drifting through on autopilot."

Baltimore meditation sampler

Baltimore Shambhala Meditation Center. 3501 St. Paul St., Charles Village, 410.243.7200, baltimore.shambhala.org. The weekly Learn to Meditate class offers an introduction to the practice of shamatha, or peaceful abiding meditation. 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays. Free.

Baltimore Yoga Village. 3000 Chestnut Ave., Hampden, 410-662-8626; 6080 Falls Road #2, Mount Washington, 410-377-4800, baltimoreyogavillage.com. Baltimore Yoga Village offers weekly drop-in meditation classes; Trish Magyari's Tuesday evening class at the Mount Washington location includes an hour of guided meditation practice followed by community sharing, teaching and discussion. 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays; $6 donation requested.

Breathe Bookstore Cafe. 810 W 36th St., Hampden, 410-235-7323, breathebooks.com. Owner Susan Weis-Bohlen offers a weekly meditation practice incorporating pranayama (breath work), mantra repetition and meditation instruction. 6 p.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays; $5 suggested donation.

Soka Gakkai International-USA. Baltimore Buddhist Center, 1111 Park Ave., Midtown, 410-383-0707, sgi-baltimore.org. SGI-USA promotes itself as the largest, most culturally and racially diverse Buddhist group in the U.S. A new center in the Mount Royal arts district opened last year and serves as the hub for activities throughout Maryland.

Transcendental Meditation of Baltimore. 1120 S. Robinson St., Canton, 410-336-2991, tm.org/transcendental-meditation-baltimore. A form of mantra meditation, the technique is considered controversial by some because of its high cost. To register for a free introductory talk, contact the center.

Resources

Read: "Meditation for Dummies," by Stephan Bodian; $24.99. This easy introduction comes with a CD of music and guided meditations.

Download: Headspace, an app developed by a former Buddhist monk, lets you try meditation 10 minutes a day for 10 days on your smartphone. Free for 10 days; $15 a month after that. getsomeheadspace.com

Buy/watch: Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra have teamed up to offer a range of meditation CDs, DVDs and downloads for purchase: chopracentermeditation.com. For free options, search for "meditation" on OWN TV's YouTube channel: youtube.com/user/OWN/