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Meditation gains popularity as means to promote mental, physical health

They tell her they want to reduce the stress in their lives. They say they're anxious and want a way to cope. They want to feel calm. Newcomers or longtime practitioners, they turn to Robyn Katz and the meditation classes she teaches to, in the jargon, "quiet their minds."

"It is hard work to quiet the mind, to clear it of distractions and let go of thoughts. When you do, you get a sense of peacefulness. It makes you look at yourself more deeply," said Katz, a youthful-looking 50-year old Pikesville resident and certified yoga and meditation instructor.

Katz offers both practices through her business, Robyn Katz Yoga LLC, at local studios and for private clients. Meditation sessions are held monthly at LifeBridge Health & Fitness, 1836 Greene Tree Road, Pikesville, and quarterly at Susquehanna Yoga, 12A West Aylesbury Road, Timonium.

Katz is a longtime yoga instructor. About five years ago, thanks to demand, she began teaching meditation as well, a discipline she herself practices daily. It is not unusual for almost two dozen people to attend a meditation session, lined up mat to mat on the studio floor.

Meditation has long been practiced as part of Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. In the last several years, it has become increasingly popular in the West as well where it is known as "secular meditation." The religious context is gone but the health benefits remain.

"Research on meditation has shown changes in the brain, in the body and in behavior," said Michelle Pearce, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the Center of Integrative Medicine of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, on the campus of University of Maryland Baltimore.

She points to a study of breast cancer survivors who participated in meditation sessions. "They showed actual changes in the body, a lowering of cortisol, the stress hormone," said Pearce, who teaches meditation at a center clinic and to UMB students. "It does improve health."

Meditation comes in many forms, from mindfulness and guided imagery to qigong and tai chi. "The goal is the same however you get there," said Katz, who practices pranayama, literally "life force," or breath control, the meditation system of iyengar yoga.

Founded by B.K.S. Iyengar, a 95-year old yoga guru who lives in India, iyengar yoga emphasizes alignment of the body in classical postures and breath control. Pranayama can be studied as part of yoga or separately, although Katz believes that some yoga background is helpful. Like other methods that have a focal point — an image or a mantra — pranayama concentrates on breath control.

"Breath is used to bring focus to the mind," said Katz who, last December, spent the month at the IIyengar family institute in Pune, southern India, taking yoga and meditation classes seven hours a day, six days a week. "I wanted to learn more in-depth," she said.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon in late May, the monthly meditation session at LifeBridge got underway. The lights were dimmed. The mats were arranged. The students lay on their backs, waiting to begin. Then Katz started talking in her calm, soothing voice, instructing participants in how focus on the inhalation and exhalation of their breath.

Adrienne Berman has been taking Katz's meditation classes at both LifeBridge and Susquehanna since she began offering them. It was not her first experience with the practice. She had taken a group yoga class with another instructor. "We did primordial sound meditation where you focus on a mantra that you repeat over and over," she said.

Berman, a Lutherville resident and former pilates instructor, finds meditation calming. "I leave Robyn's class with a sense of peace. If I do meditation regularly, I can maintain that feeling," said Berman, who practices meditation daily. At least, she added, "That's the intention."

According to Pearce, of the Center for Integrative Medicine, Berman is not imagining things. One of the health benefits of meditation is that "the more you do it, something happens in the neuro-networks. They get stronger," she said.

Freddie Kuppers can attest to that. Kuppers, another of Katz's students at both LifeBridge and Susquehanna, says meditation allows her to maintain a serene attitude in the face of, she gives an example, rude drivers.

"Before, when they'd honk at me or cut me off, I'd get angry and upset. Now, I just smile as they race by me with raised fingers," said Kuppers, a Pikesville resident and retired psychotherapist. "The more I do meditation, the less I let things bother me."

Katz generally ends the meditation class by asking how everyone feels. Most say they feel relaxed — some so much so that they could fall asleep right there on their mats in the studio. Many feel refreshed. Others say they feel good but they don't know if they did it correctly.

"There is no right or wrong answer," said Katz, who encourages her students to practice meditation daily, even if it's only 10 minutes in a quiet place where you won't be interrupted.

"You have to let go of your thoughts. You try to stay in the present moment. It's a learning process."

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