Central to this effort is The Big Quiet, which “allows New Yorkers to partake in a 20-minute group meditation,” followed by “a rollicking afterparty” featuring live music. “This is for city people who want to take a break and re-charge,” says Jesse Israel, the event’s organizer. It is also for those who want to quiet their minds without any particular religion attached. Jesse says he sees a need for “a new dictionary” that might make meditation and other spiritual experiences “more socially acceptable.”
Jesse’s expanded view of spirituality was sparked while biking through Tanzania in 2014 and noticing “that children faced miles-long commutes to school on foot.” So he began raising funds through his cycling group, the Cyclones, and, through Globalbike, a non-profit, will soon “break ground on a bike-and-rental shop in Tanzania owned and operated by women.” He later formed the Medi Club, “a collective of several hundred young New Yorkers, predominantly entrepreneurs and creatives in fashion, entertainment and technology.” They meet once a month “to meditate” and talk about various “facets of modern life.”
“Millennials are hungry for personal growth,” Jesse says. “They’re hipsters, let’s face it,” says Ian Noble, an attendee. Ian is executive director of SummerStage, which is hosting The Big Quiet and explains that the music tie-in is essential. “We want a reason for people to come and a reason for people to stay.” Jesse sees a potential ripple effect from The Big Quiet, eventually potentially reaching millions. Ganden Thurman of Tibet House US, which hosts weekly meditation classes, likes the idea, suggesting that “maybe life in general is spiritual. Getting in touch with yourself is probably inherently spiritual.”
At the University of Miami School of Law, students are asked to deliberately lose an argument for homework. Scott Rogers, a professor at the University of Miami “says looser vibes have touched a nerve with younger generations turned off by the perceived nastiness of the profession.” “It’s not about losing a fight or giving up at all,” says Scott, who directs the university’s Mindfulness in Law Program. “It’s developing greater insight in the ways we lose touch.”
The Miami program is “one of about two dozen across the country.” In New York, meanwhile, “dozens of law professors, litigators and judges” recently spent “three days meditating … under a blanket of silence and the tutelage of a Buddhist priest.” A Bay area real-estate lawyer, Judi Cohen, founded a mindfulness-coaching company called Warrior One — “homage to the mystical warrior-kings of Tibet” — with clients including Facebook’s legal department, who hope to “communicate better” with each other. One exercise involves having pairs of lawyers try to have conversations without interrupting each other.
Another exercise has lawyers “pick out three random people during the day and silently wish them well.” This was a non-starter for one lawyer, who said: “I didn’t see anyone worthy.” Sometimes it’s a victory just to get the lawyers to turn off their cell phones during training. One lawyer challenged the value of this: “If mindfulness is just about paying attention, couldn’t that make you a good assassin instead of a compassionate person?” he argued. But Cari Rincker, a family and divorce lawyer who participated in a mindfulness retreat, says that being in a room full of lawyers where no one was talking is “quite refreshing.”
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first scientists to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and test them in brain scans. What she found surprised her — that meditating can literally change your brain. She explains:
Q: Why did you start looking at meditation and mindfulness and the brain?
Lazar: A friend and I were training for the Boston marathon. I had some running injuries, so I saw a physical therapist who told me to stop running and just stretch. So I started practicing yoga as a form of physical therapy. I started realizing that it was very powerful, that it had some real benefits, so I just got interested in how it worked.
The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims, that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart. And I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m here to stretch.’ But I started noticing that I was calmer. I was better able to handle more difficult situations. I was more compassionate and open hearted, and able to see things from others’ points of view.
I thought, maybe it was just the placebo response. But then I did a literature search of the science, and saw evidence that meditation had been associated with decreased stress, decreased depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, and an increased quality of life.
At that point, I was doing my PhD in molecular biology. So I just switched and started doing this research as a post-doc.
Q: How did you do the research?
Lazar: The first study looked at long term meditators vs a control group. We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense. When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.
We also found they had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making.
It’s well-documented that our cortex shrinks as we get older – it’s harder to figure things out and remember things. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.
So the first question was, well, maybe the people with more gray matter in the study had more gray matter before they started meditating. So we did a second study.
We took people who’d never meditated before, and put one group through an eight-week mindfulness- based stress reduction program.
Q: What did you find?
Lazar: We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, we found thickening in four regions:
1. The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.
2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
3. The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.
The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.
Q: So how long does someone have to meditate before they begin to see changes in their brain?
Lazar: Our data shows changes in the brain after just eight weeks.
In a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, our subjects took a weekly class. They were given a recording and told to practice 40 minutes a day at home. And that’s it.
Q: So, 40 minutes a day?
Lazar: Well, it was highly variable in the study. Some people practiced 40 minutes pretty much every day. Some people practiced less. Some only a couple times a week.
In my study, the average was 27 minutes a day. Or about a half hour a day.
There isn’t good data yet about how much someone needs to practice in order to benefit.
Meditation teachers will tell you, though there’s absolutely no scientific basis to this, but anecdotal comments from students suggest that 10 minutes a day could have some subjective benefit. We need to test it out.
We’re just starting a study that will hopefully allow us to assess what the functional significance of these changes are. Studies by other scientists have shown that meditation can help enhance attention and emotion regulation skills. But most were not neuroimaging studies. So now we’re hoping to bring that behavioral and neuroimaging science together.
Q: Given what we know from the science, what would you encourage readers to do?
Lazar: Mindfulness is just like exercise. It’s a form of mental exercise, really. And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation purports to confer some of those same benefits.
But, just like exercise, it can’t cure everything. So the idea is, it’s useful as an adjunct therapy. It’s not a standalone. It’s been tried with many, many other disorders, and the results vary tremendously – it impacts some symptoms, but not all. The results are sometimes modest. And it doesn’t work for everybody.
It’s still early days for trying to figure out what it can or can’t do.
Q: So, knowing the limitations, what would you suggest?
Lazar: It does seem to be beneficial for most people. The most important thing, if you’re going to try it, is to find a good teacher. Because it’s simple, but it’s also complex. You have to understand what’s going on in your mind. A good teacher is priceless
Q: Do you meditate? And do you have a teacher?
Lazar: Yes and yes.
Q: What difference has it made in your life?
Lazar: I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, so it’s had a very profound influence on my life. It’s very grounding. It’s reduced stress. It helps me think more clearly. It’s great for interpersonal interactions. I have more empathy and compassion for people.
Q: What’s your own practice?
Lazar: Highly variable. Some days 40 minutes. Some days five minutes. Some days, not at all. It’s a lot like exercise. Exercising three times a week is great. But if all you can do is just a little bit every day, that’s a good thing, too. I’m sure if I practiced more, I’d benefit more. I have no idea if I’m getting brain changes or not. It’s just that this is what works for me right now.
An interesting article in the Wall Street Journal tells of the dog eat dog world of downward dogs. Suddenly everyone is trying to de-stress through yoga which makes the normally serene yoga studios a bit more crowded and therefore stressful.
The ancient art of yoga is supposed to offer a path to inner peace. But in this age of anxiety, many yoga classes—which teach poses and breathing designed to quiet the mind—have become so crowded that finding a spot on the floor is becoming a competitive sport. And that’s leading to some very unenlightened behavior.
Consider my recent morning in “Strong and Calm Yoga,” a class offered by the Equinox gym in Palos Verdes, Calif. Stressed, harried and rushed, I arrived only two minutes before the start of my favorite class. It was packed. There wasn’t a single space on the floor large enough for my mat.
Spotting an empty mat in front, I moved it—just a tad—to make enough room. But then, worried about the mat’s owner coming back, I repositioned it. I was frantically trying to fit myself in at a perpendicular position to the rest of the class when the woman returned. “Why did you move my mat?” she asked in an angry tone. I explained. “And we don’t wear shoes in yoga,” she said, glaring at my running shoes. (I knew that and was about to take them off.) As the class started, feeling attacked, I rolled up my mat, leaned over, and in a truly uncharacteristic outburst said, “You win. I’m leaving.” I then walked across the room, out the door, and left the gym in tears.
“Yoga is supposed to be about unity and ultimately the divine,” my yoga teacher, Christopher Quain, said later, shaking his head. “I felt terrible.” In the locker room, my swim coach, Niecia Staggs, chimed in, “People who are practicing yoga want Zen, they don’t already have it.”
And while the number of yoga studios has also risen, many classes, typically priced from $15 to $30 each, are now packed to capacity (and beyond), particularly at peak times and with popular instructors. Many studios don’t turn away students until they can’t wedge one more in.
“The growth is crazy. Crazy good,” says Nicole Conners, director of education and outreach at Yoga Alliance, a registry listing 58,000 yoga teachers. Yoga to the People in New York’s East Village, which requests only donations, offers up to eight classes a day. On a recent Monday night, roughly 150 people showed up, filling three floors of studios. As more people entered, instructors told us to move even closer together, until I was 3 inches from the next mat.
Most yoga teachers seem to have at least one tale of drama and woe. “I have seen violence,” says Lara Benusis, a New York yoga teacher. She once was about to start a class when a foam yoga block suddenly flew through the air. One hapless customer had put her block in another’s usual territory. Alarmed, Ms. Benusis moved closer, but the tiff ended there.
Once a crowded class begins, there are other risks. A yoga class often involves leaping into poses quickly. Limbs fly. And then there are headstands and handstands. A yoga mat typically measures 2 by 6 feet—and that just isn’t a big enough landing pad. For those who need glasses, this all raises other issues. Fred Hoffman, a Los Angeles art dealer, has been taking yoga classes for several decades, and he usually places his glasses on a support block next to his mat. Last year, a woman on the next mat attempted a handstand.
She landed with a thud—right on Mr. Hoffman’s antique gold glasses, breaking the frames. She also grazed Mr. Hoffman on her way down. “I was really mad about that,” he says. “It was insensitive.” Mr. Hoffman didn’t confront her. He took the glasses to be repaired and paid to have the rims rebuilt. He is planning to get a case to protect the glasses. But, hey, nobody’s perfect. Mr. Hoffman recently found himself at fault when his hand accidentally grazed his favorite teacher’s head. “I didn’t have my glasses on,” he says. “I felt terrible about that.”
You might be wondering why on earth spaces in yoga classes can’t be better controlled. Why not just limit the number of people who come in? After all, other popular classes, such as spinning, require sign-ups.
Yoga studios explain it’s a particularly competitive field. Rents are high and class fees are low. “If we tried to have classes with 10 and 20 people, as some might suggest, we would have to charge $50 to $60 a class to pay the rent in this city,” says Mike Patton, the founder of Yoga Vida in New York. When I tried one of Yoga Vida’s classes at 8:30 on a recent Saturday morning, there seemed to be enough room in the spacious loft, with only about 26 people in the class. But then the guy on the mat in front stretched lengthwise, resting his hands briefly on my feet.
Of course, many crowded classes run smoothly. “I really believe our mats can be an inch apart,” says JJ Hendershot, the group fitness manager at my gym, Equinox in Palos Verdes, which offers yoga classes as part of its monthly membership. “We all shimmy and move as a community. A lot of it is the instructor setting the tone.” (The woman I had the incident with there declined to comment.)
Some enterprising studios guarantee smaller classes. Yoga 216 in Manhattan, which opened two years ago, recently mailed fliers boasting: “Six yoga mats per class, not per row.” And Tommy Schey, the owner of Sweat Yoga, a new upscale hot-yoga studio in Santa Monica, Calif., is about to introduce an online software system that will let people reserve a designated mat space—much like picking a seat on an airplane.
Mr. Schey has experienced the mat wars. He once entered a crowded class where a “lovely, friendly woman” came up and put her arm around him—a distraction, whether it was meant to be or not. Then, wham! She quickly unfurled her mat in his space. “It was just really bad behavior,” he says.
Yoga purists, those committed to studying the history and philosophy of the discipline, take a dim view of the mat wars. One of those purists is my sister-in-law, Michelle Carney, a New York yoga teacher who also takes classes. “People get angry all the time,” she tells me. “I do my best to send blessings or love or move away from them.” She recently noticed a woman asking a group to make room in a crowded class. “UGH,” was the collective answer. So Ms. Carney volunteered, moving her mat. The woman thanked her profusely, twice.
“A true yogi looks around to see if anyone needs help,” she says, using the term for yoga practitioners. “A yoga studio is a holy space. This is just ridiculous.”
Ms. Hughes is a writer living in California and New York. She can be reached at email@example.com.