Do mindfulness activities really work?
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
“Be present in your own body. Let your mind have a holiday,” I am instructed, as I shuffle awkwardly around a brightly-lit dance studio in central London. My fellow classmates are lost in the moment — some appear transfixed, others are grinning broadly as they dance with eyes closed.
I am attending a Biodanza dance class because I have set myself a challenge to learn more about mindfulness, the psychological process of feeling present in your own body. By paying attention to the moment — to your thoughts, feelings and the environment around you — it is argued that stress, anxiety and depression can be reduced.
Over a two-week period leading up to World Mental Health Day on October 10, I try out a range of mindfulness techniques and exercises to see if any of them make an impression.
Sue James, the Biodanza instructor, says the class provides participants with a safe space to explore organic dance. In doing so you “become mindful of yourself and of your relationship to others”.
“Listen to your body’s reaction to the music,” she suggests. I struggle to let go of my inhibitions and dancing with a group of complete strangers is a disarmingly intimate experience. We start by forming a circle and are told to hold hands and look deeply into each other’s eyes. My every sinew strains to look away. But there is a fleeting moment when I forget about how silly I must look and concentrate on the dance. Ms James tells me that this moment of presence is a gift.
“With practice the moments get deeper and longer and have wide-reaching benefits,” she says. I am struck by how welcoming and sincere everyone is. Several tell me how Biodanza has helped improve their sleep and relationships with loved ones.
Attending this sort of class is an out-of-office experience, but corporate mindfulness classes, designed to reduce worker stress while increasing productivity, are being offered by many big employers, including GlaxoSmithKline, the UK Home Office and Transport for London — and the Financial Times.
FT colleague Claire Barron leads the in-house meditation and yoga classes. She says corporate mindfulness can lead to happier staff. “They’re less stressed, they become more innovative in their thinking, creative, productive.”
I sit cross-legged and, as she guides us through different breathing techniques, I struggle to let go — mainly because I’m so uncomfortable. My lower back starts to hurt then I get pins and needles in my legs.
Ms Barron is also a qualified gong meditation master. She explains that mindfulness meditations, where you concentrate on breathing, are like driving on a slow country road. Gong meditation is more like hurtling down a motorway — the destination is the same but you can achieve the same state of mind more quickly — so I take up her invitation to visit her home studio for a “gong bath”.
I lie on a yoga mat, my head on a cushion, my eyes covered. I’m surprised by how quickly our half-hour passes. When I try to concentrate on the breathing, my mind wanders, but the sounds from the gong are hypnotic and as Ms Barron strikes them I drift away and do forget about everything else on my mind.
“It is like a happy, clean drunk, without a hangover,” she says. “But some people don’t like being in that altered state of mind.” Of all the mindfulness techniques I try, gong meditation leads to the longest moments of presence.
Mindfulness is derived from Buddhism but it is increasingly popular in the west — and you do not even have to put down your smartphone to do it. Headspace, one of many wellbeing apps, says it offers guided meditation to 54m users across 190 countries. Mindfulness delivered via a mobile device that provides a constant source of distraction sounds like a contradiction, but Headspace says otherwise.
“We published a study showing that using Headspace for a short period of time can reduce compulsive internet use. Using your phone to meditate can reduce the more problematic use of technology that could cause distress”, argues Dr Megan Jones, its chief science officer.
For a monthly subscription fee of $12.99, a soothing male or female voice will guide you through an array of meditations, from coping with stress and anxiety to help with parenting, personal growth and productivity.
While testing the app over two weeks, I find the biggest challenge is finding the time to use it. Frustratingly, as I increase the duration of the meditations, I become increasingly distracted and my mind drifts to all of the other things I should be getting on with. I even stop one meditation short to refresh my Twitter feed.
“Our modern lives are increasingly stress-inducing and overstimulating,” says Dr Jones. “There has always been stress but we can’t escape it as easily now and our minds don’t have the opportunity to rest. It’s increasingly an acute crisis that needs innovative solutions.”
I often take a long time to fall asleep and so I was pleased to discover the Headspace sleep meditation helped me drop off. The problem was I had to sleep in the spare room so it did not disturb my wife and the programme lasted for 45 minutes — the sound of waves crashing against the shore would wake me up again, forcing me to turn the phone off before I could eventually fall back to sleep for good.
Some critics argue that mindfulness has been oversold or commodified and that people with mental health struggles are being exploited for commercial gain. In his book McMindfulness, Ronald Purser contends that it has become a new capitalist spirituality. He warns that mindfulness can, in some cases, lead to adverse effects, such as fear, panic and anxiety. He takes issue with what he calls the “pacification function of corporate mindfulness”.
“No one is asking why there is so much stress in corporate cultures,” he says.
“We shouldn’t be told to sit in a corner and watch your breath instead of collaborating with co-workers to ask some difficult questions about what is going on in the workplace.”
After spending a couple of weeks trying different programmes, I realise that mindfulness is not an exact science: what works for one person will not necessarily work for someone else, and finding the time to fit it into a busy schedule is not easy.
Mindfulness can be hard work.