Gongs, meditation and dance: why mindfulness is big business
Mindfulness, feeling present in your own body, has roots in Buddhism but is increasingly popular in the west. Corporate mindfulness is growing and you don't even have to put down your smartphone to try mindfulness meditation. In the run up to World Mental Health Day, the FT's Daniel Garrahan tests the Headspace app and tries a mindfulness class, organic dance and a 'gong bath'
Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis, Nicola Stansfield and Mathilda Mallinson. Graphics by Victor Diaconescu. Produced and edited by Daniel Garrahan
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And draw the breath in, exhale.
Group meditation, smartphone apps.
Gently close the eyes.
Or even organic dance. Mindfulness comes in all shapes and sizes.
Counting the breath on the exhale, from one...
It's the psychological process of feeling present in your own body. By paying attention to the moments, to your thoughts, feelings, and the environment around you, it's argued that stress, anxiety, and depression can be managed. Half of work absences last year in the UK were due to stress or mental health and companies are starting to take well-being seriously. It's no longer unusual for businesses to offer mindfulness and meditation classes, designed to reduce workers stress while increasing productivity.
Steve Jobs at Apple, you know he introduced proper programmes. Then you've got Google doing it and these are creative, innovative companies. Now you've got people like Goldman Sachs doing it, HBO, Procter & Gamble. When you invest in your staff in this way you get more out of them. They're obviously less stressed. But also they become more innovative in their thinking, more creative, more productive.
Claire's also a qualified gong meditation master. She compares mindfulness meditation, where you concentrate on breathing, to driving on a slow country road. But gong meditation is more like hurtling down a motorway. The destination is the same, but you get there much more quickly. So I take up an invitation to visit her home studio for a gong bath.
There were moments when I wasn't really thinking about anything.
It's almost like you're in a coma kind of state.
I understand what you're saying there, because I definitely felt like I lost touch with time.
Biodanza, or organic dance, can also apparently lead to a state of mindfulness.
You become mindful of not just yourself but your relationship to others, your relationship to the cosmos, and beyond that. For some people that first opening circle is the hardest bit, to kind of be with a group of other people that they don't know and hold their hand and connect.
Great, there's handholding as well.
There's handholding as well. So we're really going to push you through your comfort zone here.
You all can expect to be present in your own body. Your mind will certainly have a holiday for a while because we don't talk during the session. So I might explain some exercises, some dances, that I will suggest we do. And then you listen to your own body's reaction to the music.
It's safe to say that my body doesn't react brilliantly.
On the head, remembering it can be loose.
My movements are particularly stiff when Sue instructs us to form a circle and collectively reach deep into the well of desire. Dancing with a group of complete strangers is a disarmingly intimate experience. Sue instructs us to shake hands or embrace, as we look deeply into each other's eyes. I struggle with this but I'm struck by how welcoming and sincere everyone seems to be. And there's a fleeting moment where I somehow manage to forget about how ridiculous I must look.
It's roots lie in Buddhism, but mindfulness is increasingly popular in the west. In the US alone, the meditation market is estimated to be worth over a billion dollars. And it's forecast to rise to over $2bn by 2022.
So make sure that you're sitting comfortably.
And these days you don't even have to put down your smartphone to do it.
Take a moment to imagine a bright blue sky, stretching off into the distance. Feels pretty good, right? Just gently close the eyes.
Headspace is one of several well-being apps on the market. It says that it offers guided meditation to 54m users across 190 countries. Managing anxiety, letting go of stress, putting down our phones. So there's a meditation about putting down your phone, which is available on your phone.
OK, so maybe there are just a few clouds.
Mindfulness delivered via a mobile device that provides a constant source of distraction sounds like a contradiction. But Headspace argues otherwise.
We actually recently published a study showing that using Headspace for a short period of time, just two weeks, 10 minutes a day, can reduce compulsive internet use. Actually using your phone to meditate can reduce more problematic use of technology that could cause distress.
Allowing the body to unwind.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: While testing the app, I found the biggest challenge is finding the time to use it. This is something the app reinforces, by sending push notifications to remind you when it's feeling neglected. Frustratingly, as I increase the duration of the meditations, my mind increasingly drifts to all the other things that I could be getting on with.
The way that we live our lives is overstimulating. There always has been stress, but it seems we can't escape it as easily now. And our minds just don't have the opportunity to rest.
Feeling overwhelmed, burned out, losing your temper, flustered. I think it's fair to say, I feel most of those things on any given day.
It's increasingly an acute crisis that needs innovative solutions.
Some critics argue that mindfulness has been commodified, oversold, and that people with mental health struggles are being exploited for commercial gain. In his book, McMindfulness, Ronald Purser contends that mindfulness has become a new capitalist spirituality.
The research has been showing that there are adverse effects, such as fear, and anxiety, and panic. Nobody's asking why there's so much stress, for example, in corporate cultures, when you're told to sit in a corner and watch your breath instead of collaborating and organising with your coworkers to maybe ask some difficult questions about what's going on in the workplace. So, yeah, I take issue with the pacification of function of corporate mindfulness, for sure.
After spending a couple of weeks trying out different programmes it's clear to me that what works for one person won't necessarily work for another. And it isn't as simple as just closing your eyes and trying out a breathing technique. It might not happen straight away. And finding the time to fit it into a busy schedule isn't easy. It turns out that mindfulness can be hard work.