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Technology leading new wave of mindfulness meditation

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, April 12, 2018, 7:03 a.m.
Kristen Sabol, of Regent Square, leads a class at the Pittsburgh Shambhala Meditation Center in East Liberty on April 8, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Kristen Sabol, of Regent Square, leads a class at the Pittsburgh Shambhala Meditation Center in East Liberty on April 8, 2018.
Kristen Sabol, of Regent Square, leads a class at the Pittsburgh Shambhala Meditation Center in East Liberty on April 8, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Kristen Sabol, of Regent Square, leads a class at the Pittsburgh Shambhala Meditation Center in East Liberty on April 8, 2018.
Muse uses EEG sensors to monitor your brain activity to help you meditate. (Photo by Chris Thorn Photography for Interaxon)
Muse uses EEG sensors to monitor your brain activity to help you meditate. (Photo by Chris Thorn Photography for Interaxon)

One of the hottest trends in technology is helping people unplug and find calm in the chaotic world tech has helped create.

Apps and wearable devices have flooded the marketplace with the aim to help people meditate, find a moment of calm or just remember to breathe.

"The irony is not lost on us," said Sarah Romotsky, head of science communications for the meditation app Headspace. "We're asking people to improve their health with a gadget that is often looked at as something that does not do that."

Meditation is a $1 billion industry, and it could double to $2 billion by 2022, according to Marketdata Enterprises, a market research firm. Meditation apps, of which there are thousands, generated more than $100 million in revenue last year.

Apple chose Calm, a mindfulness meditation app, as its App of the Year for 2017. Headspace has more than 26 million users. Interaxon — a Toronto company that makes Muse, a headband with sensors to monitor brain activity and help people meditate — raised $11.6 million last year.

"There is a whole movement looking at not just the physical wellness but the mental wellness," said Jackie Cooper, an executive vice president of sales and marketing for Interaxon. "We are more and more distracted."

Mindfulness meditation is a practice that trains people to pay attention to what is happening at that moment. People pause, slow down and pay attention to their breath or sensations in the body. Practicing mindfulness could be as simple as taking a deep breath or sitting for several minutes.

Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of Headspace, described mindfulness meditation as sitting along a busy road where the passing traffic represents thoughts and feelings. Instead of simply watching the thoughts and feelings pass through our minds, we run out and try to stop or chase them.

"And of course all this running around only adds to the feeling of restlessness in the mind," Puddicombe says in one of the animations scattered throughout the app. "So training the mind is about changing our relationship with the passing thoughts and feelings, learning how to view them with a little more perspective. And when we do this, we naturally find a place of calm."

Mindfulness meditation is not new. Its roots trace back to the foundations of Buddhism and through Transcendalist writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. Scientists, researchers and medical professionals started taking a serious look at mindfulness meditation and its possible health benefits in the early 2000s, said Emily Lindsay, a psychologist at University of Pittsburgh.

Lindsay recently published a paper that showed how a mindfulness app helped reduce stress. Mindfulness meditation has shown success in treating anxiety, depression and psoriasis, Lindsay said.

"Now it seems like there are a bunch of apps trying to capitalize on it," Lindsay said, adding that it isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"It's nice to hear that people are interested in trying this out and interested in not only getting some benefits in their own lives in terms of stress or anxiety but also just trying to be a better person," Lindsay said. "I think that's something that's really important right now. There's a lot of anger going around right now and trying to understand one another is important."

Apps like Headspace or Calm guide users through a meditation practice that lasts three to 30 minutes. They start with the basics and venture into meditations tailored to help with stress, anxiety, grief, relationships, productivity and more. Headspace and Nike partnered in March to bring mindfulness meditation to athletes.

Romotsky said use of Headspace spiked 44 percent after the 2016 presidential election.

Muse uses EEG sensors embedded in a headband to monitor brain activity during meditation. The more brain activity, the more violent a storm you hear through headphones. Cooper called them "rumble strips for the mind."

The storm is meant to direct your attention back to your breath and calm your mind. When your mind calms down, you can hear birds chirping.

Muse records how many minutes you spend in a calm state of mind, how many birds you hear and other statistics so you can track your progression in meditation.

Interaxon took Muse to CES in January in Las Vegas. Amid the gizmos, gadgets and robots of the largest consumer electronics show on the planet, Cooper offered a few moments of calm. You could slip on a Muse headband and a pair of noise-canceling headphones, close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing. That is, until, your mind started to wander and a storm raged inside the headphones.

"The challenge with meditation is it's a very hard thing to understand and to get started with," Cooper said.

But you don't need an app or a wearable to meditate. People have for thousands of years without them and still do.

The Shambhala Center for Meditation in East Liberty offers weekly old-school meditation sessions on Sundays and Mondays. No smartphone required.

On Sunday, nearly 20 people filled a room inside the Shambhala Center. They sat cross-legged on cushions on the floor or with straight backs in chairs. Participants wore everything from workout pants and sweatshirts to dress slacks and sport coats. They were young and old.

The group sat as Kristen Sabol of Regent Square led the session, lighting incense. After about 20 minutes, the group members stood and walked in a circle around the room, continuing to meditate as they paid attention to each step. They then sat again and meditated in silence.

"The thing about mindfulness, it's a simple concept," said Fitzhugh Shaw, director of the Pittsburgh Shambhala Center for Meditation in East Liberty.

The technology can make it easier for people to start meditating or help people work up the courage to attend a session in a place like the Shambhala Meditation Center. The apps are great for people with busy lives who want to meditate but can't set aside time for a longer session, Shaw said.

But he likened the three- to 10-minute sessions to snacks, and worried that people would think they are getting the same benefit from several "snack-sized" sessions as they would from a longer, more intense full meal practice.

"Technology has its place," Shaw said. "But there are people who are thirsty for something more."

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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