Meditation sometimes gets a bad rap, invoking everything from cult phobia to visions of yogis on a mountaintop chanting ohms in the morning mist. But meditation professionals in Wichita say the practice, which involves breathing and relaxation techniques widely credited with rejuvenating the mind and body, is mostly misunderstood.
A growing number of studies support the health benefits of regular meditation, which practitioners say lowers blood pressure, decreases stress and enhances overall health.
"Possibly meditation is the single best building block for your health — physical, emotional or mental — that you could possibly do for yourself," said Susan Levine, owner of Yoga for You, 7230 E. 29th St. North.
"I think the reason most people don't try to learn it is because they think it's going to be too hard, or weird ... or they're going to turn into a Hare Krishna or something, and none of that's true," Levine said. "Probably the biggest misconception about meditation or yoga in general is that it has to do with renunciation, that you're going to have to give up stuff."
Meditation employs a number of techniques that teach people to focus their attention and suspend the stream of thoughts that normally occupy their mind. This practice is believed to result in a state of greater physical relaxation, mental calmness and psychological balance, experts say.
Seven years ago, Bonnie Loyd was entrenched in the final five years of her corporate career, stressed out in a job that demanded greater production with fewer resources.
"I'm not a quitter, but it came to a breaking point where I felt like, boy, I hated my life, I hated going to work," Loyd said. "And then I had what they call a spiritual awakening."
Loyd said she took up meditation, energy work and yoga, a last-resort attempt at injecting some calm and control into her harried life. She said it was the meditation that turned her life around and helped her learn to breathe calmly, exude positive energy and find inner peace.
"What it does, it creates space," said Loyd, who now gives private lessons and occasionally teaches yoga classes around Wichita. "If you always do what you've always done, you will continue to get the same results. Meditation gives you the space to say maybe there's another way to look at this."
'Stop and focus'
The practice is becoming more mainstream.
A 2007 National Health Statistics survey found that 9.4 percent of adults — more than 20 million people — had used meditation in the past 12 months, up from 7.6 percent of adults five years earlier.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a research arm of the National Institutes of Health, said that while more research needs to be done, practicing meditation has been shown to cause some healthy changes in the body.
Supporters say the practice can noticeably improve health, particularly for ailments that benefit from a reduction in stress and increased relaxation.
"Meditation is one of the areas we want to teach people about to manage anxiety," said psychologist Courtney Johnson, a counselor with Behavioral Medicine Specialists in Wichita, who sometimes uses meditation as a tool to help her clients. "A lot of our research-based information tells us that meditation is helpful to quiet the mind and self-soothe. We don't quiet down much in our culture. Sometimes we need to stop and focus."
In June, researchers with the University of Manchester reported that people who meditate regularly find pain less unpleasant because their brains anticipate the pain less.
"Meditation is becoming increasingly popular as a way to treat chronic illness such as the pain caused by arthritis," Christopher Brown, who conducted the research, said in a statement.
A break from a busy world
Newton obstetrician Surinder Kumar, of Wichita Clinic Bethel, said meditation has been shown to not only reduce stress and anxiety, but also help people have a more positive attitude in day-to-day situations.
It may not work for everybody in all circumstances, but for some people, it can be a very effective technique, he said.
"Whether it's through yoga, tai chi or basic breathing exercises, we know that when you are trying to focus on breathing control, you can clear some of the stuff in your mind and help yourself think more clearly," Kumar said. "It's a tool. It helps give the individual some control."
Barbara Denison, an advanced nurse practitioner with InnerWorks Holistic Health Center, 3425 W. Central, often encourages clients to incorporate some level of meditation, whether it's simple breath awareness or some other relaxation technique, into their routine.
For people who develop a consistent daily practice, meditation can help decrease blood pressure and the amount of medication they take, she said. "It decreases anxiety while boosting the immune system," Denison said.
But Wichita chiropractor and college professor Jason Eichacker said that for most folks, meditation is a much-needed antidote in an overstimulated world.
"It just gives a break," he said. "A break from the buzzing of our cell phones, TV shows and computers. It's a minute to just slow down and focus, to re-center yourself."