Meditation has had a makeover. No longer must you sit uncomfortably in a room, stifled by the scent of sandalwood, a green tea before you and the sound of Gregorian chants preparing you for the serious business of mindfulness.
Today it’s not just a feel-good fix for those on the hippy fringe; mindfulness has shed its alternative image and gone mainstream, thanks, in no small part, to wellbeing website and app Headspace, created by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe.
“There has been a massive change over the past five years in the way in which we perceive meditation,” says Andy, who describes the guided meditation on the site as ‘a gym membership for the mind’.
“Our aim is to demystify meditation,” he explains. “Mountaintops, granola, yogis in loin cloths sitting cross-legged – you don't need any of that stuff to achieve a healthier, happier state of mind.”
Andy and co-founder Richard Pierson launched Headspace in 2010 promising mindfulness for modern living. The programme aims to equip the uninitiated with the techniques required to cultivate a daily lifelong practice in 10, 15, and 20 minute guided segments over 365 days.
The site now attracts more than 750,000 users worldwide and ranks number one on iTunes' Health and Fitness chart, while Andy’s ‘10 mindful minutes’ has received over a million views on TED Talks.
The Headspace team works with a broad demographic, from the corporate world to the unemployed, and ages four right up to 91. Famous fans include Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma Watson and Davina McCall.
Why should we give meditation a go?
“The benefits of meditation are defined by the user,” Andy explains. “For some, this might mean feeling less stressed or anxious, or sleeping better.
“For others it might be physiological – lower blood pressure, for example, or for athletes, a better performance on the track.
“Then there are those who practise meditation for altruistic reasons – they want to experience a greater empathy with others. You define meditation by how you choose to use it.”
An early devotee of the practice, Andy started attending mindfulness classes with his mother aged 10.
He decided to pursue it further while studying at university and relocated to a Buddhist monastery in Tibet, where he spent the next 10 years honing his skills before returning to the UK to share his experiences.
“I started practising meditation because I wanted a calmer, quieter mind and not to feel so overwhelmed by my emotions,” he tells us.
“Whenever I would come back to England to visit, I’d meet up with friends in the local pub in my Buddhist robes and would hear the same story over and over again – ‘I feel stressed all the time. It’s fine for you, you live in the mountains, it's so quiet and peaceful there….’ but essentially, meditation is a technique that can be applied to anyone, anywhere.”
Mediation – a mind workout that really works
Still doubtful? Just look at the science. Numerous studies have shown that regular meditation can decrease stress and anxiety levels, boost the immune system, relieve pain, enhance cognitive functions and improve interpersonal relationships, to name but a few of the benefits, while Headspace is about to launch the largest meditation research study ever conducted, in partnership Yale University.
“What’s driving the mainstream population is the science,” agrees Andy. “When I was growing up in the seventies, my mum used to jog through the village where we lived. People would stare at her like she was crazy because, of course, no one knew the benefits then.
"Over the years, science proved how good physical exercise is for you, and people became more aware of the need to take personal responsibility for their own health and wellbeing. The same is true for meditation. There are now so many scientific papers coming out on its advantages that it’s hard to ignore.”
Headspace users know only too well how restorative regular practise can be.
“People tell me on a daily basis how it’s changing their lives. Kids write in to say thanks for making their parents less angry, people who haven’t slept properly in 10-15 years are now getting a good night’s rest – I never tire of hearing things like this. It’s hard to imagine working on a nicer project.”
Find out more or sign up for your first course of 10 days for free at Headspace. Get some.