December 27, 2012

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Sitting is harder than it sounds.

Yong Oh, one of two local instructors for the international Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, placed cushions on the floor of his Highland Park acupuncture office. Co-instructor Janka Livoncova, a yoga teacher and licensed massage therapist, helped me into the proper position, gently moving my body until the pose felt right.

I sat on the forward third of the cushion, my weight tilting the cushion forward until my knees were lower than my hips. This took the pressure off my diaphragm so I could breathe easily. I crossed my legs, pressed my shins firmly against the mat and lifted my head. It sounds complicated, but as I settled into the pose, I felt steadier, more supported by the wooden floor.

“Sitting with the spine aligned creates a balance between alertness and relaxation,” said Oh, a licensed acupuncturist and the creator of the Mindful Chattanooga Facebook group. “It’s a posture that’s been formulated over thousands of years as the ideal sitting position.”

For Livoncova and Oh, meditation is one way to develop a quality they call “mindfulness,” paying attention to what is happening in each moment. Founder Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, defines the practice as “open-hearted, non-judgmental, moment-by-moment awareness.”

Modern mindfulness combines classic elements of meditation—like quieting the mind and noticing one’s thoughts—with some serious scientific research. Livoncova and Oh’s website lists dozens of studies on the benefits of mindfulness, including relief from chronic pain, improved brain function and memory, lower blood pressure and heart rates, and help with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is even a study that suggests meditation can protect you from the common cold.

As the pair helped me focus on my breath and my physical sensations, Oh said, “We’re not trying to stop thinking, or control what comes up.”

“Or get anywhere,” continued Livoncova. “I know how silly it is to say that we are sitting to practice being human beings, but that is what we are doing. It’s quite a radical experience for most Westerners to begin the journey into the body.”

“There’s this misconception that meditation makes people emotionless, or stops their thinking, or turns them into robots,” Oh said.

“But actually you become more yourself,” said Livoncova. “You open up to the richness of life.”

The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course begins Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, at the new Center for Mindful Living on McCallie Avenue. The eight-week course meets once a week for two hours and combines formal practice (sitting meditation, mindful movement and body awareness) with informal practice (remaining mindful in every day life, such as eating and communicating). Those interested can register online at

The richness of life and the richness of the human mind are familiar ground for Annie Harpe, research coordinator for the Department of Plastic Surgery in the University of Tennessee’s College of Medicine in Chattanooga. Harpe cites studies that show mindfulness increases empathy and feelings of connection, as well as a study that shows meditators are among the best in the world at reading body language.

“The only people better than Buddhist monks are C.I.A. agents,” Harpe said in an interview at her home, where crystal singing bowls and house plants share space with rescued dogs.

“For me, it’s all about wonder,” said Harpe, who is a certified yoga teacher and leads mindful movement classes at Focus Healthcare, a treatment center for eating disorders and chemical dependency. “It’s being open to what the world is offering you.”

Harpe said she believes people can remain open to and learn from even unpleasant experiences. “It’s how you choose to respond,” she said. “It’s how can you remain open to whatever it is, even the bad stuff.”


December 27, 2012

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