Janka Livoncova, Yong Oh
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 chattanoogambsr.com.
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.”
When we are resisting what life hands us, we breathe more shallowly, Harpe explains. Our body enters a fight-or-flight response. Blood doesn’t flow to the areas of the brain that deal with creativity and problem solving, so we have a hard time seeing the bigger picture. Mindfulness practice decreases the flow of blood to the limbic system (which houses our fight-or-flight response) and increases blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain which helps us pay attention and make wise decisions.
Harpe said she knows this change doesn’t come easily. “It was hard for me to learn to sit still at first,” she said. “I had to trick myself.” She explains that meditation elements like music, mantras (repeated phrases) and prayer beads are all ways to give the mind something to focus on while the system calms itself.
Beginning in January, Harpe will teach some of these practices at the Center for Mindful Living. A mantra meditation class will meet from 5:30 to 6:15 p.m. each Wednesday and a lunchtime drop-in class called “Ten Mindful Minutes,” which offers a short sitting practice and one mindfulness tip, will meet at 12:30 p.m. each Thursday.
But Harpe said she doesn’t believe there is only one way to become mindful. “You don’t have to do yoga, or chant Sanskrit words, or meditate,” she said. “Try these things out for yourself. If they work for you, wonderful. If they don’t, try something else. It’s whatever makes your heart sing.”
Mention to Jann Sullivan, co-administrator of the new Center for Mindful Living, that it’s hard to find just one definition for mindfulness, and you are liable to see her smile.
“Part of me likes that there’s no definition,” she said. “We’re trying to help people find ways to connect with themselves and the world.”
Sullivan explains that limiting mindfulness to just one way of doing things would limit how individuals could create their own practice.
The Center for Mindful Living, which opens on Jan.1, 2013, is a nonprofit organization in a sprawling building on McCallie Avenue. The center holds a classroom, a wood-paneled library, a quiet meditation room and a indoor courtyard garden. It is no accident that all of the mindfulness professionals interviewed for this article are involved with the center. The organization grew out of community meetings over the last year, drawing mindfulness practitioners from all around the city.
In addition to the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, “Ten Mindful Minutes” and mantra meditations already mentioned, the center will host “A Course in Miracles,” as well as instruction in mindful eating, mindful music, tai chi and spring forest qi gong. Yoga and centering prayer from Christian traditions will be offered soon, and many of the city’s Buddhist groups will move their meetings here.
Sullivan, a licensed massage therapist and bodyworker, is one of a handful of holistic practitioners who rent office space in the building. The Center for Mindful Living is completely staffed by volunteers. A generosity-based economics plan means that members and visitors can donate to pay for others’ classes and outreach programs that carry mindfulness into the community.
Why is mindfulness becoming so popular in Chattanooga? Sullivan said the pressures of modern life make slowing down essential.
“Life is in general stressful for people now,” she said, citing unemployment rates, natural disasters, and the daily flood of texts and emails most people face. “How can we do this where life feels good, where life doesn’t feel pushed to the edge every single moment?”
Sullivan suggests that people learn to be mindful by paying attention to one thing that they do every day. For instance, start by “paying attention when you brush your teeth, or paying attention when you’re eating your meal. Instead of watching TV, pay attention to the senses, to the tastes and textures of the food you’re eating.”
This simple activity becomes a practice ground for being aware during the rest of the day. “By choosing one thing you do consistently,” Sullivan said, “it spills over into the other parts of your life.”
Finding Mindfulness in Chattanooga
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Mindful Chattanooga Facebook Group
Center for Mindful Living
1212 McCallie Ave.