Everyone Can Benefit from Mindfulness Practice

By Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler

Despite the cultural perception that mindfulness is reserved for those endowed with white privilege, the practice works for everyone. From Black Girls Do Yoga, with nearly 4 million views on one video, to startups such as Black Women Yoga, and classes specifically for persons of color at Insight LA, mindfulness doesn’t discriminate.

The misperception of mindfulness may be attributed in part to recent high-profile initiatives, including singer Jewel’s new JewelNeverBroken.com, a website that provides subscribers with a roadmap to use mindfulness to “learn to make happiness a habit.” Jewel partnered with Dr. Judson Brewer, director of research at the Center of Mindfulness and Associate Professor in the Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School for the effort.

In the community of individuals who conduct research on mindfulness or those who have a mindfulness meditation practice, the lack of diversity is apparent. While the dialogue about the importance of diversifying the field has increased, the transition from intention to practice is slow. There is an unspoken connotation that the holy grail of mindfulness is reserved for a privileged few including the intellectual elites, spiritually enlightened, and the wealthy.

It need not be this way.

My recent study in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice examines the effectiveness of an eight-week mindfulness based intervention for depression among low-income African-American women at a federally funded community health center in Chicago.

As a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University, I sought to discover how mindfulness approaches might benefit the patients in my practice with depression and anxiety. I also investigated if these approaches might help those who are resistant to traditional forms of psychotherapy and antidepressants.

On average, participants in the study demonstrated reduced depression and stress and increased mindfulness. Before the intervention, most participants had not heard of mindfulness and did not have a pre-existing mindfulness meditation practice. They stated that the skills that they learned helped them to relax, be in control of emotions and be in the moment.

Research examining the mental and physical health benefits of mindfulness has increased exponentially in the last 15 years. Elizabeth Waldron, clinical psychology doctoral student at NU, conducted a review of the racial/ethnic composition of the participants in randomized controlled trials of mindfulness-based interventions.

Waldron found that out of 41 studies, only 28 gave complete information on race/ethnicity. Of those studies, 79 percent were white, six percent were African-American, six percent Hispanic and six percent Asian.

Mindfulness courses are available to patients in hundreds of medical centers and community clinics around the world, to healthcare professionals to help reduce burnout, to employees at large major corporations and as a part of executive leadership training programs.

The iOS 10 health app allows anyone to track how many minutes per day you have spent being mindful. There are more than 60 other mindfulness and meditation apps in iTunes. San Francisco, Dallas, and Raleigh-Durham airports offer meditation and yoga rooms. Or, you can purchase one of the very popular adult Mindfulness Coloring Books to help you meditate through art.

There is accumulating research to suggest myriad benefits of being mindful. Mindfulness is associated with improvements in psychological outcomes such as reduced stress, depression and anxiety, physical outcomes such as reduced chronic pain, less frequent headaches and improved sleep, functional outcomes including attention and concentration and increased well-being.

Researchers at the Hult International Business School recently published in the Harvard Business Review their study of 57 senior business leaders who participated in a mindful leader program. Researchers found that mindfulness training and regular practice resulted in statistically significant improvements in important leadership capacities including resilience, the capacity for collaboration, and the ability to lead in complex conditions.

My own mindfulness journey began 15 years ago when I started practicing yoga as a part of my training as a classical ballerina. Eight years ago, in the midst of completing my post-doctoral fellowship and the demise of a relationship, I became more committed to my yoga practice. My teacher gave balanced attention to mindfulness of the breath and the asanas, or postures. Soon I noticed that I was radically different; I was less anxious and reactive, able to accept things as they were and let go. Overall, I experienced less distress and more joy.

But, barriers limit the reach of mindfulness.

Participation in a mindfulness program can be time intensive and expensive. Programs like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, require roughly 30 hours of class time plus 45-minutes per day of home practice over 8 weeks for $400-$600. The two-day Search inside Yourself program developed at Google is now available for the public and averages $1,300; these costs are typically not covered by insurance.

Mindfulness teacher training programs are also time intensive and expensive, limiting the number of qualified or certified instructors available to teach the practices. To become certified as a MBSR instructor by the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness can take 2-years and over $10,000. This does not include the cost of required 7-day silent retreats that range from $1,200-$2000. Many people cannot afford to take a week off to attend a silent retreat to explore their inner workings and cultivate increased awareness.

Yes, some community members have started to explore creative applications of mindfulness in diverse and underserved communities.

Oregon’s Department of Corrections is implementing mindfulness exercises to improve correction officer’s quality of life and make prisons safer. Marshawn Feltus, an ex-offender who served 18 years in prison on a murder conviction, participated in an entrepreneur program and received start-up funds to open, ACT Yoga, the first yoga studio on West Side of Chicago.

Similarly, Tamika Lawson offered yoga classes in five schools in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago to help neighborhood residents cope with the stress of their environment. The classes became so popular that she began offering free classes on a blocked off street and in a local café. Laura Ashley, founder of Black Girl in Om, offers mindfulness, yoga, and self-care education and workshops targeted toward women of color.

At the Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore, the introduction of mindfulness has replaced detentions, and as a result the school has seen zero suspensions this year.

Certainly, mindfulness has its skeptics. Author Ruth Wippman recently argued that as a culture “our preferred solution to complex and entrenched problems is to instruct the distressed to be more mindful” and “if we are unhappy, we really only have ourselves to blame.”

Yet in my personal and professional experience, mindfulness has the potential to develop the capacity in individuals to cope with real life stresses. It allows them to let go of the judgmental streams of thought that can lead to depression and anxiety and to acknowledge the factors in their life that can control. It offers behavioral steps toward changing sources of dissatisfaction, rather than becoming stuck in the rut of auto-pilot.

These practices offer all people tools they can autonomously integrate into their conventional health care, empowering them with the ability to take an active role in their wellness.

The tenants of empathy, compassion, and loving kindness that are subsumed in mindfulness are principles that not only serve to ease individual suffering but also elevate our ability to see and be with the suffering and experiences of others.

As many think about resolutions for the New Year, that is a proposition for all.

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