Make up your mind: Mindfulness becomes vital amid COVID pandemic

By Smitha Verma| Published: 26th December 2021 05:00 AM
Holistic Lifestyle Coach and YouCare founder Luke Coutinho (Photo| Facebook)

For anyone who cares to listen about what she does, Vinodini Gupta has an interesting tale to share. It was during one of her wellbeing classes for a bunch of women constables that she noticed how the power of being in the present helped individuals.

While talking about health and fitness, Gupta asked the women, mostly in their 20s to 40s, to pay attention to their breathing. It was a small exercise for a few minutes, an impromptu decision she took after she realised how emotionally charged the session had become.

"After my session, five women stayed back; they were weeping and came up to me to share their stories. They said they never had time to reflect on what they were going through without any distraction or sound. The session was an eye-opener for them," says Gupta. Or rather the gateway to the mind.

Gupta isn't alone. The practitioners of mindfulness hail the impact it has on the human mind. The reason why Chef Sarah Edwards counts 'Mindful Eating' as one of her favourite workshops to run.

"Mindfulness, when applied to food, means paying attention to the visual aspects of the food before we eat it - from its textures and flavours, to the physical sensations of chewing - and the feelings of hunger and fullness in our bodies and how we feel after eating food," says Edwards, who runs Copper & Cloves in Bengaluru.

In her workshop, she guides participants to eat mindfully. "I provide a small thing to eat - anything from dark chocolate to a raisin- and guide participants through a slow, mindful eating exercise." 

Mindfulness, or the art of staying in the present, is nothing new. But it has gained mainstream consumer acceptance relatively recently. More workplaces are offering mindfulness as an employee benefit. Mindfulness is part of military training programmes in many countries such as the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand. Google's most popular mindfulness course 'Search Inside Yourself' offered since 2007 has thousands of alumni. The course in its various variants has been incorporated by many large corporations.

According to industry reports, the Global Mindfulness Meditation apps market is expected to touch USD 6,478.5 million by 2027, a whopping growth of 48 percent from 2020. The report released by US-based firm UnivDatos Market Insights only takes into account the meditation apps market, which is a major chunk of the mindfulness concept, but does not encompass it entirely. Books, podcasts, and business coaches to nutritionists - everyone worth their salt is asking you to bring mindfulness to practice in every aspect of life. And people are lapping it up.

In fact, audio streaming platform Spotify's Culture Next Report 2021 highlights that a little over 80 percent of millennials see audio as a mental health resource, and a similar percentage of GenZs believe listening to audio to be healing. "And for this reason, many of Spotify’s podcasts, both Originals and Exclusives, are in the motivation, inspiration, and wellness space," says Dhruvank Vaidya, Head of Podcasts, Spotify India.

The pandemic has only added to its growth. Never before has mindfulness attained as much significance as when people were struggling with grief or navigating the work-life balance. It was the need to put what she preaches into practice that made Dr Shambhavi Samir Alve, a psychotherapist, from Mumbai to attend a workshop on mindfulness in August. The eight-week course opened her mind to the potential of being in the present.

So much so that Dr Alve has now joined a mentor training programme to become a mindfulness coach. "Often we do preventive programmes for our physical health - like going for a walk or controlling diet even when not suffering from any ailments. But we hardly do that for our mind. For me, mindfulness is just that. A preventive step to keep my mental health in the best shape," she says.

EmptyMyndscape co-founder Dr Alve, who works for an organisation that works in the mental health space, says, "By being in the present, my mind isn't anxious over mundane stressful situations."

Dr Alve is also the Vice President of Women's Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry's National Mental Health Council. The body in one of its recommendations for the Union Budget 2022 has asked to formally introduce mindfulness in educational institutes.

The Mindfulness Mantra

Mindfulness seems to be just about everywhere these days - from art workshops to leadership training sessions, a term thrown by high-brow politicians to celebrities. It's hard to ignore its presence. So what is mindfulness?

"Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations when used as a therapeutic technique," explains Sandhya Mathur, founder of Inward Focus, a Gurgaon-based firm that works on empowerment.

Often mindfulness is confused with meditation. While meditation is a practice, mindfulness is a way of living. "Mindfulness is not a special thing we do. We already have the capacity to be present and it doesn't require us to change who we are. Rather than running in an auto-pilot mode, it is about the power to realise conscious awareness to whatever you do," explains Swami Mukundananda, mind management authority, spiritual leader and Founder of  JK Yog, a spiritual organisation with centres in the US, India and Singapore.

Delhi resident Nirjhara is a case in point. The 36-year-old corporate professional first attended a mindfulness workshop when she was in college and soon forgot about it. Rushing from one deadline to another, Nirjhara realised the need to pause only when she was at the crossroads of her career.

About two years ago, she attended another workshop. "Did I perfect mindfulness? No. But did it give me all the practical tools that I can use to create a better life experience? Yes. I think while the first workshop in college showed me how to play the game, the second one showed me how I was playing it while leaving me to find my own path," she says.    

Mindfulness as a term was first coined by Buddhist scholar TW Rhys Davids at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1979, it was used by American microbiologist Jon Kabat-Zinn who created his popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme, which started the mindfulness movement, in the US.

For several years, mindfulness stayed just that - a mental exercise to reduce stress. But at the beginning of this decade, as stress became a buzzing word, the need for mindfulness to be sold arose. The emergence of social media further propelled its popularity, with influencers posting their two cents on how to be in the present, never to resent the past or be anxious about the future. 

Even though it may look like an easy thing to do, something as simple as staying in the present, requires guidance. "It is actually simple, and yet has the capacity, to develop into great depths with the help of a qualified teacher and a proper evidence-supported structure," says Nikhila Sharma, Country Director, Centre for Mindfulness, India, a Singapore-based organisation  that provides training  on the subject. If it's stress, it needs to be marketed and sold.

Masterclass in Marketing

As mindfulness enters the mass market, what started as a science-backed model for stress reduction became a self-improvement course, so much so that content creators are finding new ways to let people realise its value.

When the Tamil podcast Yours Positively by Poonghuzhali Sundaram started out as a DIY project, it was merely an attempt to talk to listeners about mental health. "But it witnessed a spike in listening during the onset of the pandemic. She succeeded in capturing the attention of listeners with her weekly episodes, making it a Spotify Exclusive," says Vaidya.

The platform's leading podcasts all are in the wellness category - mostly focusing on the mind. "The Ranveer Show, God is Not Fair, Art of Living, Josh Talks, and Gita for the Young and Restless are just a few examples," he adds.

Books have flooded the market too. "Readers in this space have grown in the last five years. Every week, you will find at least a couple of books in this genre in the Nielsen Book Scan list. The success of authors like Sadhguru, Swami Mukundananda, Om Swami, Kamlesh Patel, Hector Garcia, among others, offers a testimony to the growing demand in this area," asserts Sachin Sharma, Executive Editor, HarperCollins India.

One of their bestselling titles is Mind Full to Mindful by Om Swami. "We are bullish on this space in India and our publishing list for the next 18 months has many masters of the craft in this genre," he adds.

Children’s publishers are not to be left behind. Vidhi Bhargava, Publisher of Red Panda (children’s imprint of Westland), vouches for the age-old wisdom, which needs to be offered at an early age. "In this fast-paced, rapidly changing world, children struggle to cope with the sheer multiplicity of stimuli and expectations. It could get overwhelming for the still-developing minds of the young. We believe books that are rooted in ancient wisdom can have a calming effect on children as they draw from the learnings’ of those times," Bhargava explains.

They released My Wisdom Book by Swami Mukundananda in October and Tales from the Vedas and Upanishad, retold by Kamlesh Patel (Daaji) in November. Both are in the top-selling list. The mindfulness industry works on the premise that this concept allows you to disconnect from stress.

So it's not surprising to see that as a trend it has mutated on to unexpected avenues such as mindful eating or mindful painting. Akanksha Kaushik, a Mandala artist and teacher from Sydney, recently conducted an online workshop 'Mindfulness through Art'.

"People unknowingly meditate through these sessions. When I teach the Mandala art form, people tell me how they experience calm while practicing it. Art helps you to practice breathing exercises, especially in Mandala because it has intricate patterns that allow you to focus on your breathing to keep yourself steady," she explains.  

And if it’s to be practiced with perfection, it needs a guide.

Mind over Matter

Mukundananda puts things in perspective when he says that long-term vision is the need. "Numerous advertisements of mindfulness retreats, meditation workshops claim to teach the art and promise stress-free living.  Evidently, these programmes have reaped immediate benefits to the participants. However, such practices often fall short of long-term gain of peace of mind and inner contentment because people tend to fall back in their old habits once they are back to their regular life. Mindfulness should be inculcated as a way of living," he says.

The rapidly growing evidence to prove the claims associated with structured mindfulness practice has fuelled its popularity with the practitioners and coaches. "It has grown so big because now we can measure its evidence through FMRI scans (it measures and maps the brain’s activity) and show people that it works, unlike in the past where it had remained subjective," explains Sharma. 

The Mind Economy

According to Sarvesh Shashi, Founder and CEO of SARVA Yoga, this long-practiced form is one of the fastest-growing trends in the wellness industry. "According to reports, the mindfulness industry is expected to cross USD 9 billion in the next five years at a CAGR of 41 percent. And the overall yoga market itself is expected to reach over USD 100 billion by 2027," says Shashi who launched his first centre in 2016. Today SARVA is an online platform with over 9,00,000-plus downloads in the last 19 months. .

Spotify's Culture Next Report shows that the average podcast listenership on the platform in India increased by over 250 percent among millennials and over 300 percent among GenZs in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020. "In it, mental health witnessed the most impressive growth as a genre, with an increase of over 600 percent among millennials and more than 900 percent among GenZs," says Vaidya. 

Holistic living practitioners have been packaging mindfulness programmes for their clients for some time now. "Mindfulness is an integral part of my work," says Luke Coutinho, Holistic Lifestyle Coach, Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine, and Founder, YouCare.

A few months back, he launched a free online programme that ran for 29 days with a packed house. "Now, we have multiple month-long programmes that run parallel and people from across the globe learn mindfulness through simple day-to-day techniques," he explains.

The Centre For Mindfulness, founded in 2015, offers mindfulness teaching and training programmes. It claims to offer evidence- and neuroscience-based mindfulness programmes specifically designed for a variety of audiences based on their needs.

"Our current focus is also to create certified mindfulness teachers to streamline the various myths associated with the subject and to support the spread of verified knowledge and practices," says Sharma.

A Slippery Slope

But critics are sceptical of the commoditisation of mindfulness. Prof Ron Purser, in his bestselling book McMindfulness, critically looks into the consumerism involved with it.

"I wrote the book not as a critique of mindfulness itself, but more as an exposé of how it became a commoditised pseudo-spiritual cure-all," says Purser, also the Lam Larsen Distinguished Research Professor of Management at San Francisco State University.

It was some four decades back that mindfulness caught his attention when he had begun studying Buddhism and practicing various forms of meditation.

"Based on my studies and encounters, I have a deep appreciation, gratitude and respect for the Buddhist tradition. However, the meteoric rise of the 'mindfulness revolution' took me by surprise. I was baffled by how mindfulness, which for several millennia has been an integral part of the Buddhist spiritual path, suddenly morphed into a domesticated self-help technique and widely touted panacea for assuaging virtually any middle-class desire - from mindful sex to making a killing on Wall Street," he explains.

His widely popular book McMindfulness published in 2019 questions the hype around mindfulness and terms it the new capitalist spirituality.

"So, my book is meant to be a 'public intervention' - an ideological critique - not only by critically questioning the hype and exaggerated claims of the so-called 'mindfulness revolution', but also exposing the ways mindfulness has been selectively appropriated and refashioned into an instrumental technique for personal gain," he explains.

The commoditisation has arguably irked many. "Mindfulness is not a fad; however, it can be made into one," believes Coutinho. He questions how even though most people talk about it, few are able to fully apply it to every aspect of their lives.

Coutinho explains that mindfulness has come to the fore so vehemently because "it is the need of the hour". He further adds, "The human race is moving very fast, on autopilot. In the process, we miss out on the little things that have the greatest impact. And this is exactly what the pandemic taught us too. To value what we have. And that's where mindfulness comes into the picture."

Purser begs to differ. "Popular self-help books sell because they fit into our desires for pleasure and the constant and never-ending pursuit of happiness. The problem is that such experiences that we chase after elude us, so we need to find the next fix, the next fad that comes along and promises us the golden elixir and Holy Grail. These are all part of the hugely profitable 'wellness industry' - which, it seems, has no limit," he laments.

But Nirjhara isn't convinced. "Even if it's an industry, if it delivers a value, I don't see anything wrong in it," she says. From mindful parenting to mindful teaching, mindful therapy to mindful leadership, the list is endless on the kind of books available on Amazon.

As for Gupta, the women whom she coached have taught her a valuable lesson. "If it helps even one person my objective is fulfilled. What’s there to lose?" she asks.

Lauren Berlant, a culture theorist from the University of Chicago, puts it succinctly, by terming mindfulness as "cruel optimism". It's the privatisation of the mind with no external factors affecting it. The mood economy is bullish for now.

Mindfulness Matters

It is a mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment. Mindfulness emphasises on awareness, attention, and acceptance. On a daily basis, mindfulness can significantly reduce stress, increase happiness and enhance self-awareness. 

Mindfulness as a term was first coined by Buddhist scholar TW Rhys Davids at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1979, American microbiologist Jon Kabat-Zinn created Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme.

The Global Mindfulness Meditation apps market is expected to touch USD 6,478.5 million by 2027, a growth of 48 percent from 2020, according to a report by US-based firm UnivDatos Market Insights. Spotify's Culture Next Report 2021 highlights that a little over 80 percent of millennials see audio as a mental health resource, and a similar percentage of Gen-Zs believe listening to audio to be healing

Mindfulness Vs Meditation

People often confuse mindfulness with meditation. While mindfulness and meditation are interrelated, they are not the same. 

Tags : Mindfulness Mindful Matter of mind

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