Health & Fitness

How to float your cares away: Three ways to become more mindful in the new year

The lights dimmed, the music faded and — just like that! — I was floating in pitch black. The only sound: my own breathing. That was a promising start.

I was on a quest to learn more about mindfulness, the process of focusing on the present, and floating naked in a sensory reduction chamber seemed as good a way as any to go about it.

A new year is upon us, and once again I’m resolving to be more patient and understanding, to stay in the moment and appreciate life for the little things. Being more mindful seems like it could help.

You’re supposed to practice mindfulness while accepting your feelings and bodily sensations without judgment. Buddhists and Hindus have been doing it for thousands of years.

Meditation is a concentrated form that helps sharpen your focus on the present — in this case, your breath.

“Our minds flutter and get pulled and our thoughts dance around, so the breath is an anchor,” says Tracy Ochester, a psychologist, yoga teacher and owner of Clear Mind Open Heart. “Any time the mind wanders, we notice and shift our attention back to the breath. … Focusing on it tends to relax the body and make it easy for new meditators to focus and sit.”

The Beatles spurred the popularity of meditation and mindfulness in the Western Hemisphere when they traveled to India to learn transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

The practices began gaining credence several years later when Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, began integrating the Eastern practice with science and medicine. Kabat-Zinn, whose friends included beat poet Allen Ginsberg and counterculture psychologist Timothy Leary, had studied with Buddhist teachers and was a longtime yogi.

Since then, mindfulness has grown in popularity, particularly among practitioners of holistic living. They say it opens their minds, makes them less judgmental and improves their quality of life in general. At least one expert has made a 10-minute exercise out of eating a raisin, calling it “A First Taste of Mindfulness.” I like raisins. Maybe I should try that.

“If you translate (mindfulness) into spending time with kids or your partner or doing your job and really fully experience those things, especially if they’re things you’re passionate about, it makes life richer,” Ochester says.

And lest you dismiss meditation and mindfulness as a bunch of new age hokum, make note that scientific studies show otherwise. Researchers have found that meditation boosts brain volume, memory and satisfaction in relationships while decreasing depression, anxiety and blood pressure. Preliminary studies have also found that it might boost your immune system.

Here’s my journey to find mindfulness.

Flotation therapy

So there I was floating in the dark in a Zero Gravity II Float chamber at Floating KC in Waldo.

The chamber is a 7-foot-tall fiberglass box that’s as wide and long as a king-size bed and filled with about a foot of water and several hundred pounds of Epsom salt.

Floating KC charges $75 for 60 minutes of floating and $99 for 90 minutes. I chose the hour. As soon as I sat down in the water, I felt hyper-buoyant. My legs rose to the surface, and I started swirling on my bottom.

Before I entered the chamber, owner Blake Swetnam showed me a video about the process. This involved undressing, slipping into a bathrobe and sitting in a massage chair in a dark room for 15 minutes. The chair kneads, taps and massages the entire body while soft spa-music fills the air and tiny dots of colored light swirl on the ceiling.

The chamber is equipped for cleanliness, with an ultraviolet light, hydrogen peroxide and an industrial pump filtration system that sterilizes the water. But clients must shower first to wash off cosmetics and hygiene products.

Swetnam also strongly urges clients to float au naturel. The salt water is skin temperature, and a bathing suit could interfere with the sensory deprivation, he told me.

Flotation therapy, says Lawrence Simmons, a manager at Floating KC, lowers brainwave activity into the theta (dream) state, similar to what you experience right before sleep.

John C. Lilly, a physician and scientist, invented flotation therapy in 1954 after testing the effects of sensory deprivation and finding that in short spurts it’s relaxing and sometimes spurs creativity. Athletes such as NBA star Steph Curry and Olympian Carl Lewis float as a means of mental training. It can also have negative effects such as causing scary hallucinations if practiced for too long. (Or transporting you to another dimension if you’re on the TV show “Stranger Things.”)

My mind did wander now and then, but I eventually drifted off into the theta state. I wasn’t fully awake, but I was aware that I was in a tank of warm water. Occasionally, I swirled back and forth so I could feel the water tickle my skin. And, of course, I listened to my own breathing.

At some point, an odd thought occurred to me: The human head might be denser than the human body. Why? Because my head was floating lower in the water, craning my neck backward.

The hour went by quickly. The lights slowly illuminated, the music grew louder and after a few minutes, I was ready to get out. I was definitely relaxed, though I’m not sure I was more mindful, and my neck was sore for a day or two afterward.

Would I recommend this to others? Sure. It’s worth a try. A colleague did flotation therapy at a spa in Arizona. She says she had an emotional, out-of-body experience and couldn’t wait to do it again.

By the way, some flotation therapy places provide neck support, so ask for it when you go.

Mindful Tune-Up

Next up: Ochester’s monthly Mindful Tune-Up class at the Maya Yoga studio in the Crossroads Arts District on an usually warm fall day. I was a bit nervous. I’m not a yogi, and I’m uncoordinated.

“Yoga was designed to prepare you for meditation,” Ochester said. “We focus on simple Asana postures. It opens the body and prepares it for stillness and draws the body inward. A lot of people who come to these classes have not meditated before and think they’re not good at it. The poses help them let go of the busyness of the day and relax them.”

Ochester led the free class through about 30 minutes of slow, simple, gentle poses. Then it was time to meditate. Getting into the lotus position on the floor was an issue. It requires crossing the legs so each foot is lying on the opposite thigh. I was able to get halfway into the position after someone handed me a thick foam pad to raise my rear end off the ground.

For the next 30 minutes, Ochester guided us, in a soft, smooth voice, to focus on our breathing. We could do this, she said, with our eyes closed or open but focused on a single spot. I was surprised to find myself practically hypnotized for several minutes by a small metallic disk sewn onto a Hindu textile on the wall. I eventually closed my eyes.

At some point, Ochester instructed us to focus on a sound in the room, other than our breathing. The air conditioner was loud, so I focused on that. Then she guided us back to our breath.

By the time the class ended, I was relaxed. Most surprising was that my tight 50-year-old runner’s legs felt more elongated and flexible than they had in ages. Ochester said they’d get more and more so over time.

Would I recommend this class? Yes. It’s the perfect introduction to both yoga and meditation. I definitely felt more mindful afterward.

Serenity Pause

My final foray into meditation and mindfulness took me to a Serenity Pause meditation session at Unity Temple on the Plaza.

Matt Foster, director of Serenity Pause, says that even though the sessions are in a spiritual center, it’s a secular silent space. There’s guidance at the beginning and end of each meditation, but generally it’s silent and people can practice in the ways that are best for them.

On this night, John Corbaley was leading the free 30-minute session. He sat in the lotus position at the front of the room facing five people on cushions on the floor — most in the lotus position — and a couple of men sitting rod-straight in chairs against the wall.

Corbaley smiled as I entered the room and sat on a floor cushion and tried to get into the lotus position. A few minutes later, Corbaley hit a meditation gong three times and began talking: “Body, speech, mind, all in perfect oneness. I send my heart along with the sound of the bell. May the hearers awaken the forgetfulness and transcend the path of anxiety and sorrow.”

Then he gently encouraged us to focus our attention on our breathing. If our mind should wander, he said, we should recognize it, acknowledge it without judgment, then bring it back to our breathing. It was good to know he and Ochester are on the same page.

But there was a problem: My legs were tight and hurting. It was all I could think about. Foster, who was meditating in front of me, was sitting with his hips between his shoes, their soles pointing back at me. It looked a lot more comfortable, but getting into that position would have required a lot of rustling. My cushion, I noticed, wasn’t as thick as the one at Maya Yoga.

I peeked at the men in the chairs on each side of the room. I wished I were sitting in a chair. I finally unfolded my achy legs and stretched them in front of me. That felt better, but odd. It was very un-lotusy. And clearly I was having trouble focusing on my breathing.

As the meditation ended, Corbaley encouraged everyone to stretch their backs. I could hear cracking and popping around the room.

Antonio Wesley, a record producer in Kansas City who had been sitting on the floor at the front of the room, got up to leave. He discovered meditation three years ago while living in Los Angeles and found that it helped him cope with feelings of self-pity, anger and disappointment.

“This is the best way I’ve found to help me release the built-up thoughts and the tension and everything that I’ve been experiencing in my childhood and have brought along into adulthood,” he said. “So this has helped me hit the reset button on my life.”

Would I recommend it? Yes. I think this has real potential for increasing mindfulness. But, personally, I’d skip the lotus position.

Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian: 816-234-4780, @CindyBGregorian