Summer is a perfect time for physical exercise, as hikers hit the trails and swimmers take the plunge. But, says Dr. Deborah Norris, it is also important to remember to exercise the brain.
Norris, founder of The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda, teaches the health benefits of mindfulness, a philosophy perhaps most simply defined as being present in the moment. There are a number of ways to achieve this state of mind, Norris explains, from the rigorous concentration of silent meditation to the simpler task of focusing on washing the dishes.
With numerous scientific studies suggesting a link between the practice and stress reduction, mindfulness may be something worth adding to your daily health regimen. Just as working out the body increases muscle mass, research reveals that active meditation changes the structure and biochemistry of the brain – for the better.
Sarah Lazar, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, conducted an eight week-long study in which 16 participants were led through half hour-long mindfulness exercises, such as focusing on an image or the sound of one’s own breathing. Their brains were scanned. MRIs revealed a noticeable reduction of gray-matter in the amygdala, a key fear center of the brain, indicating a reduction in stress.
Those findings were the subject of a 2011 article in the peer reviewed journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging and confirm the growing consensus among researchers, says Lazar, that “meditation is extremely effective for reducing stress.”
Back at The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda, Norris teaches patients how to become mindful through practicing mind-body therapies such as deep breathing, acupuncture, hypnosis and counseling. “Give yourself time and space,” Norris says, and mindfulness “starts to happen.”
One place where mindfulness has already started to happen is The Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington. Established by Adas Israel Congregation, the center has evolved organically out of a women’s meditation group there that met to discuss Jewish spirituality. The center’s first meditation session drew some 60 men and women, a fact that surprised Adas Israel congregant Jennie Litvack, a leader of the JMCW. “The amount of interest among women and men reflected a desire of seeking greater spiritual experiences in their Judaism.”
Since then, the center has developed a wide range of Jewish mindfulness programming, from Jewish yoga to meditation to soulful Shabbat services.
While there may be nothing exclusively Jewish about mindfulness, Litvack says Jews have been practicing mindfulness for years, perhaps going all the way back to the first Jews. Take Abraham, for example. “By sitting still and quiet, Abraham had an openness that enabled him to hear the voice of God.”
Mindfulness may also be a way to improve communication with loved ones right here.
Silver Spring-based individual and couple’s therapist Mieke Rivka Sidorsky recommends mindfulness to help her patients strengthen their personal relationships. “Happy people live in the moment and engage with the present day,” she says. “People in happy relationships are able to keep thinking about their relationship and what they are doing in the present, rather than worry about the future or dwell in the past.”
Sidorsky says that living in the moment is particularly important for women, whose brains are hardwired to multitask: “In order for women to achieve the greatest intimate satisfaction, they have to be able to concentrate on the positive, loving-feeling and try not to think about the to-do list and other anxieties.”
Washington Jewish Week Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey Melada contributed additional reporting to this story.