Your path to relaxation, inner peace & lower blood pressure begins here.
You walk into a dusky room lit only by sprays of afternoon light filtering in through a few windows. A dozen silk yoga hammocks are suspended from wooden beams slightly lower than the ceiling in the Agave Center at Miraval, a health and wellness resort in Tucson
A guide instructs you to take a seat in a hammock, join your hands in a gesture of prayer, and softly tilt your head and shoulders in a subtle bow. She shows you how to grasp the back edge of the hammock with your hands, fortify the front edge with your toes, and inch yourself into a lying position parallel with the floor. You’re floating, cradled in diaphanous silk, when the guide gently swings you, softly clangs a cluster of crystal bowls, and begins the meditation.
Long believed to be the exclusive domain of Buddhist monks, bendy yogis and flower children, meditation – while still very much a part of those groups – has experienced a shift toward the mainstream in the past few decades. Despite a history spanning thousands of years, meditation meandered to the United States via the same path many “alternative” practices or lifestyles (from vegetarianism to self-actualization) came here: increased globalization in the post-World War II era combined with the free thinking and eternal searching of the hippie generation. Meditation and its sister state, mindfulness, entered the American lexicon through various streams, from New Age self-help books to pop psychologists to holistic-health-minded doctors. Its popularity has grown with its need, as more and more Americans report feeling inundated by the irritants of the modern age: work and family stress, over-scheduling, technological deluge and information overload from news and social media. In Arizona, a state with beautiful weather, abundant natural wonders (including allegedly spiritual ones like Sedona’s vortices) and relative openness as a result of its largely transplant population, meditation – in its many iterations – is blossoming as a way to achieve some sense of calm in this chaotic world.
Meditation, simply defined, is quiet inner thought. Mindfulness is “paying attention on purpose without judgment,” says Jes Gale, yoga instructor and floating meditation guide at Miraval. The ways in which these interlocking concepts are practiced, however, are as diverse as those who practice them. Sitting meditations are common in Buddhist temples, yoga centers and non-spiritual meditation. New permutations of the practice have even spread to resorts throughout Arizona. Now you can pair your hot stone massage with a chakra-balancing meditation at Miraval and your luxury facial with a Soul Connect guided meditation at Sanctuary on Camelback in Paradise Valley. Meditation and mindfulness are everywhere now, from the humble to the haute.
“There are a billion different ways to do it,” says Dr. Susan Wilder, a concierge physician at LifeScape Medical Associates in Scottsdale. She’s been meditating for more than 10 years and advises her patients to adopt a meditative practice of some sort as part of a holistic approach to health and wellness.
“I will do a walking mindfulness meditation when I walk my dogs, and that just means cluing in and truly being present and mindful, as you’re walking, of the birds singing, and the feeling of the breeze on your cheek, and the stars that might be out if it’s night or early morning, and the hummingbird in that little bush and those beautiful yellow flowers,” Wilder says. She also practices yoga and does daily guided meditations (through audio files on her iPad) from author and spiritual icon Deepak Chopra. Her practice of taking mindful “time bites,” or little snippets of time that would be otherwise wasted on mundane or frustrating tasks, is easy and accessible for everyone. “I take a deep breath in, I’ll hold it, and slowly let it out. I do that whenever I tell patients to do it,” Wilder says. “I do it whenever I’m waiting for something to download, instead of swearing at my computer. I do it when I’m at a traffic light.”
This practical, real-life approach to meditation is what attracted Amy Kemp to the Phoenix Shambhala Meditation Center. “I was kind of interested in Buddhism, but I didn’t want to learn Tibetan, I didn’t want to wear a robe,” Kemp says. Shambhala is an offshoot of Tibetan Buddhism founded by the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan refugee and Buddhist meditation master who brought his teachings to the United States in 1970. “He gave teachings in English. He’s not talking about Tibetan things and hoping you understand it – he’s talking about your life,” Kemp says. “I think it’s one of the things that made mindfulness, and even thinking these kind of things are normal – it helped make them more mainstream. It could have stayed on the periphery if only strange people in robes did it.”
Or if only Hindus and Buddhists did it. For many reasons – posture, pop culture depictions and, of course, documented history of the practice – people instinctively make a link between meditation and Eastern spirituality. In reality, most organized religions have some form of quiet thought or inner stillness, usually expressed through contemplative prayer or chanting (internally or externally). In Islam, the pillar of salat that commands Muslims to pray five times each day allows them to carve out time for reverence and communion with God. In Christianity, contemplative prayer is touted in the Gospels. The “pure prayer” of “paying attention, not giving intentions,” in the words of Benedictine monk Laurence Freeman, director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, is what the meditation group at the Cornerstone Center in Scottsdale strives to achieve in their weekly meditations. The group has been meeting for 18 years. In the beginning, many were leery.
“I was very much tongue-in-cheek: ‘What is this all about? Is this really Christian?’” says Joanne Rapp, one of the group’s leaders. “I think we’re looking for something deeper... all prayer is good, [but] pure prayer eliminates your ideas, your desires, your worries, your fears, your anxieties. [You] just come in faith and in love into the presence of Christ. I get myself out of the center of it; I’m not trying to control. You ‘let go and you let God,’ really.”
Not that meditation requires a spiritual component. For many, it functions as a relaxation technique or a tool for better health. Wilder says her patients who implement meditation in some way experience lowered blood pressure, reduced stress and inflammatory markers, mitigated chronic pain and arthritis, increased overall health and happiness, and even some symptom reduction during cancer treatment. “We hold the keys to a lot of our health or disease in terms of the choices we make and the ways we cope,” Wilder says. She thinks the greater medical community is starting to acknowledge the benefits of mindfulness. “I think most doctors understand that there may be some health benefits.”
She cites recent studies conducted at UCLA on the topic of meditation. One indicated that meditation helps stave off the brain’s aging process. In a study of 100 people from ages 24-77, half who were meditators and half who were not, those who had been practicing meditation (a group average of 20 years) showed less of a decline in gray matter (the tissue responsible for cognition and memory storage) than those who did not meditate. Another study indicated that meditation could help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. For the 20 seniors in the study who meditated daily and attended a single-day retreat (the other group of 20 seniors in the study did not meditate), meditating reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation, which have been linked to an increased risk of depression, heart disease and neuro-degenerative diseases.
“Is that a cause-effect? I don’t know,” Wilder says. “But what is the harm of meditation? Fifteen minutes a day, that’s the cost. There’s virtually no harm and most providers would acknowledge that there’s a significant amount of benefit.”
It’s a position echoed by everyone interviewed for this piece – no matter your style, intention or practice, all meditation is good.
“Everyone is trying to get to the top of the same tree, we’re just climbing different branches. This, anyone can do, and I bet they do, but they don’t call it this,” says Kim Jacob, a meditator with the Cornerstone group who has taught meditation to children. “I think that word, ‘meditation,’ is a block to a lot of religions and a lot of things, [which is] kind of a shame. But I think it’s changing.”
Meditation: Getting Started
Meditation styles and protocols vary based on the school of meditation. The Shambhalians practice 20-minute seated meditations with their hands resting on their thighs and their eyes open; walking meditation involves hands clasped in a specific mudra, or position believed to have an influence on the body’s energy. In the Cornerstone Center’s Christian meditation, a brief teaching and song are followed by 20 minutes of seated meditation with closed eyes. They repeat the chant, “Maranatha,” Aramaic for “Come, oh lord,” silently and internally for the duration of the meditation.
For unaffiliated beginners, here’s a quick blueprint to find a meditation practice that works for you.
Find a quiet space.
Assume a position that is comfortable for you.
For many, it is sitting or lying down.
Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.
Breathe in and out in a measured way – for example, slowly count to four as you inhale and to six as you exhale.
Continue to focus on your breathing.
Don’t fight thoughts; acknowledge them and let them pass through your mind like clouds. If you need something to focus on at first, repeat a word or phrase internally if you’d like to set an intention – something like ‘clarity’ or ‘gratitude’ or ‘love.’
Do it for five minutes at first.
See if you can gradually increase the amount of time you meditate. Experiment with different styles, places and times of day to see what works best for you.
Silence and a seated posture aren’t necessary for all meditation. Dr. Susan Wilder encourages her patients to take “time bites” throughout the day to reduce stress and elevate the mundane. Simply take deep, calming breaths and focus on the moment. Some everyday activities that can be made meditative:
Brushing your teeth
Taking a shower
Walking the dog
Stopping at traffic lights
Walking to the water cooler or to get coffee or tea
Waiting for an app to download
Waiting in line at the bank, grocery
store or restaurant
Top 5 Valley Meditation Centers
Transcendental Meditation Centers
Most people are familiar with transcendental meditation (TM) from its pop culture connections: It was the preferred meditation style of The Beatles for a time, filmmaker David Lynch is a devotee who started his own foundation and a host of other celebs (Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres) practice the mantra meditation style established by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in the 1950s. Unlike most meditation, TM instruction has a price tag: roughly $960 for adults. However, the TM foundation and Lynch famously provide scholarships for at-risk youth and veterans with PTSD.
8426 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale, 602-274-6046
3030 N. Third St., Phoenix, 602-274-6046,
Phoenix Shambhala Meditation Center
Shambhala is part of the lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and celebrates the basic goodness and pureness of all people and things. Meditation is a technique used by Shambalians to return to the true self. “The way we meditate is not to close our eyes, not to shut anything out, but to be present, right here, right now,” says center director Barbara Gill-Forney. Food, conversation and meditation are hallmarks of the center. Twice-weekly sitting and walking meditations are open to the public (with tea and treats afterward), as well as workshops and discussions. Meditation instruction is provided gratis, although donations are accepted.
1202 E. Maryland Ave., Phoenix, phoenix.shambhala.org
Christian Meditation at the Cornerstone Center
Contemplative prayer in a group setting forms the foundation of this Christian meditation group. Father John Main founded the first Christian Meditation Center in London in 1975, but Christian meditators trace their roots to the desert fathers and the Gospels. This informal group meets a few times a week for a teaching, worship music, a 20-minute seated meditation and prayer at The Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale. Most members are Catholic, but Christian meditation as a whole is ecumenical and all are welcome to the group meditations. The group is also involved in efforts to teach meditation to children at local Catholic schools.
5802 E. Lincoln Dr., Scottsdale, cornerstone-phx.org
Clear Light Buddhist Center
A free open house held the first Wednesday of every month initiates newcomers to the New Kadampa Tradition, a strain of Mahayana Buddhism founded by the Indian Buddhist master Atisha that uses Buddha’s teachings as “practical methods for transforming daily activities into the path to enlightenment,” per kadampa.org. Instruction in meditation is offered at the center and in its classes throughout the Valley, including a meditation class just for teens. Various meditations are held throughout the month; sunrise meditations are held Monday-Thursday.
614 E. Townley Ave., Phoenix, 602-243-5220, meditationinarizona.org
True REST Float Spa
Not a meditation center, per se, but it’s definitely a groovy place to meditate. True REST touts the health benefits of spending time in their float pods – large, bean-shaped chambers filled with highly salinated water heated to human skin temperature (roughly 93-95 degrees Fahrenheit). Flotation therapy has been shown to reduce pain and inflammation and foster relaxation, but the sensory deprivation the tanks provide aids in meditation by removing the majority of external stimuli. Losing awareness of where your body ends and the water begins can be a transcendent (and trippy) experience. Best for non-claustrophobes.
1860 E. Warner Rd., Tempe, 480-389-0853, truerest.com
Top 5 Nature Retreats for Meditation
Boynton Canyon Vortex in Sedona
A beautiful box canyon heralds possibly the most exulting natural meditation setting in Arizona. Sedona’s majestic red rocks stand like sentries all around as you gaze across the painterly landscape of sandstone. Spiritual seekers of all stripes flock to Sedona’s world-renowned vortices, regions of swirling energy emitting from the earth purported to have healing and centering spiritual powers. There are four major vortex regions in the area, but this one is particularly picturesque. Open yourself to the vibes and prepare for some energy work.
Sears-Kay ruins in Tonto National Forest
Commune with the spirits of the past at this archaeological site, where the Hohokam people lived around the early 16th century. The remnants of their past living quarters, storage rooms and ceremonial halls are hauntingly beautiful. The historical setting makes it a tranquil place to reflect on the past while experiencing the present.
Mount Baldy in the White Mountains
The summit of Mount Baldy, the highest point in the White Mountains in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, is off limits to non-tribal members. Its secondary hump, however, is legal and a gorgeously wild setting for a nature meditation beyond the switchbacks. No vehicles or bicycles are allowed beyond the trailhead, but equestrian use is permitted.
Reavis Falls in the Superstition wilderness
A springtime meditation is ideal for Reavis Falls; after the rains of the winter, the awe-inspiring, 196-foot waterfall (and Reavis Creek, which you’ll pass on the hike to the falls) will be flush with pure water. All the better to purify yourself. A post-meditation swim (water level permitting) is also great.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park in Payson
Make a pilgrimage during the week to avoid the throngs of visitors that come to admire the world’s largest travertine bridge and its 400-foot tunnel. Spookily pretty calcite formations create lacy patterns of light on the smooth rock, and the echoing sounds of dripping water provide a gentle, resonant soundtrack for meditation.
Top 5 Resort Meditations
Everything at this luxury health and wellness resort is centered on mindfulness, so it makes sense that their meditation offerings overfloweth. The floating and chakra meditations and the Mindful Stress Mastery class are great for beginners. The new Chrysalis of Sound meditation simulates a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Its jungle and ocean sounds, meditation bowls, heated mats and snug sheet wrap set it apart for a truly transformative experience.
500 E. Via Estancia Miraval, Tucson, 800-232-3969, miravalresorts.com
Along with the usual massages and facials, Enchantment’s Mii Amo Spa offers eight mindfulness sessions, including Releasing Stress, Integrative Breathing, Compassionate Communication and Past Life Regression. A meditation session teaches basic meditative principles and mental focus and therapeutic hypnosis helps to break down psychological barriers impeding spiritual progress.
525 Boynton Canyon Rd., Sedona, 888-250-1699, enchantmentresort.com
L’Auberge de Sedona
Guests at the resort can experience complimentary moonlight meditations held around full-moon phases, led by Devani Paige. Each meditation begins with a fire-burning ceremony, followed by a breath-awareness meditation and another meditation along the banks of Oak Creek. Each meditation ends with a flute ceremony to balance the chakras. In April, a special Blood Moonlit Meditation will be held in honor of the full blood moon.
301 Little Ln., Sedona, 855-905-5745, lauberge.com
Tanque Verde Ranch
Tucson’s premier horse ranch is home to the Yoga of Horsemanship experience, which leads guests on a wellness journey from mat to saddle. Instructor Cathy Woods weaves together her dual interests of yoga and horsemanship to help guests connect with themselves and their horses through the meditative practice of yoga. Long, mindful horseback rides and workshops tie the lessons of both together. Workshops run May 4-6 and October 16-18.
14301 E. Speedway Blvd., Tucson, 800-234-3833, tanqueverderanch.com
Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain
The chic resort hosts a surprising number of New Agey offerings, including astrology and tarot readings. In the Soul Connect treatment, divinity cards and a guided meditation are paired with chakra balancing, massage and energy work.
5700 E. McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley, 480-948-2100, sanctuaryoncamelback.com
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