Breathe in, breathe out: Mindfulness practices find focus at Pitt

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Breathe in, breathe out: Mindfulness practices find focus at Pitt

Mindfulness meditation.  Wenhao Wu | Senior Staff Photographer

Mindfulness meditation. Wenhao Wu | Senior Staff Photographer

Victor Wu

Mindfulness meditation. Wenhao Wu | Senior Staff Photographer

Victor Wu

Victor Wu

Mindfulness meditation. Wenhao Wu | Senior Staff Photographer

By Emily Brindley / Staff Writer

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Cross your T’s, dot your I’s, mind your manners as well as your inner self — or so says a wave of recent research and an increased focus on being present.

In the midst of some 28,000 students with racing, cluttered thoughts, the Center for Mindfulness and Consciousness Studies opened last semester at Pitt. The center is a collective of about 30 graduate students, staff, faculty and one undergraduate student, all of whom are committed to promoting, supporting and practicing mindfulness — the practice of intentionally focusing on the present.

CMCS is part of a larger, nationwide mindfulness and meditation trend, filling YMCAs with yoga classes and universities with stress-free zones. The act of being present can help students reduce stress levels and increase emotional balance, according to Carol Greco, a Pitt psychiatry professor.

“[Mindfulness is] basically learning how to pay attention with curiosity, and learning how to be very kind to yourself,” Greco said.

Although CMCS doesn’t have a physical home yet, the collective hosts lectures, twice-weekly meditation sessions and other events around campus, including a Mindfulness Fair in the Frick Fine Arts Building on March 19.

Funded through the Office of the Provost as part of Pitt’s Year of the Humanities and housed within the Graduate School of Public Health, CMCS is split into three core areas — research, education and service — headed by members of the group.

While the center is promoting mindfulness for the health benefits, it is also focused on how meditation can help students learn. The center helps facilitate discussion with teachers and educators about how to bring mindfulness into classrooms at Pitt.

Leah Northrop, the leader of CMCS’ education core, said interested teachers bring their problems, ideas or goals to her and together they develop a curriculum that will bring mindfulness into the classroom.

“Our mission is really to support educators from the youngest to graduate level — anybody who is working with a student or students in their wish to bring mindfulness to their classroom,” Northrop said.

Mindfulness isn’t just sitting on a pillow and humming — it’s any practice that aims to increase focus on presence, often through breathing exercises or yoga.

The 2015 National Health Statistics Reports showed the number of yoga-practicing adults aged 18 to 44 increased from 6.3 percent in 2002 to 11.2 percent in 2012.

Outside of the center, the University Counseling Center’s Stress Free Zone offers undergraduates a space to focus on their bodies and relax without the stress of homework or technology.

On the third floor of the William Pitt Union, SFZ’s services range from yoga classes to biomedical feedback machines. Though SFZ’s mission is ultimately to reduce student stress, it offers mindfulness services like yoga classes and audio tapes because of their stress-reductive side effects.

Carnegie Mellon University also embraced the mindfulness trend in January 2014 when it unveiled its Mindfulness Room, filled with plants, yoga mats and inspirational books. Those who enter the room must leave cell phones and homework at the door in order to focus on relaxation and rest.

First-year Pitt student Gabe Jaffe wasn’t impressed with the University’s SFZ services. When he started at Pitt, he said he wanted a mindfulness group so he could have a place to practice his twice-a-day meditation sessions.

For him, mindfulness is the answer to the ever-present stress of college.

When he found CMCS, he immediately joined the group and took a position as a student assistant, where he handles day-to-day tasks at the center and is currently designing flyers for the Mindfulness Fair.

Jaffe, the only undergraduate member of CMCS, said he can personally attest to the effectiveness of mindfulness practices and hopes more undergraduate students start taking advantage of CMCS’ services.

“The benefits I get, and that a lot of people get, are reduced stress [and] a greater sense of control over your life,” Jaffe said. “It’s this resource that’s out there that so many people haven’t even heard of that they could be benefitting from so much.”

Although mindfulness reduces stress, Emily Lindsay, a fifth-year CMU graduate student, said it is not the overarching cure to anxiety for college students.

Lindsay, who has conducted research regarding the effects of mindfulness meditation, said she often hears claims that go beyond the research-proven benefits of meditation and instead exaggerate the practice as a cure-all.

“I think [meditation is] very powerful, I just would be cautious about it being an easy solution for stress,” Lindsay said. “It’s something that takes practice and efforts, but if you’re willing to devote even five to 10 minutes a day to practice, then it can start to have benefits.”

Lindsay, partnering with J. David Creswell, a CMU associate professor in the psychology department, found meditation is not an immediate, quick solution to stress.

In their study, which Lindsay and Creswell published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology in 2014, participants who took part in three 25-minute meditation sessions reported decreased feelings of stress, but had high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

The higher levels of cortisol compared to the group of participants that had not meditated at all may indicate that long-term, regular meditation is necessary before the stress-busting benefits fully kick in, though Lindsay and other researchers are still investigating this phenomenon.

While some claims may be overhyped, others stand up. Pitt’s School of Medicine found that mindfulness meditation helped with chronic back pain management in adults over 65, even six months after the study ended.

The study, which Pitt published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine this March, showed that compared to a control group, subjects who received meditation training experienced significant relief from their pain.

Of the subjects who received meditation training, 80 percent described improvement in their pain symptoms immediately following the eight-week program, compared with 37 percent of the controls.

After six months, 76 percent of the mindfulness group reported at least minimal improvement, compared with 42 percent of the controls.

The Pitt researchers modeled their meditation training program after Deanna Burkett, a yoga teacher on campus and staff member in the counseling center, and Greco’s mindfulness-based stress reduction program.

“We go through the day trusting [our default] thoughts and emotions and rarely question whether they are helpful or beneficial,” Burkett said.

The purpose of meditation is to introspect and examine, with the ultimate goal of controlling thoughts and emotions, Burkett said.

Although faculty and staff have shown interest in the trend, Northrop said many students either haven’t heard of mindfulness or don’t know how to participate.

Despite the benefits, the wide variety of mindfulness traditions — including those with roots in Buddhism, Christianity or secular culture — can be daunting at first.

Tony Silvestre, CMCS director, said there is no one right way to begin mindfulness practices, though many people begin by reading books, listening to tapes or using apps that help track breathing and narrate meditation.

“I think in my experience, people have come in through different doorways,” Silvestre said. “I really think it depends on what people are comfortable with and how it is that they learn new things.”

Silvestre said he doesn’t have any concrete plan to grow the center, but said membership will grow “organically” as people show interest and get involved.

“I don’t have any grand scheme of where we’re going or how we’re going to develop,” Silvestre said. “Mindfulness meditation is a very powerful skill, a very powerful method of relating to reality. We want to make it available. I trust that if it works, it works.”

Erin Hare contributed reporting for this story.

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