Meditation techniques help people be in the moment
Drummer and recording artist Jim Donovan discovered yoga in the early 1990s when he was struggling to get the band Rusted Root off the ground.
Then 22, and working for his father’s Bethel Park-based tree-trimming service, Donovan was searching for a way to manage the anxiety and negative self-talk that interfered with his sleep, his relationships and his music.
Rusted Root eventually would achieve fame with its platinum-selling album “When I Woke,” as Donovan continued on a personal path he would come to know as mindfulness, that for him encompasses yoga, meditation, focused breathing and drumming and chanting.
“The basic idea behind mindfulness,” says Donovan, now 48, and living in Greensburg, “is letting yourself be fully present with whatever you are doing. If you’re having a conversation with someone, really be in the moment with your listening. If you’re taking a walk, rather than be on your phone or thinking about your to-do list, allow yourself to take in your environment … what you see … what you smell … immerse yourself in that.”
Donovan guides others in the practice of mindfulness with music and wellness workshops, including those offered through St. Francis College, where he chairs the department of fine arts. He is leading a drumming-and-chanting course on Mondays in February at Moonglow Yoga in Hempfield.
Drumming and chanting — which some call the new yoga — is popular because it lends itself to helping people let go of stress, says Donovan, who has developed a system that even non-musicians can master. “Drumming has nothing to do with being super-fast or fancy. It’s intense, but there’s a specific rhythm and it’s also improvisational.”
Most of the people who come to his workshops are worried they aren’t good enough, he says, “but they keep coming back because I show them that they have what they need and can have a great time doing it.”
Donovan asserts that drumming and other mindfulness techniques, especially meditation, can improve health, and scientific studies appear to back him up.
“When we look at the physical effects of a meditation practice, research shows that it can help people reduce pain,” says Dr. Natalia Morone, a University of Pittsburgh physician and author of a comprehensive clinical trial on the subject.
Morone studied 282 older adults with back pain by randomly putting half into a group that learned about exercise, immunizations and other keys to healthy aging, and the other half into a group that practiced mindfulness meditation.
Among meditators, 44 percent experienced a 30 percent reduction in pain, compared with 25 percent in the other group, even six months after the study, Morone says.
“Some described how they could look at their pain from a new perspective … how they were feeling more in control of their pain, which could be life-changing. It made the pain not quite as big as they thought.”
Morone used the meditation model developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is considered a pioneer in helping people cope with stress, anxiety and illness through mindfulness.
It is the same model UPMC psychologist Carol Greco uses in the meditation workshops she leads at UPMC’s Center for Complementary Medicine. Greco met Kabat-Zinn and his colleague Dr. Herb Benson, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General, at a conference 20 years ago and says putting their teachings into practice transformed her life.
“I’m still the same person with auto-pilot neuroses, but the difficulties don’t grab me so much. I can step back from old habits, like thinking tomorrow will be awful,” she says. “Relationships are easier. I’m kinder to myself and others. I don’t take myself so seriously most the time, anymore.”
Research by David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, indicates that mindfulness meditation can reduce inflammation that has been linked to some cancers as well as cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.
His studies also indicate that mindfulness meditation can reduce loneliness in the elderly and alleviate psychological stress.
A study involving unemployed adults who practiced intensive meditation during a three-day retreat showed they continued to reap the benefits for two weeks after the experience, according to Emily Lindsay, a doctoral student who works with Cresswell. Brain scans taken before and after the retreat measured the effects of meditation.
By comparison, participants who were instead given relaxation training, such as stretching and walking exercises, didn’t show any changes in brain function, she says, noting that both groups also were tested for inflammation four months after the retreat. “The group that meditated showed a reduction in inflammation in the body. The relaxation training people didn’t show any changes in brain function or inflammation.”
As mindfulness meditation goes mainstream, folks eager to cultivate a practice will find classes and workshops at yoga studios and health clubs. “You can even find guidance on YouTube,” Lindsay says.
Red Brick Yoga in Unity has slated a mindfulness course for Sundays in March that will include meditation, breathing exercises and other techniques aimed at reducing stress and increasing joy, according to Red Brick owner Angela Merendino. She says yoga is a good foundation for cultivating the ability to be fully present.
“Yoga postures make you stronger and more flexible … but it’s not just a physical practice. It’s so much more. It connects movement and breath. It’s a flow,” she says. “You learn to be in each moment and not be in your head.”
Deborah Weisberg is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.