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I Tried Group Meditation...and Had a Panic Attack

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If you've ever meditated before—OK, let's be real, if you've even thought about trying to meditate—you know it's way more difficult to sit and do absolutely nothing than it actually sounds. For me, meditating is like exercise: If I don't have the time and place of my workout written in my calendar, I'm not going. But despite my limited knowledge of how to do it, I do know the powerful benefits of meditation (research shows that it's better for pain relief than morphine, can help you hit pause on aging, and that people who practice mindfulness may have less belly fat), and wouldn't mind taking advantage of those.

Basically, if you're not meditating, you should be. And MNDFL, a new group meditation studio in New York City, is trying to make meditation more accessible to people like me by providing simple instruction and techniques in a class setting, similar to a group workout. Booking a class at MNDFL made sense—the we're-all-in-this-together approach sounded like a good option for my first go at the trending practice.

Stepping inside the studio feels like entering a living meditation itself, with its neutral gray and white tones, natural wood, and greenery covering the walls. As instructed, I ditched my shoes at the door and walked into the calming environment. The space reminded me of an upscale yoga studio, but less sweaty and less expensive (a 30-minute class is just $15). I took my seat on a nice cushion on the floor and waited for the instructor to begin.

My instructor was not the crunchy-granola yogi type that I expected. Instead, he was dressed like a professor: trousers, a button down shirt, a tie, a sweater and thick black-rimmed glasses. (I, on the other hand, was in yoga pants, but hey, it was 9 a.m. on a Saturday, OK?) His demeanor seemed scholarly, which helped set the tone for me. After all, I was there to learn something.

To the newbies in class, he explained that there are three pillars of meditation: body, breathe, and mind. First, we focused on body, getting the right posture for meditating (legs crossed, hands resting gently on knees, eyes open, but open gently, like you just woke up from a long sleep). He warned us that the cross-legged position may become uncomfortable after a while since we're not used to sitting that way and suggested putting a knee up if we started to lose feeling in one leg. Then, he walked us through developing a gentle, steady breath. It was close to my normal breathing, maybe a little bit deeper, but the difference was the focus—I tried to think about every inhale and exhale as it happened. All good so far.

Then it was time for the actual meditation part. Our instructor explained that he would be minimizing his talking and we would have about 30 minutes of meditation after we heard the "ding" of his Tibetan singing bowl. He also urged us not to be thought ninjas—you don't need to chop down every single thought that you have during a meditation. Instead, he suggests simply letting them pass and going back to focusing on the breathe. Who knew thinking during meditation was OK?! (Try these 10 Mantras Mindfulness Experts Live By.)

I tried not to think, but meditation makes you hypersensitive. I found myself acutely aware of those tiny baby hairs at the top of my hairline (they really tickle!), my hands (why are they so still? Shouldn't they be typing or texting or scrolling through Insta?), my neighbor's mouth breathing, that random hair on the ground (is it mine?).

I was doing pretty well until all of the sudden I realized I had no feeling in my right leg. In fact, my butt and lower back were kind of frozen too. Then I had a minor panic attack. Was I going to pass out? Should I stand up and leave? Would that ruin everyone else's zen? Would my legs even allow me to stand up? I remembered the trick our instructor gave about putting up a knee to increase blood flow to the leg if it starts to fall asleep, so I made the move and focused on steady breathing until I calmed down and feeling returned to my body.

The rest of the class went pretty well until a squirrel running around on the skylight pulled me out of my meditative state—I felt like I was being woken up from a nap that I wasn't quite ready to come out of. Our instructor addressed the distraction, letting us know we could embrace the noise and make it part of our meditation, which definitely helped the class to relax again. And before I knew it, the "ding" of the Tibetan singing bowl brought us out of the meditation for a few minutes of discussion. I told the class about my freak-out and that I almost thought I would need to leave the class. No one seemed surprised; everyone's mind and body reacts differently to meditation. And after all that zen, my body was ready to get up and go. Sure, I felt calm from the class, but it was fleeting—and I was itching to go to a dance class right after and shake it out (which I did)!

The instructor ended class with a reminder that not every session is going to be relaxing and you also may not experience the benefits of meditation right away, and that's OK. In a way, it's just like going to the gym. You won't lose 10 pounds after your first spin class, but you will feel different after just one time. (Not convinced? The 'F*ck That' Meditation Video Helps You Breathe Out the BS.)

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