Classes teach stress reduction through living in the moment

09/08/2013 12:00 AM

09/07/2013 7:28 PM

What are you doing right now? Scanning some headlines, checking your e-mail, eating a quick meal?

Perhaps jotting down a to-do list, mentally preparing for you next meeting or worrying about an upcoming medical procedure?

Jemme Stewart and Hilda White want you to stop multitasking, stop worrying, stop stressing about what the future holds. They are practitioners of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and they teach classes on how to live in the moment and let go of the stress that takes an emotional and physical toll.

Mindfulness, according to White, is “a nonjudgmental way of paying attention in the present moment. Nonjudging and nonreacting.”

The result, they say, is a happier, healthier, more-peaceful existence.

Stewart, a licensed professional counselor, and White, a psychiatrist, met in 2010 in a yoga class that Stewart was teaching. As they got to know each other, they made plans after class one day to get coffee.

“Off we went to Starbucks,” White said.

“And off we went,” added Stewart. “We just couldn’t stop talking.”

They discovered shared interests and a shared passion, not only for yoga, but for meditation practices and other methods of living in the moment and reducing stress. As mental health professionals, they both believed in the mind-body connections – when there is mental stress, there are often physical symptoms as well, and neither should be treated in isolation. White had gone through a week of professional training in 2004 with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the practice of MBSR at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the 1970s.

Their conversations evolved into plans to open a MBSR center in Columbia. They opened their practice on College Street in Five Points in 2012. The main studio was designed by a feng shui designer to offer soothing colors, comfortable mats and pillows, and little disruption from the busy city that surrounds it.

The classes they offer are an eight-week series with a day-long retreat between the sixth and seventh session. The first class introduces the students to the seven “attitudes of mindfulness” – including being nonjudgmental, nonstriving, trusting, patient, open-minded and accepting.

“Those qualities that we are hoping to help people cultivate we weave through all the classes,” Stewart said.

The classes, which last for more than two hours each, allow the students to practice various meditation techniques and gentle stretching exercises. They also share their experiences with each other – often telling stories of illness, pain, broken relationships.

“You begin to see patterns of thinking and seeing, habits of self-criticism,” Stewart said. “They’re not healthy for you or the people around you.”

The students are also given meditation exercises as homework, White said.

“If you’re here because of stress, there may be some lifestyle changes that need to be made,” she said. “We impose the first one on them – make 30-40 minutes each day for a self-caring activity. You’re here because you are motivated to take care of yourself in a kinder way.”

Cassie Premo Steele didn’t know how the class would change her life when she signed up for the pilot session last summer. Premo Steele, a writer and writing coach, took the class in hopes of learning some techniques she could use with her clients.

What she got was a personal life-changing experience. At the time of the class, Premo Steele had been suffering from chronic pain in her spine. She had seen doctors, had gotten MRIs and had taken medication to no avail. But she had a breakthrough during the MBSR class.

“I realized I was actually helping the pain to continue,” she said. “I had a very adversarial relationship with the pain. I was very critical of myself. … As I practiced accepting myself, feeling my feelings, I noticed a huge difference.”

Premo Steele describes mindfulness practice as a gentle form of illumination.

“People think of mindfulness as a laser beam where you focus a light on your thoughts,” she said. “It’s much more like moonlight. You are opening your heart to accept yourself and the world as it is.”

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