Toronto

Mindfulness on our minds: The business of relaxation is on the rise

From meditation apps to brain gyms, the business of relaxing and mindfulness is trending. One psychiatrist says the practice is also being incorporated into mental health treatments and facilities.

Psychiatrist says mindfulness has gone from a fringe topic to clinical studies

Jennifer Lees says she gave MindTravel a try because it sounded like a unique experience and a way to disconnect. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

At first glance, the group of people walking along Toronto's waterfront seem to be in slow-motion.

They're together, but not talking — instead they're wearing wireless headphones, playing relaxing music and listening to a soothing voice.

It's all part of a mindfulness and meditation-focused experience, one of several popping up in Toronto as interest in the topic grows. This particular exercise was hosted by MindTravel, a U.S. based company made its first stop in Toronto last week through an event called SilentHike in Trillium Park.

Jennifer Lees decided to check it out because she says she thought it sounded like an interesting experience. In a city as busy as Toronto and at a time when many people are attached to their cell phones, it's one of the ways she's seeking out mindfulness.

"It's always something you do alone walking and listening to music, so doing it all together in a beautiful space seemed like a really fun thing," she said. "Sometimes you just want to  block out the world and zone into your connection."

And it's not just for fun and relaxation. 

Dr. David Gratzer, a psychiatrist at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says mindfulness has also been trending in the medical realm. At CAMH, staff use elements of mindfulness on the inpatient unit, and they also run a mindfulness group. 

More than 400 people signed up for the first MindTravel hike in Toronto, which was free to attend. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Mindfulness is generally described as being aware and present in the moment, and involves paying attention to your surroundings while noticing your emotions and how your body feels. 

"Not that long ago mindfulness was on the fringes, not many people were interested and certainly clinically no one was interested in this," he said. "Now there are many studies that have looked at mindfulness."

The MindTravel events claim that "while traditional forms of meditation are an isolated experience, and constitute a sort of retreat, this one is an exercise in exploring and being present in the evolving world around us." 

The creator of MindTravel, Murray Hidary, composes all of the music that's played during its events and verbally guides the participants through the walks. He says the events are a combination of his passions; music, movement and nature.

Murray Hidary, the creator of MindTravel, says SilentHikes are a new form of meditation in motion, combining music, verbal guidance and nature to help participants find purpose and connection. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Hidary says after the hikes, he brings all participants in a circle and asks them to sum up what their experience was like.

"The overwhelming sentiment from coast to coast has been a feeling of deep calmness, human tranquillity and connection with themselves, with others and the universe."

Fitness for the brain 

In Yorkville, Jacob Charendoff manages Soul 7 — a sort of gym for your brain, that he says uses guided visualizations, sound therapy and verbal coaching to help people achieve a state of deep meditation and mindfulness.

Jacob Charendoff, managing director of Soul 7 says there's been an increased interest in their 'neurofit' program over the last year. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Their "neurofit studio" claims to optimize the brain's performance for greater happiness, productivity and focus.

"That's what we are all about now, optimizing our neurofitness," Charendoff says.

In the studio's neuropods, clients lay in a bed and through a tablet and headphones go through the guided visuals and coaching. The sessions last 45 minutes and Charendoff says the clients leave looking and feeling relaxed.

"As we are overexposed to all sorts of sensory experiences, we are looking for time and space to reconnect with ourselves," Charendoff says. "It's harder and harder to find."

Charendoff says at Soul 7 the belief is training your brain by giving it time and space to recharge is just as important as keeping your body fit. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

He adds that some people are intimidated by the idea of spending time alone because they're used to being stimulated in so many ways.

"Meditation, guided visualization, yoga and exercise allows us to reconnect with ourselves. Our clients are really looking for that."

Mindfulness and mental health 

CAMH psychiatrist Gratzer says while people are very connected on their cell phones, he doesn't believe there's evidence that there is more mental illness now than there was decades ago. Instead, he thinks it may be being talked about more, and that could be contributing to the rise of these businesses.

Dr. David Gratzer, psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental health says it's important to do research when you're spending money on mindfulness and meditation businesses. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

"Maybe we're just more aware of these things, more mindful about mindfulness."

The psychiatrist suggests that for meditation and mindfulness apps — which have also grown in popularity — things to look for are endorsements from universities, mental health organizations or evidence-based studies.

"Those are some things that can flush out what is mindfulness on paper and mindfulness in reality," he said.

"Just because someone has a cool website, doesn't really mean they're doing mindfulness. Or it doesn't mean it's right for you."

He stresses that if people think they may have the symptoms of mood or anxiety disorders, it's best to see a family doctor for an assessment. But he also warns that you don't have to break the bank to relax. 

"Strap on your favourite pair of runners and go for a walk."

About the Author

Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She's from Guelph and has also reported in London and Winnipeg. From the Middle East to West Africa, Talia has travelled around the globe volunteering and photographing. She enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find Talia creating recipes for her plant based food blog.

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