‘Mindfulness’ is coming to the corporate world in a big way, so we tried it out

“Headspace’’ recently got millions of dollars to create a regimen companies can offer to their employees.
“Headspace’’ recently got millions of dollars to create a regimen companies can offer to their employees. –Handout/NYT

Commentary

In an effort to increase “workplace wellness’’ (and decrease healthcare costs), many companies already pay for employees to use apps that track their exercise, sleep, and eating habits. So why not offer them an app that promises to improve their mental well-being, too?

That’s the hope behind popular meditation app “Headspace.’’ Described on its website as a “gym membership for the mind,’’ Headspace has been downloaded by 3 million users since launching in 2012. The New York Times describes it as “a quick and easy, religion-free brand of meditation’’ aimed at busy professionals who can use the guided exercises “on a crowded subway’’ or even while “wolfing down a sandwich’’ at lunch.

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Headspace recently secured a $30 million funding deal that will be used to develop a product specifically for businesses that want to provide mindfulness training for employees.

The app already star followers like Richard Branson, Emma Watson, and the Seattle Seahawks, but could it actually make the average worker more focused, creative, and productive?

Boston.com decided to try it out. The initial sign up is free, as is the 10-day program for those who want to test Headspace before buying a monthly or yearly (or forever) membership. After listening to a week of the 10-minute guided mindfulness exercises, here is my list of pros and cons.

Pros:

It is pretty relaxing. Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk who spent 10 years studying meditation around the world, guides each mindfulness exercise in a soothing British lilt – a byproduct of his Bristol upbringing.

It’s his voice that makes the practices work, at least for me. He begins the first segment by telling you to sit comfortably in an upright chair and develop awareness for the surrounding space. This involves taking deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth, while noticing how your body feels, from the top of your head to the soles of your feet.

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“As you’re scanning down in this way, you’re probably noticing that as the body breathes, there’s a rising and falling sensation,’’ he says. “Notice where you feel that moment most clearly — In the stomach, diaphragm, the chest, maybe even the shoulders. Don’t try and change it, let the body breathe quite naturally and be aware of the rhythm of the breath.’’ My eyelids start to feel heavy.

Next, Puddicombe says to close your eyes while continuing to focus on the breath, letting go of whatever focus you’ve been holding in your mind. This is where things get tricky. In the span of two minutes, I’ve thought about dinner, weekend plans, and whether I’m actually going to go to hip hop yoga or not. I remember the theme is Taylor Swift, and decided that yes, yes I will be going.

But before my mind goes too far astray, Puddicombe brings me back. “It’s normal for the mind to wander off,’’ he assures me. “When you get distracted, bring your attention back to the physical sensation of breath…’’

The aftereffects are noticeable. The whole point of meditation, Headspace says, is to treat stress, worry, lack of focus, relationship problems, and even addiction. When you have better peace of mind, goes the reasoning, you’ll be more inclined toward creativity and thoughtfulness. Studies have supported this theory, with meditation seen to reduce irritability, anxiety, and poor sleep in some who practice it.

I’ve never been a sound sleeper, and my friends and family would certainly describe me as a “worrier,’’ but Headspace was my first experiment with mindfulness.

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Though a week is a short period of time, I noticed some of Puddicombe’s advice slipping into my day-to-day activities. When I was walking to the grocery store or the gym, I began observing my breath and tried quieting the thoughts in my head. Since I couldn’t fully close my eyes lest a bus hit me, instead I channeled my new awareness toward passersby, nature, and the gorgeous Boston architecture, which I’m so used to seeing I rarely notice. It gave me a renewed appreciation for the city and reminded me how inconsequential my concerns tend to be.

Cons:

You’d look pretty odd using it in most workplaces. Though the Times said Headspace could be an effective office meditation tool, I’d have to disagree. Unless you sit in an office, or work from home, your co-workers will probably look at you funny when you close your eyes and begin taking measured breaths at your desk. Mine did.

Maybe you’re okay with gawkers, but I couldn’t fully give myself up to the exercises when I felt others watching. Plus, if your officemates, like mine, use nerf gun wars as a stress-relieving tactic, your new, focused attention will hone in on the sound of foam missiles flying, creating a decidedly un-Zen mindset.

I’d suggest using Headspace first thing in the morning in the comfort of your home, which is actually what Puddicombe describes as the best time. Not only will you avoid distraction, he says, but also meditation will become part of your routine.

I get the same effect from my yoga class. If you practice yoga like I do, Headspace’s mindfulness techniques will sound like a much shorter, less effective iteration of what you already do for a few hours every week.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy using the app. I’m just not sure it’s as necessary for those who already practice some form of meditation that involves focused breathing and awareness. Some of Puddicombe’s phrases were verbatim what my yoga instructors say each week: “Notice the physical sensations in your body,’’ or “When you lose your focus, bring your attention back to the breath.’’ And then at the very end of the exercise: “How do you feel? Calmer? More relaxed?’’ They’re just so similar.

That said, Headspace could still be used as a meditative supplement for those weeks where you can’t fit in yoga, or just feel extra stressed and could use a quick break from your thoughts.

Overall, there’s certainly nothing bad about encouraging employees to be more mindful. If your company eventually adopts Headspace into its workplace wellness offerings, I’d suggest everyone give it a try. Also, the longer, more targeted segments that come with a Headspace subscription are bound to be more targeted to your individual needs (relationships, work, addiction) than the practices included in the trial.

Fun ideas for things to do on your lunchbreak:

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