6 Modern Spirtual Thinkers Share Their Personal Practices
For a concept that is centuries old, "spirituality" is certainly having a moment. More and more people are seeking it out in all of its various incarnations—yoga, meditation, intention setting. And there's little wonder as to why: our crazy-stressed modern lifestyle makes the search for something bigger not just alluring, but necessary.
"In our culture of overwork, burnout, and exhaustion, how do we tap into our creativity, curiosity, and wisdom again?" asks Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, whose own burning-the-candle-at-both-ends life was leaving her unhappy and unhealthy. That epiphany inspired her to write Thrive, a book that, in part, explores the role of finding work-life balance through an inner spiritual journey.
Now, research is proving the benefits of taking that type of deeper dive inward. "There is strong evidence that spirituality is more protective against illness than anything else known to science," says Lisa Miller, Ph.D., director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia University Teachers College.
This isn't news, exactly: Studies have long shown that religious people tend to be in better health. In fact, Duke University's Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health recently published an analysis of hundreds of studies showing religion's profound, and positive, impact on such health factors as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, Alzheimer's, and heart disease. What is new: Many experts say that aligning yourself with a specific organized religion is only one way to reap the benefits—a blessing, if you will, to the 30 percent of adults today who call themselves "spiritual but not religious."
One study found that women who had a spiritual practice recovered as well from depression and were less likely to relapse as those who took antidepressants; another showed those who practiced some form of spirituality, such as meditation or prayer, had a thicker brain cortex—a trait linked to higher IQ and a lower Alzheimer's risk.
So how can spirituality get you through the rough patches and boost your health? That, it turns out, is largely up to you. "Spirituality is anything that connects you to the exhilaration of being human, discovering a new part of yourself, and being fully alive," says Stephen Cope, founder of the Institute for Extraordinary Living at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The ability to personalize your experience is one of the most beautiful things about modern spirituality, says Miller. "Spirituality can exist within or without religion. Some people find it in nature. Other people find it on other paths." The payoff? "It's not quite the fountain of youth," says Arianna, "but it's pretty close."
Here, she and five other modern spiritual thinkers take you through their personal practices. No matter which—or how many—of these paths you try, the destination is the same: a healthier, happier, more centered you.
Spiritual Path: Nature
In 2007, author and journalist Arianna collapsed from exhaustion, hitting her head and waking up in a pool of blood. She'd been working 18-hour days. She was rich. She was powerful. But damn, was she spent. She asked herself: Exactly what kind of success am I after? Because something certainly wasn't right.
In her quest for balance, she took a technology time-out, significantly limiting her gadget use and plugging into the outdoors—a very smart move. Studies show that connecting with nature can make you feel more alive and energized and reduce the risk for heart disease, anxiety, and depression.
Try It: "One of my favorite Latin phrases is solvitur ambulando, or 'It is solved by walking,'" says Arianna, who began to hold business meetings during hikes and felt an almost immediate sense of joy and calm. Getting started, Arianna says, is simple: "Go for a walk!" But leave your tech devices behind, and make a conscious effort not to look at your phone first thing in the morning. Freeing yourself from the distractions constantly begging for your attention will help you be fully aware of what's happening around you—the flowers, a colorful bird, your companion, or yourself.
Spiritual Path: Chanting
A popular figure in L.A.'s spiritual scene and founder of RA MA Institute for Applied Yogic Science and Technology (Demi Moore and Russell Brand are considered supporters), Guru Jagat (a spiritual name given to her decades ago by a yoga master) views her spirituality as a tool for well-being. She focuses on mantras and chanting, which, she says, help relieve stress.
Science is with her: Researchers at McGill University in Montreal recently reviewed 400 studies and concluded that singing in any form boosts psychological health by activating brain chemicals responsible for reward, pleasure, motivation, and immunity. Another study found that chanting "om" can counteract depression and anxiety; still other research finds it can release oxytocin and endorphins (the same feel-good hormones that are released during sex and heart-pumping cardio).
Try It: Pretty much any word or phrase can be a mantra, says Guru Jagat, but positive ones can help reframe and retrain your thoughts, particularly negative ones (like I'm not good enough or I need to lose weight) that are constantly floating around in your brain. Pick your mantra, then close your eyes and inhale slowly. Hold your breath, and touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth (an acupressure point that's believed to stimulate energy and balance the nervous system). Then mentally say your mantra three times slowly. Exhale, and repeat twice. Do this throughout the day, she says, and particularly when you start to get anxious, angry, or bogged down by your negative "stuff."
Spiritual Path: Meditation
Ten years ago, Nightline and Good Morning America coanchor Dan had an on-air panic attack. It was, he says, "the most embarrassing moment of my life." But it led him to realize he needed a fix for the stress that left him physically and emotionally beat. Still, as a journalist, Dan wanted a solution that was scientifically vetted and not "total bullshit."
He discovered research suggesting that meditation curbs stress, helps regulate emotions, and can strengthen the immune system. "Meditation teaches you to help focus your mind and redirect impulses," says Dan, who wrote about his discovery in 10% Happier. Most of the things we regret, he says, are things we do when we obey our whims—blowing up at a coworker or saying yes to that third martini. Meditation helps redirect your emotions so you can think things through.
Try It: Five minutes, Dan says, is all you need. Beginners may want to start with guided meditations or apps like Simply Being and Headspace. Just focus on your breath. "There's a misconception that if your mind wanders, you're bad at meditation," says Dan. "But the practice is to notice your thoughts wandering and then refocus and start again." Having trouble with the pursuit of stillness? Try transcendental meditation (TM), an instructor-led form of the practice. Just 20 minutes twice a day has been shown to help curb anxiety, improve memory, and lower blood pressure and the risk for heart attack and stroke. Find a certified teacher at tm.org.
Spiritual Path: Intention
When it comes to happiness and well-being, says author and motivational speaker Danielle, intention—acknowledging how you want to feel and then letting that feeling steer your choices—connects your actions to a greater purpose and allows you to let go of things in your life that aren't serving you. "We tend to have it backward," says Danielle. "We aim for external achievements and hope we'll feel great when we cross the finish line. Then we often feel let down when we're still unfulfilled or our satisfaction is fleeting."
In other words, you may covet more money, thinner thighs, or designer clothes, but you're likely chasing these things because you think having them will make you feel more successful, beautiful, or admired. Instead, let your intention lead. For example, if you're pushing to make a just-not-there romance happen because you don't want to be alone, spending time with family, reconnecting with an old friend, or getting a pet can help you feel connected until the right love match comes along.
Setting an intention and seeing it through has proven health benefits, too: Research suggests that cultivating a sense of purpose is associated with less cognitive decline and a reduced risk for dementia. And for those who believe orgasm is the route to nirvana, good news: Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that middle-aged women who have a higher sense of purpose in their lives have more enjoyable sex.
Try It: The best way to practice intention, says Danielle, is to simply identify whatever good feeling you want to tap into: Powerful. Luminous. Badass. Brave. Then ask yourself what you need to do to feel that way today. "Sometimes," says Danielle, "it's one small action on your to-do list. Do you need to make that phone call, get to yoga, find three minutes to pray, dump the chump, or book a flight?"
Spiritual Path: Love
As the best-selling author of 13 spirituality-based self-help books, a social-justice activist, and founder of several charitable organizations, Marianne's labor is literally one of love. "Spirituality can lead us to the understanding that love is the purpose of our lives and all that really matters."
What's love got to do with health? Quite a lot, says science. Research in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology found caring for others leads to greater well-being; another study showed that those who practice a form of meditation that cultivates loving kindness had a biomarker linked to a longer life.
Try It: You don't have to become a serial hugger or join the Peace Corps to live from a more loving place. Hold the door for someone, offer to grab coffee for a frazzled coworker, or just allow someone to merge into the lane ahead of you. Or let go of something that might otherwise annoy you—your husband's dirty dishes in the sink, the friend who waits two weeks to call you back. Letting these bygones fade into the rear view will help boost your bliss. "When I forgive and have compassion, my life is beautiful," says Marianne. You'll undoubtedly find the same.
Spiritual Path: Yoga
Yoga is considered a highly spiritual practice, even if you tell yourself you only do it for the flat abs. "It can help us find moments of stillness and reconnect with our breath," says life coach and best-selling author Gabrielle, whose latest book, Miracles Now, offers techniques for tapping into spirituality. And breath, she says, "literally works to exhale the junk and inhale the good." Gabrielle practices and teaches Kundalini yoga, a form that claims to maximize the flow of energy throughout the body by combining vigorous movement with breathing techniques and meditation.
The health benefits of yoga can range from bolstering immunity and easing anxiety to strengthening muscles. One study found regular yogis showed a slower rate of age-related brain decline than those who didn't hit the mat.
Try It: To "get you through all kinds of crazy emotions and release resentment fast," Gabrielle suggests this exercise that uses self-touch and acupressure (an effective method for helping to treat psychological disorders, per dozens of studies). Sit cross-legged, chin slightly down, arms out to your sides, palms up. Taking deep, relaxing breaths, gently press your thumb to your index finger and say "peace." Then press your thumb to your middle finger and say "begins." Move to your ring finger, saying "with." Finish with your pinkie finger, saying "me." Repeat until stress ebbs.