A Practice for Everyone

Mindfulness Isn’t a One-Size-Fits-All Solution

New Age meditation practices are being deployed everywhere — from prisons to tense office buildings. By Ed Cara

(Photo: Dingzeyu Li/Unsplash)

What Was Said

Throughout the summer and fall, NewsweekO, The Oprah Magazine, and other outlets reported on the remarkable progress students had made recently at the Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore, thanks to its “Mindful Moment” program. Since implementing the program — a combination of meditation, yoga exercises, and after-school activities — the school has seen a marked drop in suspensions. Coleman isn’t alone in giving mindfulness a shot: New Age meditation practices steeped in Buddhist tradition are being deployed everywhere — from prisons to tense office buildings.

What the Coverage Missed

Mindfulness life-hacks are supposed to help you focus on the present and relieve stress, whether through yoga poses or visualization journeys. But science hasn’t quite rubber-stamped the theory: A 2014 review by researchers from Johns Hopkins found that, while such techniques can reduce anxiety and depression, they don’t do much to help people brighten up their moods, deal with substance abuse, or eat and sleep better. Another review in April of 2016 suggested that, whatever positive benefits studies have found, they’re likely puffed up by shoddy statistics or experiment design.

Why That Matters

The yogis aren’t completely wrong, but their followers might be missing the point. Getting Coleman’s kids into after-school gardening projects and park clean-ups is great, notes the psychologist James C. Coyne, a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, but that’s not mindfulness. Indeed, the fact that detentions at Coleman were replaced by cool-down counseling sessions might account for much of the improvement in student behavior. Consider the startling turnarounds elsewhere — suspensions throughout Baltimore’s public schools declined steadily from 2004 to 2015, without downward-facing dog poses for students. You don’t need the magic beans of mindfulness to explain Coleman’s success, Coyne suggests, just the virtues of positive expectations and compassion.


This story first appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Buy a single-copy issue or subscribe to the magazine now.

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