Destress with potential health benefits through meditation

Story by Jon Waterhouse. Photos by Jenni Girtman.

Wendy Person, an executive at Coca-Cola, first walked in to Kashi Atlanta to take yoga classes. A self-described “Sporty Spice,” Person was simply looking for physical exercise, but found an unexpected mental benefit.

At the end of each class, Person experienced something she never had before: meditation.

According to the American Heart Association, a 2012 study led by Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, showed that meditation lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and reduces stress. And the American Institute of Stress in Fort Worth, Texas, links stress to heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, immune system disturbances and more.

“It dawned on me that meditation was really calming in ways that I never intended and expected,” Person says. “I just went to do yoga and stretch, but this meditation piece of it stretched me in different ways that I couldn’t have imagined.”

Person says when stressful situations would arise at work, she found herself behaving in new ways. Instead of her usual shoot-from-the-hip reaction, she began taking more time for thoughtful responses. She started taking meditation more seriously and introducing it into her daily routine.

Kashi Atlanta, a sort of yoga-centric community center, offers a variety of classes, from beginner’s yoga and meditation to advanced spiritual practice. Several focus a third eye directly on meditation.

Drawing on the Sanskrit word for “shining light,” as well as the name of an Indian city, Kashi also offers yogis and meditators a place to practice karma yoga, a selfless practice of giving back. Each week, volunteers prepare 400 meals for the needy, do art projects in children’s hospitals and teach yoga in Atlanta’s jails.

Founder and executive director Swami Jaya Devi Bhagavati describes Kashi Atlanta as an interfaith spiritual community with a large amount of diversity, spanning ages, races, creeds, genders and sexual orientations.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, in conjunction with Grady Health, Swami Jaya Devi began working with those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. She was unable to take them through physical yoga practice due to their health limitations, so she opted to have them focus on breathing techniques and meditation to confront the stress of the disease.

“Breathing is so applicable, because you do it all day long,” she says, explaining that the key is “breathing with awareness. So part of that is learning how to be present, how to be in the moment and accept what’s happening right now.”

Some of those same students who attended the Grady program take classes at Kashi Atlanta today. Other testimonials, some found on Kashi Atlanta’s website, come from people dealing with a wide range of challenges. Stroke survivors, ex-cons, addicts, those with ALS and countless others have transformed, thanks to yoga and meditation.

While all meditation practices at Kashi use breathing as the key element, some focus on mindfulness or being present in the moment. Other meditations use visualization and positive thinking, and some zero in on letting go of fear and anxiety.

Tom Murphy, a Kashi Atlanta teacher since 2002, says the Wednesday night spiritual growth and meditation class led by Swami Jaya Devi ranks as one of the most popular.

“It’s our biggest,” Murphy says. “We usually have about 60 to 80 people. A lot of people come each week to get refreshed. You drop into a silence and listen to a guided meditation by Swami. It definitely has a calming influence.”

Person says she visits Kashi Atlanta two to three times per week, typically for the Wednesday night meditation. More often than not, she says, she does a morning meditation at home before leaving for work, which leaves her feeling grounded for the rest of the day.

Person can bring her meditation practices to the office. Before attending corporate meetings or making a big presentation, Person sits at her desk, takes some deep breaths and meditates. Even in the middle of a tense meeting, she might breathe deeply and do some meditative practices to relieve stress.

“It’s a great way to calm and re-center,” Person says. “I bring it into my day all day long.”

Kashi Atlanta. 1681 McLendon Ave. 404-687-3353.

Insider tip

Swami Jaya Devi recommends some form of meditation daily, even if it’s just five minutes. She says that even two to five times per week would show benefits, including the ability to handle stressful situations with a sense of calm.

Although classes at Kashi Atlanta typically require a fee, several are free or donation based, including Prosperity Yoga (12:30 p.m. Thursdays); Yoga for Addictions and 12-step Meeting (7:30 p.m. Mondays); and Trans & Queer Yoga (typically 7 p.m. the first Friday of each month).