RELIGION
06/06/2013 06:52 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2013

Third Metric Conference Explores Mind/Body Connection

NEW YORK -- For today's high-powered, high-stressed professionals, short moments of "purposeful pause" can lead to a more balanced, healthier life, a panel of experts told the audience at "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," conference Thursday.

Speaking during a discussion on the "mind/body connection" moderated by television talk show host Katie Couric, a panel including a physician, a former corporate lawyer-turned-mindfulness teacher, and a psychologist and celebrity mental health scholar, explained how well-being, stress and emotion regulation, and physical health are connected

"Simply notice that you are breathing," Janice Marturano, founder and executive director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, told audience members, guiding them in a short meditation exercise to explain how being "in the moment" can reduce stress and create better workplace relationships. "Simply notice the place in your body where you feel the sensation ... as the breath enters and leaves the body."

Simple acts like meditative breathing exercises, which can be traced to Vipassana Buddhist practice, don't only reduce stress, but have proven physiological benefits, said Mark Hyman, a physician who founded the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Mass.

"If you really knew what was happening to you when you're stressed, you would freak out. It's not pretty," said Hyman, noting that increased stress leads to weight gain, decreased testosterone in men and more "bad" cholesterol.

Meditation and mindfulness techniques, meanwhile, have been proven to lead to decreased stress and better health, Hyman and other panelists noted. "Stress, it's automatic, it finds you, you don't have to go find it," Hyman said. "The problem with relaxation and mindfulness is that it's hard work."

Donna Rockwell, psychologist and celebrity mental health expert, said one reason meditation is effective is because it rewires the mind.

"What mindfulness practice does is it trains the mind ... to return to the present moment," Rockwell said. Without effort, though, "it's impossible to stay in the present moment."

While each panelist first encountered meditation through Buddhism or Hinduism, Rockwell cautioned that understanding the mind/body connection doesn't mean practicing a new faith.

"It doesn't really have to do anything with religion. It just has to do with quieting the busy mind," she said.

The panelists agreed that the immense growth of mindfulness practices in the workplace, including breathing, meditation and yoga classes and in-house trainings like those offered by Marturano's organization, is a sign of a wider cultural acceptance of what was rare in America not long ago.

General Mills, where Marturano formerly worked, has been recognized for using yoga and meditation at its headquarters in Minneapolis. (Marturano founded the wellness programs when she was an employee). She said developing "mindful leadership," an area in which the company focuses, is also good for the bottom line; happier, less-stressed executives lead healthier and more productive workers.

Couric, who is a single parent to two children, said she has been interested in trying to meditate, but can't find the time. After the conference, though, she said she felt more optimistic about giving it a try.

She also had some advice for the audience, learned from her own experiences: "If we took a little more time to be in the moment and talk about real things, our life would be so much better," she said.

06/06/2013 7:16 PM EDT

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