Emails, tweets and phone alerts are stressing us out. Now there's tech to ease the anxiety.
This is part of our Road Trip 2017 summer series "The Smartest Stuff," about how innovators are thinking up new ways to make you — and the world around you — smarter.
I lean back against the gray, microfiber-lined cushions inside an egg-shaped pod, and prop my feet on the matching footrest. Black headphones fit snugly over my ears as a spa concierge taps on a Samsung tablet mounted beside me.
"This meditation dome is your personal retreat," the screen reads. "It is a space to calm your senses, relieve stress and align your mind and body."
Exactly what I need.
The concierge lowers an illuminated white dome over my body, making me feel like I'm inside a cocoon. I can see my feet peeking out from under the pod, warding off any sense of claustrophobia. The dome is bathed in a soft light from the LEDs, which glow bright green (a color that "stimulates inner peace," according to the brochure).
Read more: 11 meditation apps to reduce stress and help you sleep
A woman's soothing voice tells me to close my eyes. "Take the brief pause we all need to live our most meaningful lives," the voice says through my headphones. "Your body and mind need different things every day, and that undefinable part of yourself will respond in turn. So take this time, just for you, and breathe. Welcome to your journey to the present."
For the next 20 minutes, all I have to do is relax. This may be the best assignment I've ever had.
I'm at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, about 33 miles from Santa Barbara, California, and I'm sitting in a Somadome. This "personal meditation pod" combines color therapy, binaural beats (using sound to influence mood) and special energy healing tiles to help people bliss out.
Yep, it's a high-tech machine that helps people shed stress that's too often brought on by a nonstop diet of emails, texts, tweets and world events. All our tech is freaking us out.
The result is that most Americans — me included — are feeling stressed, according to the American Psychological Association's anxiety meter, which has been surveying the population's stress levels since 2007. More than four out of five US adults constantly or often check their email, texts and social media accounts, says the APA, adding "this attachment to devices and the constant use of technology is associated with higher stress levels for these Americans."
We can't help ourselves. That's because every time we post, share, "like" a comment or look for something on our phones, we get a sense of reward that keeps us coming back for more. This feeling triggers our brains to release dopamine, the same chemical that causes us to crave food, sex and drugs. Dopamine is at its most stimulating when the rewards come at unpredictable times, such as phone alerts, social media likes and texts.
"Really, we're still cave people," says Martin Talks, founder of the Digital Detoxing consultancy and author of the book, "A to Z of Digital Detoxing."
"When there's an alert, I must see it. It literally becomes a matter of life or death because people can't resist looking at it, [even] while driving a car."
Meditation — the 5,000-year-old practice of shutting out the mental noise rattling in our heads — can help. Studies show it may lower blood pressure, improve heart rate and reduce anxiety. Researchers at Harvard University found that meditation can rebuild gray matter in the hippocampus — part of the brain associated with learning, memory, compassion and self-awareness — in just eight weeks. Cancer patients say it makes treatment more bearable.
"There's something really powerful about just being in your own little world for a minute," Sarah Attia, the CEO and creator of Somadome, tells me before I visit Ojai.
When my mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer almost two years ago, told me she found meditation to be calming, I wondered if it could help me too. But the question was how to get my brain — and gadgets — to shut off long enough to actually de-stress. Just thinking about feeling less stressed makes me more tense. Could technology actually calm me down instead of being the conduit to my stress?
So began my "journey to the present."
I stand very still in the dimly lit treatment room, arms raised slightly as a woman waves a piece of burning sage around me. The scent wafts through the air, calming me even as my brain tries to process what the heck is going on.
I'm being smudged.
This is the first step in Ojai's Sound Energy Therapy treatment. "Smudging is just clearing the energetic fields of you, of me, of the room," says Susan Wichmann, the bodyworker and healer conducting my session.
I lie down on a massage table, close my eyes and slow my breathing. The sound of wind chimes echoes softly in the room. The next thing I know, I'm jolted awake by a feeling of vibrations on my abdomen. I had dozed off somewhere between the wind chimes and vibrating Tibetan bowls placed on different parts of my body where my energy was "stuck." Wichmann says her techniques get my energy moving again.
"I'm just kind of told where to go," she says after the treatment. "Just see how you're feeling physically, mentally, spiritually over the next few days, and see if you notice anything. Some people don't notice a thing. Some have profound transformations."
I'm still waiting to figure it out.
Energy healing, which has deep roots in Eastern medicine, is based on the belief that the human body exudes energies that affect our mental and physical health. The Somadome produces its energy therapy through microcrystalline tiles. (Bear with me. It's hard to explain some of this stuff while skirting less-scientific topics like Chi, Chakra balancing and aura cleansing.)
More specifically, the Somadome uses so-called Biosyntonie ceramic discs that, according to proponents, block harmful electromagnetic frequencies from phones and other electronics, and "increase energy through the restoration of the normal vortex waves." I'm not making this up.
While there's no scientific evidence to support that claim, I can tell you I'm relaxed as heck while I'm in the meditation pod, although I suspect its light and sound therapy also have a lot to do with that.
Some historians claim sound therapy goes back 40,000 years, when the Aboriginal people of Australia first used ancient didgeridoos to mend bones and heal illnesses. And for centuries, Tibetan monks have used singing bowls to help them enter meditative states. More recently, the British Academy of Sound Therapy (yes, really) claims 95 percent of its clients felt calmer following treatment.
In the Somadome's case, we're talking binaural beats, which Dr. Gerald Oster first described in his 1973 paper in Scientific American called "Auditory Beats in the Brain." Oster found that when the right and left ears hear sounds at different frequencies, the brain produces a third, inaudible beat that can produce five different brainwave states.
Depending on the brainwave's frequency, your brain marches to a beat that can, for instance, hone cognition (gamma waves), increase concentration (beta), boost creativity (alpha), speed up learning (theta) and help you relax and heal (delta). If you have an important project coming up, you'll want something that triggers gamma or beta waves. Want to really relax? Then delta's the brainwave for you.
"If I want to be more creative, I listen to alpha," says Kelly Howell, the mindfulness expert who voiced the soothing guided meditations in my ear. "If I have trouble sleeping, I tune into delta."
Light therapy is a big part of the experience, too. Somadome cites research that says light helps regulate the autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions like breathing, heart rate and digestion.
Each Somadome session (it's $45 for my 20-minutes in Ojai) begins and ends with white light, to "promote balance, increase harmony and contribute to overall healing." Violet contributes to "spiritual insights" and boosts immunity. Green stimulates "inner peace" and strengthens the nervous system. Dark blue eases stress while turquoise "improves intuition and sensitivity."
A 20-minute session with something like a Somadome is great. But what to do on a daily basis? Sure, you can go on retreat — vacations at the beach, tickets to a football game, or a night in binge watching Netflix. Or maybe take the occasional mental health day off from work.
It turns out, there are plenty of iOS and Android apps and gadgets to ease anxiety and help us relax. Apple -- with its free Apple Watch app called Breathe — wants you to remember to, well, breathe. Biofeedback apps usually rely on wearables or other sensors that detect things like our temperature, respiratory rates and heart rates and then suggest ways you can chill. Unyte's biofeedback hardware (currently $219 on Indiegogo) clips to your ear, while Muse is a $249 headband that monitors your brain's electrical activity.
"People meditating typically don't know if they're in a meditative state or not," says Unyte CEO Jason Tafler. "But it helps to know."
Biofeedback uses several kinds of exercises, including deep breathing, guided imagery, tightening and then relaxing different muscle groups, and mindful meditation (focusing all your thoughts on your abdominal muscles as you breathe in and out, for instance).
"This is a brand new idea that's 2,500 years old," jokes Richard Gevirtz, a psychologist, biofeedback expert and adviser to technology companies, including Unyte. When you inhale for about four seconds and exhale for six, you can change your heart rate and improve your mental and physical state, his research has found. "Clinically, we've seen if you [do this for] 10 minutes a day, you have some powerful changes in your body over the course of six weeks," Gevirtz says.
Dr. John Denninger, a psychiatrist and director of research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, sees both pros and cons to mobile apps and gadgets.
"If [high-tech devices] get people who wouldn't even think about doing this to do some breathing exercises for even a minute a day, then that's progress," says Denninger, who's investigating the medical benefits of stress-reduction techniques like yoga or meditation. But "one thing I worry about with devices is they could just be a distraction."
The instructions say to "meet at the yurt," most definitely the first time I've been told that. It's another line in the description that really makes my heart race, though: "Please note there is no cell phone reception at Green Gulch."
I've signed up for an all-day meditation retreat through the San Francisco Zen Center at the Green Gulch Farm near Muir Beach, a 45-minute drive north of the city. I've come to the sunnier side of the Golden Gate Bridge many times, but today I'm trying something new: Buddhist meditation. In a yurt. In this case, it's a round, red structure surrounded by a faded wooden deck and fragrant bay laurel trees.
I'm greeted at said yurt by Chris Fortin, a licensed psychotherapist and spiritual counselor who's also the Zen priest and teacher leading today's meditations.
"I'm as addicted as anybody to my phone," Fortin tells me. "But these cell phones are fairly new devices. I just feel like there's a deep need in the world right now, where people can come together where it's safe, where we can speak about what's true beyond sound bites."
We're just 15 women sitting silently in a circle — some on the floor, some in chairs — with our eyes closed and hands clasped against our chests for zazen (sitting meditation). Sometimes we walk very slowly and deliberately through the woods and gardens surrounding the yurt. That's kinhin meditation. The silence is broken only by the occasional bird call and the plunking of seeds as they fall from the trees.
"The world is pretty crazy," Fortin tells me. "We need all the help we can get."
I agree. We do need all the help we can get, which is why I'm ready to climb into the Somadome again.
I'm feeling so calm, I barely even notice the photographer snapping shots of my feet or the tech workers running on treadmills outside the room. I'm in a Somadome at the health and wellness center in Adobe's headquarters in San Jose, California. The software maker has owned one of the pods since January 2016 and plans to buy a second for its San Francisco offices.
Employees can sign up for free sessions throughout the day or just show up to see if the Somadome is available. It rarely is. "We have a steady 85 percent booking [rate] on it," says Kris Herrera, Adobe's global site operations strategy manager. "When we put it in, our target was 35 percent. It's been so well received."
Adobe's not the only high-tech company that sees the benefits of meditation. Others include Google, Facebook and Apple, whose co-founder Steve Jobs famously embraced Zen meditation and spent time at an Indian ashram. (So did Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.) Google launched a "Search Inside Yourself" course to help employees learn mindfulness meditation, and now runs the group as a nonprofit, the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, to teach techniques to individuals and other companies.
Mindfulness is also gaining popularity in traditional medicine and becoming a component of fitness centers. Somadome is working with Equinox to bring the dome to the high-end fitness club, and Planet Fitness plans to test out the machine. The Four Seasons in Westlake, California, has one installed in its California Health & Longevity wellness facility, which its clinical psychologists can recommend it as part of patient therapy. Right now, there are 20 Somadomes in the world.
Dr. Leasa Lowy, an OB-GYN and bariatric physician who runs the 360 ME medical, weight and lifestyle clinic in the Portland, Oregon, area, found out about Somadome through her daughter, a competitive tennis player who was training at the Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California, which also has one of the machines. She bought two of them six months ago. The machine costs $14,500, plus $100 for monthly maintenance and content fees.
Lowy plans to conduct medical research with Somadome to track its impact on patients. So far, she's encouraged by the anecdotal evidence.
One patient bikes to Lowy's office to use Somadome before work four days a week because she says it clears her mind and helps her plan her day. Two others who work night shifts use Somadome whenever their hours change and they need to adjust.
"The most skeptical person, you can put in there and they see it," Lowy says. "You're going to sit quietly for 20 minutes and have an adult time out. Who wouldn't want that?"
Somadome has big ambitions. It's working on a way to mass-produce its dome and refine the machine to include more sensors and possibly incorporate facial recognition technology "so users can get direct feedback about how their session is affecting them," says Cooper Lee, Somadome's technologist.
It's also building a smartphone app that helps you find and book sessions nearby. The Somadome will know who you are when you arrive, and the app will be able to make recommendations for which session you should take based on your age, sex, the type of work you do and what you're trying to accomplish. You'll also be able to use heart rate monitors or wearables like Fitbit to track what happens to your body in and after using Somadome and save all of that data in the app.
"The idea is to use Somadome as a place where people can both take a session that's curated or specifically aimed at their goal, as well as give them feedback," says Gilles Attia, a technology attorney who also partnered with his daughter, Sarah, to bring Somadome to market.
Back at Ojai, I try "Manifest" for my first session, which aims to give me "a renewed sense of peace and guidance" by talking about "the law of attraction and the connectedness of our universe." It's best used "when starting a journey or setting your intentions," the description says. The dome turns a soft violet as Howell's voice tells me to "concentrate on harmony."
I hear birds chirping and Howell's voice telling me all is right with the world. I'm told to repeat phrases like, "I know that I am one with the Universal Mind."
The next day, I opt for "Heal," another guided session that's part of Somadome's physical wellness track. This one uses "delta to release HGH [human growth hormone], which helps to accelerate healing, boost your immune system, and support well-being." I'm told it's "best used when you feel misaligned or have ailments." Considering I'm in physical therapy for typing-related nerve damage, I figure I'll give it a shot.
After a while, I don't have to focus as much to steadily breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. I feel my shoulders relax and my muscles loosen. I have no way to track the time, and the best thing is I don't even care. I simply breathe.
Did I achieve my goal of getting my mind to stop wandering? No, but that's OK.
"You have to go past the idea of meditation being about clearing your mind," says Cory Muscara a meditation expert who runs his own clinic in Long Island, New York, and teaches mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
"You're setting yourself up for failure with that mentality," he says. "I spent six months, 14 hours a day in meditation [with Buddhist monks in Myanmar]. The longest I went without a thought was maybe 48 seconds or a minute."
Eventually, three bells chime. I feel like I could stay in the Somadome for hours.
I don't know if the sessions actually improved my ability to meditate or if I'll see any lasting effects. I don't know if the studies will show real scientific benefits from the energy tiles and other therapies, or if they'll prove to be snake oil. And I don't know if the machines will eventually be found outside of fancy spas and clinics.
What I do know is I feel pretty damn relaxed.
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