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How Meditation Became a Studio Workout

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It’s a bit like a gym for your mind. 

How Meditation Became a Studio Workout

Photograph: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

Inside a small pop-up studio drenched in neutrals in Venice, California, 40 or so regulars meet up at 6 p.m. to put in work. But they’re not here for treadmill sprints or burpees—it’s the daily breath and sound class hosted by Open, a social space for meditation and movement. Students lie on soft gray yoga mats under a rectangular skylight, close their eyes, and enter into an unspoken agreement with one another that it’s time to find some calm.  

At the front of the room often stands Vice President of Mindfulness and co-founder Manoj Dias, a Sri Lanka-born entrepreneur who came to this work through his own healing. Working in advertising and marketing in Australia, where he lived for more than 30 years, Dias recalls a pretty serious panic attack that led him into the offices of psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors.

“They all prescribed different medications for me,” he tells GQ. “I ended up taking all of these different pills and developing an addiction to some of the medication. For about two years, I was really just very sick to the point where my mother had to come and look after me.”

It wasn’t until a friend took him to a meditation and yoga class that Dias realized how disconnected his mind was from his body. Over the following 12 to 14 months, he started feeling much more clear in his life and aspirations. “I started to have a real understanding around what things could lead me towards feeling truly well and, and why things are probably not helpful for my life.”

That was more than 15 years ago. In 2015 he founded  A—SPACE, Australia’s first multidisciplinary drop-in meditation studio. In 2020, A—SPACE was acquired by Open, which also makes a mindfulness app, and Dias made the hop to California to build the company as we see it today, known broadly for the app experience which makes meditation, breathwork, and movement in just a tap away.

“I think we’re now in this phase that we can call mindfulness 2.0,” says Dias, who relocated along with the company last year to west Los Angeles. “Mindfulness 1.0 was this idea that we had to sit and quiet our mind. For a lot of people, they were concerned with whether they were doing it ‘right.’ But with 2.0, there are many ways to access the same sort of more calm state — all of which we’ve brought to the app. That could be through listening to music, breath work, yoga, meditation. So it’s like a mixed modality form of learning.”

Meditation and breathwork practices are hardly new. The roots of both lead back to ancient yoga traditions, rooted in pranayama (this means the regulation of breath through certain exercises and techniques). The benefits are well-documented. Paced breathing has been associated with well-being and relaxation, and beyond that, meditation has a direct correlation with enhanced self awareness and increased social contact. 

It’s no wonder why we’re seeing an influx of IRL interest.Unplug, a Los Angeles meditation, charges $30 for a 45-minute class that offers a promise to walk away with less anxiety and greater clarity about what the future may hold. Mind Body Project—a New York City studio that pairs meditation with a HIIT-style workout—combines two different methods in one 50-minute offering for those who want to kill two birds with one stone.

Not near a studio or more into the self-guided approach? Here, Dias offers up two of his biggest tips for mindfulness newbies:

1. Make it a Regular Practice: Instead of meditating one day per week (or when you happen to be in the mood), aim for a more regular practice. Starting small, with 5 minutes each day, can be a great gateway. “With meditation, that frontal lobe and this quality of mindfulness is like a muscle,” says Dias. “So you have to train at it, without any expectation and without any judgment.

2. Don’t Judge Your Beginning Too Harshly. “A lot of people think if they can’t concentrate that they’re failing at it,” says Dias. “That’s completely wrong. You succeed in meditation every time you come back, especially mindfulness meditation.”

If you’re focusing on sounds or your breath and your mind wanders away, that’s normal. It’s part of the practice. The goal is to come back without really creating a story around why your mind is always going off. That is the beauty of meditation.

“Think of it as a biceps curl for the frontal lobe of your brain,” says Dias. “You think how many reps can I do in one sitting? And so every time the mind wanders off, you come back, that’s a rep. And sometimes the more reps you do, the better it is for your brain.”

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