Despite my best intentions, I’m not a great meditator. I’ve done the odd class, and I even studied how meditation can affect the brain in university. There’s over 30 years of evidence to support meditation’s positive impacts on our mental and physical health. But I’ve always found sticking with a regular meditation routine to be my biggest challenge.
By the time I dragged myself out to try another session at the newly opened MINDSET Brain Gym in Yorkville, Toronto I was feeling pretty drained. The stresses of moving to a new apartment, deadlines at work, and more than one family health scare were weighing heavily on me.
I knew one of the simplest and most affordable ways to regain some peace of mind would be through establishing a regular meditation practice. The key was to actually start in a way that might encourage me to continue.
Toronto’s new meditation centre MINDSET Brain Gym eschews the crystals-and-horoscopes approach for something much more science-driven and accessible to busy, health-conscious professionals. MINDSET takes mental fitness as seriously and as tangibly as physical fitness, offering measurement and analysis technology, supplemental workshops and books to help people understand the substantial research behind meditation and mindfulness.
The space is open and bright with two comfortable seating areas, a refreshment station with tea and kombucha on tap, and a library-style collection of reading material about your mind, including a MINDSET journal you can purchase to help build healthy habits each day. It feels like being welcomed into someone’s loft apartment living room.
A little more surprising is what you’ll find downstairs: a huge art gallery with thought-provoking mixed-media creations by New York artist Peter Tunney. “There are all sorts of ways we exercise a healthy mind,” explains MINDSET’s co-founder Sean Finnell, “and that includes things like art and literature.” The space is open to paying meditators, and can also be rented for group or corporate events.
Back on the main floor, a hallway extends from the seating areas with hangers, lockers with USB ports to charge your phone, and a couple of large bean-bag-like poofs to sink into. The meditation room opposite has walls clad in a tessellated blue lighting display that undulates softly giving the space a calm glow. It feels a lot like you’ve stepped onto the set of a hypothetical modern remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Nine different drop-in meditation classes offer everything from stress-busting to self-love. I was there for Focus Boost which uses a Muse headband to track your brainwaves throughout the session.
Sitting cross-legged on specially designed meditation seats, you spend the half-hour session in a comfortable but alert position, helping you avoid the temptation to fall asleep. Finnell lead our session using techniques to focus the mind on particular sensations like breathing, to help increase concentration and strengthen resilience to distraction.
He brings up our tendency to ruminate which instantly rings true — how did he know? I’ve had a particularly hard time keeping my racing thoughts in check as I try to get everything done before the end of the year.
After the session you can observe the metrics and a graph of what your brain was actually doing and how well it managed to achieve a state of calm. The graph shows the proportion of time you spent in three different mental states: active, neutral, and calm. The metrics include your number of calm points, recoveries, and awards like the Quiet Award for staying in a calm state of mind for over 2 minutes.
I’ve dabbled in different meditation practices and approaches over the years, but I found that having the feedback from the headband lended a helpful dose of scientific evidence that something actually happened or improved as a result. The accountability factor helped me try just that little bit harder than I would have done on my own.
If you want a more secluded experience, book a solo session in the stillness room on a zero-gravity recliner with guided meditations in immersive 3D soundscapes.
I felt both blissfully calm and intellectually enlightened as Finnell chatted to me afterwards about the connection between meditative breathing and our nervous system. People are beginning to recognize the inseparable relationship between the health of our minds and the health of our bodies, and MINDSET Brain Gym is hoping to pick up the slack.
“For most people our success in life and at work isn’t determined by the size of our biceps but the strength of our minds and their ability to focus and be resilient,” says Finnell. “Yet we seldom take the time to exercise these abilities.”
Duly inspired, I cracked my MINDSET Journal for the first time today. It offers morning and evening journaling rituals with questions like, What am I grateful for? and What did I learn today?, daily inspirational quotes and prompts for reflection, and a calendar to track your goals. Now the trick is doing it again tomorrow…