Once a misunderstood Buddhist and Hindu practice, meditation has been rebranded in recent years to appeal to a western audience. A 2016 survey conducted by the Yoga Alliance said that the number of Americans practicing yoga and meditation has grown by 50 percent since 2012.
According to the National Institute of Health, there are major benefits to meditation, including pain maintenance and easing symptoms for ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.
For all of its recorded benefits, there have also been a few recorded drawbacks to meditation. The same article from the National Institutes of Health that discussed the physical benefits of the practice also warned, “There have been rare reports that meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people with certain psychiatric problems like anxiety and depression.”
Though they say that this side effect is not common, they do advise speaking with a therapist before starting a meditation practice if you have a history of mental health disorders.
Beyond the physical benefits, some turn to meditation for guidance.
“Most people that step into meditation for the first time, their lives are usually missing something,” David Westlake, a local meditation teacher at Anchorage Yoga and Cycle and Turiya, a nonprofit organization that brings meditation practices to inmates, said.
The reason for the rise in Alaskans practicing meditation could lie in the way that locals view faith. According to the Pew Research Center, Alaskans are less religious than the continental U.S., and many who do practice religion don’t rank it as being a focal point in their lives. Alaska, in effect, is more secular than other states.
Meditation and yoga’s sharp rises in popularity have also made them secular activities in the U.S. Courses are offered in many recreational spaces, with some teachers choosing to leave the more dogmatic messages out.
“I’m definitely a person who wants to make meditation practices… as contemporary and as relevant as possible,” Westlake said.
Other spaces in town dedicate themselves to the spiritual side of the practice. Genmyo Zeedyk, a Zen Buddhist monk, leads some of the guided meditation practices at Anchorage Zen Community.
“I was drawn to a teacher who I thought embodied the qualities of wisdom and compassion and deep understanding,” Zeedyk said.
This teacher would remain with Zeedyk on her path to becoming an ordained monk, which included studying in a temple in Japan.
“In the west most of our religion is faith-based… and the Buddhist path is more of a practice,” Zeedyk said.
That practice includes meditation, which can help people become more mindful throughout their day. Mindfulness is considered a state of being in the present moment and fully accepting your surroundings, your feelings, and your discomforts as well as your enjoyment.
Zeedyk added that the rise in mindfulness is overall a good thing, but that she hoped people would look deeper into Buddhism and its other lifestyle benefits. “I think that some practices [like mindfulness] have been listed out of Buddhism and made available to people for the very positive benefits they give.”