New Austin meditation studio aims to help athletes focus, perform

Meditation can round out preparation for marathon.

Sometimes the best race preparation doesn’t take place at a track, in the gym or on a bicycle. It unfolds inside your head.

Visualize yourself galloping across the finish line of a marathon or grinding up the last hill of a 100-mile bike ride, experts say, and you’re more likely to get there in real life. Meditation can also help you cope with pain, focus on goals, reduce stress and improve sleep — all keys to athletic success.

With that in mind, we headed to the Meditation Bar, which opened in November in Northwest Austin.

The studio, in a strip mall, doesn’t cater only to athletes, of course. Busy parents, business executives and anyone who feels worn out and overstressed all can benefit from some quiet contemplative time. Too often, though, it slips off the priority list for athletes who obsessively log workouts.

I dropped by for the beginner Fundamentals class, in hopes of lassoing the runaway thoughts in my brain and relaxing for a change. Maybe that would translate to better performance in my next race, too.

The Austin studio is one of the few secular meditation studios in the country. If the concept works here, the studio’s four co-owners say, they’ll take it to other markets.

“We feel like our mission is to bring meditation to everyone,” says Cathy Bonner, who owns the studio along with Lauren Foreman, Joene Grissom and an out-of-state partner. “We want to make Austin the most mindful city in America.”

It seems like a good fit in a place known for technology, hipsters and music. Proponents say meditation can boost creativity and innovation. With a little luck, it’ll keep us calm in traffic, too.

Classes at the Meditation Bar take place in a cozy, dim classroom. Students are asked to turn off cellphones and remove their shoes. An instructor hands out shawls to anyone who wants one.

As we file in, settling onto cushions on the floor or upholstered chairs, a pinkish light bathes the room. The color changes as class progresses. That’s by design. Color can pull people deeper into meditation. So can soft music.

Instructor Krista Lea welcomes us, then asks us to set an intention for the session. I settle on “chill out.” She invites us to get comfortable and demonstrates a few hand positions. Some people meditate with their thumb and pointing finger touching. Palms can be up for receptivity, down for grounding or just resting in your lap. Choose whatever feels right.

We close our eyes. Lea turns off the music and tells us to soften our focus and shift our gaze inward. She encourages us to take long, slow breaths.

“Thoughts will arise,” she says. “You don’t have to follow them to the end.”

I try, but it’s tough. My mind won’t stop reminding me about the million things I need to do. The trick, Lea says, is to train yourself to return the focus to your breath every time your brain hooks onto a stray thought.

My stomach growls like a revving car engine. But then the lights dim even more, into a bluish haze. Lea glides a mallet around the lip of a basketball-sized singing bowl, and it resonates like the low hoot of a great horned owl.

Fifteen minutes pass, and I feel a tingle. Things seem slightly fuzzy, like I’m about to fall asleep. I hover in a weird, relaxed state. It’s almost like I’m floating.

After a while, Lea calls us back to the moment. The lights brighten into an indoor sunrise. She asks us to rub our fingers together and flutter our eyelids.

“Welcome back,” she says. “How was that?”

Some say they saw colors. Others experienced the same floating feeling I did. One says she was inside a bubble. As we discuss the experience, someone walks in with a tray of shot-sized cups of cucumber-infused water, which we sip.

About three-quarters of the students here are women; our session is filled with retirees. But classes vary, and clients range in age from their 20s to their 80s. Besides the Fundamentals class, the studio lineup includes a class called Release, to help rid the body of pain and tension; one called Awake, to set the tone for the day; and another called Feel, to nurture kindness. There’s even an evening Happy Hour session.

Paige Davis, an instructor who says meditation helped her through breast cancer, works with runners preparing for marathons. She helps them visualize themselves confidently running the race course. Meditation can help athletes tap into whatever makes them feel good as they tick off the miles, she says.

Sandy Tomlinson, a retired health and wellness program coordinator, says it works for her. She likes to picture herself throwing her hands in the air as she crosses the finish line.

“It gives me clarity and something to focus on without negative self-talk,” she says.

Other students, like Tom Spencer, a leader in Austin philanthropy and a longtime host and producer for KLRU-TV, says meditation makes him more patient. He began meditating in 1979, when he was a student at the University of Texas. Today, he meditates for about half an hour a day.

“I believe if half of us practiced this, half of our problems would go away,” he says.

I feel calmer, and more relaxed. But the feeling doesn’t linger as long as I’d like. And almost immediately my mind is racing ahead to the next task.

But maybe it’s something I can do on my own. Given enough practice, maybe I can infuse a little more quietness into my life. And just maybe some of that zen will carry over into my next swim practice.

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