January 15, 2014

Q&A, Dr. Romila Mushtaq, mind-body medicine physician

Posted by: in North America

Mindfulness means being completely present in the here and now, with no distractions. The concept has been around for centuries, originating from Eastern philosophies, but today a number of factors are propelling more people toward the practice as consumers develop a quasi-Zen desire to experience everything in a more present, conscious way—a trend we termed Mindful Living, one of our 10 Trends for 2014 and Beyond. 

To explore this trend, we interviewed Romila Mushtaq, or Dr. Romie, who teaches mindfulness-based techniques through corporate consulting, public speaking and coaching clients. With training in neurology, neurophysiology and epilepsy, she worked in academic medicine before traveling the world to learn meditation and yoga techniques to improve her own life. She now studies and teaches the medical evidence and neuroscience behind meditation and yoga, and recently released a guided-meditation album, Connect to Joy. In this emailed Q&A, she explained why she thinks more people are turning to mindfulness and how this trend affects brands.

Could you explain what mindfulness is? And what are some benefits of being mindful?

I describe mindfulness in two simple words: Pay attention. When we pay attention with all our senses, we are then present in the current moment. Our minds are not ruminating about the past or worried about the future. Modern psychology defines mindfulness as “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.”

Scientific and medical studies have confirmed what centuries of people practicing mindful techniques have already known: The benefits of practicing mindful techniques start internally, with a person creating emotional, physical and mental harmony. When a person has this type of emotional and physical balance, they are less affected by changes in external circumstances such as stress, anger, fear and anxiety.

How does one become mindful?

While its roots are in many of the traditional Eastern-based religions, the practice of mindfulness is not based in any religious practice. It is, however, considered a practice, which means it is something that should be done on a regular basis without attachment to results or outcome. The key to any of these practices is being aware in the present moment, and this is achieved by connecting to the breath. There are now many different types of practices of meditation that can bring one to a mindful state. There is no “one best” or “gold standard” method of mindfulness.

How did you become aware of mindfulness? What led you to embrace it?

I was working more than 80 hours a week as a neurologist in academic medicine. This led to a complete lack of work-life balance and eventually career burnout. On the rare occasions I had free time, I would find my way to a yoga or meditation class in my neighborhood. I started using guided meditation in my daily life. I then realized that situations which would normally create stress in my life, like getting paged by the hospital in the middle of the night, didn’t bother me as much emotionally.

I started researching the scientific benefits to mood, physical health and work performance after I noticed a regular meditation and yoga practice helped alleviate pain and anxiety when I was undergoing surgery for achalasia. I then traveled around Eastern Asia, learning various meditation techniques, and completed hatha yoga teacher training.

I combined my passion for neuroscience, meditation and yoga into teaching and practicing mind-body medicine.

Why do you think more people are turning to mindfulness today?

Various types of meditation practices can be traced back in every major religion and culture historically, and these practices are still part of daily life in most Asian countries. Over the last several decades, there has been an increase in travel to Asia, thus exposing Western travelers to the sense of inner peace that is present in the individual people and the communities. Many Asian countries, such as India, Indonesia and Thailand, have built tourism around teaching visitors meditation, yoga and other mind-body medicine techniques.

In the last decade, the economic crisis peaked in the Western world, and this was when a collective cultural attitude shift was palpable. Thought leaders and everyday citizens alike were questioning the need to attach happiness or feelings of success with accumulating material goods. With the housing crisis, consumer credit crisis and job crisis, people were forced to look within to create a new barometer of happiness and definition of success.

So do you think the concept of mindfulness will eventually permeate the mainstream in Western societies?

Mindfulness-based techniques improve outcomes in chronic diseases when combined with traditional medication and procedures. Mindfulness-based techniques are cost-effective and will also help in reducing health care costs for consumers, insurance companies and hospital systems. Therefore, a shift from a disease-based model to a wellness-based model for health care is inevitable.

Mindfulness is an essential component of wellness, along with nutrition and physical activity. A wellness model will help in the prevention of the chronic diseases that affect Americans, such as heart disease, depression, chronic pain and stroke. And there is large growth in the health care field for mindfulness-based techniques to treat chronic diseases. In health-and-beauty-related fields, a shift is also occurring to focus on wellness rather than disease—mindfulness is critical in this industry.

In the workplace, studies exhibit that mindfulness-based programs increase efficiency, improve communication, reduce workplace stress, and reduce missed work days for health-related issues.

Google has achieved tremendous publicity in introducing mindfulness training for its employees. The journey is documented in the bestselling book Search Inside Yourself, by Chade-Meng Tan. It is now one of the most popular classes for employees. Other companies that have been reported to promote mindfulness-based techniques include Target, McKinsey & Co. and the Oprah Winfrey Network.

When a person is mindful, how does that affect their approach to consumption or consumerism? 

When a person is mindful, their approach to consumption will change, as they are no longer attaching as much emotional value to external physical objects. Consumerism is more likely driven by experiences that will extend their own feeling of inner peace, happiness and feeling of well-being. Examples would be experiences that are related to nutrition, physical wellness and travel.

When an individual has a practice of mindfulness, it is important for them to see that their consumption adds value to the community as well. Examples of extending mindfulness into the community are buying products created with recycled materials, consuming organic products and buying products that support a cause that is important to them.

So how should marketers approach a mindful consumer?

In order to truly approach a mindful consumer, the company selling the product or service must also be mindful. Mindfulness is an internal state that starts with the individual and then spreads to the community or, in this case, the corporate culture. A product or service that enhances mindfulness of the consumer is in alignment with the greater good of the consumer, the community and nature.

What should marketers avoid when targeting mindful consumers?

One has to avoid claims that Product X will lead to mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state of being—products and services are a tool to help a person enhance their own practice of mindfulness. Using the term “mindful” has to be done in caution, as traditional consumerism models have been viewed as the antithesis to being mindful.

Marketers should also avoid the stereotypes in advertising when trying to sell mindfulness. An example of a stereotype is the young Caucasian female who dresses in bohemian-style clothing and spends her day at the yoga studio. Mindfulness transcends race, religion and gender.

What consumer categories are a good fit for a mindfulness-led campaign? Can mindfulness be applied anywhere? 

As a mind-body medicine physician, an ideal collaboration would be between health care-related companies and providers to market services that promote mental health and physical health.

Mindfulness is a state of being, so it can be applied to almost any product. If one is mindful about their product, they have an awareness of: What type of client will have positive benefit from their product; how the product will enhance the client’s sense of inner peace and happiness; and how the product is mindful about working in harmony with the environment and community (recycled products, donations to charitable organizations, etc.).

What’s next for the mindfulness movement?

As a mind-body medicine physician, I hold a vision that the mindfulness movement will start reaching people in schools, universities and in the workplace. In combination with nutrition and physical activity, mindfulness is a key element in balanced health and wellness. When a person can connect to a feeling of hope, they have health. And when a person has health, they have happiness.

2 Responses to "Q&A, Dr. Romila Mushtaq, mind-body medicine physician"

1 | Heidi Olson

January 17th, 2014 at 2:51 am

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As the manager of the New Elephant Resale Shop of Chicago, a nonprofit resale shop that benefits 5 Chicago charities, I can see that our business does promote mindfulness. It has a positive effect on the environment by offering used goods, the profits go to local charities, and even the ambiance of the shop, provides treasures to uncover and an unhurried, uncrowded place to linger.

2 | Lagis Zavros

January 17th, 2014 at 8:18 pm

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Good Q & A – I have noticed this state of being in both our sons who are aged 31 and 26 pretty much all their lives. All their school life was in a Montessori environment – this I believe was a huge factor.

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