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Christie Hoyt of Wading River strikes a zenlike pose. (Credit: Madison Fender)

For 61-year-old mindfulness meditation instructor Charmaine Henderson, discovering the so-called path to enlightenment arose from a feeling of discontent.

In the 1980s, the now-retired Cutchogue attorney was being treated for anxiety, but her feelings of worry persisted as treatment drew to a close.

“I began to wonder, ‘Well, what else might there be?’ ” she recalled. “There was just this sense of anxiety about what was going to happen next.” 

Jessica Kelleher was all too familiar with Henderson’s plight. The Cutchogue mother of two describes herself as a former “walking panic attack” who refused to take anti-anxiety medication because, like Henderson, she “just knew there was something else out there for me.”

When her sense of panic heightened during her first pregnancy, Kelleher, now 33, discovered prenatal yoga. What followed was a seismic shift in the way she approached her mental health.

“From that day forward, I was a completely different person,” Kelleher said. “I used to be terrified to even have a panic attack. Now I can sit down and actually breathe my way through it. I owe it all to yoga.”

These women’s experiences are testimony to the positive impacts meditation and exercise can have on a person’s mental soundness. And science backs up their stories: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working out three to five times a week for 30 to 60 minutes can reduce the risk of depression and even promote a better night’s sleep.

Exercising your mind also provides benefits. In fact, a 2011 brain imaging study conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester found that mindfulness meditation actually alters regions of the brain associated with memory, awareness of self and compassion.

Katie Coe of Mattituck and Stephanie Mincieli of Laurel perform inversions at JABS in Cutchogue. (Credit: Madison Fender)
Katie Coe of Mattituck and Stephanie Mincieli of Laurel perform inversions at JABS in Cutchogue. (Credit: Madison Fender)

It’s difficult to pinpoint the origins of meditation, but experts believe forms of the practice, which encourages people to spend time in quiet thought, likely developed around 5,000 years ago in India and China. Along with yoga, meditation was introduced to the United States in the early 20th century and gained popularity in the 1960s.

Henderson’s commitment to meditation took hold in 1994, when she attended a nine-day retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., which prohibited her from speaking or even reading. More than two decades later, she remembers the experience as one that taught her to challenge how she responded to feelings of anxiety.

“At the end of it, I felt that there was an opening of the heart and a lessening of fear,” Henderson said. “It gave me a sense of what’s possible when we can be open and relaxed and be with what is rather than sort of struggling or fighting with habits or patterns.”

Kate Alesio, who teaches yoga at The Giving Room in Southold and also practices meditation, agreed.

“A lot of times we have a difficult emotion that we just want to fix or get rid of,” the Aquebogue resident, 54, said. “With meditation you just sort of sit with what is.”

Charmaine Henderson meditating in her Cutchogue home. (Credit: Rachel young)
Charmaine Henderson meditating in her Cutchogue home. (Credit: Rachel young)

For Henderson, this means regularly taking inventory of her mind simply by closing her eyes and observing, but not attaching meaning to, the various thoughts that flood her brain. Notably, this is one of the central tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy, which psychiatrists use to treat anxiety disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder.

You don’t, however, need to suffer from OCD — or any form of mental illness — to reap the rewards of meditation.

“In my experience, I think anyone can benefit,” Henderson said.

Similarly, anyone can improve their well-being by committing to some sort of fitness routine.

Jill Schroeder, who owns JABS in Cutchogue, was a teenager when she took up running.

“I had stuff going on in life, as we all do,” she said. “I found that it helped me mentally. I felt good after. That kind of started my fitness journey, so to speak.”

Now 32, Schroeder teaches a variety of fitness classes at her Main Road studio, where she challenges clients to “feel the burn” — to both their physical and mental advantage.

“Any time someone walks out that door, they’re 100 percent a better person, and happier,” she said. “That’s a really cool element I don’t think a lot of people outside of this realm understand.”

Mattituck resident Denise Vasilakos is all smiles during a training session with JABS owner Jill Schroeder. (Credit: Madison Fender)
Mattituck resident Denise Vasilakos is all smiles during a training session with JABS owner Jill Schroeder. (Credit: Madison Fender)

There’s a scientific explanation for why exercise makes you feel so good. Studies have shown that when you work out, your body releases chemicals called endorphins, which produce a feeling of pleasure and decrease the perception of pain. Happily, the effects can last hours after you’ve left the gym.

“When we stop exercising, these endorphins are still running rampant throughout our bodies,” Schroeder said.

For Cutchogue mother Melissa Martin, 40, that feeling makes waking up early six times a week to work out at JABS worth it. At times, it even feels like a spiritual experience.

“It’s almost like going to church,” she said with a laugh. “There’s really no other way to describe it. It’s very motivating and very emotional sometimes.”

The same can be said for those who practice meditation.

“I had been raised as a Catholic and had been sort of drawn to the silence that can develop in deep prayer,” Henderson said. “That possibility — of really touching deeply into what can’t be named – has always sort of drawn me.”

This story was originally published in the 2016 edition of northforker’s Wellness magazine