My Body Experiment: Intensive Meditation

How one woman went from hours of partying to hours of peace

In our series My Body Experiment, we ask high performers to tell us about major changes they’ve made in diet, fitness, and general wellness. Here, they chronicle the results of their trials, positive and negative.

Miriam Parker is a Tier 2 trainer at Equinox Flatiron in New York City, a professional dancer, and a meditation teacher. She became interested in meditation when it offered her a refuge from an exciting but unfulfilling career in nightlife. As her life changed—she quit the entertainment industry, got sober, and started a regular yoga and meditation practice—the stillness of just sitting and breathing has remained a constant and even one of her biggest teachers. This is her story.

In the early 2000s, I was opening some of the hottest restaurants and venues as a manager and recruiter in New York City. I was working in places where it cost $800 just to sit down and celebrity clientele were the norm—it wasn’t unusual to hear from Prince’s or Madonna’s team, calling me for reservations. I was in the center of the glitz, glamour, and money, and I became very good at my job. I was always a giver and had a knack for understanding people, so catering to big personalities came naturally. My job made me feel important and needed, and definitely fed my ego.

Meanwhile, my career as a dancer—I danced for contemporary ballet companies in Europe and Israel prior to moving to NYC—was put on the backburner. I was dancing professionally about once a year. However, I somehow managed to get to yoga and ballet classes four to five times a week, despite my hectic schedule.

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It wasn’t unusual to hear from Prince’s or Madonna’s team, calling me for reservations.

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On many levels this lifestyle fulfilled a lot of my needs, but my world at the time was very superficial. Everyday, I felt like I had to put on a performance and I always had to be “on.” I wasn’t ever able to be tired or not feeling my best. And I wasn’t shining from the inside—I looked to drugs and alcohol to help me feel like I was presentable and give me confidence.

Finding part-time quiet

While I was living my life on one extreme, I became attracted to the other, the calmer, more spiritual one. In 2007, during one of my yoga classes, a Buddhist monk came and spoke about a 10-day meditation retreat that he was hosting in the Bahamas. I was intrigued by the concept of stillness, so I decided to try it. The days were pretty unstructured—we could go to the beach or do yoga classes—but there was a 30-minute breath-based meditation every morning. It was definitely the hardest part of the day. Settling my energy was a big challenge and I often felt like I might crawl out of my skin. I would frequently sneak glances at the clock, and the more I did, the slower time went. Despite the discomfort, there was something I liked about the coziness of sitting still and the simplicity of the task at hand.

I got myself into a routine: Biannually for the next four years, I would burn myself out in New York and then go down to the same retreat in the Bahamas to reboot. My time there was such a departure from my job and lifestyle. At the retreat I didn’t have to put on a show, I didn’t have to be “on”—I could just be me. After getting back to reality, I would have this wave of momentum for practicing meditation. It felt so grounding and soothing to sit still. I started to do little bursts of the practice for a few minutes at home. At the beginning, all I meditated on was exploring why I chose to do the practice. What is important to me? What do I believe in? What values do I want to return to?

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Settling my energy was a big challenge and I often felt like I might crawl out of my skin.

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The more I engaged with that spiritual side and really thought about what was important to me, my career and lifestyle choices started to become less appealing. The glamour of it all started to fade and the drugs and drinking felt like they no longer fit—they only supplied me with a temporary sense of happiness and fulfillment, which would always fade. I was close to becoming at the top of my game in many ways, but I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing.

How does meditation help you process emotions?

Having a meditation practice is one way of becoming more mindful, which is being present in the moment. “Mindfulness practice increases gray matter and changes the circuitry in the brain regions associated with focus, attention, and emotional processing,” says Leah Weiss, PhD, a mindfulness researcher and lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California. “When you have more gray matter in these areas, you're better able to access them and those skills become more readily available.”

Do those brain changes last, even when people aren’t meditating?

Yes. In a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, scientists taught a group of people to meditate over a two-month period. At the end of eight weeks, they scanned participants’ brains during a non-meditative state and found they had less activity in the amygdala, the brain’s fight-or-flight center that’s associated with fear and emotion. When you’re not in fight-or-flight mode, you can think more clearly, says Weiss, and ultimately make decisions that are more aligned with your needs.

Committing to a new lifestyle

Meditation started becoming more of a constant for me. In 2010, I helped open Miss Lily’s, Gallow Green, and Cafe Select but I stopped the hardcore up-until-5am-drug-life. Meanwhile, I began going to Three Jewels in the East Village, and I met a meditation teacher there who really inspired me. She mentioned that she was going on a silent retreat, which fascinated me. I was really drawn to this idea that you could change things by going inward.

How does meditation help you process emotions?

Having a meditation practice is one way of becoming more mindful, which is being present in the moment. “Mindfulness practice increases gray matter and changes the circuitry in the brain regions associated with focus, attention, and emotional processing,” says Leah Weiss, PhD, a mindfulness researcher and lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California. “When you have more gray matter in these areas, you're better able to access them and those skills become more readily available.”

Do those brain changes last, even when people aren’t meditating?

Yes. In a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, scientists taught a group of people to meditate over a two-month period. At the end of eight weeks, they scanned participants’ brains during a non-meditative state and found they had less activity in the amygdala, the brain’s fight-or-flight center that’s associated with fear and emotion. When you’re not in fight-or-flight mode, you can think more clearly, says Weiss, and ultimately make decisions that are more aligned with your needs.

What else can it help with?

Studies have found that meditation can help reduce anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, as well as improve memory and keep the mind sharp well into old age. But it’s important to note that the practice is not the silver bullet for everyone in every situation, says Weiss. If you’re really struggling with an injury or mental health issue, meditation could be part of your toolkit, but it’s best to check in with your practitioner to come up with a plan to address your situation.

Could meditation impact workout performance?

“Becoming more mindful during exercise can push you further because you will be more in tune with your body’s perceived thresholds and when you can exceed them,” says Michael Gervais, yoga instructor, creator of Equinox’s HeadStrong meditations, and director of group fitness talent and development in New York City. “Plus, it can reduce your risk of injuries because you’re paying attention to things like pacing and form, and making adjustments if you feel off.” Mindfulness can make workouts more satisfying too, according to a study in the Journal of Health Psychology, helping you stay engaged and keep exercise a priority.

Do you have to mediate for hours a day to see the benefits?

No. Studies show that 20 to 45 minutes of meditation a day for eight weeks can make a big difference, says Weiss. It’s more about consistency rather than duration.

Even though I started shifting my life in directions I thought were more positive, I still struggled with insecurities. Without the partying, I didn’t have a crowd around me telling me I was fabulous. I ended up depressed and anxious—some days I couldn’t even leave my house. Drugs and drinking had given me a superficial confidence, but when they were gone, doubt and fear would creep in. I felt like what I was doing didn’t matter. Around that time, I also felt stuck in my dance career. I tried all sorts of things to push it forward: I tried showing up early; I tried being assertive and then not being assertive; I tried using my sex appeal and I tried not using my sex appeal. But nothing was shifting.

What else can it help with?

Studies have found that meditation can help reduce anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, as well as improve memory and keep the mind sharp well into old age. But it’s important to note that the practice is not the silver bullet for everyone in every situation, says Weiss. If you’re really struggling with an injury or mental health issue, meditation could be part of your toolkit, but it’s best to check in with your practitioner to come up with a plan to address your situation.

Getting unblocked

In 2011, I decided to do my first silent meditation retreat—a Vipassana retreat for 10 days in Shelburne, Massachusetts. (This type of meditation course is offered all over the world.)

Silent meditation retreats are more advanced compared to traditional ones like I did in the Bahamas. Imagine something happens and you get your feelings hurt badly. As soon as you start talking to someone it moves the energy out of feeling and into a space of intellectualizing which creates distance between you and what’s happening. Being at a silent retreat forces you to feel more deeply. But these group retreats are great because you’re silent, but with a bunch of other people—you’re not silent alone. They also provide support if you need it; You can talk to a teacher if you hit a critical point and need help navigating through it.

The next year, I took things one step further: I decided to DIY my own silent retreat and meditate in my home in Brooklyn for a week. It was challenging to sit still with myself for 30-minute sessions, four times each day, but I felt like the stillness was finally shaking up something inside of me.

The following year I did it again, upping my meditation to a total of four hours daily. You can think of finding your edge in meditation similar to supercompensation theory in fitness. You have to work, then recover, then come back stronger and work harder, recover again, etc. You always want to work on the edge because that’s where the changes happen. Just like if you keep doing the same type and intensity of workouts, you eventually adapt and stop seeing progress, the same is true with your meditation practice. But just as you need proper recovery and active recovery from workouts, you don’t always have to push and push and push in meditation. I might go back to three-week retreats at some point if my edge changes.

It was meditation that helped me realize that I was my biggest block. My dance career wasn’t moving forward because I still had these thoughts and stories in my head about being incompetent and that my work didn’t matter. I started to rewrite those stories and my dance career began taking off.

For a long time, I was balancing nightlife and the more serene worlds of yoga and meditation, but in 2014, I decided to ditch the party scene—and my job—for good. I was burnt out and ready to start focusing more on dance. I also took on work that felt more meaningful to me: I completed my training to become a yoga and meditation teacher, in addition to starting a job as a personal trainer at Equinox.

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The breath symbolizes the idea of returning to something that is much more expansive than the limiting energy of other thoughts.

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I did one more three-week retreat in my home in 2015 and then the following two years, I started renting homes in the Catskills. I wanted to get away from the noise of New York City and really connect the stillness of my meditation practice with the serenity of nature. I completely cut myself off from all communication during this time.

To really push myself in my practice, I did my longest retreat ever this summer: five weeks. I was alone, meditating for 12 to 14 hours a day, which definitely wouldn’t have been possible without building up a solid practice. I structured my days around the meditation, sitting for about three hours at a time, and eating small, nourishing meals, and doing some foam rolling and stretching in between. I came into the retreat with some pre-cooked meals (like an Indian kitchari that I love) and had other food delivered via FreshDirect, since I wasn’t planning to leave the cabin. Even though I’m pretty skilled at meditation, this retreat was hard for me, especially the first few weeks. When you’re doing such a deep cleaning of your mental space, a lot of stuff comes up: old injuries, old pain and anger, fear. But it felt so good to deal with stuff head on—issues that I have been trying to resolve for years finally dissipated.

Could meditation impact workout performance too?

“Becoming more mindful during exercise can push you further because you will be more in tune with your body’s perceived thresholds and when you can exceed them,” says Michael Gervais, yoga instructor, creator of Equinox’s HeadStrong meditations, and director of group fitness talent and development in New York City. “Plus, it can reduce your risk of injuries because you’re paying attention to things like pacing and form, and making adjustments if you feel off.” Mindfulness can make workouts more satisfying too, according to a study in the Journal of Health Psychology, helping you stay engaged and keep exercise a priority.

Do you have to mediate for hours a day to see the benefits?

No. Studies show that 20 to 45 minutes of meditation a day for eight weeks can make a big difference, says Weiss. It’s more about consistency rather than duration.

At first, my friends and family would make fun of me: “Oh, don’t piss Miriam off she’ll go on retreat,” they would say. They thought I was interrupting my life or that it was indulgent; They didn’t understand how much work it really was. Now they see the benefit and are really supportive.

For me, meditation isn’t just a way to focus or relax—it’s a practice that has ultimately taught me to return to what’s important to me, and that’s how I explain the benefits to my students. It’s not that the breath itself has anything that is innately insightful; it’s more of a marker in your mind of something that you return to. The breath symbolizes the idea of returning to something that is much more expansive than the limiting energy of other thoughts. We have thousands of moments every day where we are deciding what to do, and there are thousands of vices and temptations that could lead us away from what really matters. Imagine what it would be like if you really remembered what’s important to you all the time? If you could remember that those five cocktails aren’t going to make you feel good or that you are awesome, despite what your ex says.

You can: Just as you would return to the breath during meditation, you can return to these truths that you have and they can help you create the life that you want.

Paying it forward

My meditation practice and teaching makes me a better physical trainer because it gives me the capacity to have a holistic view of my clients. In order to address their goals in the gym, we not only adjust their physical habits but also help them adjust their thought patterns. The outside body mirrors the image that they have in their minds. Meditation helps us to connect to a part of the self that feels wise and strong and as a trainer I remind them of this potential. "The impossible” is only reached through a practice of imagining it is possible. The focus that meditation teaches helps us to commit to the goals and the inner beauty that we want to manifest.

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‘The impossible’ is only reached through a practice of imagining it is possible.

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If you asked me in my early 20s, I would have never thought I would love stillness—but I do now. I feel like the practice has helped me make great strides in my dance, an area of my life I felt stuck in for a long time. I have a show at the Fridman Gallery in New York City in January, am getting to go on tour to Europe in February, and have a presentation at The Met next year, too. Stillness and breath have been some of my greatest teachers and have given me answers to issues I didn’t think I would ever be able to resolve.