The idea of meditation seems simple: Sit still, focus on breath, reflect. But the practice of meditating is rooted in a deep cultural history that has seen the practice grow from a religious idea to something that can now seem more stylish than spiritual.
Though plenty of people still meditate for religious reasons, these days, the practice has joined yoga as a secular and chic trend, as dedicated meditation studios open in cities like New York and Los Angeles. Even Equinox, a fitness company with gyms across North America and in London, is launching a class called HeadStrong in April, which will combine high intensity interval training with meditation. The trend has also caught up with technology, with apps like Headpsace and OMG. I Can Meditate!, both of which have partnered with airlines (Virgin Atlantic and Delta, respectively) to offer in-flight meditation options. Headspace also debuted specially designed meditation pods that co-founder Rich Pierson says hopes people will use “like Superman used phonebooths, only instead of emerging in tights intent on fighting crime, they’ll come out with a clearer, calmer outlook.”
“It used to be that if you wanted to try Tibetan Buddhism and meditation, you had to travel all the way to Tibet, and if you wanted to try Korean meditation, you had to travel all the way to Korea. But now you can go to neighborhoods in New York and do both in an hour,” says Lodro Rinzler, author and ‘Chief Spiritual Officer’ at the Manhattan studio MNDFL, which opened in late 2015. “All of a sudden people are saying this can help you, but Buddhists have been saying, yes, we’ve known this for 2,600 years.”
How that happened is a complicated story, and a surprisingly recent one considering meditation’s ancient origins.
Some archaeologists date meditation back to as early as 5,000 BCE, according to Psychology Today, and the practice itself has religious ties in ancient Egypt and China, as well as Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and, of course, Buddhism. Meditation’s global spread began along the Silk Road around about five or six centuries BCE, as the practice moved throughout Asia. As it arrived in a new spot, it would slowly transform to fit each new culture. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that it began to move beyond the realm of specific religions, especially in the West.
As TIME reported in a 2003 cover story, meditation began to be seriously studied for its medical benefits in the 1960s, when a researcher in India named B.K. Anand “found that yogis could meditate themselves into trances so deep that they didn’t react when hot test tubes were pressed against their arms.”
And yet meditation remained on the fringe of science, the kind of topic that was brushed off by many mainstream Western researchers. In fact, Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Herbert Benson waited until late at night to moderate a study on meditation in 1967, at which point he found that people meditating used 17% less oxygen, lowered heart rates and produced increased brain waves that could help with sleep. Benson went on to publish The Relaxation Response and founded the Mind/Body Medical Institute, continuing to pioneer for meditation’s benefits on biology. “All I’ve done,” Benson told TIME, “is put a biological explanation on techniques that people have been utilizing for thousands of years.”
Benson wasn’t the only person in the U.S. who was investigating meditation’s health benefits. Jon Kabat-Zinn, to take another example, learned about meditation while studying at MIT and turned it into a lifelong career, founding the Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass Medical Center in 1979.
It was around the same time that meditation got the boost that it needed to bring some attention to the science: celebrity status. Transcendental Meditation (TM), which a 1975 TIME story called a “drugless high,” became popular among no less than the Beatles. As one way to cope with the strangeness of their global fame, they turned to TM, eventually going to India to study. Mia Farrow also went to India to meditate with the Fab Four after her divorce with Frank Sinatra, to study with Maharishi, whom TIME called “the groovy guru.” The hippie decades of the ’60s and ’70s welcomed troves of meditation and mindfulness centers as well, including the Esalen Institute, site of Don Draper’s final scene in the finale of Mad Men, set in 1970.
By the 1990s, the scientific and celebrity sides of popular meditation finally met in the middle. The product was a Hollywood-friendly, health-focused concept that had largely shed the hippie implications it had once carried.
In 1996, TIME reported on Deepak Chopra’s book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, which had sold 137,000 copies in one day right after Chopra was featured on Oprah. Celebrities continued to spread the word, especially as Demi Moore, George Harrison, Michael Jackson and Donna Karan referred to Chopra as a guru. Athletes also began to tout the benefits of meditation and mindfulness: legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson published Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, in 1995, and now Stephen Curry, the NBA’s 2015 MVP, practices different kinds of mindfulness exercises. Meanwhile, the studies continued to roll in confirming meditation’s benefits, to potentially slow or reverse neurodegeneration, reduce pain and help manage stress.
Rinzler, of MNDFL, imagines the studies will only help meditation continue its path to the mainstream. “It’s no longer just your spiritual friend saying you should try meditation,” he says. It’s your doctor.”