More Than an Instagram Trend: How Two Entrepreneurs Are Debunking Biases Against Mindfulness

Through 'Moment Meditation', Vancouver-based entrepreneurs Anita Cheung and Hiroko Demichelis make a case for the mindfulness you won't see on Instagram.

Interview by Avneet Takhar
Introduction by Polina Bachlakova

Over the past few years, the words ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’ have gotten pretty bad reps. Looped into the same pool as #wellness, critics have often denounced those buzzwords for encouraging physical and mental ‘de-cluttering’ as a way of idealizing cultural appropriation and white privilege—all while creating the illusion of quick fixes for serious issues such as anxiety or depression. It’s hard to ignore the logic behind the criticism: slowing down and rejecting physical and mental clutter sounds great, but it probably isn’t something your average single mum working two minimum wage jobs has time to think about or even imagine. However, according to Anita Cheung – co-founder of Vancouver’s first ‘mindfulness studio space’ called Moment Meditation – mindfulness and meditation aren’t just for people who hold positions of mental and financial privilege. She firmly believes that mindfulness and meditation, by definition, are easily accessible for all people to practice and benefit from. “Meditation isn’t only for those who have “made it”, of course,” she says. “The irony is that although it seems like a luxury only afforded to those at the top, it is the fundamental shift that needs to happen for all people to build a solid foundation in personal wellness. And if we aren’t well, what are we?”

Before Moment Meditation, Anita Cheung was a Science graduate and founder of yoga business, Social Yoga. Then, she met Venice native Hiroko Demichelis. Fresh out of high-profile positions in the fashion industry working with the likes of Miuccia Prada, Hiroko became interested in clinical work and psychotherapy, and clicked with Anita. The two came up with Moment Meditation: Vancouver’s first mindfulness studio space, aiming to give people tools for mindfulness and meditation—whether they’re looking to alleviate stress, or tackle more serious mental health issues.

We caught up with Hiroko and Anita about debunking the biases around mindfulness and meditation, and making mindfulness accessible and worthwhile to people from all walks of life.

Hiroko and Anita.

GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hey, Hiroko and Anita. Hiroko, you hail from Venice, Italy and Anita, you’re born and bred in B.C. How did the two of you meet and end up creating Moment Meditation together?

Anita: We met when my last venture, Social Yoga, rented an airstream to host a pop up mobile meditation studio. It garnered some press and attracted the attention of our third founder, Evian Macmillan, who introduced Hiroko and I to one another. Evian and Hiroko had been in talks about creating mobile meditation pods/studios and were surprised to see someone else throwing it out into the world. We decided there was strength in numbers and worked together to create Moment as it is now.

You both had totally different careers before teaming up. Give us the 411.

Anita: I like to joke that I went from starving student to starving yoga teacher to starving entrepreneur. I completed my undergraduate degree in something I was keenly interested in, but not something I could see myself working day to day in (International Nutrition). In my final year of school, I was introduced to teaching movement while away for school and fell in love with it. Upon returning home, I dove into the yoga scene and decided to start “my own thing”—Social Yoga. Having no business experience but plenty of project management and client service experience as well as an eye for detail, I fumbled my way through creating a recognizable brand and experience. I’ve since had to step away from the one woman show to devote my energies into Moment.

Hiroko: My first degree was in Sociology. I worked in fashion for a few years – enough to understand the right tone of taupe – and then I decided to get a second education in Psychology.

I started getting involved in peak performance coaching but then developed an interest in clinical work. I became a psychotherapist interested in helping people with trauma, anxiety, depression. With suffering, in a broad sense. I created the Vancouver Brain Lab, where I work helping one person at the time.

What would you say to someone who is skeptical of meditating?

Anita: Meditation is like lifting weights for your brain. Just like you’re not going to enjoy the gym if you dive in the first time with the heaviest weights (ouch), I recommend plenty of patience in starting a meditation habit. It’s true, I think there’s still plenty of education around de-stigmatizing meditation for the mainstream.

Hiroko: There is so much scientific evidence about the benefits of meditation out now that being skeptical is really not an option. It is more a matter of wanting to hike the mountain or lift the weights.

The Moment Meditation space.

The practice doesn’t just deal with those who are feeling a bit stressed. You have patients who come in suffering from severe trauma. How do you differentiate in treatment for the contrasting spectrums?

Hiroko: Mindfulness for trauma is a more individualized practice: a therapist is with the client at all times to gently guide and support. A traumatized person is like someone who has to learn to swim. You would not want to ask them to dive into the ocean straight away.

You have three meditation offers – Happy, Focus and Calm. How do your approaches to each differ, and why is it important to split meditation into categories anyway?

Hiroko: It makes a big difference. I don’t know if it is important to have categories, but hopefully it is useful. Taking a vitamin, for example, knowing what that vitamin is for, helps me to be more motivated to take it. We have tried to simplify the meditations into categories so that we have something easy to remember as to why we are meditating.

Calm meditation looks at breathing, and more precisely at a way of breathing that encourages focusing on the out-breath. This stimulates a cranial nerve, the vagus, that calms the heart and calms the brain. In Happy meditation, we look more at loving, kindness meditation and gratitude meditation. These are practices that boost positivity and areas of the brain associated with positivity, such as the nucleus accumbens, or the left pre-frontal cortex.

For Focus, we focus (hah!) in strengthening selective attention, which is a fundamental quality of meditation, and of mindfulness. We aim to train and strengthen the pre-frontal cortex and specific frequencies in brain activity that relate to resting the attention on one specific object. We have not “invented” anything, as there is nothing to invent. The knowledge and wisdom is already there and has been there for centuries. We have just simplified it into categories.

You also offer a psycho-physiological assessment. How does that work and why is it important?

Hiroko: The MQ (mindfulness quotient) is fundamentally a stress and recovery assessment. We hook someone up with sensors that measure brainwaves, breathing, heart rate, heart rate variability, muscle activity, temperature, sweat. Then, we run a 20 minute test with some mild stressors and some recovery periods. Mindfulness is being aware of what happens both in the active tasks and in the restful ones. When we are doing something stressful, our temperature drops, our sweat goes up, the brain maybe worries more, heart rate speeds up and muscles tense. Am I aware of this? Am I mindful? And also, am I able to calm down this reaction in the body, in the brain, without worrying for the past or for the future?

What we are aiming to do, first and foremost, is ignite self-awareness. Self-awareness is the first and most powerful ingredient for change. Seeing on a screen what happens to my body and my brain when I am engaged or stressed or resting is a “mindful” experience. Once I have seen what happens, then I can try and learn to go deeper and change my relationship with what happens. In other words, I can learn to self-regulate.

Meditation and yoga are massive in Vancouver. How do you stand out from the crowd?

Hiroko: I don’t know if we want to stand out. I know that we want to inspire conversations around meditation and mindfulness. We don’t want just more clients, we want more happiness for everyone. The more the merrier.

Anita: I would like to add that we stand out by being the first studio in Canada that exclusively provides modern meditation (as in, it is not a yoga studio.) By focusing specifically on a meditation practice, we are able to dive deeper. We are also distinct from other modern meditation studios in North America because of our approach. Our method is specifically research-based, and evidence-backed with a key component centred around understanding not only the how of meditation, but the why as well.

Mindfulness is obviously key to your business—but mindfulness is a broad term. What’s your definition of mindfulness in a modern context?

Hiroko: I will go with JKZ’s (John Kabat Zinn, considered the “father” of mindfulness) definition: being present in the moment without judgement. I will add that sometimes we use graphs and data to make that even easier.

Anita: To me, mindfulness is being present. Not only in the moments on the meditation cushion, but in our day to day lives. It’s being present at the grocery store line up, while driving, and while in conversation with our loved ones.

Can you elaborate on how you approach treating patients who come in dealing with severe trauma?

Hiroko: We don’t do therapy at Moment. I personally am a therapist and deal with amelioration of trauma, but only in my other office, the Vancouver Brain Lab, in a protected one on one environment. I use mindfulness-based approaches that help the patient re-connect with the present moment and with the body. It is an integrated approach that combines therapies like EMDR (eye movement de-sensitizing and reprocessing) with mindfulness.

Anita, you mentioned there’s still plenty of education around de-stigmatizing meditation that needs to happen. Can you elaborate—how do you see the stigma functioning in the mainstream?

Anita: I suppose it isn’t so much a de-stigmatization but a re-education that needs to happen. The belief three years ago around meditation was that it was something “hippies” did. It was the weird sister to yoga—which at that point (and even today) was about the body and its beauty in various shapes. Flip through Instagram for five minutes and you wouldn’t have a hard time finding a photo of a yogi demonstrating physical flexibility. Meditation isn’t as loud, or as obvious, and so for a long time, it was forgotten.

These days, there is a growing understanding around the importance of mental health. Time Magazine did a feature around mindfulness and among forward-thinking top executives and celebrities, the mind is the final frontier to be faced. This inevitably will start to trickle down to the general public. It simply takes time. If you look to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, most of us have satisfied everything at the bottom of the period. It’s time to look towards self-actualization—which all starts from within.

This isn’t to say that meditation is only for those who have “made it”, of course. The irony is that although it seems like a luxury only afforded to those at the top, it is the fundamental shift that’s needed to build a solid foundation in personal wellness. And if we aren’t well, what are we?

For new clients, what are typically the barriers they encounter that hinder their meditation process—and how do you help your clients defeat them?

Hiroko: Two most common barriers pop to mind. The first is, “I don’t have time to meditate”, to which we reply: “the more we meditate, the more time we get, because the brain is calmer, more focused, more clear.”

The second is, “I cannot stop my brain”, to which we reply by showing a little video depicting what crazy busy brain activity looks like. We say, “stopping the brain isn’t possible. The goal is not to stop from thinking: it’s to come back patiently and kindly to the present.”

You’re described as establishing the first mindfulness studio space in Vancouver—but I would argue that yoga studios in general are, by default, about mindfulness. What’s the difference between the mindfulness of your space and the mindfulness of yoga, pilates, etc?

Anita: We describe ourselves as the first modern meditation studio. I would absolutely agree that yoga and pilates are forms of mindful movement. The purpose of yoga, when it was developed years and years ago, was to prepare the body for long periods of sitting in meditation. Our studio is about mindfulness in stillness.

Hiroko, I know from your experience at the fashion house that Mrs Prada would never be caught dead in a pair of tights. Any other juicy details?

Hiroko: She loves champagne and strawberries. And emeralds.

Who doesn’t? Thanks, Hiroko and Anita.