I have a friend who is obsessed with his health. He practises yoga seven days a week, eats only organic vegetarian food, sleeps with an air purifier, knows which colour his aura is and is on first name terms with his inner-self. He also manages his own astonishingly successful company which takes him on business all over the world. I recently asked him how he copes with stress. “I meditate” he told me.

To someone like me, who runs their life on booze, additives and adrenaline, meditation seems a strangely spineless answer. Surely there was something a little more active than that which would help? Whatever the answer is, it’s clear that something to de-stress business travellers is needed.  According to a recent poll we conducted on business traveller.com, an incredible 94% of our readers said stress is affecting their health adversely. In case it might be thought that our readers are a particularly uptight bunch, these figures were backed up by a survey published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which reported that over half a million individuals in Britain believe that they are experiencing work-related stress at a level that is making them ill.

Armed with such frightening figures, and aware that the worst that could happen during a meditation session is falling blissfully asleep, I took advantage of a trip to Los Angeles, and booked in at a meditation centre.
Although yoga and related meditative practices originated in the East, it was the participation of Madonna and her acolytes in LA that bought these ancient arts to the attention of the masses. By the mid-nineties, every celebrity had their own guru and being some form of neo-Buddhist was as trendy as membership of Amnesty International.

The bandwagon may have rolled on, but in the West, yoga studios have never been more widespread, and figures of practitioners never so high.  Some are interested in fitness, particularly flexibility, while others are looking for more esoteric health benefits. But what’s certain is that anyone who thought a quick session on a non-slip mat would stabilise their lives has long since gone elsewhere. Yoga and meditation are for life, not just for whatever the Sanskrit version of Christmas is.

So, after a 12-hour flight, cortisol pumping through my veins due to screaming babies, flooding toilets and lack of sleep, I arrived on the west coast in a particularly receptive frame of mind for a crash course in meditation.

To add to the dislocation, it was my first time in Los Angeles. Before I came, I was told that everything would be fake and I expected the stereotypes: girls with big hair and false boobs sitting in open top sports cars and beefed-up hunks with bleached highlights strolling along sunny streets reading movie scripts. That may still be the case on Sunset Strip or up in the Hollywood Hills but here in the depths of downtown, the poverty and an underlying hostility seemed very real.

So, picture the scene: My hotel is in the centre of downtown, an area where sirens seem to wail 24/7. My room is above a gym, the bathroom ceiling is falling down and, as a result, I decide to spend as little time as possible in it. I’m helped by the fact that the weather is glorious, so I decide to walk part of the way to my meditation class.

When I was told I would be staying in the Jewellery district I imagined Audrey Hepburn types peering into windows where subtle lines of finely cut diamonds sparkled out into the street. But there is no Tiffany in Downtown LA. Instead, groups gather together outside shops that have initials instead of names and windows are crammed full of huge gold chains sold in bulk by staff chewing gum and wearing an entire year’s worth of store discount.

Violent crime has dropped significantly in LA over the past 15 years but there is still an edgy atmosphere in the less developed areas of downtown and from experience, I’d say that if you have a lot of appointments and are not familiar with the city, it’s worth keeping telephone numbers of local taxi firms with you as they are difficult to hail and it’s easy to wander, as I did, into hostile areas.

So all in all, my meditation class couldn’t have come at a better time. While I wait in the dark hall of the shabby residential building that houses the Bashtet Movement Arts Studio, I consider my two main areas of concern: will I be able to do it? and how will it help me with work-related stress? Can this instructor really teach me to meditate in the office or on the move without people noticing? The information I have on the studio is encouraging; lawyers, bankers and other top level business people are regular visitors here for both one-to-one sessions and mixed classes so there probably won’t be too much pressure on me to be “alternative”.

Alison, the manager, looks suitably serene when she arrives and I’m relieved to see there are no dandelions in her hair and no guitar in her hand. The studio is a large open-plan living room with just a rug to cover the concrete floor and a few ethnic items for sale and decoration. Because we are in a deserted area of downtown, the only sound is Alison’s voice, which makes the situation slightly unnerving. She’s telling me to relax.
If only it were that easy. Still, I listen to the theory. Meditation is personal and must be done from within. It definitely isn’t simply “doing nothing”. In a state of meditation, the mind is active and focused, the body is relaxed and poised and breathing is deep and regular. The pulse slows, stress hormones fall, lactic acid in the blood is reduced and the brain begins to generate new electrical patterns known as alpha waves, which have been likened to being awake, yet in a sleeping body. Put simply, you are shutting down the conscious part of your brain while staying aware.

Those who expect a deeply spiritual experience may be disappointed. No one dangles a pendant in front of you and insists “you are feeling very sleepy”. Instead, I lie on the floor in Alison’s studio with my shoes off and a pillow under my head and listen to Alison’s soothing tones telling me to go to a place where I feel comfortable. Unfortunately that place is a long way from here and I feel silly. It should be easy, but I feel vulnerable and under pressure to slip into a trance-like state. My heart is racing and I want to go home, or even to that awful hotel room.

Fulfilling her role as guidance professional, Alison senses my discomfort and suggests I sit up and try something else. She explains the importance of long, deep breaths and counts while I inhale and exhale slowly.
Focusing on your breathing is the simplest way to experience meditation. The best way to do it is by counting to a number during the in-breath, and then counting to that number again during the out-breath. The counting should be done slowly, and to a number you’re comfortable with.

After practising this exercise for an indeterminable amount of time, without even trying, I suddenly feel very relaxed. I can still hear Alison’s voice but I feel sufficiently blissed-out to visualise the calm, happy place she suggested earlier. My earlier stresses concerning being lost in a strange city are ebbing away.

But it was soon over. Alison has told me gently that my hour is up and I’m a little sad to leave. It seems wrong to simply put my shoes back on and shake hands with her after such an intimate session but this is a business after all and unless I am willing to hand over my credit card for an extra hour or buy some of their ethnic merchandise, it is time to go.

During the cab ride back to my hotel, I consider my experience and decide that although I felt deeply relaxed during the class,  I am still unsure how meditation will help me deal with travel related stress.
I don’t have to wait long to find out. On my flight home, the pilot informs us that we are in for a lengthy delay on the tarmac and I immediately feel the muscles in my shoulders and neck tighten. Closing my eyes, I concentrate on visualising a place where I feel relaxed and practise the breathing exercises, quietly counting to myself.

It doesn’t make the plane take off any quicker but with my heart rate now slower and palms less sweaty, I am able to put this minor irritation into perspective.

Meditation might not change your life but it could just extend it.

A one-hour class at the Bashtet Movement and Arts Studio costs $15/£7.78.
201 South Santa Fe Avenue, Suite 200
Los Angeles, CA 90012
tel +1 213 680 9642

Getting started

Though a variety of meditation techniques exist, there are basic elements anyone can master that will help combat stress. Doing as little as 20 minutes per day is enough to see the benefits.

1. Controlled breathing
Several times a day, stop, sit in a relaxed position, and breathe deeply and slowly into your abdomen for two or three minutes. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breathing. It will help if you can really let go on the out-breath. By paying attention to this phase of relaxation you encourage your body to relax more deeply, and this in turn has a calming effect on your mind.
2. Mindful triggers
Create a mindful trigger for yourself. This is something that reminds you to relax. It could be an action, like putting the phone back on the hook or closing down your computer. Every time you do this action, take a deep
in-breath and then let it out.
3. Peripheral awareness
This involves letting your gaze fall naturally on an imagined spot on the wall.  As you keep your focus lightly on that spot, begin to take your awareness to the edges of your visual field. As you become more aware of your peripheral vision, you’ll notice your body relaxes and your mind becomes quieter.
4. Project a protective sphere
Imagine that there is a kind of force field surrounding and protecting your body. This protective bubble can create a calm space that outside events can’t penetrate. This works because your subconscious mind doesn’t distinguish between imagination and reality, so you’ll feel that you are protected.

Stress – know thine enemy

Stress is an unusual condition in that it is brought about by psychological factors (usually anxiety), yet everyone needs a certain amount of stress since it helps your body react effectively to high-pressure situations.
(For instance, if you were under physical threat, the automatic increase in blood pressure, heart rate and metabolism and blood flow to the muscles would help you run away or fight back.)

Problems begin when those responses are inappropriate. In most companies, attacking work colleagues or running away from them are not viable options, yet keeping a check on yourself can have an adverse effect on your health.  This is where meditation comes in.

It is commonly thought that meditation can actually reset the brain, changing the point at which a problem sets the blood boiling. Concentrating on breathing or simply a word can train you to focus on the present rather than the past or the future. It then naturally leads to a relaxation response which, in turn, reduces blood pressure, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, blood flow to skeletal muscles, perspiration, and muscle tension. It also has the long term benefit of  improving your immunity to viruses.

In Wisconsin, university researchers enrolled 41 people in a trial of “mindfulness” meditation, a technique developed by an American stress reduction specialist to help hospital patients deal with pain and discomfort.
Twenty five of the subjects attended a weekly class and one seven-hour retreat during the study; they were also given exercises to carry out at home. The others did not receive meditation training.

After eight weeks, the researchers measured electrical activity in the front part of the brain. More activity was traced on the left side in the individuals who meditated, which is the area of the brain associated with lower anxiety and a more positive emotional state. Participants were also given a flu jab at the start of the study and those who meditated had higher levels of antibodies.