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This is your brain on silence: Local meditation classes offer plenty of benefits, both physical and mental

Tai chi teacher and UFV graduate Gurpreet Singh Cheema — known affectionately as just Cheema — has been holding drop-in meditation classes at Two Dragons Tai Chi Academy since January.



By Valerie Franklin (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: July 4, 2014


Spending half an hour sitting in complete silence with a dozen strangers might not be on your Friday night to-do list, but it should be.

Tai chi teacher and UFV graduate Gurpreet Singh Cheema — known affectionately as just Cheema — has been holding drop-in meditation classes at Two Dragons Tai Chi Academy since January. Wearing a T-shirt that reads “S’all guru,” Cheema doesn’t take himself too seriously, and has a genuine warmth and clarity that’s impossible to fake. His infectious friendliness has attracted people from a multitude of religious backgrounds and walks of life who come together in his classes not only to relax, but to connect across cultures and generations.

“Here you’ll see Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs, and atheists all hanging out and getting to be friends,” Cheema says. “We all happen to be human. Earthlings. When you look at it, the best way to be is together.”

Meditation is not a religious activity but a deeply personal, self-reflective exercise, and Cheema’s classes are based on technique rather than dogma.

“It’s for helping people grow awareness and understanding of themselves as well as the universe we live in. It’s not just good for your mind and your soul, it’s good for your body,” Cheema explains. “After just the first class, you’ll sleep better.”

The science is there to back him up. In 2009, researchers at Harvard Medical discovered what they call “the relaxation effect:” As deeper states of calmness are achieved, genes that fight disease and inflammation are activated. The more frequently and deeply the subjects meditated, the more profound their health benefits were. 

Meditation also heightens production of serotonin and oxytocin, strengthens the immune system, and helps one achieve greater mental and emotional balance, among other effects. Cheema’s attendees swear by it, saying it’s especially improved their sleep cycles and their ability to handle stress.

“It’s almost like a counselling session for some people,” one meditator observes.

Every meditation session begins with a relaxing cup of tea — Cheema’s own custom blend, a little different every time — served in adorably tiny teacups. A thick black area rug is rolled out over the wood floor and folding chairs are arranged in a circle, but Cheema encourages his students to position themselves however they are comfortable. Most people take the folding chairs, but a couple of meditators sit cross-legged on top of cushions they’ve brought from home, and someone even rolls out a yoga mat and lies down. 

We take our shoes off and put our bare feet flat on the carpet in a grounded position. Unlike some meditation classes which involve guided visualizations, Cheema’s sessions consist of 30 minutes of simple silence. It sounds like something you can do at home — and it is. In fact, he encourages us to do so. He makes it clear that he is there as a facilitator, not as a guide.

“I’m not going to lead you through rivers and around trees. That would corrupt your spiritual experience,” he says. “I want to give you the tools to do this on your own.”

In order to keep our stress levels low, he also emphasizes the importance of not expecting instant results: “No expectations, no limitations.”

We start with a deep breathing exercise. Once we are all calm and well-oxygenated, Cheema poses existential questions for us to ponder while meditating: “Who am I? What is my purpose? How can I help?” Finally, he gives us a grounding mantra to repeat silently to ourselves. 

When we’re ready, he taps a tiny xylophone, signalling the beginning of the half hour.

The minutes pass slowly. There’s almost no sound. Occasionally someone’s tummy growls, or a siren wails in the distance, or the air conditioner clatters to life. My mind wanders. I fidget. I think about the cup I broke this morning, the last episode of True Detective I watched, the errands I have to run tomorrow… 

I don’t even notice my mind gradually clearing, like clouds scudding off the sky to reveal blue above them. I begin to daydream about wandering through smoky purple caves while deeper thoughts about my life begin to bubble up from within. Like those hazy, warm minutes of half-consciousness just before sleep takes over, it’s a strange state of mind that I’m only aware of once I’ve left it.

My shoulder begins to ache after a few minutes, snapping me back into this world. As Cheema recommends, definitely bring a pillow or something squishy to help you sit comfortably. 

I spend the next 20 minutes unfortunately ignoring the advice about keeping one’s expectations low, trying too hard to get back into that first state of focus and mostly failing. Who knew that sitting in silence was so hard? 

When the xylophone pings again, I open my eyes. Everyone is slumped back in their chairs looking blissful and boneless. 

“Don’t operate heavy machinery,” someone jokes. “Don’t drive home yet.”

Cheema is currently trying to organize meditation and tai chi classes at UFV, his alma mater. For now there are several weekly meditation drop-in sessions, including Wednesdays at Two Dragons Tai Chi Academy on Essendene Avenue, and Fridays at U Weight Loss on Clearbrook Road. Admission is $10 and classes start at 6:30 p.m. Details about meeting times are on Two Dragons’ Facebook page.

After the Friday sessions, attendees usually linger for a group discussion, sharing  their different points of view about philosophy or spirituality, which delights Cheema. He gestures to his T-shirt. 

“S’all guru, right? Everything is a teacher. Everyone is a teacher.”

Maybe it’s coincidence, but I do sleep better than usual that night. Later, I try meditating at home using the mantra and breathing techniques from the class. It’s easier than the first time, but I’m already planning to head back to Cheema’s class. It’s just more fun with other people — and clearly I need more practice at doing nothing.

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