Meditating in virtual reality

Imagine you are on a beach in Bali practicing yoga at dawn, watching the sun rise beyond the lagoon. The image is so vivid that you almost forget you are actually sitting in an office in San Francisco, wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset.

MoodMe, a new VR application, gives users similar experiences with the aim to change moods in a positive way, specifically through yoga and meditation. Co-founders Oksana Zavoyko, a psychologist and author of “Dreambook,” and Nisa Ahmadova, a software engineer, developed MoodMe, an app in which a user can step onto the beach in Bali, to see, hear and “join” the practice of a yoga expert.

Through virtual reality, the brain can succumb to compelling evidence that you are actually somewhere else. The MoodMe team believes that not only putting users in a relaxing location, but also completing the exercises, can shift your mood and teach you to live a more mindful life — overcoming the stresses encountered in everyday life.

Others believe that mediation’s goal in being mindful is best applied to daily life: practicing yoga or meditation on a beach in Bali removes one’s self from reality and avoids life’s stress-triggering events.

The MoodMe team aims for their app to become a place to find calm, focus and energy. A use case is if you are at work and just came out of a stressful meeting, you can put the headset on and be transported to a different place, in order to instantly change your mood.

Additionally, in virtual reality, you can enter the space with yoga or meditation masters from around the world. For those who practice regularly, they can learn from a wide range of teachers who come from different backgrounds. For yoga novices, mind and body experiences are shared with the teacher, something only possible when physically present with the teacher, or with MoodMe through immersion in virtual reality.


Importance of mindfulness

Mindfulness, writes Karen Kissel Wegela Ph.D. in Psychology Today, teaches us how to be unconditionally present, no matter what is happening. “When we are mindful, we show up for our lives.”

For example: have you ever felt, when you are running late, that you must get there on time, no matter the consequences? You’ll swerve between traffic, almost hit a pedestrian, lash out at the driver who took too long at the stop sign, a danger to yourself and others.

“You’re basically a lizard, you’re basically a reptile because you’re in your reptilian brain, or you’re an early mammal that doesn’t have the capacity for higher order functioning,” says Donnovan Somera Yisrael, health educator for iThrive Vaden Health Promotion Services at Stanford University.

Our brain and emotions have developed further since this reptilian or early mammal phase, but under stress conditions, like you feel when you are running late, you can revert back to this primitive state. “You cannot manage your emotions and body and central nervous system when you don’t know what it needs,” Yisrael said. That’s when mindfulness can come into play.

Yisrael told Peninsula Press that the central nervous system is the body’s operating system. It needs a feedback loop — like a fire alarm needs to know there is smoke to turn on the sprinklers. Since you need to know what your system needs to calm down, to focus and to be present, mindfulness can help you become aware of yourself and your body.

“Ideally, mindfulness can be practiced in our real lives,” said Yisrael, but it can also be practiced in a controlled setting through meditation. Being fully present in the body, according to Zavoyko, makes the environment in which we choose to meditate, crucial. The MoodMe app lets users choose a space — a feature that might help users feel more comfortable in an ideal environment.

Zavoyko is currently in India, filming yoga classes and scenery in 360-degree video.


VR’s role in meditation, mindfulness

With the MoodMe app, the team combines “modern virtual reality and ancient yoga technique” to bring a sense of presence to the user. With the immersive nature of virtual reality, the body can feel present in Bali, Thailand or India.

But while VR can help people be mindful by virtual means, some argue that if you need your virtual reality headset to be mindful, you are relying too much on the technology. MoodMe’s Zavoyko and Ahmadova hope their users will be able to take what they practice inside of virtual reality back to the real world, where mindfulness can be applied.
(Editor’s Note: Reporter Naomi Cornman works in the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab as a graduate student researcher and is the media and communications lead with Rabbit Hole VR.)


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