Mindfulness instructor teaches students to choose reactions to stress

By Katie Demeria

WINCHESTER — All 15 of Mindfulness instructor Shell Fischer’s students sat facing her with their eyes closed, breathing deeply.

Fischer spoke softly to them, guiding them through their meditation.

“Just simply be that stillness that observes the arising and passing,” she said, her voice calm and level.

Fischer was teaching her students to do what she has practiced for the past 20 years — choose the way they react to the world.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is a class Fischer offers through the Dharma Yoga Studio in Winchester, as well as to patients at Winchester Medical Center.

“It’s about giving people the power to heal themselves,” Fischer said.

For Fischer, who has devoted a substantial portion of her life to the practice, remaining mindful is the best way to cope with the stress of everyday life.

“We have to become aware of how we are thinking so we can choose how to react,” she said. “The way we perceive things stresses our minds.”

“Mindfulness teaches us to slow down,” she continued. “It’s helpful to ourselves and others. We can learn not to believe everything we initially think.”

Changing the way we view everyday situations can allow an individual to choose how they want to react, and thus heal themselves in their own ways.

Fischer said one of her students, after starting the class, was in a car accident. She would normally have felt like the victim, Fischer said. With a new understanding of mindfulness, though, the student was able to instead choose to be thankful for the care she received.

“She felt incredibly grateful, and it was all to do with the way she perceived the situation,” Fischer said. “It’s not changing how we’re thinking, but instead choosing which perspective we want to have.”

The practice is especially useful for those dealing with pain. Fischer noted that mindfulness cannot cure conditions, but it can adjust the level of pain an individual feels.

“I’ve had students with fibromyalgia who come in and say they have gone whole days without experiencing pain, that it has been greatly reduced,” Fisher said. “And I’ve had people go off their cholesterol medication, and medication for depression and anxiety.”

Fischer’s classes start with 30 minutes of meditation in which she encourages students to pay attention to the things they would otherwise take for granted.

“Pay attention to the quality of the breath,” she tells her students. “Just notice that natural rhythm — return again to this natural flow of the breath.”

She teaches her students to do what she refers to as “full body scans,” as well. They consist of a natural progression of moving the mind up the body, starting with attention to the big toe and ending with the crown of the head.

According to Fischer, many of her students have been able to overcome sleep issues by practicing the full body scan when they go to sleep.

“The goal is people would practice mindfulness throughout all 24 hours of the day,” Fischer said.

Each class also includes a day retreat to the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Shenandoah Valley in Stephens City. The retreat consists of seven hours of silence. Students do not speak while Fischer guides them through a day of extended mindfulness.

“People take the classes for different reasons,” Fischer said. “Some for chronic pain, some to deal with relationships, some to deepen their personal spiritual practice, whatever it may be — and some just want to get more in touch with themselves. Mindfulness helps with all of it.”

Fischer will be offering spring Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction classes starting May 18. The classes consist of eight 21/2 hour workshops, along with the day retreat. To learn more, go to www.mindfulvalley.com.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com