As the nation embarks on a top-down overhaul of health care, a simple movement with the potential to improve wellness is quietly growing from the ground up.
It's called "mindfulness meditation," an outgrowth of the West's fascination in recent decades with eastern Buddhist philosophy.
Slowly but surely, experts say, the medical establishment is opening its doors to meditation as research continues to reveal its potential health benefits.
Many of the nation's hospital systems have come around to offer classes in mindfulness meditation as well as mindfulness-based stress-reduction programs.
"Often it's for patients who have just plain old life stress," said Dr. Hillary Campbell, Kaiser Permanente's leader in the Sacramento, Calif., area for complementary and alternative medicine. "It brings on a sense of peace and calmness. And it helps your attention and focus."
Scientific research indicates that mindful meditation may reduce stress-related illness, boost the long-term health of the body's cells and enhance one's sense of well-being. It has also been found to contribute to pain relief, alertness, memory and cognitive performance.
Clifford Saron is an associate research scientist at the Center for Mind and Brain and the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis. He runs the Shamatha Project, a comprehensive study into how intensive meditation training can affect the mind and body.
The project, endorsed and closely followed by the Dalai Lama, continues to yield findings from the study of two three-month meditation retreats held in 2007.
The 60 participants in the study received up to five hours a day of intensive daily instruction.
Saron says achieving mindfulness through meditation is not as easy as it sounds.
"A common way people think about meditation is as though it is a formulaic process," Saron said. "But meditation is not so mechanical. It's a commitment to investigate the nature of one's mind in a developmental process. ... This promotes a more knowing and friendly attitude toward oneself. This greater comfort 'within our own skin' will be reflected in mental and physical health."
The practice is spreading from area medical centers to community centers, from prisons to programs for parents of autistic children.
Its benefits are being tested in workplaces such as Google, in veterans' post-traumatic stress disorder programs, in attention deficit disorder clinics and even in tough neighborhoods.
Recently, a study result from the Shamatha Project linked mindfulness to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
High levels of cortisol, produced by the adrenal gland, are linked to physical or emotional stress, and prolonged release of the hormone is considered a risk factor for mortality or disease.
The Shamatha Project also found in 2010 that the feeling of well-being that comes from having meditated can lead to greater telomerase activity. Telomerase is an enzyme that is important for the long-term health of cells in the body.
Saron's project promises to continue to be a source of findings on the topic of mindfulness. It recently won a $2.3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to further its work for another three years.
Other clinical studies have concluded that mindful meditation may help reduce inflammation and act as a cooling agent for the body.
Mindfulness meditation can also help people deal with anger management, anxiety and depression.
In California, mindfulness meditation and yoga are taught in at least 20 prisons by volunteers with the Prison Yoga Project.
Tony Bernhard, a mindful-meditation teacher in Davis, warned that cultivating mindfulness takes more than intent.
"It's not like snapping your fingers and you're there," Bernhard said. "It's like learning a language or a musical instrument. It takes time and commitment and discipline."