10 Powerful Women of the Mindfulness Movement: 2021

What remains, amid loss and suffering, uncertainty and fear, is the breath. Ten mindful women offer the wisdom of their practice, from their hearts to yours.

Adobe Stock/ Mary Long

There are many ways to meet the moment. If you practice mindfulness, it’s safe to say you aim to meet any given moment with wisdom and skill. That can feel like a tall order these days. And while turbulent times certainly offer endless opportunities to practice, sometimes you need a little help. A little borrowed wisdom. A mentor or role model, even. What we realized as we built our third annual list of powerful women of the mindfulness movement was that there’s no shortage of powerful women practicing mindfulness, offering wisdom and mentorship in their own communities. We’re shining a light on these women, chosen by their peers, who are also shining their light for you.

Trust the Intelligence of Your Emotions

Tara Brach

Psychologist, Author, Meditation Teacher

Meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach has been curating moments of connection throughout the pandemic. Every Wednesday she hosts live mindfulness classes online; Saturdays she hosts small-group question-and-answer sessions. “Saturday has been so touching for me. The big questions people bring these days are about how to deal with the judgment and anger they feel toward those who don’t agree with them.”

Among her most popular practices is her RAIN practice, which clears a path for honest, direct contact with our own vulnerability, self-compassion, and healing. “First, I say, if you’re feeling anger toward someone, don’t try to ignore or get rid of it. There’s something in that anger that’s asking for your attention—anger alerts us, but then we need to keep on deepening our attention. [Then] you make a kind of U-turn and ask yourself, ‘What feels vulnerable inside me?’ By contacting that hurt or fear with care, you’ll reconnect with the tenderness and goodness of your own heart. And then, you can have more choice about how to respond wisely.”

“By contacting that hurt or fear with care, you’ll reconnect with the tenderness and goodness of your own heart. And then, you can have more choice about how to respond wisely.”

She’s not just teaching this, she’s putting it into practice. “I am continually making mistakes and continually at the mercy of my conditioning. I’ll read something in the news and just immediately think, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ And then I do RAIN on blame, because whenever blame comes up in me, I know I’m in a trance. All I’m seeing is some idea of what’s wrong with another. I’m not seeing their humanity, their suffering. And I’m not inhabiting the wholeness of my heart.”—HH

Stretch Outside of Your Boxes

Jessamyn Stanley

Yoga Teacher, Author, Body Positivity Advocate

“I didn’t realize until I started practicing yoga just how much of my life was being lived inside of boxes,” yoga teacher and author Jessamyn Stanley says. “I decided all of these boundaries for myself.” Boundaries that included what a fat, Black body like hers could do and where it could fit in. The yoga studio she practiced at featured a mirrored wall, and those boundaries became obvious when she was on the mat.

“I was very much consumed by self-hatred, and I would be looking at myself in these yoga postures or attempting to practice these yoga postures and I would just be like, ‘You can’t do it. Why did you even think you could come? Look at everybody else. You don’t look anything like them.’”

But Stanley stayed with it, and began to feel a change. With repeated exposure, she was able to see the boxes she was putting herself in. “Just seeing them and accepting that they’re there and through that process, establishing compassion for myself.”

She kept practicing, at home, and began filming her yoga sessions and posting them on Instagram, looking for feedback on her postures. She soon discovered that she wasn’t the only person who was putting her in a box. “I was surprised by the number of people that seemed to believe that fat people don’t do physical things. I was like, ‘Fat people do all kinds of stuff all the time.’ So really what we have is a visibility issue.”

Stanley pursued yoga teacher training, though she wasn’t sure the world needed another yoga teacher. But she soon came to another realization. “There’s so many different ways to show up in this world and we’re not all speaking the same language, and if the way that I speak and convey myself can resonate for even one person, and that one person finds compassion for themselves and then can share that compassion with the world, that is motivation to me.”

“We are in a period of deep collective healing and healing only happens through tearing it open and letting the wound breathe.”

That compassion is necessary, Stanley notes, as we navigate this moment. “We are in a period of deep collective healing and healing only happens through tearing it open and letting the wound breathe. And that is when the actual new skin can form. And so we’re in this experience of deep healing and also, very deep collective sadness. It’s just all got to be there.”—SD

Remember Your History

Cheryl Woods Giscombé

Health Psychologist, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

In her 2010 paper “Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health,” Dr. Cheryl Woods Giscombé writes, “The legacy of strength in the face of stress among African American women might have something to do with the current health disparities that African American women face.” Dr. Woods Giscombé developed this framework to investigate the epidemic of health and health-care disparities plaguing Black women—from adverse birth outcomes to untreated depression.

“It’s important to remember that we, Black women, are not alone,” she says. “Our ancestors have passed the baton to us, and we decide what we can do to continue that legacy in the time that we are here and widen the gap so others can continue to come through.”

“It’s important to engage in the most effective way, engaging your strengths without harming yourself. Mindfulness provides the wisdom to do that.”

Dr. Woods Giscombé experienced the effect of stress on her own well-being while pursuing a PhD in social and health psychology, and a master’s in nursing. When she encountered Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Are, she recognized mindfulness as the piece she needed to create a healthy life for herself—and to help others.

“We are always trying to negotiate how we use our energy; how do we use it to keep moving forward and engage in a way that will be useful for future generations,” she says. “It’s important to engage in the most effective way, engaging your strengths without harming yourself. Mindfulness provides the wisdom to do that.”—OL

Heal Yourself First

Tovi Scruggs-Hussein

Author, Educator, Leadership Coach

In her 17 years as a high school principal, and a teacher before that, Tovi Scruggs-Hussein witnessed passionate teachers doing their best while being overworked and undersupported. And she noticed that while the teachers struggled, the students were underserved as a result—especially students of color.

“I deeply believe that working with children and education is sacred. We’re literally growing the future of humanity,” she says. She sees pain and oppression continuously occurring
in the education system as teachers try to connect across differences of race and trauma, without knowing how to do so, and without having done the work to heal themselves first.

“Healing is about empowerment and everything we need is within us.”

So, she says, to create a better system for the kids, she now teaches teachers. She founded a consulting company called Tici’ess which provides information and training for educators so they can reach their full professional potential, therefore helping kids reach their full academic potential. She also provides programming for leaders in other fields, as well as for people interested in learning about trauma and understanding race and racism. Her consulting is based in emotional intelligence and leadership training, neuroscience, and mindfulness.

Scruggs-Hussein has practiced mindfulness and meditation for over 25 years. She lost her mother to AIDS when she was in grade nine and says she turned to overachievement to temper her loneliness. After finishing two degrees in three years at UC Berkeley, she recognized that she had not made peace with her mother’s death. In her attempts to reconcile her grief, she connected with a group of African healing women who instructed her to simply sit and breathe.

“They really felt that I was my own healer and that healing is about empowerment and everything we need is within us, and so that’s literally how I approach all of my work,” she says.—AWC

Show Up with Kindness

Tara Healey

Health Educator, Mind the Moment Founder and Director

A lifelong curiosity about how the mind works led Tara Healey to mindfulness.

“I wasn’t coming to mindfulness from a place of dissatisfaction, but a realization that life throws us a lot of curveballs,” Healey says. “So, how do we manage the things we wish didn’t happen?”

She experienced one of life’s curveballs when Harvard Pilgrim, where she was a health educator and organizational development professional, went through financial turmoil in 2005. With professional fear and anxiety rampant, she wondered if mindfulness could help her and her colleagues navigate the upset.

“Mindfulness is about seeing what’s actually happening, clearly. It’s this capacity to understand change and impermanence,” Healey says. “It’s a way of relating to everything that happens to us with more receptivity and with interest and curiosity.”

What began as a six-week introductory course on mindfulness in the workplace became Harvard Pilgrim’s Mind the Moment program. Healey’s initial goal to “help people suffer a little less” has bloomed into a flourishing program that now provides workplace mindfulness education to more than 10,000 people across all kinds of industries.

“My hope is that with so many more people who are practicing, all of us can show up in the world with a greater degree of kindness and compassion.”

“My hope is that with so many more people who are practicing, all of us can show up in the world with a greater degree of kindness and compassion. Because when you go out into the world, and you engage, you’re going to bring that kind of discriminating wisdom that can really change things.”—OL

Slow Down to Wake Up

Susan Bauer-Wu

Researcher, Teacher, President of the Mind & Life Institute

After an early career as a nurse, Susan Bauer-Wu returned to graduate school—and started meditating. “I was in my 20s, my mother had died, I was coming out of a bad marriage, and I was going back to graduate school.” Alone and in a new city, Bauer-Wu saw an ad that said: Feeling stress? Learn to meditate.

“Meditation helped me realize I had more control over my life than I thought I did—that my life was impacted by my thoughts and my feelings.” As she practiced more, she experienced “micro moments of peaceful mind and peaceful heart—these little moments of light were coming in through the dark and the more I practiced, the more those moments began to expand and become second nature.”

Path and purpose aligned after a post-doc in the late ’90s when she joined the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Medical School where Jon Kabat-Zinn was leading the Center for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Clinic. “I met Jon and immediately began my training as an MBSR teacher. Then I went to Harvard and began studying mindfulness with people with serious illness and cancer.” Now, as president of the Mind & Life Institute, she integrates her scientific and clinical background with the wisdom of mindfulness.

“Deep inner listening can guide you on how to show up—help you discover what you’re called to do.”

For Bauer-Wu, the pandemic has highlighted some essential lessons. “We’re all taught that we’re mortal. And we all know that it’s important to slow down in order to wake up. But even with that intellectual knowledge, most of us didn’t do it. We just kept going on as if those things weren’t truths.” Mindfulness practice teaches that in slowing down and listening, we gain access to our own wisdom. “Deep inner listening can guide you on how to show up—help you discover what you’re called to do.”—HH

Acknowledge the Fear of Giving Birth

Nancy Bardacke

Nurse-Midwife, Mindfulness Teacher, Founding Director of the Mindful Birthing and Parenting Foundation

If you talk to Nancy Bardacke about her work developing and teaching Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting (MBCP), she’ll likely introduce you to her daughter. Bardacke says Daisy was a heck of a labor— three years—and it hurt like hell to push her out. Daisy
is the nickname Nancy has given to her book Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body, and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond in which she lays out MBCP. And Bardacke views the process she went through to write Daisy as similar to the human universal that sparked her curiosity at the beginning of her career: childbirth.

When Bardacke first started practicing as a licensed nurse-midwife, she felt tension between her mindfulness practice and her work with expectant parents. “My meditation was my own practice,” she says. “There weren’t teachings about how to bring mindfulness into your life. And there was this kind of disjunction.” She wished she could tell those parents about being in the present moment when they experienced fear and pain. “But I couldn’t do it,” she admits. “I didn’t have the language.”

Bardacke can still point to the spot where she was sitting at the Mount Madonna Center in California when a way to weave her two worlds together fell onto her meditation cushion. She describes the exact moment in onomatopoeia—bam! At a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) retreat for healthcare professionals led by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Bardacke realized that she could adapt the format to help people in her care.

“Having a child is a profound life transition and it’s normal to have fear because you’re going into the unknown,” she says. Mindfulness equips expectant parents and healthcare providers with the skills not only to reduce stress and pain during pregnancy, but to foster kind, compassionate parenting.

“If we’re going to evolve into more caring, compassionate, connected creatures, [mindfulness] seems pretty key.”

Two decades since Bardacke first brought MBCP into the world, she’s now stepping back and thinking about how her work might serve future generations. With 164 MBCP teachers across 28 countries and promising new research coming out of the Mindful Birthing and Parenting Foundation, she hopes we’re moving toward a global mindful childbirth movement. “Being an agent of change is difficult and midwifing awareness is a challenge,” Bardacke says. However, she emphasizes that a mindful approach is more important than ever. “If we’re going to evolve into more caring, compassionate, connected creatures, this seems pretty key.”—KR

Care for Our Healthcare Workers

Ni-Cheng Liang

Pulmonary Physician, Podcast Host, Mindfulness Teacher

As the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic dawned in March 2020, Dr. Ni-Cheng Liang began to consider how she could help herself and her colleagues stay afloat in the storm to come.  

“From a healthcare professional perspective, we know that burnout has been a pandemic even before the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Liang, director of pulmonary integrative medicine at Coastal Pulmonary Associates, says. She knew the demands on medical professionals would only increase, so she set about creating a support system.

She recruited eight colleagues, friends, and collaborators in the medical field from across the US and founded the Mindful Healthcare Collective in mid-March 2020. They work together to offer up to three free online mindfulness-based sessions per week that are tailored to the needs of healthcare workers on topics from basic breath awareness meditations, to anti-racism work, to mindful eating. Some recordings are published for the general public through another platform called the Mindful Healing Collective. 

Mindfulness has long been a pillar of both Liang’s personal self-care practice and her medical practice. She says staying intentional about keeping daily loving-kindness meditation and mindful breaks in her routine has become essential since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. “If I don’t show up to the best of my ability,” she says, “I’m less able to help those that I serve.”

“If I don’t show up to the best of my ability, I’m less able to help those that I serve.”

As a breast cancer survivor, Liang says mindfulness has played a key role in the emotional aftermath of survivorship. She began meditating regularly to help manage the uncertainty that followed treatment. 

Now, in addition to teaching mindfulness to other healthcare professionals, she often brings mindful breathing techniques into clinical appointments with patients whose medical conditions constrict their breathing. Liang says brief breath awareness practice can help people stay calm and breathe fully. 

The Mindful Healthcare Collective has been growing steadily in Facebook group members since it was founded. Liang says she would like to see the collective continue to fill the gap in mental health support resources for healthcare workers even after the acute stress of COVID lessens.  “Providing this service to my colleagues near and far really has fed my soul. It’s given me a purpose.” —AWC

Ignore the Skeptics

Sara Lazar

Yoga and Meditation Practitioner

When neuroscientist Sara Lazar began studying meditation, she was one of the few. “Initially everybody was skeptical,” she recalls. “I can’t tell you how many times I heard someone say, ‘Meditation is ephemeral, there is nothing to measure.’” Though her PhD work focused on molecular biology, adopting a mindfulness practice while in grad school was so profound for her that her research focus shifted. Her first study, published in 2005, examined the brains of long-term meditators and found the practitioners had significantly more gray matter in several brain regions than the non-meditator control group—findings that were met with “a lot of doubt.”

In the 16 years since, though, “all these findings have been replicated and extended,” and there’s been a major shift in the scientific community’s approach to mindfulness and meditation.

“As you start to practice, you become aware of so many details that you previously ignored. Mindfulness really can change your life.”

Along with the very outward-facing work of heading the Lazar Lab for Meditation Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, Lazar is equally engaged with her inner, personal mindfulness work. She says the practice can help to create a more compassionate society through increasing our awareness of thoughts and actions. “We all think we are kind and compassionate people, and with mindfulness we start to become aware of the times when we act in ways that are perhaps not in line with our values,” she says. “As you start to practice, you become aware of so many details that you previously ignored. Mindfulness really can change your life.”—AT

Honor the Sorrowful Parts of Yourself

Ruth King

Mindful of Race Founder, Educator, Author

Ruth King found ease for her inner crybaby when she was young—in the plumbing systems her father worked with, and the jazz music her mother played. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles in the heat of the civil rights movement, she understood that “feelings were dangerous to express. Being a crybaby was like being a target.”

Her father showed her the plumbing system beneath a building. “I was struck to see a system of meaning at play. In order for the water to flow, it had to be aligned and connected.”

Meanwhile, at the jam sessions her pianist mother hosted, Ruth saw the musicians working with suffering. “They found a way to express that sense of struggle creatively.”

These two lenses gave Ruth a way to be. “Together it just created this freedom and lyricism inside my heart and mind that I could then bathe the crybaby, inconsolable parts of myself, and it became a base of inquiry for me.”

That led Ruth to her work as a therapist and an organizational development consultant, and as founder of the Mindful of Race Institute and training program.

And while Ruth says her “crybaby” still cries, she knows that crying is a comma, not a period. “One of the things that mindfulness teaches you is that what’s happening in my mind is not personal, permanent, or perfect. So you can relax into the nature of it being impermanent, that what’s happening right now is not going to be forever.”

This lets Ruth honor the sorrowful parts of herself without letting them take over. Because there’s work to be done. “I do a lot of work around race, understanding what you bring to racial harm and what you can bring to racial harmony. I find myself in a place where I can be more responsive, less on fire, but more with fierce clarity. As an elder, it’s important to me to not waste my energy. I want it to make a difference.”

“We are responsible for the seeds we plant because they will bloom. We’re seeing blooms of what’s been planted in the past.”

This requires Ruth to be mindful of the past with an eye on the future—while living in the present. “I think about my ancestors, people who have been in this struggle for generations. So there might b a feeling of urgency, but I don’t think we should expect that it’s going to happen in the next moment or in our lifetime even. But we are responsible for the seeds we plant because they will bloom. We’re seeing blooms of what’s been planted in the past.”—SD

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Voices

12 Powerful Women of the Mindfulness Movement 

There’s a balancing of gender power happening across the professional world—including the mindfulness world. Twelve leaders in the field share how they claim their power and bring the diversity of their experiences in the mindfulness movement to bear in their work. Read More 

  • Stephanie Domet
  • January 15, 2019

About the author

Amber Tucker

Amber Tucker is a senior editor at Mindful Magazine. Originally from western Newfoundland, she currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with her partner, two cats, and assorted rodents.

About the author

Ava Whitney-Coulter

Ava is a writer and digital content creator who draws on a diverse background in her role as an associate editor. Her education is in journalism and her work experience ranges from commercial fishing to serving, but no matter what she’s doing, she brings her adventurous spirit and passion for storytelling. On the weekends, you can find her exploring the great outdoors of Nova Scotia (ideally near the ocean), doing yoga, or reading.

About the author

Heather Hurlock

Heather Hurlock is the Editor-in-Chief of Mindful magazine and mindful.org. She's a long-time editor, writer, musician, and meditator with deep roots in service journalism. Connect with Heather at [email protected]

About the author

Kylee Ross

With a background in journalism, Kylee has honed her storytelling and digital content skills in several roles. She worked as a copywriter, public relations coordinator, copy editor, and social media coordinator in the Montreal area before joining Mindful. In her spare time she enjoys cooking, doing yoga, reading, and exploring Nova Scotia.

About the author

Oyinda Lagunju

With an educational background in biology and previous experience as an academic writer, Oyinda has always shown a great affinity for wellness and well-being, an interest she has brought to her role as an associate editor at Mindful. Adept at various forms of digital content creation, Oyinda has the ability to use various mediums to highlight an issue. As a breakfast enthusiast with her head in the clouds, you can find her either at brunch or thinking about brunch.

About the author

Stephanie Domet

Stephanie Domet is the Managing Editor at Mindful. She is a writer and editor who lives in Halifax and is forever trying to keep her narratives where they belong: on the page.

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