Behind every lawmaker on Capitol Hill are dozens of young, ambitious staff members. Frequently pale from exhaustion, they work frenetically, touting the demanding work culture like a badge of honor.

Despite the sense of glory they ascribe to this exhausting pace, there is at least one place where staffers aren't judged for taking a moment to breathe.

Once a week or so, 25 to 50 staff members come together, not for happy hours or Crossfit sessions, but to practice the more reflective art of meditation. This group is casually referred to as the "Quiet Time Caucus." They gather in a ratty-looking meeting room in one of the Capitol's office buildings.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Stephanie Sheridan, a local yoga instructor, was leading the meditation. "Try and sit up tall, so you can shrug your shoulders up towards your ears, as you inhale," she says, breathing in. "And then exhale. Go ahead and release the shoulders back down."

Rather than tell colleagues where they're headed each week, many in this group keep their meditation practice secret.

"The fear is that you're going to be judged as weird," says Denise Fleming, a senior legislative assistant. "Or the worst stigma on Capitol Hill is for people to think you're not working. And so a lot of us here try to avoid that and we just don't tell anyone."

Being a congressional staffer is young people's work, says Fleming, who describes herself as "older," even though she's just 27. The work is "soul-sucking," she says, so she started looking for new ways to bring down her stress. Around the same time, she heard about the meditation group in a "Dear Colleague" email.

"I think now people would describe me as centered and calm," she says. Today, for instance, Fleming has a very long to-do list to finish before 6 p.m. But during the 30-minute meditation, all that slips away. "I can go back to work calm and refreshed," she says. "I feel like I'll make better decisions."

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, started the Quiet Time Caucus about three years ago. He participates in the staff group and runs another for senators and congressmen. I talked to him in the House Chapel, where legislative members meet. Unlike the staff meeting room, it has an ornate ceiling and stained glass window with George Washington kneeling in the center.

Ryan, a former athlete, told me how corporations and sports teams now use mindfulness practices to get better results from players and workers.

"It's the ultimate prevention," he said, because it can stop people from "doing or saying something stupid."

This, of course, seems particularly vital when weighing decisions of national importance.

Ryan's meditation groups are hardly a side project. He believes the federal government should be integrating mindfulness into all of its policies, from veterans affairs to health care to education.

"Why wouldn't we have an education policy, for example, that would teach kids to regulate their emotional state?" asks Ryan. "Because I know that if you can't do that, we're gonna be paying for you big time down the road."

Ryan hopes to gain an ally in new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who does yoga and works out for more than an hour each morning. But for the meantime, Tim Ryan's mindfulness policies are having a more microeffect.

Denise Fleming, the legislative assistant, says meditation and mindfulness have given her a kind of personal insulation from the battle-like conditions of Capitol Hill. I couldn't help but think she'd discovered some kind of secret.

Often she sees people shouting back and forth at each other, trying to push their ideas or agenda to victory. She approaches these fights differently. "Many times I've said to my boss or coworkers, 'let's pause and think about this,'" she says. "And that pause has saved a lot of heartbreak or frustration."

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For the next few minutes, we are going to hear a couple of stores that might change the way you think about familiar sights and sounds. First, we head to Capitol Hill. If you've ever been there, you've seen the many ambitious staffers rushing from place to place. But NPR's Will Huntsberry stumbled on a place where it's OK to slow down for a minute or two.

WILL HUNTSBERRY, BYLINE: The day-to-day pace on Capitol Hill is not for the faint of heart.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hurry, hurry, hurry.

HUNTSBERRY: But even here, where the ambitious and powerful hope to carve a name for themselves, there's one room where you can find a little breathing space.

STEPHANIE SHERIDAN: Try and sit up tall so you can shrug your shoulders up towards your ears as you inhale. And then exhale - go ahead, release the shoulders back down.

HUNTSBERRY: Once a week or so, around 25 staffers gather in this ratty meeting room in one of the capital office buildings for a guided meditation. Stephanie Sheridan is their instructor.

SHERIDAN: So why meditate? Why are you all here? Probably because you want to have some sort of increasing clarity in your mind, maybe you have some sort of anxiety that you're actually facing.

HUNTSBERRY: Anxiety - uh, yeah. And people blow off steam here by going to happy hours and CrossFit, not meditation. But sure enough, here they are sitting in plastic chairs all facing the front, trying to let the worries and power struggles that dominate their lives melt away.

SHERIDAN: So the idea is that when we focus on one object, like the breath, all other thoughts dissipate.

HUNTSBERRY: One of those in the class is Denise Fleming, a senior legislative assistant. She's 27 and wearing a blazer and glasses, sitting towards the back of the room. Her shoulders rise and fall. She says this makes her feel a little more sane, a little more centered, even though on a day like today, she's got an insane to-do list.

DENISE FLEMING: The work here is hard and it's stressful and soul-sucking might be the correct term.

HUNTSBERRY: And when that's the culture, telling people you're going to meditation might not land so well.

FLEMING: The fear is that you're going to be, like, judged as weird, or the worst stigma on Capitol Hill is to, like, assume that you're not working. And so I think a lot of us here try to avoid that, and we just don't tell anyone.

HUNTSBERRY: Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio doesn't care too much if it's weird. He started this group and runs a separate one for lawmakers. He took me to the House Chapel, where that group meets.

TIM RYAN: It has some mood lighting and has stained glass and rich mahogany. And there's a person kneeling in the middle of the stained glass and it's George Washington.

HUNTSBERRY: Stress has a terrible impact on physical and mental health. Ryan says practicing meditation helps. In fact, he has a whole mindfulness platform that goes beyond the meditation classes. He thinks it could be building to things like health care reform, veteran's affairs and even education.

RYAN: So why wouldn't we have an education policy, for example, that would teach kids how to regulate their own emotional state? Because I know that if you can't that we're going to paying for you big time down the road.

HUNTSBERRY: Ryan hasn't exactly made much progress on that platform. But staffers like Denise don't care so much about that. She's just happy to have a space to meditate. I couldn't help but think she'd discovered some kind of secret. Every day, she says people treat work at the Capitol like it's a battle. They try to win by being loudest, but she is centered and calm.

FLEMING: And those qualities have served me well. Many times I've said to my boss or my co-workers, like, let's think about this, let's pause. And that pause has saved a lot of heartbreak or a lot of frustration.

HUNTSBERRY: Taking a second to pause and breathe in Washington seems like a good New Year's resolution. Will Huntsberry, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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