How Mindfulness Saved Jewel When She Was Homeless — and Why She's Sharing Her Practice Now

Jewel had to grow up faster than most kids. Her mother left when she was just 8 years old, and her dad used alcohol to get through past trauma. To overcome her own pain, the singer found mindfulness.

“I started journaling when I was 9,” Jewel, 44, tells PEOPLE. “I discovered that when I was curious and observant about what I was thinking and feeling, my anxiety quieted down.”

When she started having panic attacks at age 15, she invented exercises to quiet them. The practice came in handy a few years later after she lost her job and was living in her car — only to have it stolen. She was homeless for a year.

“My panic attacks came back,” she says. “I also got agoraphobic [fear of going places, often just outside], which when you’re homeless is very hard,” she says, laughing. “I was obsessed with my little street corner where there was a flowering bush, and I thought if I left it I would get sick.”

Jewel turned to shoplifting for survival, until one day she saw herself in the mirror. She wondered how she had gotten to that point.

“I was a statistic,” she says. “I was exactly what you would think someone of my background would turn into. Then I remembered this quote by Buddha that said happiness doesn’t depend on who you are or what you have, it depends on what you think. I decided I would try to turn my life around one thought at a time.”

It was then that she returned to the exercises she had practiced as a child, building on them further.

Those exercises — which she says take her from an anxious state to a relaxed state — became part of her first book, Never Broken, and are on her charity website.

“Anyone can see it if they feel like they’re struggling with a sense of connection or a sense of purpose, or if they have anxiety, or if they know someone else who suffering, or if they just want to be at a happier level in life,” she says. “This is been my lifelong mission.”

And now Jewel will continue sharing her practice at the Wellness Your Way festival, in partnership with Kroger, Oct. 4-7 in Cincinnati.

“I always wanted to do a wellness festival and share what I know about nutrition and our mental health and taking care of ourselves,” she says.

As one of the co-founders, Jewel will be a big part of the festival, which also includes yoga and group exercise classes, wellness workshops, film screenings, various speakers and music performances from Gavin DeGraw and Nick Lachey.

Jewel says it was important to her to have the festival now, during a “complex time” for mental health in the U.S.

“Suicides are up 60 percent since 2006. Anxiety and depression are all-time highs. Everybody’s struggling with it, everybody’s medicating and trying to find ways to feel better, and that’s why there’s this rush into wellness, because people are looking for meaningful solutions,” she says. “Right now we’re so anxious and scared that we can’t access our own hearts and our own humanity.”

Which is why Jewel wants to share what she has learned.

“I think artists owe it to people to be honest about their lives,” she says. “We all struggle, whether we’re rich, famous, poor or not, and we can find solidarity in our shared humanity, and learn from each other.”

RELATED VIDEO: Jewel on Co-parenting After Divorce: ‘We Always Think of Our Child First’

And her goal with the festival — and her overall mission — is to show how attainable mindfulness can be.

“It’s literally as simple as, when you’re in a really negative space and you feel tight and contracted, find something to be grateful for. It can be the feeling of your feet on the ground, or the sunlight coming through a tree, or anything. If you pick something to be grateful for, your body actually responds. Your blood vessels dilate, blood flow patterns charge into your brain, and you get a feel-good rush. It’s that simple.”

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