As many of my friends and students are aware I have become a passionate advocate for Mindfulness Meditation over the past few years. And I’m certainly not a lonely member of some fringe minority. Mindfulness has become the corporate buzzword since high profile organisations such as Google, Sony, IBM, Telstra and SBS introduced mindfulness training programmes; along with 200 other listed companies worldwide who are reporting 20-35% increases in productivity as a result.
Meditation is no longer perceived as New Age mumbo-jumbo or a gift for those with the luxury of time to retreat to an Ashram or Himalayan cave for several weeks, months or years. It is widely accepted as not only beneficial, but essential to the health, wellbeing and effectiveness of society.
High profile celebrities, artists and business leaders alike are attributing their success and happiness to a regular Mindfulness Meditation practice. And my own journey from stressed, disillusioned corporate executive to happy, motivated yoga teacher and business owner has been largely a result of the same.
In the Western world yoga has become largely synonymous with the physical practice of yoga, known as the ‘asanas’ or poses. But ‘asana’ practice is only one of eight limbs of yoga - the 7th being meditation.
As a student of yoga in my twenties and thirties my meditation practice consisted of 5 or 10 minutes at the beginning or end of a yoga class, and for many years this was as far as it went. But as my interest in and knowledge of yoga deepened, I began to explore and experiment with various different styles of meditation.
While I enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) different styles and techniques, many traditional meditation practices seemed a bit too esoteric or introspective for my taste and didn’t stick; that is until I met my current teacher and discovered the sweet simplicity of Mindfulness Meditation.
There are no deep, spiritual secrets to unlocking Mindfulness Meditation; no journey of self-enquiry, purification or transformation; no chanting, visualisation, or anything to be achieved. Mindfulness is simply the practice of being present, enjoying short moments of open awareness, and allowing yourself to focus on the experience of what is happening in this moment, without judgment.
Sounds simple. And it is. Except of course for that monkey mind of ours that is forever over-analysing that difficult conversation we had yesterday, or worrying about a deadline tomorrow, or simply thinking about what to have for dinner tonight! (Did you know we have 60,000 – 80,000 thoughts a day, most of them repetitive?)
But the beauty of Mindfulness Meditation is that we are not trying to stop the monkey mind from doing what it does best; we are simply diverting our attention - for short moments - to other things.
Just as we continue to breathe even when we don’t focus on the breath, and our heart continues to beat even though we rarely focus on our bodily functions, and the ears continue to hear even when we're not listening; so the mind continues to think even when we focus on these other things that are happening in the present moment.
However, with practice we learn to become less fixated on our thoughts, and more aware of the rhythm of the breath, the sensations of the body, and the sounds that surround us at any given moment. And we begin to feel a deep sense of calm, clarity and contentment.
But the benefits don't end there. Many of us in the Western world live in a mild, underlying or even chronic state of stress. When we’re stressed our sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight mode) is in full swing producing adrenalin & cortisol, increasing the heart rate & blood pressure, and diverting energy away from ‘non-essential’ functions such as digestion, the immune system and cellular repair in order to deal with the more immediate danger.
Now this is really useful when you’re faced with a life-threatening situation (or even a slightly scary one such as public speaking) but probably not so necessary or helpful on the school run or in your average working day. Over a long period of time it’s hardly surprising that the effects of stress can ultimately lead to chronic illness, and it’s now estimated that 80% of deaths in the Western world are stress-related.
But the good news is that clinical studies have proven that just 20 minutes of Mindfulness Meditation a day for 8 weeks can reverse all of the above. Meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system (our relaxation response), that in turn increases production of serotonin and melatonin (which enhance our mood and promote sleep), reduces blood pressure & heart rate, and promotes digestion, the immune system, and healing – to name a few.
And when we feel safe, calm and relaxed, guess what? We’re also more open-minded, more compassionate and more creative. Since introducing a regular mindfulness meditation practice I’ve experienced some profound shifts in both my personal and professional life; from finally pursuing my dream of starting my own yoga business, to all but eliminating meat and sugar from my diet, and - most significantly – developing a much healthier, happier relationship with a very important but challenging person in my life. And none of the above have been difficult or onerous.
Getting started with a regular Mindfulness Meditation practice isn’t difficult or onerous either. Check out my previous post on ‘The art of doing nothing’ for some simple mindfulness tips, or download one of the many free and excellent apps available (I recommend Headspace or Smiling Mind). Start with just 5 or 10 minutes a day and what might initially feel like another ‘chore’ or your to-do list will soon become the highlight of your day.