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Yoga, meditation and mindfulness

New to yoga? This guest blog post by a leading fitness training provider HFE gives you a comprehensive overview of yoga and its sister practices meditation and mindfulness.

Yoga, meditation and mindfulness

New to yoga? This guest blog post by a leading fitness training provider HFE gives you a comprehensive overview of yoga and its sister practices meditation and mindfulness.

Yoga is a modern take on a practice that is steeped in over 5,000 years of ancient Indian history, rituals and texts. Despite this rich and diverse history, the relevance of yoga and its associated practices, including meditation and mindfulness, remain as relevant today as ever before.

Through this journal, we’ll briefly explore yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, allowing you to better understand the similarities and distinctions between each.

 

Yoga

The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’, which literally means to merge, join or unite. It also represents unity and yoga is the union of the mind, body and spirit. Yoga is the art of knowing oneself, the functions of the body, the rhythm of the mind and the ability to look at all aspects of life evenly.

In the West, it seems that the majority of people are drawn to yoga because of the physical benefits it offers, with less emphasis on the more spiritual dimensions. For example, a doctor or physio will often advise their patients suffering from orthopaedic issues like low back, neck, or shoulder pain, to develop more flexibility and/or stability in their problem areas. The right yoga practice can certainly deliver these benefits, but there is much more available to those open to it.

According to the Sutras of Patanjali, there are in fact 8 distinct limbs of yoga, and each offers students guidance on how to live a more purposeful life that has more meaning. Practicing asana is only one of these limbs, with yama (moral restraint), niyama (positive duties), pranayama (breathing practices), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (enlightenment). Within each individual limb, there are an almost endless array of individual rituals and practices that support the goal of that limb.

The fundamental philosophy of yoga teaches students to be non-judgmental and compassionate, both to the self and others. Yoga is not about perfection, it’s about being present in the moment and being aware of where the mind, body and spirit wander, and where you want them to go.

 

Meditation

Meditation is a spiritual practice that is somewhat intertwined with yoga, although it isn’t exclusively a yogic practice. Meditation again teaches students again about being present in the moment, and how to accept and be content with yourself, others, and your surroundings (non-judgemental).

In recent years, the general perception of meditation has shifted somewhat from being a bit of an esoteric or hippy activity, to the widespread acceptance and appreciation of its mental, emotional and even physical health benefits. So much so that the popularity of meditation-based programmes and activities has increased exponentially over the past 10-15 years, with many people now viewing these  practices as essential daily rituals to support their mental health.

As previously stated, meditation is a key part of any yoga practice and most yoga teachers incorporate some meditation in to their class. Many often also include lessons on kindness, self-discipline, and truthfulness, to expand their students understanding of the practice. However, the extent to which meditation does feature will vary considerably depending on the type and duration of yoga session being delivered, as well as the specific yoga teacher training school the instructor  completed their yoga qualifications with. While all yoga qualifications include some meditation, different schools place a different emphasis on this activity.

While meditating, students often use an object of attention, such as the breath, to focus the mind and thoughts, allowing them to become quieter and calmer, so it’s possible to enter a more right brained state of mind (expressive and creative). In this state, increased alpha brain wave activity occurs, which is a sign that the body is activating the more calming (parasympathetic) nervous system as opposed to the more adrenaline fuelled stimulatory (sympathetic) nervous system. Spending more time in parasympathetic state means less stress, allowing the more unconsciously controlled aspects of our physiology, such as the heart and digestive system, to work more efficiently and self regulate more effectively giving us better health.

 

Mindfulness

The word ‘mindfulness’ comes from the Pali (a middle Indic language closely related to Sanskrit) word ‘sati, which loosely translates as ‘to remember’ or ‘to bear in mind’.  Its context is quite general and does not relate to any specific practices or techniques. Most mindfulness definitions refer to our capacity as human beings to be in the present moment and to become fully aware of our thoughts, feelings, and actions as they arise. Any act of deliberately increasing moment-to-moment awareness can be considered a mindfulness practice.

While mindfulness shares a long and rich history with Buddhism and other ancient practices or religions, it is not a religion or belief system, and there is nothing strictly Buddhist about mindfulness. Mindfulness as a practice is so revolutionary because it is not tied to any dogma or religion, but rather grounded in direct experience. Anyone has the capacity to practice mindfulness, regardless of their starting point or their religious/spiritual beliefs. 

The emergence of mindfulness in the West and the acceptance of its therapeutic health benefits by the medical community is largely attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn. Just over forty years ago, this American scientist and Zen Buddhist practitioner translated a series of ancient Buddhist practices into a language and methodology that Western medical community could understand and apply. The rest as they say is history.

Mindfulness has grown considerably over the past 30-40 years and the majority of this growth has been in mindfulness-based interventions, or mindfulness-based approaches. Some of the more popular and successful mindfulness-based approaches include:

  • Mindfulness-based Stress reduction (MBSR): An 8-week group programme originally developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn to help patients manage pain and stress associated with chronic illnesses.
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT): An 8-week group programme that synthesises theories and techniques from MBSR with strategies from cognitive therapy.
  • Mindfulness-based childbirth and parenting (MBCP): An 8-week childbirth education and practice class designed to help mothers prepare for birth and parenting.
  • Mindfulness-based eating awareness training (MB-EAT): A group intervention developed for the treatment of binge eating disorder (BED) and related issues.
  • Mindfulness-Based Elder Care (MBEC): An MBSR course adapted for the needs of elders, their families, and their caregivers.

 

This is a guest post by HFE.

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