Mindfulness 101: what is mindfulness, anyway?

Welcome to the first of a series of blog posts that step by step will introduce you to the most basic aspects of mindfulness and creating a personal mindfulness practice. 

And although mindfulness is first and foremost a practice, something that needs to be experienced, it doesn't hurt to have a basic theoretical understanding of what it is. 

As with all practices that have evolved over multiple generations you won't be able to find one coherent answer to the question of what mindfulness is, so in the following paragraphs we will introduce how we understand and look at mindfulness from a YOMI perspective:

Mindfulness stems from buddhism and is an ancient meditation practice, but also a sort of guidance through life that emphasises the now, the moment that exists in the present. Or as we might better understand it in our everyday lives: that which we're constantly missing as we're busy planning or worrying about the future, or ruminating over the past. 

There are various definitions of mindfulness, what it is and what it entails. Rather than trying to find consensus amongst these, we have in YOMI chosen to define mindfulness as the following: "the state of being present in each given moment; adapting a non-judging, exploring, trusting and patient approach; and being aware of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations - altogether making it possible to cultivate compassion and acceptance towards oneself and others". 

What this somewhat lengthy and academic definition means can be broken down into two main parts: 

1. Being consciously present, aware of one's thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. In other words, being in the present moment. 

2. Adapting a non-judging, accepting and compassionate approach towards oneself as well as others. In other words, being open-minded and kind. 

Simple as that. Or rather, simple in theory, but most times way harder to apply in real life. But really, that's it, that's what you now can start exploring and practicing everyday for the rest of your life. Sometimes embodying that mindful, accepting presence, but pretty likely just as often finding yourself on the verge of a breakdown after having had your thoughts wander of for the zillionth time during your meditation session. 

In the next Mindfulness 101 we will start looking into some simple (but again, oh, yet sometimes so hard) tools and exercises to get you started on your mindful path.  

Nurturing a better self-care: Introducing the concepts of ”topography/form” and ”function”

Most of us know that taking care of ourselves generally is a pretty good thing to do. Feeling well and helping yourself to feel well makes intuitive sense.

In therapy, when we as psychologists bring the issue of self-care up, a lot of clients look at us and burst out: “Oh, you mean I should go to a spa or something?”. Or they quickly say that they have been to the spa several times, but it didn’t make them calmer at all, on the contrary it made them even more stressed.

It seems as if taking care of oneself is not always as easy as it seems, and that taking care of oneself is a concept that has a lot of misconceptions and notions tied to it. Like the one of self-care equaling going to the spa, or getting a facial.

Not surprisingly though, what’s nurturing for one person might not be so for another. While going to the spa might make me calm, going for a run, to a sports game or even watching some TV might do the trick for my friends. So how do we know what works for us, and if we don’t, how can we start to find that out?

In order to nurture a better self-care we can start by getting acquainted with two concepts from the behavioral psychology: form/topography and function.

When we start to look at different behaviors we can describe them in various ways. We can do it by looking at their topography or form, namely what they look like from the outside (for example “watching TV”, “eating an orange”, “taking a bath”). The topography of a behavior is comparable to drawing a map of the behavior, of what we can observe from the outside.

But if we want to get closer to learning about what is a nurturing and self-caring behavior we shouldn’t be too blinded by what we see from the outside, but rather start looking at what functions our behaviors have, what motivates us to do something. If I do something, say, go for a run, it will make a difference whether I do it because I’m scared of gaining weight or because I genuinely love being outside and feeling my body move. Even though the run will look exactly the same from the outside it will in these two examples serve different functions. If I call a friend due to not wanting to feel alone it will serve a different function than if I call him due to wanting to speak to him and hear about his ongoing life. Behaviors that look exactly the same from the outside can serve us in very different ways, varying between people or even between different times for the same person (one time looking at TV might serve the function of distracting me from negative thoughts, whereas the next time my motivation might be that I’m interested in the show that’s broadcasted).

So this is the reason why going to the spa not necessarily equals self-care for everyone (note: to make it a little bit more complex, one behavior can of course serve more than one function, but there is usually a primary motivation behind it). If we want to nurture a better self-care we need to look deeper into our behaviors than their topography, and try to peel away our conceptions of what taking care of oneself should look like. And instead try to get to know what taking care of ourselves feels like, so that we can start looking for behaviors that nurture that self-caring feeling.

We will get back to this subject several times, digging deeper into it with the main purpose of better nurturing our own self-care. But as of today you can start by noticing and observing, not only what you’re doing (the topography), but also what your primary motivation behind doing something is; what function the behavior serves. 

Yoga as part of a psychological treatment - a personal reflection

For this week's blog post, YOMI co-founder Maria shares some personal reflections on bringing yoga into the therapy room:

Working as a clinical psychologist and yoga instructor, I early on realized how easily these two fields can connect to one another. I always use my knowledge from one when I’m working with the other. Not so say that one doesn’t have to be careful with what pieces of the yogic tradition you bring into the therapeutic room and how you use these tools.

As a psychologist, working primarily in the primary care, I meet a lot of people who are feeling stressed, worried or who are more severly affected by anxiety or exhaustion. Many of these people have a hard time slowing down, resting without sleeping and letting go of things that bother them, like thoughts, feelings and destructive behaviors.

 Many of the psychological treatments for these conditions include different ways of learning to relax. I find yin yoga to be a great tool for this! Not only because it in itself is a way to relax the mind and body, but also because it is a way for the mind and body to become more connected. Many people who worry, suffer from anxiety or exhaustion experience troublesome physical sensations and – more troublesome –  often fear these, which makes their suffering even worse. Yoga can be a way to, once again, become friends with your own body; learning how not to react to it and its sensations as if it were an enemy or something disconnected from you. Instead, one might learn, what an incredible tool the body can be, alerting you when you are expanding your own perception of what you thought you were able to handle.

 Even if yoga and breath control is not as easy as pressing a button, it certainly does a good job moving you from a place of arousal, to one of relaxation. Working on becoming aware of the breath, slowing it down, has many times been proven, through experiences and science, to be an effective way to induce certain processes in your body while disconnecting others. And maybe this might be why yin yoga is such a powerful tool in stress and worry reduction; it continuously allows the practitioner to work with the breath and body, connecting the mind to all physical sensations in order   to encourage the relaxation response to start. In our program YOMI yin, we explore the effect of psychoeducation, mindfulness and yin yoga, on people who experience stress and worry. A few scientific studies down the line we’ve just submitted a manuscript the we’re hoping will be ready for publication shortly, and then of course shared here on our web page. Until then we will sit down on our mats, gently fold forward, hold the position for 3 to 5 minutes, and breathe. 

Facilitating behavioral change: establishing a daily practice

If there’s something we psychologists know it’s how hard it can be to make behavioral changes. If it weren’t then this world would look a whole lot different, your life would probably look a whole lot different.

We’re creatures of habit, lovers of the path of least resistance and automatized to the point of in many ways resembling an autopilot that has set out across the ocean, navigating us through our daily lives.

Luckily, something else we psychologists know are a few tips and tricks on how to facilitate the desired changes in our behavior. And, lucky for you, one of our aims with YOMI is to share whatever knowledge we have that might make life easier for just about anyone who’s interested. Hence: this series of blog posts called “Facilitating behavioral change”, fresh with psychological knowledge and research, applied on our yoga and meditation practice, in our regular everyday stressed out lives.

When getting into yoga and meditation, whether it be through a more structured program such as the YOMI program, via a youtube home practice or the occasional yoga class at your gym, most people eventually become more and more intrigued by the thought of establishing a daily practice: a daily sadhana. Which, due to our somewhat habitual and lazy nature, can be easier said than done. Establishing new habits usually requires a bit of effort, but can be facilitated by a number of things:

·      Take small steps: the hard part of creating a daily practice is usually not so much the actual “practice” part as the “daily” part. If we focus too much on the practice being big, advanced or strenuous, chances are it’ll be hard for us to keep up on a daily basis. Rather, when starting out, try to take smaller steps in the beginning, gradually building your practice. Start with a shorter practice, using only poses and exercises you know well. When establishing a daily sadhana five breaths on your mat everyday actually is more beneficial than one and a half hour of advanced asanas once every other week. 

·      Create a good space: It might sound like an obstacle that shouldn’t have much impact on your own willingness to practice, but not having a good space to set up your mat or meditation pillow will decrease the chances of you practicing on a regular basis. People are fairly easily conditioned (as much as your average dog or rat), and our brains love to make associations between activities and certain places (e.g. associating our bed with sleeping, our dining table with eating, and the bathroom with brushing our teeth). So much that it can help us get sleepy when we are nearing our bed in the evening. Creating and condition yourself to a certain place for your practice is a good helper. It doesn’t have to be fancy, you just need to know where to roll out your mat, and that this preferably is a place where you have room to raise your arms, and not be disturbed by too much noise or other people. If you want to cozy it up, go ahead, see that as a bonus, but not as a required.

·      Keep your things handy: When NIKE claims “Just do it” they’re probably not thinking about that in order to do it we need to take a few steps first. Such as getting into the appropriate attire and finding our blocks. The rule usually goes that the more accessible your needed stuff are the likelier that you’ll do it. If you do your practice in the morning, set up your space and lay out your clothes the night before. Keep your mat visible, it’ll remind you of your practice. (Remember the previous step about creating a good space, and about how the brain loves to associate things with each other, such as your mat with you doing your practice).

·      Be humble towards the fact that you have a whole other life to live – but adapt accordingly: Few of us have the luxury of leading lives where time seems to come in abundance. We are usually quite busy, especially the one’s of us who seek out yoga and meditation to help manage our stress levels. And in some ways life is what it is; we won’t get rid of certain daily chores, our kids will need picking up from school at certain times each day, our bosses might keep giving us the evil eye if we slip home early too often from work. So, while you get ready for making that really big life change of downsizing or quitting your job (or if you’re just quite happy with keeping things fairly much as they are, but would like some more time for yoga), stay humble towards the fact that life is there, and it’s requiring quite a bit of you. But learn how to adapt accordingly. What time of day would be the easiest for you to practice? Are you a morning person enough to get up half an hour earlier and roll out your mat? Are you an evening person that would benefit from winding down with a night time practice? Is it possible to come into work later and staying later, giving you some more time in the morning? Are you willing to give up a bit of TV time in the evening to practice?  Do what suits and do what works for you, it’s usually a good guideline to increase your chances of getting on your mat. And that’s really what it’s all about: getting you onto your mat and start breathing. Once you’re there you can gradually build the rest. 

​ Yoga won’t always make you feel good - and that’s exactly as it should be

In most yoga schools establishing and keeping a daily sadhana (daily practice), including both asana and meditation, is highly encouraged. Often this daily practice is talked about as the foundation for one’s yogic development and an essential part of getting closer to the 8th limb of yoga; Samadhi. The quote by famous yogi Sri Pattabhii Jois: “Everyday do your practice and the rest will come”, is something that yogis worldwide believe in and live by.

There is however, in a wide array of yoga circuits (not the least on facebook and instagram), a fairly well established culture of spreading the message that yoga will somehow automatically and every time you do it make you feel great (a quick search on the instagram #yogaeverydamnday offers captions where expressions such as “nothing in the world compares”, “you always have a choice” and “feeling grateful as hell” are amongst the first to pop up.) And while this of course at times is true, it certainly is a bit of a modified truth. Sometimes yoga doesn’t give you that incomparable feeling. Sometimes we don’t have a choice when it comes to the state that things around us are in. And gratitude usually takes quite a bit of hard work, and does not always naturally pop up at the end of our practice.

But – and this is an important but – there is sometimes (note: not always) an important difference between what feels good and what serves us well. There’s also often times an important difference between what feels good short term and what is beneficial for us in the long run. Sometimes yoga doesn’t feel good; not at the beginning of practice, not during and not even after. Sometimes it stirs up emotions, sometimes your body’s sore as hell, sometimes you haven’t slept all night and are exhausted, with your mind occupied by thoughts about the fight you had last night with your partner. In the short run, sometimes, yoga might even make you feel worse – sad, irritated, frustrated and disappointed. This doesn’t however necessarily mean that your practice hasn’t served you well, and that the benefits of it won’t come dripping down into your life later on.

One of the skills we need to develop, as yogis, but also in regular life, is to learn and get to know what it is that actually serves us well – even though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it in the moment. And equally learn what doesn’t serve us well, even though it really feels good in the moment. As psychologists this is something we continuously work with our patients, particularly patients suffering from depression and anxiety: finding out which things are meaningful and beneficial for you, and finding a way of getting them into your daily routine. Sticking with them even when you feel like rolling back into bed and skipping life altogether. Learning to trust that sometimes it’s enough to know what’s good for you, adapt accordingly, and be patient as the benefits might not show up until a while later. Or in other words; Everyday do the practice that serves you well, and the benefits will eventually start pouring into your life, even if it sometimes feels like shit in the moment.

Getting to know your autonomic nervous system: how the body fights and flees.

Since we humans in many ways are a product of evolution, one of the main jobs for our bodies and brains over the past million years or so has been to ensure our survival. Part of this has entailed developing a highly effective system that allows us to, say, run from lions or fight against (less intimidating) enemies. In these attempts we have to hand it to evolution to having been fairly successful; developing the part of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system (also called our fight-or-flight-system), which is backed up by the parasympathetic nervous system that on the other hand is responsible for our recovery, relaxation and basically taking it chill once the danger is gone. With these two being part of the autonomic system, they’re usually systems we don’t control voluntarily, but rather ones that switch on and off, and swing between the one and the other, all adapted to what our internal and external circumstances look like. When in sympathetic activation our heart rate increases, breath becomes shallower and faster, the muscles tense and we become hyper aware of what’s going on around us. And on the contrary, parasympathetic activation allows the muscles to relax, heart rate to slow, breath to become deeper and slower, and the body to attend to its repairing functions such as memory retention, the immune and digestive systems. Basically the things that will get us ready for the next time we may need to fight or flight.

Somewhat simplified it goes something like this: Danger appears, sympathetic activation switches on. Danger subsides, parasympathetic activation switches on. We run when lions are present and we rest when lions are absent. So far so good.

Enter: the evolved human brain. Here comes trouble. In numerous ways:

1.     One thing to remember about the brain is that while being a killer at solving advanced, abstract problems, it’s unfortunately less than perfect when it comes to differing between dangers that are real and dangers that are imagined. Hence, both a real lion running towards us and an imagined lion running towards us will activate the sympathetic nervous system. This causes a bit of problem since we’ve developed a language that allows us to imagine all kinds of hypothetical situations whilst being in a context that from the outside looks perfectly fine and safe (e.g. lying in bed and suddenly go into a string oframbling thoughts such as “what if my boss doesn’t like the work I do”, “what if I don’t fall asleep, I’ll be so tired tomorrow, I won’t be able to work”, “why haven’t my partner called yet, what if he was in a car accident, what if he’s dead?!”). And regardless of your cozy pillows, safe neighbourhood and a bedroom with the perfectly adjusted temperature, these thoughts are very likely to trigger your body into sympathetic activation. The brain just isn’t all that good at knowing when danger is real and when it’s imagined. 

2.     Social exclusion is considered a real danger. Even though it may not be associated with immediate danger of death to be excluded from your social sphere, there probably was a time when being left out in the cold was. Remember, our brains have in many ways far from caught up with our current society, especially when it comes to their initial reactions. Therefore any signs of social exclusion, of being disliked or dismissed are interpreted as potential dangers, triggering the sympathetic nervous system. Our perception of our social belonging fairly directly affects our bodies and our perception of the rest of the world. Researchers Zong and Leonardelli even showed in a study that the mere thought of a memory when people have felt socially excluded will influence their perception of the current room’s temperature. Being liked seems to be so important to us that it’s really hard to relax when we think we’re not. (And since the brain is crap at differing between what’s real and not, you can see how these to things in combination is a real haven for the sympathetic nervous system to run wild in).

3.     It may sound as though having a sympathetic nervous system is all bad. It’s not. Remember the lions running towards you. We should all be happy that we have an efficient system that switches on when we need to focus for an exam, jump away from a full speed car or even do something usually pleasant as, say, get married (that’s right, the sympathetic nervous system switches on just as much when the thing we need to prepare for is perceived as positive). And it’s not bad for us to be in sympathetic activation; we can for shorter periods of time manage just fine with less sleep, less food and even less frequent visits to the bathroom (sleeping, eating and pooping are pretty much all bad things to do when a car is about to hit you). The real trouble begins when we get stuck in sympathetic activation. Our bodies and brains aren’t really wired to cope with that. They’re more adapted to having a lion run towards you, but then disappearing (if you were lucky enough not to get eaten, that is), leaving you some space to relax and recover. It seems though that today we have perceived lions running towards us most all the time. Only today we call them deadlines, to-do-lists, social engagements, life goals in need of being achieved and blog posts needing to get written. The tasks never ends, and neither do our thoughts. When we get stuck in fight or flight, the body and brain will eventually start paying the price of not having the opportunity of attending to highly important functions such as memory retention, the digestive system, immune system and reproductive system. After a while it will start to show up as troubles concentrating, remembering, bowel issues and increased illness.

To sum it up: we do need our sympathetic nervous system, but it’s pretty bad for us to get stuck in it – we do need that parasympathetic part of the nervous system to keep us balanced and restored. Luckily, the concept of the autonomic nervous system being completely autonomic isn’t entirely true. There are ways of consciously switching on the parasympathetic nervous system, tapping into the relaxation response, which we’ll dig deeper into in a future blog post.