Why the mindfulness revolution is short-changing students

 Autumn Meditation

Mindfulness is the hottest ticket in town right now. Celebrities, media, self-help books and doctors are all touting the magical properties of mindfulness meditation. And it's true that there have been some convincing studies to show the benefits of mindfulness. But is the mindfulness revolution all it’s made out to be?


There is a lot more to meditation than mindfulness, but mindfulness is what gets taught everywhere from schools and hospitals to prisons and boardrooms. The combination of good evidence, high profile advocates and the fact that it is easy to standardise and package, makes mindfulness an easy sell. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right practice for everyone.


There are reports of students experiencing panic attacks and long term psychological harm after practicing mindfulness meditation. Sounds extreme? That depends on who you are and how you respond to the practice.


Mindfulness and Trauma

Basic trauma-informed practice recognises that asking somebody who has experienced trauma to sit still, close their eyes and engage in an introspective practice can be triggering. What’s more, it is statistically likely that many people who present with depression, anxiety disorders and other mental health issues (both diagnosed and undiagnosed) have trauma as one of the underlying factors in their condition. And these are the very people who are being referred to mindfulness training by well-meaning doctors, friends and family members.


Most meditation techniques help practitioners to become more mindful, but the standard ‘sit still, close your eyes and turn inwards’ technique that is currently taught by everyone from school teachers to smartphone apps is problematic for many students.  When it comes to meditation, there is no ‘one size fits all’ and an experienced teacher will adapt the different styles of meditation to meet the needs of individual students.


Preparation matters

From walking meditation to reciting mantras or focusing on the breath, it’s not just the meditation technique itself that needs to be adapted for different students. Preparation is crucial. While a seasoned meditator might be able to sit down and concentrate without too many distractions, most of us need to prepare ourselves to sit quietly. If you’ve ever sat down to meditate and wondered why your mind was buzzing or your body seemed restless, you’d probably benefit from some preparation.


Depending on the student, I usually offer a preparatory practice that incorporates individually tailored gentle movements, breathing techniques and relaxation exercises. How do these practices prepare you to meditate?  Most of us live busy lives. We’re used to multitasking, we hold tension in our bodies, and our breathing patterns are sub-optimal. The day to day stress that most of us live with presents a barrier to effective meditation – in short, the autonomic nervous system is set to ‘fight or flight’.


Meditation is much easier when the mind is less busy, the body is relaxed, the breath is regular and the autonomic nervous system is set to ‘rest and digest’. One of the most effective ways of dialling-down the autonomic nervous system is to regulate the breath. Yet focusing on the breath alone doesn’t necessarily release physical tension and, for some people, focusing on the breath can actually increase feelings of anxiety.  That’s where simple movements come in. Gentle repetitive movements that follow the breath are an easy way to regulate the breath and, in the process, dial down the ‘fight or flight’ response so that you experience meditation-friendly ‘rest and digest’ state. Examples of easy, repetitive breath-based movements include:


  • Inhale: Raise the arms overhead; Exhale: lower the arms to the side
  • Inhale: Cow; Exhale: Cat (Marjoriasana)
  • Exhale: twist the torso to one side; Inhale: untwist the torso back to centre (repeat on opposite side)
  • Inhale: Raise the arms over head; Exhale: stretch laterally to one side; Inhale: Back to centre (repeat on the opposite side).


Just relaaaax

Encouraging both the physical body and the mind to relax prior to meditation can make a big difference to the quality of the experience. Gentle stretches and systematic relaxation techniques will ease the body and mind to create the ideal environment for meditating. Some of my favourites include guided relaxation exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and yoga nidra. Again, the relaxation technique should be tailored to the needs of the individual student – nobody should be told to close their eyes without giving the option of keeping them open if they prefer.


Be prepared to adapt

It’s important to stay adaptable when learning or teaching meditation. I’ve met too many people who say “My mind’s too busy for meditation” or “I tried meditation but I was no good at it.”  Meditation is a powerful practice that has the potential to benefit everyone. The evidence for meditation as an antidote to stress is strong and, as the evidence mounts for links between the stress-response (‘fight or flight’) and serious health conditions including cancer, diabetes and auto-immune diseases, the reasons for starting a regular practice are compelling. However, while mindfulness meditation is being sold as a short cut to happiness, not everybody automatically benefits


Making meditation accessible to everybody means modifying traditional practices and preparation techniques to meet the needs of different students. From primary school children to recovering addicts; from corporate warriors to war veterans. There’s no single solution or system that works for everybody, but with skilful adaptation, most of us can experience the life-enhancing power of meditation.


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