The Science of Yoga and Mindfulness continued...
Finding an accessible and secular way to integrate mindfulness into weekly yoga classes is of much interest to me. I have found mindfulness meditation the aspect of yoga that has been most influential in bringing about increased wellbeing and equanimity for me. It has also been instrumental in integrating the practice into my daily life. To share this with my students, I was keen to bring together yoga’s seminal historical texts with current scientific discoveries about how mindfulness practice changes the way we behave, think and feel – to see if there was a correlation and if modern science could now back up what the Upanishads, the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Buddha’s teachings tell us. I was keen to link these texts to the 21st Century in this way and make them more relevant to the people I teach. It seemed timely to do this, because of the separation between postural yoga and meditation and the changing environment of yoga, where teaching and practice is increasingly less guru-led but the historical texts which emphasise the power of mind training still offer inspiration.
Nowadays, I have often found meditation practice is tacked onto the end of the class with little explanation of why it is beneficial and how it helps us (I have been guilty of this myself in the past!) and little guidance as to how we can take this into our daily lives. I am convinced that understanding mindfulness meditation and its benefits properly helps students to embrace it and motivates them to practice it beyond the confines of the yoga studio.
Modern yoga practice and teaching is constantly being influenced by research by people like Singleton and Broad, who published The Science of Yoga in 2012 which questioned the safety and usefulness of some asana practices. What authentic yoga might be, if there even is such a thing anymore, is being questioned and experimented with. What has been identified as “the mindful revolution” (Time Magazine, January 2014) is also starting to have an impact on yoga. Mindfulness now has a substantial amount of clinical research evidence behind it, which has elevated its perceived worth in Western society. Of course yoga has also been associated with a scientific approach to mind training and research into the benefits of yoga is also growing. Robin (2009) writes that recently Western medical understanding has focused on yoga’s physical postures and breathing exercises. Their physiological effects are now well understood which he argues has contributed to an increased focus on physiology and anatomy in yoga classes and teacher training (ibid). However Robin recognises that yoga’s “effects go far beyond our Western powers to quantify, measure, or understand” (ibid, p. xviii). Perhaps the latest mindfulness research can deepen understanding of these hitherto less quantifiable aspects of the meditative aspects of yoga and yoga can come full circle, back to being a deeply mindful practice but with a new contemporary approach which works well for practitioners today.
Contemporary mindfulness practice is influenced by developments in understanding wellbeing from the points of view of psychology and neuroscience as much current literature shows (Siegel 2011; Williams and Penman 2011; Hanson 2013). The purpose of my research was to bring together evidence from the multi-disciplinary fields of the mind sciences, including cognitive science incorporating neuroscience, psychology and philosophy, and yoga and Buddhist practice which of course has conducted its own experiential study of mindfulness practice for 2,500 + years – from the records of the Upanishads to the Buddha’s teachings and Patanjali to all of us practising in the present day. We know from our own experience that yoga and mindfulness work. Contemporary research methods are now enabling us to quantify the benefits more clearly so that we can make the case for mindfully practised yoga as a way to promote health and wellbeing.
The stress-reducing benefits of mindfulness have been widely reported (Kabat-Zinn 2004; Williams and Penman 2011; Hanson 2013). Yoga research too shows that yoga reduces stress and increases a sense of wellbeing by altering nervous system responses (Robin 2009; Broad 2012; Harnan, Cooper et al. 2013). Seminal texts on yoga such as the Yoga Sutras argue that yoga practice needs to have the ethical foundations of the yamas and niyamas so that the practitioner develops attitudes conducive to personal transformation. The transformation is largely attributed to the mind practices, with asana seen as a preparatory practice though mindfully practised asana is an important way to develop mindfulness of the body and can have a calming effect. In modern yoga mindfulness or meditation is often not overtly taught, may be given much less attention or is left out altogether (De Michelis 2005; Singleton 2010). Some studies also showed that if meditation teachers do not have their own dedicated practice, their teaching of meditation is likely to be ineffective (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). The ethical foundations of yoga are taught even less in general classes. Compassion is not necessarily incorporated as an essential attitude to be developed within yoga and mindfulness training but is key in Hindu and Buddhist yoga practice (Boccio 2004; Patanjali 2007) and is now becoming an aspect of mindfulness training that is being investigated. The compassion aspect of mindfulness is a relatively undeveloped aspect of mindfulness research although many leading Western authorities on secular mindfulness emphasise the importance of developing a compassionate and accepting attitude towards oneself as part of mindfulness training (Kabat-Zinn 2004; Gilbert, 2009).
Emphasising the efficacy of a compassionate attitude within yoga could be a significant and worthwhile development. Currently, yoga training based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as advocated by the BWY may incorporate a focus on ahimsa and being comfortable in the postures which Patanjali (2007) instructs practitioners to be. However a deeper understanding of compassion and particularly self-compassion in the practice based on Western psychology may help people gain more of the benefits associated with compassion training which include stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system (Gilbert 2009; Hanson, 2013) and increased emotional resilience and stability (ibid). Buddhist philosophy and evolutionary psychology argue that compassion is innate within us but that there is a need to develop our compassionate potential as it can easily be overtaken by stress and fear-induced responses (ibid).
My literature review confirmed that the mindfulness revolution is a reaction to a very real phenomenon: mindfulness practice has the capacity to deeply change how practitioners are and who they perceive they are. The sense of self is deeply embedded in conscious thought patterns and unconscious mental habits. This has long been recognised in Buddhist and yoga traditions and is now increasingly acknowledged by science. Contemporary psychology recognises that the sense of self can be very solid, and if someone thinks they are a depressed type of person, the likelihood is they will embed depression into their default mode of being (Williams and Penman, 2011). The depression becomes entrenched and affects the nervous system and the body. The good news is that research findings repeatedly show that mindfulness and yoga can help to break unhelpful habitual patterns.
Mindfulness methods are not complicated. It is challenging to motivate people to take up a regular practice and to do something which is contrary to how they have been conditioned to behave. But the benefits can indeed be life-enhancing and greatly reduce suffering.
If you would like to know more about the research, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org to receive the full research paper including full references. More information about the masters programme is available on the University of Aberdeen website: www.abdn.ac.uk
BOCCIO, F.J., (2004). Mindfulness yoga: the awakened union of breath, body and mind. Somerville, USA: Wisdom.
BROAD, W., (2012). The Science of Yoga. The Risks and the Rewards. New York: Simon & Schuster. Kindle edition.
DE MICHELIS, E., (2005). A History of Modern Yoga. London: Continuum.
GILBERT, P., (2009). The Compassionate Mind. London: Constable.
HANSON, R., (2013). Hardwiring Happiness. The practical science of reshaping your brain - and your life. London: Rider. Kindle edition.
HARNAN, S., COOPER, K., POKU, E. and WOODS, H., (2013). A research report on the therapeutic effects of yoga for health and wellbeing. University of Sheffield: British Wheel of Yoga & ScHARR. Available: www.bwy.org.uk/research [Date Accessed: 31/08/2014]
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KABAT-ZINN, J., (2004). Full catastrophe living: how to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation. 15th ed. London: Piatkus.
PATANJALI (2007). The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. (Sri Swami Satchidananda, trans) Virginia: Integral Yoga Publications. (Original work published ca. 200 BCE – 200CE).
ROBIN, M., (2009). A Handbook for Yogasana Teachers. The Incorporation of Neuroscience, Physiology, and Anatomy into the Practice. 2nd ed. Tucson: Wheatmark.
SIEGEL, D., (2011). Mindsight. Transform Your Brain with the New Science of Kindness. 2nd ed. London: Oneworld Publications.
SINGLETON, M., (2010). Yoga Body. The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. New York: Oxford University Press. Kindle edition.
WILLIAMS, M. and PENMAN, D., (2011). Mindfulness. A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. London: Hachette Digital. Kindle edition.