Do you know how to listen to your body well? Being aware of your health and knowing how to respond to it can have a positive impact on your wellbeing. To do so, you’ll need to be mindful.
Founder of Breathworks CIC in the United Kingdom, Vidyamala Burch, shares how being mindful has helped her in managing her health as well as how it can help you with yours.
- COULD YOU KINDLY EXPLAIN WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Vidyamala Burch: Mindfulness is, in essence, awareness. Through training, traditionally by practising meditation, we learn to become aware of what is happening mentally, emotionally and physically in each moment. This then gives us the tremendous skill of choice in how we respond. So rather than feeling a victim to our thoughts, emotional states or physical experience; we can learn to choose to respond rather than react and feel a sense of power and control in life.
- HOW DOES BEING MINDFUL BENEFIT ONE’S HEALTH?
Vidyamala: Mindfulness can have a huge beneficial impact on your health. When we experience pain or illness, chances are that the body will have some unpleasant feelings such as parts your body hurting. If we aren’t mindful, we will almost certainly have some unhelpful habits such as tensing against the pain and holding our breath. This will make pain, fatigue or other symptoms worsen and become more severe.
With mindfulness, we learn to acknowledge pain with kindness and acceptance but to let go of the tension, breath-holding and resistance. This means that the overall experience of pain or fatigue or other symptoms will ease.
We use a model of dividing pain, discomfort or illness into two components: Primary and Secondary Suffering. The Primary Suffering is the actual unpleasant sensations or feelings in the part of the body which is hurting. Secondary Suffering is caused by the resistance and struggle and that includes things like secondary anxiety, depression, fear and physical tension.
We essentially teach people mindfulness skills to accept Primary Suffering and reduce or overcome the Secondary Suffering by letting go of resistance and struggle. When this skill is developed, people often report a significant improvement in their quality of life and a reduction in suffering and/or pain.
- HOW CAN ONE PRACTICE TO BE MINDFUL?
Vidyamala: Meditation is the ideal way to cultivate mindfulness. It is to train the mind, like training the body by going to the gym.
In meditation, we turn our awareness inwards to get to know our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations without the usual distractions of daily activities. We sit quietly and close our eyes and put our inner world in the laboratory of awareness.
In the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, the word for meditation is ‘familiarisation’ which I think is a very good description of what is happening when we meditate. We are going within and ‘familiarising’ ourselves with the inner world so that we can learn to gradually let go of automatic reactions and to bring much more space to our experience. The behavioural outcome of meditation and mindfulness is choice. It is amazing to feel that we can have some control over our minds and emotions and to respond with kindness, love and a sense of connection to ourselves and all the people we come in contact with.
- COULD YOU SHARE WITH US WHAT DOES BREATHWORKS UK DO?
Vidyamala: Breathworks UK was founded by myself way back in 2001. Initially, I just ran a few mindfulness courses a year mainly for people living with pain and illness.
I injured my spine 40 years ago and mindfulness has been a big part of my healing journey and I wanted to share these skills with others.
In 2004, I formed a company with two colleagues and in 2005 we started our Teacher Training Programme as we realised that the most effective way to offer our programme to billions of individuals in the world who can benefit from being mindful, was to train others. This exponentially increased the number of courses being run around the world. We now have teachers in over 25 countries.
Along the way, we have expanded our programmes beyond health and we now also run a very successful ‘Mindfulness for Stress’ programme and we are developing an adaptation of this for the workplace.
- HOW CAN THIS METHOD HELP OTHERS TO MANAGE THEIR STRESS LEVELS?
Vidyamala: It helps people to be calm, focused and to stop. Meditation is a fantastic way to calm down if we are stressed. Even stopping for just a few moments and focusing on breathing can interrupt the escalation of stress. There’s lots of evidence about how the brain and stress chemicals are positively affected by mindfulness. Cortisol and adrenaline production decreases and oxytocin and endorphin production increases. Vagal tone improves as well and studies show a reduction in inflammation markers with meditation, amongst many other benefits.
- IN YOUR OPINION, WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO BE MINDFUL OF ONESELF?
Vidyamala: To be fully alive! Life is precious and fleeting. I want to really live my life while I have it and not to dwell in some kind of grey half-life. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and regret not having made the most of it. With mindfulness and kindness practices, I have some moments that are vivid and bright and full of wonder, which is wonderful!
I also want to feel more connected with other people and the world around me. The more I practice, the more connected I feel and this is very important to me. Mindfulness isn’t just for me, it’s not a self-centred endeavour just so that I can be little a bit happier. It is great to feel happier, but it is more important to me that it helps me be a better person in the world and hopefully, to make the world a better place.