Mindfulness: Yoga for your brain

“Why don’t we start by coming into the feeling of your body? Just have a sense of ‘here I am’. Start with your feet, yes, just your feet on the ground.”

Mr. Chris Cullen teaches Mindfulness courses at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre

Mr. Chris Cullen teaches Mindfulness courses at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre

According to Oxford Mindfulness Centre teacher and trainer Mr. Chris Cullen, who spoke at PsyNAppS’ event a couple of weeks ago, “giving attention to the body – as it is here and now,” is what mindfulness is about at its core.

In the hustle and bustle of today’s hectic modern life, even the best of us find ourselves lost in our own heads; too tangled up in our personal web of thoughts and worries to even notice we have feet! As we leave the house each day, we put our bodies on autopilot, and our minds on a marathon through a checklist of what needs to be done today, the fight we had yesterday, the worries of tomorrow…

Mindfulness meditation, derived from the ancient teachings of Buddhist Satipatthana Sutta (Sati is the Pali word for mindfulness), hopes to change our current modus operandi, which often leaves us restless, stressed out and in certain cases anxious, by emphasising the feeling of sensing, instead of thinking.

What if instead of ruminating about the problems we need to solve or the regrets we may have each day, we paid more attention to how our body feels as we walked on the street, to the sensation of touch as we pick something up and really appreciated the smell of food (a personal favourite!) and how it might affect our mood and thoughts?

Neuroscience research has shown that by training our minds, mindfulness meditation affects the way we use our brains as well. Mindfulness meditation seems to increase our ability to control our attention and emotions, particularly in situations of stress and conflict. In simulations of these situations, neuroimaging studies have shown a decrease in amygdala activation, an area responsible for generating emotions, and also known for its “fight or flight” responses to threatening stimuli, and a concurrent increase in prefrontal cortex (PFC)  recruitment, which is involved in behaviour inhibition and regulation, in people who have undergone mindfulness training.

A key component to mindfulness seems to be metacognition, a self-awareness that is key for the capacity to see thoughts as simply thoughts, and a concurrent ability to release your mind from them.

Although we all do it to a certain extent, rumination, such as depressive reflections about the past or anxious thoughts about the future, plays a key role in maintaining depression and anxiety disorders. As such, not only is mindfulness useful in relieving stress and anxiety in everyday life, it is also being developed as a third-wave cognitive therapy. Clinical trials have shown promising preliminary results, suggesting Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) might be effective in preventing the relapse of mood disorders. Other studies have also used variations of mindfulness meditation as treatment to prevent relapses in substance abuse disorders. While more research needs to be done to determine the specific effects and success rates of mindfulness meditation, its use as treatment for a variety of psychiatric disorders is at least promising.

Apart from clinical applications, work and research is currently exploring the benefits of mindfulness in non-clinical settings such as education and the law, and has been effectively used by sport teams, schools, businesses (such as ‘Search inside Yourself’ at Google), the British Parliament, as well as the military!

The idea behind mindfulness is not a new one, but it seems to be one that we have lost somewhere along the way in our endless chase of modernity. Whether we are suffering from anxiety, worried out about work, training to focus our attention in high-pressure situations, or simply want a release from everyday stress, mindfulness may have a role to play.

As Chris put it, “It’s really just about living in our senses… and being present for the experiences of our lives.”

Try mindfulness out for yourself! Take this free online course on mindfulness here, or check out headspace, which takes you through the basics of meditation on your laptop and your phone. If you’re interested in taking a course at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, have a look at the options available to you here.

If you are an Oxford university student, have a look at courses specifically designed for you here, and check out the Oxford Student Mindfulness Society for more information.

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