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Learning MBSR: third evening of the course - the surprising importance of practising mindfulness during movement

Well last night was the third session of this MBSR course.  I wrote last week about the second evening and also about mindfulness during daily activities.  We packed a lot into this session - there were four practical meditation exercises involving attending to sounds, breath & body awareness, mindfulness during movement & a brief breathing space.  We also had quite extensive group discussions of our experience during each of these practices, a pair exercise to discuss our "homework" last week (it felt helpful to me that this was a bit longer than last session's pair discussion) and more general "homework" exploration in the group.

What do I take away from this experience?  Well a whole load of things, but I'd like to focus primarily on the surprising apparent importance of practising "Mindfulness during movement".  I remember, when I first read about this aspect of the MBSR/MBCT courses, that I rather pigeonholed the mindful movement exercise as not-really-as-good-or-as-serious as "proper" meditation practices like "Mindfulness of breath".  I was pretty startled then when I came across Carmody & Baer's 2007 paper "Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness" which happily found that the amount of time practising mindfulness "homework" exercises was directly related to improvements in mindfulness (measured using the "Five facet mindfulness questionnaire (FFMQ)", which in turn lead to reduction in psychological symptoms.  The kicker for me though was that, in many ways, time doing mindful yoga exercises seemed more potent than either the body scan or sitting meditation in producing this practice to increased mindfulness to decreased symptoms sequence.  The authors wrote "An unexpected finding was the strong association between the mindful yoga form of practice and changes in other variables, including increased mindfulness skills, reduced symptoms, and improved well-being. Practice time for mindful yoga was significantly correlated with more of these variables than were practice times for the body scan or sitting meditation, and yoga was the only formal practice significantly related to increases in the non-judging facet of mindfulness and the global severity index of the BSI (Brief Symptom Inventory). Given that mindful yoga was practiced on fewer days and for fewer total hours than the other formal practices, these results are striking and bear further investigation. As the body scan is assigned for daily practice during the first two weeks and is also a somatically-oriented practice, it may be that the time participants spent in practice of the body scan prepared them to be more mindful of their bodily sensations during the yoga, and hence obtained more benefit from the yoga practice than if they had come to it without prior mindfulness practice. It may also be easier for participants to bring mindful attention to the body while it is moving or stretching as the yoga requires, than while it is still as in the body scan or sitting meditation, and this feature may also facilitate the transfer of the resultant mindfulness into everyday life."

Fascinating!  I note too the more recent paper "A pilot study measuring the impact of yoga on the trait of mindfulness" which also suggested beneficial results from mindful movement practice.  There is also the much older paper by Kabat-Zinn & colleagues - "The relationship of cognitive and somatic components of anxiety to patient preference for alternative relaxation techniques" - which reported that "The relationship between cognitive/somatic response pattern for anxiety and preference for different relaxation techniques was evaluated in an exploratory study of 135 medical patients referred for mindfulness-based stress reduction training, in which they practiced three major stress-reduction techniques. Method: Following intervention, patients rated on visual analogue scales, how much they liked each of three techniques: sitting meditation, a body scan meditation, and Hatha Yoga, which differed in primary cognitive/somatic orientation but shared the unifying attentional stance characteristic of mindfulness meditation. Results: Of the 74 patients who showed pre-treatment levels of anxiety above the mean for the entire group, 29 (39%) showed a pattern in which either the cognitive or the somatic component of anxiety predominated. The high cognitive/low somatic anxiety subgroup (n = 9) showed a significant preference for the most somatic technique (Hatha Yoga) and liked least the most cognitive technique (sitting meditation). The high somatic/low cognitive anxiety subgroup (n = 20) showed the inverse response. The body scan, with both cognitive and somatic qualities, was preferred to an intermediate degree by both groups. Irrespective of an individual's mode of anxiety expression or technique preference, participation in the mindfulness-based stress reduction program appeared to be effective in reducing overall anxiety levels."

It's an interesting area.  I've practised yoga for years, but it has shifted over the decades to more "a set of exercises" than any kind of formal or semi-formal mindfulness practice.  And what about mindfulness during other forms of exercise like walking, running, cycling, even tennis and other competitive games?  A rich area to explore in terms of personal practice ... and hopefully one that researchers will also look at more fully.  Carmody & Baer's paper on associations of different facets of 'homework practice' with outcome cries out to be replicated & extended.

For next week's practice see "Learning MBSR: fourth evening of the course - body scan, Damasio on identity, and informal practice" .

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