Twelve Questions with Vidyamala Breathwork co-founder Vidyamala Burch recently did an interview with the Malaysian magazine 1Twenty80, on the topic of mindfulness and its health and professional benefits, as well as how to best practice mindfulness to feel its extraordinary value in your own life. 1. Could you kindly explain what mindfulness is? 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 of our thoughts, emotional states or physical experience; we can learn to choose to respond rather than react and feel much more of a sense of power and control in life. 2. How does being mindful benefit one’s health? Mindfulness can have a hugely beneficial impact on health. When we have pain or illness the chances are the body will have some unpleasant feelings - parts of the body will be hurting. If we aren’t mindful we will almost certainly have some unhelpful habits such as tensing against the pain and holding the breath. This will make the pain, fatigue or other symptoms more severe. With mindfulness we learn to acknowledge the 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 includes things like secondary anxiety, depression, fear, physical tension. We essentially teach people mindfulness skills to accept the Primary Suffering and reduce/overcome the Secondary Suffering by letting go of the resistance and struggle. When this skill is developed people often report a significant improvement in quality of life and reduction in suffering/pain. 3. Besides health, what are the other benefits of being mindful? Mindfulness can be applied to any area of life as it is a universal quality of mind/awareness/consciousness. It comes from the 2500-year old tradition of Buddhism where a key teaching is that human beings increase our suffering in life by resisting and pushing away things we find difficult and grabbing hold of things we like. These twin poles of aversion to pain and clinging to pleasure lead to all kinds of distress. With mind training, through learning meditation and mindfulness, we can learn to let go of these reactions and live with a much more open, kind and confident attitude. In the UK there has been a major Government report into the benefits of mindfulness across Healthcare, Education, the Criminal Justice System and the Workplace. There are also people teaching mindfulness in myriad contexts globally through all stages of life from mindful childbirth to mindfulness in elder care and mindfulness with the dying. Many people are discovering the tremendous sense of freedom that comes with being more mindful in all activities. 4. How can one practice to be mindful? Meditation is the ideal way to cultivate mindfulness. It is a space and time to train the mind, a little 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 the 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 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 out minds and emotions and to respond with kindness, love and a sense of connection to ourselves and all the people we come into contact with. 5. Does being mindful make a person a better individual and leader? How? Yes, definitely. For all the reasons above being mindful means that one is more mentally and emotionally spacious and flexible. One is more empathetic and connected with others and less stressed and reactive. This makes one both a better individual and a better leader. People want to see qualities of calm, confidence, resilience, clear thinking and non-reactivity in a leader and mindfulness helps build qualities such as these. 6. As a leader, how can one encourage his or her employees to be mindful too? I think the most important thing is to ‘walk the talk’. To exemplify the qualities that come with mindfulness. Sometimes it is said that mindfulness is ‘caught, not taught’ and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. It’s not enough to talk about mindfulness without exemplifying it as it just becomes another fad and people won’t be enthusiastic. So the most important thing is for leaders to develop their own effective mindfulness practice if they want their employees to take it on. I got this article today that beautifully expresses this from the CEO and Chairman of Aetna, a company in the US healthcare market that employs 49,000 people. 7. How does being mindful improve teamwork and the atmosphere at a workplace? Work atmospheres and workplaces often deteriorate when workers are stressed, unhappy, unmotivated. They can start to feel like cogs in a machine and there is no ‘heart’ in their work. It becomes a grind. Mindfulness ideally would come ‘from the top’ where the leaders become more aware of their own tendencies and stress and start to become more fully present, calm and kind. They would start to relate to their employees as rounded human beings rather than productive units. As the atmosphere changes employees in turn learn to take responsibility for their mental and emotional states and to learn to be more focused and effective in their work. In my opinion a mindful work place would also value things like making sure employees get reasonable breaks so they don’t get over-tired or stressed; and social interactions would be valued through creating a warm and harmonious working culture. 8. Could you share with us what Breathworks UK does? Breathworks UK was founded by myself way back in 2001. Initially I just ran a few mindfulness courses a year explicitly for people living with pain and illness. I injured my spine 40 years ago; 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 - we realised the most effective way to offer our programme to the billions in the world who could benefit was to train others. This exponentially increased the number of courses being run around the world. We now have teachers in 25+ countries. Along the way we have expanded our programmes beyond the explicitly health focus and we now also run a very successful ‘Mindfulness for Stress’ programme and we are developing an adaptation of this for the Workplace 9. How can this method help others to manage their stress levels? It helps people cultivate calm, focus and to STOP. Meditation is a fantastic way to calm down if we have become 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 beneficially affected by mindfulness. Cortisol and adrenaline production decreases and oxytocin and endorphin production increases. These are naturally healing. Vagal tone improves and studies show a reduction in inflammation markers with meditation, amongst many other benefits. 10. Does it also help them to understand themselves better? How and why? Meditation involves a turning within to directly get to know your thoughts and emotions - crucially without any harsh judgement. Maybe you notice a tendency to harsh speech, to insecurity, to anxiety. This is all really good information if you don’t then add a layer of thinking there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. You’re just human, with a human mind with all the trickiness that comes with that! Through recognising harshness, insecurity or anxiety, etc. you can then do something about it with mindfulness by learning to let go of identifying so strongly with these habits and cultivating new, more positive habits. It’s very simple, in essence. Though hard to practice of course as some of our habits are very strong indeed. But meditation and mindfulness are profoundly optimistic in the recognition that, with careful training, we can change our minds in fundamental ways. 11. Being mindful takes practice; what is your advice to people who are giving up on practicing mindfulness? There is a great phrase in relation to this question that comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn: “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it!” I love that. So often we only do what we ‘feel like’ in life which can lead to an undisciplined and whimsical existence. Mindfulness is a discipline and I think of it like cleaning my teeth, having a shower, eating and sleeping. I consider these things essential to my ability to function and to stay well and clean. I don’t do them because I ‘feel like it’. They are just part of my daily routine no matter my mood or motivation. I think we should take care of our minds in the same way we take care of our bodies. Our minds are so precious! And yet we pay so little attention to keeping our minds in good shape. So I would encourage people to ‘just do it’ every day and not get too caught up with the immediate results. Sometimes it takes quite a while to notice real changes in how we respond to things: maybe we still get really stressed and anxious. But, slowly, slowly you will start to see small changes if you keep up your daily meditation. And, over time, these small changes will become big changes and you will start to feel very different: more whole, alive, loving, and less stressed. Even 10 minutes a day will have an effect. I think it’s better to do a shorter practice every day, rather than a long practice more infrequently. Of course ideally you would do 20-40 minutes a day but that is hard for some people with very busy lives. So just do what you can manage but make sure you do it regularly. Here are some meditations to try, for stress, and for pain. 12. In your opinion, why is it important to be mindful of oneself? To be fully alive! Life is precious and fleeting and I want 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 I can be 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. Vidyamala Burch You can find out more about our Mindfulness for Health Courses and Mindfulness for Stress Courses here.