November 5, 2013

Bespoke Meditation (Because One Size Never Fits All). ~ Dr. Paula Watkins

One size fits all never fits everyone.

This is as true for yoga and meditation as it is for what we wear.

That’s why, in India—homeland of these traditions—there are many, many different paths winding to, around and up the meditation mountain. Desikachar put it nicely:

 “Anybody who wants to can practice yoga. Anybody can breathe; therefore anybody can practice yoga. But no one can practice every kind of yoga. It has to be the right yoga for the person. The student and teacher meet and decide on a program that is acceptable and suitable to that person”

 Ditto for meditation which is, of course, a branch of the tree of yoga.

A great deal of Western scientific research has gone into meditation in recent decades and a throbbing little meditation industry has also been gaining momentum. I use that term intentionally because a meditation ‘industry’ is indeed what, at one level, is happening here. And if industry insiders are right, meditation is going to be a lucrative sector. Just ask the founder of Lululemon—a man who successfully predicted business trends in surf, ski and snowboard apparel before hitting the yoga jackpot. He recently told Business Insider that his interest is now turned toward the exceptional growth rate of, you guessed it, meditation.

The science is sound: meditation is good for us and, as I see it, public interest in meditation is a great thing—great for individuals and great for communities. It’s also great for those with a vested interest in you learning meditation. Whether that interest is financial, political, philosophical or otherwise, the truth is that those in the ‘industry’ stand to gain by convincing us that their particular meditation technique is ‘the best’ and certainly the best for us.

As both a clinical psychologist and a yoga teacher, teaching meditation is a big part of what I do (which makes me one of those who stand to gain) and yet, as a scientist, I know this:

 No one particular meditation technique can claim to be the ‘best’ for everyone. Some approaches have received more attention from the scientific community and some have received more celebrity endorsements. Current neuroscience indicates that we will likely learn more about both the similarities and differences of different techniques as well as for whom and when they’re most effective. But the fact remains that we just don’t know enough yet.

 Which brings me back to the mountain and to Desikachar who was, essentially, talking about the importance of bespoke yoga and meditation strategies.

I’ve worked with clients who, like a square peg in a round hole, persisted and literally forced themselves to practice meditation techniques that really didn’t fit their context and constitution.

Just as we all have unique physical constitutions (interestingly no one assumes that one type of exercise is the best approach for everyone), we also have different neurological profiles. Our personalities are different, our environments and our beliefs. We go through different life stages and phases. And honestly, we all come with different needs, goals and intentions.

I see many clients who, referred by their GP, come for help with stress and anxiety. In conjunction with cognitive-behavioral therapy, meditation has been shown to reduce relapse rates, and an increasing number of clients come because they want to safely manage the risk of relapse whilst reducing their reliance on anti-depressants. Others come because they want to improve their ability to focus, pay attention and be present, in their jobs and with their loved ones. Many want to be “less angry” (meaning, less reactive) and others are responding to an inner calling to deepen their personal spiritual practice. One size will not fit all of them. Some will venture off and immerse in what I call orthodox meditation traditions. Others are happy to potter away with 10 minutes of mindfulness per day, enjoying their ability to be calmer with their kids.

What happened to the field of Westernized yoga is happening now to meditation. Different traditions are each vying for a spot in the limelight. But they needn’t. There’s plenty of light—heck, there is only light here. There are many paths of yoga because we need there to be.

There are many paths to meditation because we need there to be. We do would-be meditators a great disservice by confusing them with claims of superiority for different traditions.

What we need to do is support them, introduce them to different methods, advise them about the current science and then encourage them to follow their path. Like stepping into a custom-made garment, they’ll know what a true fit feels like and then the rest of us get to enjoy their beauty.

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Assistant Ed: Daniel Garcia/Ed: Bryonie Wise


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Dr. Paula Watkins