Meditation/yoga/other mind–body practice is not for me, and other such myths

[edited] Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash. Why a unicorn, you ask? Because we are all beautiful, unique unicorns, or so we think.

What is the comment that most yoga teachers hear when they talk about the benefits of yoga? Oh, yoga is not for me. I’m not flexible enough. I’m not calm enough. I can’t meditate because my mind is too busy and I can’t keep it clear. I just can’t do it.

(and in case anyone reading this is thinking the same, here’s my yoga teacher’s answer to these comments. You don’t need to be flexible to do yoga. Yoga is not about flexibility, despite what Instagram would have you think. Your mind is not really going to be clear when you meditate, you meditate so you don’t get consumed by all the thoughts you have. My mind is a storm 90% of the time, and I still can’t do the splits.)

The two issues here are that:

  1. There are so many misconceptions about yoga, meditation, breathing and other mind–body practices – what they are, what they are for and who they are for (there is definitely a whole other post to be written about stereotypes and how they damage how accessible a practice is)
  2. All of these practices can take many different forms and flavours, so there is really something to suit everyone if only the practices were tailored to them

If we give people what they need and what resonates, they are more likely to want to try, to stick to it and to therefore get something out of it.

Here’s a tangible example of this

I recently attended a behavioural science conference online, in which there was a talk by a clinical psychologist from the meditation app Headspace. (If you are interested, you can access the conference here, and the talk I’m writing about is ~3 hours and 32 minutes in. There’s also a really interesting talk by John Cleese on creativity. )

The challenge they were facing was that around half of the people who signed up for an annual membership dropped out within the first week, which ultimately means that Headspace could not deliver on their promise to support people in living healthier lives.

To tackle this, they carried out a research study to find out why people use, and stop using, Headspace, with the ambition to change the Headspace experience to make sure people stick with it for long enough to get the benefits.

Personalisation is hugely important

We are all individuals. We like different things, have different needs, have different backgrounds and life experiences. What works for you may not work for me. And the same applies for yoga and meditation – I like a good body scan and a fun rocket practice if I’m not feeling lazy, you may like a sound bath and a gentle hatha class.

In the context of the Headspace study, they found that (surprise, surprise) most people come to the app because they feel stressed. It doesn’t take a behavioural scientist to know that the solution for this population is a stress reduction programme.

What this meant to was:

  1. Users could see more immediate benefits from meditation because it was tailored to what they actually needed from it.
  2. Seeing immediate benefits reinforces the behaviour, which helps people stick to it – we are all instant gratification creatures after all. Think about how persevere with an exercise regime or yoga practice when you see results in your fitness, wellbeing or that magical pose you so want to achieve.

(as a side note, I love and respect the fact that they didn’t resort to gamification and offering people virtual and useless incentives like badges to keep them coming back to the app – they wanted reinforce behaviour with real value)

Accessibility can build consistency

Meditation (and yoga, and breathing, and all other mind–body practices) takes many forms. Despite the stereotypes, it isn’t just sitting on the floor with your legs crossed and eyes shut – in fact many people find this incredibly uncomfortable and can’t do it for more than a few minutes.

The Headspace team found that introducing embodied movement practices (as opposed to simple sitting meditation) helped to offer those immediate benefits of stress reduction and therefore further reinforce that taking time for meditation practice is a good thing to do. It’s almost like a way of introducing meditation under the radar.

What can we learn from this?

Because yoga is generally taught in a classroom setting, it tends to be up to the individual to try a few classes, decide what they like and stick with that. Unfortunately, this may not work for some people, who will be put off by the first sign of chanting (that was me about 20 years ago) and declare yoga not for them.

If only we could have a magic wand to personalise the experience for everyone.

This makes me wonder – there is so much discussion around the bastardisation of yoga and what is yoga and what isn’t. Is it possible that it might be a good thing to offer more flavours, because it makes the practice accessible to more people?

What do you think? How can we use these learnings to offer the benefits of yoga to more people?

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