By: Sarah Schmermund, M.A.
In keeping with the theme of National Yoga Month, we would be at a loss if we did not explore what many (and I) feel is one of the most important aspects/benefits of yoga: mindfulness. As both a fitness fiend and a student of the social sciences, the increasing attention being paid to mindfulness is provoking. Though mindfulness in a psychological capacity, originally conceptualized as a means of treating patients with chronic pain, has been around for decades, its association with yoga has provided it much more public attention recently. In fact, due to its efficacy, yoga is recognized by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institute of Health (NIH) as a valid treatment intervention.
Mindfulness is an important aspect of yoga, as the practice’s focus goes beyond just physical exercise and is designed to increase general clarity and harmony in its students’ lives. Regular yoga practice is associated with greater patience and mental acuity, less stress, and increased optimism. Recent research has explored the specific characteristics of mindfulness, and in 2001 the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory was developed to measure these specific constructs:
- Attentive awareness of the present moment
- Diminished emotional reactivity
- Open, accepting, nonjudgmental and process-oriented approach
- Insightful understanding of personal experience
While the general benefits of increasing our ability to be present in the moment and open to new experiences may seem fairly obvious (who doesn’t love less stress and more patience?), researchers have continued to search for more specific applications of mindfulness-based interventions. As we discussed a few weeks ago, compassion– and acceptance-based regulations of eating behaviors have been found to provide people with greater weight loss success compared with control- (or guilt-) based interventions. An important aspect of acceptance-based self-regulation is the active acceptance of and willingness to experience the current state and craving without acting on it. This, as we know, is an integral aspect of mindfulness: an open, nonjudgmental and process-oriented approach. Within this, individuals who practice mindfulness actively experience their cravings without trying to change, avoid, or control them. And while “being one with our food cravings” may sound a little too hokey to take seriously, researchers are continuing to report that it works. Individuals who engaged in a 7-week mindfulness-based intervention program reported significantly lower food cravings compared to those who did not. Moreover, these individuals expressed a greater sense of control when exposed to food cues.
So how does it work? Like in yoga practice, participants were taught to ‘body scan,’ in which attention is brought to each area of the body, starting with the toes and moving all the way up to the head. This helps you learn to be aware and accepting of your bodily sensations, including hunger and cravings. Individuals were then taught to become more aware of their thoughts by accepting whatever came to their mind without judging or identifying with its content. Through observation of our thoughts, we can learn to accept their transient nature: cravings are just a moment in time, and eventually they will fade. This helps people observe food related thoughts without acting on them.
Overtime, individuals are able to increase their awareness of their bodily sensations and the often automatic pattern of food cravings (food cue – craving – eat!) and counteract it with acceptance. Ironically, learning not to control cravings allows people a greater sense of control over cravings over time. Additionally, mindfulness practiced in this way is associated with a lower preoccupation with food and eating; people were able to circumvent the often obsessive thought processes by observing them without identifying them as personal or true. Learning that you are able to experience food cravings without (immediately) giving in to them provides a sense of self-mastery while also offering you the opportunity to challenge irrational thoughts and beliefs about your eating behaviors.
Mindfulness exercises and meditation can be uncomfortable at first for the especially anxious (like myself) or the unfamiliar. There are lots of great mindfulness exercises online, including podcasts and scripts you can walk yourself through. Give it a try, and don’t expect to love it on the first go. Learning to sit with your cravings and feelings without engaging them can be difficult. Just remember: acceptance is key, including accepting your discomfort with accepting your cravings ;).
Alberts, H.J.E.M., Mulkens, S., Smeets, M., & Thewissen, R. (2010). Coping with food cravings. Investigating the potential of a mindfulness-based intervention. Appetite, 55, 160-163.
Buchheld, N., Grossman, P., & Walach, H. (2001). Measuring mindfulness in insight meditation (Vipassana) and mediational-based psychotherapy: The development of the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory (FMI). Journal for Meditation and Meditation Research, 1, 11-34.
Shelov, D.V. & Suchday, S. (2009). A pilot study measuring the impact of yoga on the trait of mindfulness. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 37, 595-598.