Mindfulness or Vedic meditation – which one is right for you?
Mindfulness meditation has exploded in popularity in recent years. Millions of people worldwide now employ its techniques with the aim of tackling stress and anxiety, getting better sleep and improving performance at work and in sport.
But it’s not the only option out there – practitioners of the less well-known Vedic meditation say it can also help us achieve calm, clarity, energy and focus. So, how do these two forms of meditation compare?
For his Don’t Tell Me The Score podcast, Simon Mundie spoke to Andy Puddicombe, former Buddhist monk and co-founder of the Headspace mindfulness app, and Michael Miller, director of the London Meditation Centre, to dig into the differences between these techniques.
What is mindfulness?
The key idea behind mindfulness is to become more present and aware of your thoughts and feelings, rather than being controlled by them. For example, Andy Puddicombe says that instead of thinking “I’m really angry”, mindfulness enables you to distance yourself and think: “Oh, look: anger”. You can then consciously decide whether to respond to the emotion, or simply let it go.
Andy describes this increased awareness of our feelings as like the difference between being caught in a storm and sitting inside looking out at the storm through the window.
When you observe your mind from a place of awareness, he says, you see that “these thoughts, they just kind of come and go… there’s an impermanent kind of nature to them”.
What does it involve?
Mindfulness books, apps and courses offer structured meditation exercises in which the aim is simply to focus on your breathing, noticing each time your mind has wandered and bringing your attention back to your breath. Over time, Andy says, people often find their mind calms down and they can focus a little more without being distracted.
Andy says that taking a few minutes each day to practise mindfulness meditation enables you to develop skills of awareness and attention that you can apply throughout your everyday life. He explains how you can practise this by consciously bringing mindful awareness to simple day-to-day tasks, like eating or brushing your teeth, focusing on how these things feel in the present moment.
What are the benefits?
Studies involving the Headspace app suggest that just ten minutes of mindfulness meditation can bring considerable benefits when done regularly. Andy Puddicombe says it helps to slow your heart rate, reduce adrenaline and induce a state of relaxation. With practice, he says, it can help people develop greater focus, sleep better and feel happier.
Andy has used mindfulness practices to help sportspeople improve performance, including the NBA and the Arsenal football team. As well as supporting general wellbeing, he describes how it can help them stay motivated in training, become more focused and resilient during matches, and recover more quickly afterwards.
What are the challenges?
Andy says that sometimes people find the idea of sitting with their thoughts when they’re stressed or unhappy too difficult. But, he says, although it sounds counter-intuitive, learning to accept your discomfort is an important – and positive – part of the training: “We explore our suffering and our struggle, and in exploring that we discover happiness.”
Five quick mindfulness tips
Here are five pieces of advice from Andy’s interview:
1. Mindfulness isn’t easy to learn at first, so start by taking a course or using an app.
2. Clear a space each day to stop everything else and practise meditation. Start with short bursts of three, five or ten minutes – you can even do it on the train.
3. When you sit down to meditate, take a few moments to get comfortable. Notice the sounds around you and how you’re feeling. This will help your mind and body reconnect, so when you do start focusing on your breath, it’s a little easier.
4. Remember: when meditating, your only job is to notice when your attention wanders, let go of it and bring your focus back to the breath. Each time you do that, it’s a win.
5. When bringing mindful awareness to your daily life, start slowly. So in week one, you might just be mindful while you brush your teeth – being aware of the sound, the smell, the taste and the movement. Then build up slowly, adding a new thing each week, such as being mindful on your walk to work, or while washing up.
What is Vedic meditation?
Originating in ancient India, Vedic meditation aims to help people to achieve a state of deep relaxation, similar to the point just before we fall asleep. Michael Miller says that afterwards, “you come back and you feel sharper, and more wakeful and creative and organised, and you’ve got some mental clarity – and that means very quickly it starts to have an effect on the rest of your world”.
What does it involve?
In Vedic meditation, each person has their own personalised mantra. Michael describes how practitioners repeat this sound in their minds until it naturally quietens and draws them into a state of deep awareness without conscious thought. The word “mantra” means “mind vehicle” in Sanskrit, and it describes a deliberately meaningless word or sound that is designed to hold your attention while you meditate.
You can practise Vedic meditation anywhere, Michael says, as long as you can safely sit down and close your eyes. It doesn’t need to be a quiet place, he says – in fact, “there’s something about a little bit of noise in the environment that is better”.
What are the benefits?
Michael says Vedic meditation can reduce stress, and help you recharge and feel more energised, calm and centred through the day – so you can respond better to the events life throws at you. He says it’s common for meditators to find they sleep better at night, and even need less sleep, because they’re getting the deep rest of meditation.
Michael recalls a woman in the tech industry who worried that meditation would make her lose the sharpness that had made her so successful. But in fact, she said, “I didn’t lose my edge, I lost my edginess” – and that helped her achieve even more.
In sport, Michael says Vedic meditation has helped everyone from freedivers to Formula One drivers. He describes how it enables athletes to stay alert during long matches, remain calm under pressure, and make decisions quickly and accurately.
What are the challenges?
Vedic meditation is not as easily accessible as mindfulness, because it can’t easily be learned in full from just a book or an app. Although these can be good places to start, Michael says that learning directly from a teacher is essential for a full understanding of the practice. “This is something I don’t want to dilute by offering up something that’s not complete,” he says. “And to be complete... it has to be in person.”