What is the difference between Mindfulness, Meditation and Yoga?

Above image taken by Oonagh Treble. I’m posing for a photo while in Pigeon Pose on a SUP at Shoal Bay . It was a beautiful morning; we laughed lots and had loads of fun, but at that moment, I was just posing on a paddleboard. Let’s not call it Yoga…!

Somebody asked me a question the other day in relation to mindfulness. They were referring to a teacher of “mindfulness” and asked me if what I did in my classes was along the same lines.

Before detailing my answer, I think it’s important to make a statement: What many people in our modern world tend to associate “Yoga” with these days, has nothing to do with what it actually means. For the majority of people, that word now equates to a particular form of fitness exercise that involves fancy, prohibitive poses posted on Instagram by bikini babes or buff blokes. Hot Yoga, fast Yoga, Yoga for weight loss etc etc. This is pretty much because twenty years ago, a group of American Yoga teachers set up an organisation called Yoga Alliance. They then took the liberty of appointing themselves as regulators for the entire Yoga world. Although it is important to set standards, arguablly, the opposite has happened. It is now possible to teach enormous groups of people potentially dangerous postures and breathing exercises after just a couple of hundred hours of teacher training in accordance with Yoga Alliance-based accreditation. It is also possible to do this without any prior Yoga experience, without having had a any one teacher as a mentor – as long as you can pay.

Provided particular components are included, Yoga Alliance will endorse pretty average courses (along with the rarer good stuff). So what we are seeing now, 20 years later, is a worldwide influx of very average “Yoga” teachers without much training behind them. We also have teacher trainers who were graduates of those earlier non-comprehensive courses teaching even less comprehensive material to new groups of would-be teachers.

Instead of these quick courses being more about personal development and a prerequisite or precursor for deeper study, many have become the means to the end. It is so sad. How can you squeeze a 5000 year old philosophy into 200 hours and send someone out to teach it? It seems absurd when physiotherapists and psychologists have to study for four or five years and are required to do significant internships before being let loose on the public!* 

The point is, Yoga postures on their own are irrelevant. They have about as much to do with what Yoga is as bashing someone has to do with martial arts! It certainly doesn’t make you a master or even an aspirant of those lifestyle practises. The fallout from Yoga Alliance has been widespread in that an intelligent, practical lifestyle philosophy has now been utterly diluted. Knowledgeable and important Yoga Masters across the world have been undermined and many are now embarrassed to say what it is they do, lest they be put in a box and deemed to be no different to the thousands upon thousands of 200 hr fast-tracked graduates. In many ways the word “Yoga” has become meaningless if all it brings to mind to is fancy poses, hot bodies, fitness and funky leggings.

In actual fact, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s Kung Fu, Karate, Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong or something similar. These disciplines essentially come back to exactly the same thing whether we call it mindfulness, meditation or Yoga. For a start, those words are inseparable. Maybe you sit and “do” a meditation or a mindfulness exercise, or perhaps you are a bit more advanced in your practise and you aim to go about your life mindfully and meditatively. Either way, if you can remain ego-less and in the moment, even if just for a short bursts, it’s “being”, rather than “doing” and it’s Yoga!

When we practise mindful movement, whether in a class or by ourselves or with a group (which provides a wonderful energy), our attention is directed to our physical body – which is driven by the nervous system. Just as we have formed unconscious thought patterns, we have also formed many unconscious movement patterns. Observing this stuff while working through it is immensely powerful. It’s also, actually, far easier than just sitting and thinking about stuff while convincing ourselves we are being quiet, mindful and mediative! As anyone who has attended a mindful movement / yoga  class will confirm, getting into the “zone” for relaxation/sitting or lying meditation post a physical/movement practise is mostly effortless. We are “there” because we have been in that headspace for the past hour or so. It’s respite for your head and nourishment for your body.

In daily life, we are all mostly busy in our mind. All but very few of us go to bed these days to rest our bodies. We spend so much time over-thinking and stressing during our normal existence that we end up exhausted and forget to pay attention to sensation. Our body loves –  needs – movement in order for blood, energy and information to flow. Complete stillness without any prep for meditation or focus can be very hard for beginners (and for more advanced practitioners truth be told!). Fluidity, grace and working towards functional, integrated and gentle flowing movement becomes a meditation in motion. It’s nurturing, it nourishes your gut-brain and simply feels natural to stay present – to be mindful in other words. It’s a boon for your entire nervous system and has a massive, positive impact on your whole health.

So yes. I do. Teach Mindfulness.

*Yoga is a whole mind/body health system, therefore exercise is just one small aspect. Traditionally, many aspects of the stuff we might now go to see doctors, psychologists and physios for was incorporated into mentor-based yoga teacher/student trainings that took between 5-10 years and were based on that teacher/student relationship. Consequently, after 10 years of consistent work with a learned mentor, you could consider a student (teacher in training/disciple) might reasonably know something…