Book Review: Zen Golf by Dr. Joseph Parent

I am not really a golfer, but I owe a lot to the game. Despite being a lawyer, I have only played at the occasional outing during my practice and even then have not been serious about it. In high school, however, I took up the game because my basketball teammate was an excellent player and needed another girl to round out my school’s newly formed team. Knowing right off the bat that I would have no obligation to be any good, it seemed like a low-pressure compliment to the physically demanding and lengthy basketball season, so I gave it a shot.

While playing golf was certainly a change of pace, I quickly found that “low-pressure” was not the word to describe it. Yes, I got to hang out on a beautiful golf course in the rolling hills of Northern Kentucky and chat with my teammates and competitors rather than run suicides or fight them for position on the court. Though my surroundings and relationships with competitors were comparatively more peaceful with golf, I soon learned that my relationship with myself was far more difficult. Suddenly, I had to learn to coach myself to focus acutely, deal with setbacks, and use my judgment to try to make the best of hard circumstances. After 3 years of high school golf, I never became a great player, though my team generally used my score and won some matches, but the game helped me start the process of becoming a decent adult.

So, when a lawyer who had seen one of my mindfulness seminars reached out to me this year and suggested I read Zen Golf, it was almost like a blast from the past. I have no ambitions for rejuvenating my own golf game, but having played, I knew immediately how mindfulness might help anyone who wanted to do so. Zen Golf is written by Dr. Joseph Parent, a sports psychologist who has worked with some of the world’s best golfers and a long-time meditator. In the book, he offers some basic instruction in mindfulness practice and describes strategies that he uses to help golfers struggling with various aspects of the mental game of golf.

The book is now 20 years old, so some of the references to golfers may seem a little bit dated. In the same way, knowledge and awareness of mindfulness meditation has skyrocketed since that time, so some of Parent’s sayings and references such as “Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.” may sound a bit hackneyed. Overall, though, Parent’s analysis of the many ways that the mind can block even the best golfer’s success and his recommendations for a path out are ones that I don’t think can get old.

For example, one of my favorite parts of Zen Golf was when he describes the concept of “unconditional confidence.” While at first this sounded like business-book drivel and made me skeptically wonder how one could expect to be confident all of the time, I quickly realized that Parent wasn’t talking about cocky bluster or promising 100% good results. Instead, Parent was explaining the Buddhist concepts of essential goodness and self-compassion. According to Parent, unconditional confidence didn’t come from results, but instead from a player’s acceptance of their own intrinsic goodness and choice, time and time again, to treat themselves with kindness regardless of the circumstances.

This concept came through best when Parent talked about his approach to teaching putting, which for many players can be the most maddening and heart-wrenching aspect of golf. Parent explained that golfers, much like Happy Gilmore, usually define success with a putt as getting the ball in the hole.  But Parent suggests a different approach that defines success with the process rather than the result. He says that a golfer has “made” a putt when they have a clean, steady stroke, use the appropriate force, keep their head down, and select and execute the right strategy. For golfers who play regularly, this makes sense because it emphasizes and rewards the process of putting, which is within the player’s control, and lets the player off the hook for result, which (despite our frequently recurring delusions) is not.

Clearly, this utility of this advice may extend well beyond the golf course. As a lawyer, it is often tempting to judge ourselves based on the results we get in our cases. Despite our best efforts and even when the law seems to favor us, we just cannot entirely control the results we get. Thus, as Parent suggests, it may make a lot more sense and be a whole lot kinder to ourselves if we judge success based on the things we can control: doing our best, putting client’s interests first, complying with ethical rules, and advising, assessing risk, and counseling along the way.

In short, Zen Golf is a good read for golfers or anyone who wants to understand the practical benefits of mindfulness. The book explains in easy-to-understand language how the mind-body connection works and the many ways mental states and assumptions can ensnare us and impede performance. It also offers many lessons for not just playing the game of golf better, but also enjoying it more and treating yourself better as you play. In this way, even if Zen Golf doesn’t make you a better golfer, it offers strategies and advice that may make you better at dealing with life.

What Is Body Scan Meditation and Why Should Lawyers Try It?

When people think of meditation, they typically think of the breath as the focal point. But in truth, meditation can use almost any focal point and the focal point doesn’t necessarily have to be a singular, stagnant object. One of the most beneficial practices that I incorporate in my routine is the body scan. With this practice, the focus is on the sensations in the whole body, rather than exclusively focusing on the breath. Traditionally, this practice flows systemically through the body, flowing from one part or region of the body into the next.

Most commonly, body scan meditations start at the crown of the head and proceed down to other parts of the body until you reach the feet and toes. There are, of course, many potential methods and starting points for body scans. For instance, you could start with the toes and work up or do a body scan that focuses on the chakras or plexuses along the spine. Regardless of the particular method you try, the object of a body scan meditation is to feel the sensations in the body and notice what you feel, rather than to think about the body.

Body scan meditation can sometimes feel more manageable to new meditators because the practice is more active than breath practice. Because the focus of body scan is to flow through the body, the mind has to work a bit more to stay focused on the sensations in the body. For this reason, it may not seem as hard to keep the mind engaged with the focal point as it does in the early phases of learning breath practice. In addition, in my experience, getting into the body is a great (perhaps the best) way to get out of your head. It is for this reason that resting in sensations during a body scan can be deeply relaxing even to new meditators and after relatively short periods of time.

Body scan meditations are very useful for attorneys because they remind us to pay attention to and take care of our bodies. In law school, we learn to emphasize rationality in making decisions for our clients. While separating fact from emotion is critical, we lawyers are still human beings with human bodies. To do our best for our clients, we need to understand and respect the limitations of our own bodies so we can fulfill our responsibility to our clients. As I’ve written before, emotions are sensations in the body, so body scan practices may also have the incidental benefit of building emotional intelligence and tolerance when powerful emotions arise.

Even outside of emotions, however, the body awareness that body scan practice engenders can have more fundamental benefits for lawyers and professionals. Some of the most common bodily issues that can impede us from doing our best work are represented in the acronym HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. These symptoms are fundamental to the human condition, but in our fast-paced world it is easy to skip lunch, push our emotions to the side, miss out on social opportunities, and deprive ourselves of sleep.

Body scan meditations are excellent for lawyers because they remind us that we are not merely brains filled with legal strategy, but people who must be fed, rested, and cared for. If you practice body scan meditation, you will develop the skills to notice the symptoms of various conditions and emotions in your body in the early and more subtle stages before they get to the point where they affect your performance, outlook, or demeanor. These skills are not only necessary to performing our responsibilities as lawyers, but they are also beneficial for anyone who wants to be a top performer in a high-stakes environment.

Finally, body scan is building block to support further growth in your meditation practice or just when dealing with the difficulties of life. When you start a meditation practice, it can seem like the focal point is the object of practice. As your practice advances, you may learn, however, that the focal point is really a tool. In other words, the point of practice is not just to focus on the breath or the sensations of the body. It is, instead, to build the skill of resting with the breath or the body.

If you can learn to do this with body scan practice, then you have one more tool at your disposal when meditation or life throws you curve balls. For example, perhaps troubling thoughts or overwhelming emotions come up during your practice. A meditator proficient in body scan might be able to shift focus to a less reactive part of the body, such as the feet, to rest from the experience until they find enough stability and calm to proceed with normal practice. You could also do this in life, if for instance you have tense meeting with opposing counsel and need to keep your cool.

In short, body scan is a simple practice to learn and may be more accessible to new meditators than other styles of practice. It offers many benefits that support a meditation practice and build coping skills for life. Lawyers in particular could stand to benefit from the practice, so give it a try.

Do you want to try body scan meditation? Check out our meditations that incorporate body scan techniques.   

Four Ways Mindfulness Can Help You Recover When You Struggle with Goals

January is a time for resolutions, and for some of us, that can also mean a time for disappointment, reality-checking, and self-flagellation. It’s easy to set goals, but much harder to keep them. It’s also simple to see how a habit change might improve our lives, but very difficult to change our engrained habits. I commonly see friends and acquaintances lose steam with their goals or lose faith in themselves when they struggle with keeping resolutions. To avoid that, here are some mindfulness-based strategies that may help you get back on track.

1. Notice how you feel.

Setting a goal is likely to inspire feelings of empowerment and hope. That feels great. But struggling or failing to meet a goal feels terrible. When you encounter setbacks or failures, it is normal to feel hopeless, powerless, and worthless. While, in the moment, this really sucks, these feelings can over time serve as motivation for wiser action if you don’t resist them or push them away. Mindfulness can help us in times like this in many ways. First and foremost, it can help us stay with and acknowledge these feelings, which in essence are sensations in the body. In times of struggle and failure, it can be easy to ignore or numb the uncomfortable, even painful, feelings that arise. If you can allow yourself to notice them, however, they may help guide you to care for yourself better and learn from your mistakes.

2. Be your own best friend.

If you can be mindful of your feelings, thoughts, and emotions as you deal with struggle or failure, you are bound to notice some rather nasty internal talk. Though this is normal, it won’t help you learn or get back on a personal growth track. Nevertheless, we humans tend to be much harder on ourselves than we are with other people. The solution to this is to develop a habit of treating ourselves like we do our best friends so that we can activate self-compassion. Just ask yourself the following question: “If my best friend set a goal and failed to achieve it, what I would tell them?” Most likely, you wouldn’t be judgmental, critical, or mean. Instead, you’d be supportive, understanding, and caring. While this may feel strange at first, it will become natural over time and it will make failure and struggle a lot less scary.

3. Be aware of “all or nothing” thinking.

Once you’ve experienced and cared for your emotions, it may be appropriate and helpful to consider next steps. In particular, you may consider whether you should abandon or revise your goals or just get back to them. In doing this, watch out for all or nothing thinking. Sometimes, but especially in January, we can set goals for ourselves that are really geared towards improvement, though we can implicitly add in an unstated standard of perfection. For instance, if you set a goal to exercise every day in January, you may be discouraged when you miss a day in the first week. Does this mean the goal is impossible and you should quit? Not in my view. The goal wasn’t really about the streak. The goal was about establishing the habit. If you exercise 30 or 28 or 26 days out of January instead of 31, it seems to me you’d be pretty darn close to that. As you heal and learn from struggles with your goals, therefore, be aware of all or nothing thinking because accomplishing some of your goals can still represent amazing progress.

4. Remember your values.  

The best kind of goals are specific, actionable, and measurable. The dangerous part of this, though, is that goals can make us so laser-focused on one thing so that we forget the bigger picture. When I struggle with goals, I find it helpful to zoom out to get more perspective. I do this by considering not just the reasons I set the goal, but also my long-term goals for life. For many of us, we’d probably say that our goals for life include happiness, health, connection, and meaning. Those kinds of goals aren’t necessarily dependent on achieving particular objectives in life. Rather, they are achieved by living our deepest values in life. The beautiful thing about values is that you can live them in failure as much as you can in success. When I remember my values in this way, I remember what motivated me to set the goal in the first place and, in turn, that motivates me to be gentle with myself and start again.

Professionals and lawyers accustomed to meeting goals every day at work can easily forget that achieving personal goals and changing habits is really hard. Doing hard things becomes much more doable, however, when you use practices and develop habits that help you build resilience. Mindfulness practices can help with this because they help us remember that achieving goals is not just about discipline, but also about accepting life the way it is and caring for ourselves along the way. This January and this year, I wish you luck in achieving your goals but I wish even more that you care for yourself as you do it.

10 Gift Ideas to Encourage a Loved One’s Mindfulness Habit

When I teach mindfulness, I always stress that you don’t need to buy anything when you start a meditation practice. With that said, some accessories can support a practice. Beyond that, around the holidays we always need some gift ideas for those in our lives. If you have someone in your life looking to create or establish a mindfulness habit, some of these ideas might help.

1. Meditation Cushion or Bench

A chair is perfectly sufficient to meditate, but if you do it regularly it can help to have a defined space for the practice. In addition, once you are able to sit for longer than 15 minutes, a cushion can help you maintain a good posture. You can find any number of meditation cushions or benches online, including on Amazon. I recommend a buckwheat fill for your cushion because it offers support and you can refill the cushion with more hulls over time.

2. Meditation App

A meditation app can help make a practice accessible because the world’s best teachers are always with you on your phone. Many apps also have courses available to teach the practice to you. Headspace, Calm, and Ten Percent Happier each have gift subscriptions available.

3. Books

There are so many good books on mindfulness and meditation practice out there that you really can’t go wrong. Any of the books we have mentioned on this blog would make a fine gift, including:

Zen Habits

Mindfulness in Plain English

Radical Compassion

The Craving Mind

Happiness

Every Body Yoga

Ten Percent Happier

4. Courses

You may be able to find courses and retreats at your local yoga studio, dharma or zen center, or other public facilities. If you can’t, Sounds True has a number of self-paced audio or video courses available from the best teachers in the world. They also regularly have sales that make these courses really affordable. For those new to the practice, we recommend Tara Brach’s and Jack Kornfield’s Power of Awareness.

5. Blanket

It’s not unusual to get cold during meditation practice since you are sitting still for extended periods of time. In addition, a blanket can add a sense of comfort and even protection to help you calm during your practice. I recommend a blanket that is soft and comforting, but also light so that it doesn’t make you too hot as you sit.

6. Candle or Diffuser

The jar candle seems to be the ubiquitous holiday regift. But, on the bright side, nice smells can support a meditation practice. In the same way, an essential oil diffuser can do the same thing. If you are intending it to be used during meditation practice, pick something with a scent that is soothing so it doesn’t overpower or distract you while you sit.

7. Gift Card to Yoga Studio        

Sitting isn’t the only way to learn mindfulness. You can also learn it from yoga and many yoga studios offer practices or courses on meditation. Many yoga studios offer holiday promotions for gift cards or class passes. In this way, you can support a local business while offering a friend a chance to establish or refresh their mindfulness or yoga practice.

8. Yoga Props

Restorative yoga is an excellent way to ease into meditation practice but this practice is not as prevalent at brick and mortar studios now due to the pandemic. You can solve this problem by offering the gift of yoga props. With a couple of blocks, a yoga blanket, and a bolster, your friend could easily start a restorative practice at home on their own. In fact, Amazon even has a restorative yoga starter kit and Judith Lasater has several great books that teach the practice for beginners.

9. Devices

Extra devices aren’t really necessary for a meditation practice, but some items can support it or solve a particular problem. A nice set of wireless earbuds can make your meditation practice mobile or help reduce distractions while you sit. If you are really into gadgets and have a larger budget, you could look into the Muse. By the time I tried the device, my practice was already established so I have not really used it much but it could be helpful to someone new to meditation. I also recently discovered Zenimals which offer a screen-free way of providing guided meditations to kids.

10. Time

The biggest impediment to a meditation practice is the lack of time. So, if you want to give the gift of mindfulness, you may not have to spend any money. You could offer to babysit, take care of pets, or water plants for a friend who wants to go on a retreat or take a meditation course.

As a caveat, don’t push any of these gift ideas on anyone. Meditation is a deeply personal practice and it may not be right for everyone. Thus, I wouldn’t give any of these gifts unless I knew that the person was interested in mindfulness, yoga, or looking for some help with their stress management strategies. For those friends or family members looking to develop or establish a meditation habit, however, any of these gifts can support their practice and help it grow.

Cooking Is My Antidote to Languishing

I did not know that “languishing” had a clinical meaning until I listened to Adam Grant’s interview on the Ten Percent Happier podcast the other day. According to Grant, it’s the state between wellness and depression. As a busy lawyer and mom, I immediately recognized this description. As Grant put it, it’s a state where you might say that you “aren’t sick but aren’t well.” We’ve all been there, but Grant suggests that too many of us stay there and allow ourselves to progress on into depression.

So, what do we do when we find ourselves in this not quite great state, in that place where we are uncomfortably abiding but not thriving? My experience with meditation tells me that the first step might be to avoid panicking and to understand that all things, including nasty feelings, don’t last forever. My life experience also tells me that we need rest phases in our lives to grow. But, when you notice the feelings persist or take a turn for the worse, some action might be needed. Grant gives us a clue as to what might help.

He suggests that we ought to look for an activity that offers us the 3 m’s:

  • Mindfulness
  • Mastery
  • Matters

In the interview, Grant explained that playing Mario Kart with his family really helped him during the pandemic. Why? Because it required mindfulness by totally occupying his mind. It engendered in him a sense of mastery or prowess in playing the game and improvement as he progressed. And, it mattered. It was a fun thing to do with his kids and a way to connect with family that he couldn’t see in person.

I’m not a video game person and, historically, I have been extra terrible at driving games. Even so, as I listened to Grant, I knew what my Mario Kart was: cooking. I love cooking. I have loved it since I was a kid and outgrew my Easy Bake Oven in a matter of weeks because the small light bulb inside was insufficient to properly bake my cakes. This pushed me to start making recipes from old kids’ cookbooks that I’d scrounged from yard sales by age 7. By middle school (much to the delight of my parents), I was cooking family dinners by myself.

After 30 years of cooking, I can now walk into the kitchen and come up with dishes on the fly to either make a classic dish I’ve been craving or use up what I have on hand. It’s a thrill to reuse leftovers in inventive ways and a game to transform one dish into something else entirely. During the pandemic, it offered me the practical benefit of forcing me to stop my work for a while and get away from my computer because my family and I had to eat (and my husband is a terrible cook). So, instead of using my brain to find answers, I got to take a break and use my senses and creativity to come up with something good. And, of course, it mattered that I ate something good and decently healthy, that my kids experienced some new kinds of foods, and that I could offer us something that we couldn’t get delivered from takeout.

As a litigator, there are many days and weeks that I don’t have the time to cook or have to come up with something super easy, like tossing meatballs and marinara in a crockpot. Even so, cooking during these times helps me find little pockets of play in the midst of the grind. When my calendar opens up again, it’s like coming home when I get to cook something that requires more thought, planning, skill, and attention. After some time in the kitchen, I usually find myself ready to dive back into work again because letting my senses drive the bus in the kitchen gave my rational brain a much-needed chance to rest.

I know that cooking isn’t for everyone, but I think everyone should have an activity that they can rely on the same way I rely on cooking and Adam Grant relies on Mario Kart. Look for something that fills up your mind and appeals to your senses, helps you feel a sense of mastery, and, for whatever reason, matters to you or someone else. If you find this activity and keep coming back to it, you may find that it is a powerful antidote against languishing and part of a happy life.

Can Mindfulness Help You Eat More Intuitively?

I spoke on a panel a few weeks ago about wellness for professionals with Kathryn Riner, a nutritionist and intuitive eating coach. I thought Kathryn sounded pretty down-to-earth and human as she spoke, and a lot of what she said rang true from my own experience with mindfulness. The timing was also too perfect to pass up, since the theme for the blog this month is food. If you want to learn more about intuitive eating and how it intersects with mindfulness and compassion, check out this interview with Kathryn below.

Q. What is intuitive eating?

A. Intuitive eating is an evidenced based approach to health and wellness that has ten guiding principles to help people have a positive relationship with food, mind and body. Intuitive eating was created by two dietitians, Evelyne Tribole and Elyse Resch. Their book was first
published in 1995, and the fourth edition came out last year. Over the last roughly ten years or so, there has been a lot of research supporting the positive outcomes related to intuitive eating, which support both mental and physical health. Intuitive eating is also very much so aligned with Health at Every Size (HAES), again promoting health and wellness without focusing on weight loss.

Q. What drew you to focus on intuitive eating in your work with clients?

A. Once I was a little over ten years into my career, I had enough experience to know that diets don’t work. And when it comes to kids especially, I recognized how promoting weight loss causes harm. I saw firsthand how the pursuit of weight loss damaged one’s relationship with food and their body, and that dieting was a predictor for weight gain and risk factor for eating disorders in adolescents. About the same time, I was starting my private practice, and I kept coming across the topic of intuitive eating in the area of nutrition entrepreneurship. The more I learned, the more it resonated with me, both personally and professionally. I truly believe intuitive eating can be life changing.

Q. What makes intuitive eating stand out from other practices or strategies for managing nutrition?

A. Intuitive Eating respects an individual’s lived experience and honors their health goals without focusing on weight. Intuitive eating allows people to focus on health promoting behaviors, without the pursuit of weight loss. It also has over 125 research studies supporting its efficacy.

Q. Many mindfulness practices emphasize paying attention to and honoring thoughts, feelings and body sensations, could those practice support intuitive eating?

Definitely! One of my favorite strategies is to encourage my clients to check in with their bodies midway through the meal and take notice. Whether they notice they are still hungry or are comfortably full, it doesn’t matter. Being in tune with your body is essential to being an intuitive eater. Honoring hunger and feeling fullness are just two of the principles of intuitive eating, but they are very important to the practice.

Q. Is self-compassion important to intuitive eating or managing nutrition in general? If so, can you explain why?

Yes, absolutely! There is no judgement when it comes to intuitive eating. You can’t fail at being an intuitive eater. It is a practice that takes a lot of self-compassion and exploration. I always encourage my clients to evaluate their eating experiences with curiosity, not judgment. And self-compassion has a significant role in that process.

Q. Are there any other practices that you recommend for people who are interested in intuitive eating?

I would encourage anyone that is interested in intuitive eating to experiment with viewing food as emotionally neutral. So many clients come to me using the language that food is “good” or “bad”, or “healthy” vs “unhealthy”. All food offers some nutritional benefit, and I think if we can trust ourselves and our bodies, we will realize food holds no moral value. It is so liberating to know that all foods fit. I like to encourage a diet with enough nutrition, variety, and satisfaction because to me, that is what is healthiest.

About Kathryn Riner: Kathryn Riner is a masters level educated, pediatric dietitian living in St. Louis, MO. She has 14 years of experience working both in her community and at a local US News and World Reports nationally ranked children’s hospital. In 2016 she opened her private practice, Healthy Kids Nutrition, LLC providing compassionate, individualized nutrition therapy to families. In 2019, Kathryn trained with Evelyn Tribole, a co-author of Intuitive Eating and became a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. Her mission is to help parents and kids have a positive relationship with food, so everyone can feel happy, healthy and confident around the table. You can follow her on Instagram @intuive.eating.for.moms.

Is Meditation a Spiritual Practice?

A friend shared a meme recently which listed 4 buckets of self-care strategies, including physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. I was glad to see that it included meditation, but my lawyer brain fired up when I saw it listed meditation only in the spiritual bucket. Literally starting with the phrase, “Well, actually” my mind began drafting a response to my friend’s social media post to explain that meditation was not just a spiritual practice.

Rather than alienate my friend, however, I decided that a blog post would probably be a better forum for these thoughts. So, here it goes. Is meditation a “spiritual practice?” Undoubtedly it is, since various forms of meditation have overtly been part of numerous spiritual and religious traditions throughout history. Meditation also may be a spiritual practice for many individuals outside of the context of religious and spiritual traditions. In my view, a spiritual practice is one that establishes or promotes a sense of connection between an individual and other beings or the universe. Meditation has clearly offered that for me and the importance of that cannot be overstated.

But I rail against putting meditation only in the spiritual bucket for a few reasons. The biggest is that, as a lawyer, I am a super practical person. Emphasizing the spiritual aspects of meditation can therefore be problematic when it is done to the exclusion of other practical benefits. Sure, meditation can connect you with the universe. It can also help you not be troubled by your thoughts. In my case, it consistently reduces or abates my headaches and other physical signs of stress. And, it routinely helps me get over myself by letting me see that I need to apologize/ask for help/forgive myself/ease up/just let something go. Having experienced all of these practical benefits firsthand, I can’t put meditation into the “spiritual” bucket alone because it contributes regularly to my mental/emotional/physical/social wellbeing.

But maybe that really takes me to a different point altogether. Maybe the problem isn’t with calling meditation a “spiritual” practice at all. Instead, perhaps the issue is that all of these aspects of personal well-being – spiritual, emotional, physical, and social – are actually intertwined. As a pedagogical tool, it may be helpful to separate out these needs so that us wayward humans who often stray from the path of health and happiness can find our breadcrumb trail to stumble back to sanity. But the truth, as my meditation practice regularly reveals to me, is that these human needs are intertwined and interdependent. Thus, most wholesome activities can’t be put into one bucket alone, but rather support, cycle, and flow into all the others.

So, am I telling you to stop sharing that meme and others like them that separate out human needs into categories? Of course not. But as you share or view memes like these, it may help to just consider for a moment if they are 100% true and, more significantly, whether they are true for you. It may be even more eye-opening for you to think about the personal practices that you rely on to keep yourself well and whether they fit in just one, multiple or all of the “human needs” buckets. Considering this myself, I can’t agree that meditation is only a spiritual practice any more than I could agree that exercise is just a physical one. In the end, I think meditation is a human practice made for human needs, including those that are spiritual, physical, social, and mental.

Is the Hobby that Feeds Your Spirit the Same as Meditation?

When I talk about mindfulness or meditation, people frequently tell me that they don’t/can’t/won’t meditate but that their favorite hobby or pastime is “their meditation.” Some say “running” is their meditation. Some say “fishing”. Some say that they do “walking meditations.” I understand what all of these people mean. If I didn’t have a seated meditation practice, I’d say cooking and writing are my meditations. They are pastimes that make me feel connected to others, they connect my mind, heart, and body, and they both help my mind quiet down for a little while. But is this really the same thing as meditation?

This isn’t an easy question to answer because it really depends on what one means by “the same.” If you are talking about research-proven benefits, then the answer is probably “no.” Surely, research exists to demonstrate the health benefit of cooking one’s own meals, engaging in exercise, or even having hobbies. But whether that research would reveal benefits of the same kind that the practice of meditation offers is another matter. Indeed, the current research seems to suggest that various types of meditation can produce varying mental or physical health benefits. Thus, it stands to reason, that a different activity altogether may not truly be the “same” as meditation in terms of impact.

Another significant difference between meditation practice and other pastimes is one of degree. While certainly, favored activities like cooking, running, or fishing may unite the body and mind and even evoke a sense of spiritual satisfaction, that would make the pastimes far more similar to yoga asana practice than seated meditation. These practices may be excellent for managing stress and increasing happiness because they can help quiet the mind. Quieting the mind is one common benefit of meditation but it isn’t the only one.

For a style such a vipassana or loving-kindness practice, meditation will actually help you examine the mind. Since movement is minimized and even focal points restricted with these types of meditation practice, the meditator will almost inevitably be faced with their thought patterns and emotional reactions with no extra activity to distract their attention. As you can probably understand, the benefits of seeing these patterns include understanding oneself and increased agency in one’s life.

In other words, my opinion is that meditation is not the same as most personal hobbies, though parallels and some shared benefits undoubtedly exist. But does this mean that meditation is better than other personal hobbies? This, in my opinion, is a trick question. I think meditation might be more helpful to some people than personal hobbies in certain contexts, but I could also envision times when the opposite might be true. Thus, I don’t think “better” is an absolute answer. Moreover, my honest opinion is that one should not be choosing between meditation or satisfying personal hobbies. Instead, I think you should do both because I have experienced the benefits of both in my own life.

In short, when people tell me that their hobby is “their meditation”, I don’t tell them that they are wrong. I don’t think that I am better because I meditate. But I try to talk about and teach meditation in a way that people can understand the particular benefits it offers and that it’s available to them whenever they decide to sit down and give it a try. Until they do, I am thrilled to know that many people have hobbies that mean so much to them that they see them as akin to a self-care or spiritual practice.  It may not be the same as meditation but that’s not a bad thing. It just means other opportunities for benefits and personal exploration exist for you if the need and desire ever arise. 

Yoga Has Been There the Whole Time

When Brilliant Legal Mind’s founder Claire Parsons told me September’s theme was yoga my immediate response was “I don’t really have a yoga practice anymore. I don’t really have anything to write about.” But then I read Claire’s post Confessions of a Reluctant Yogi and Aman Costigan’s post Yoga is More Than Just Stretching. Both posts made think about how much I use yoga daily and the role my yoga practice had in setting a foundation for my meditation practice.

I first discovered a regular yoga practice the summer after I finished law school. My husband and I moved from Chicago to Northern Kentucky, I was studying for the bar, we were rehabbing a 150 year old house, and starting our own law practice. I was trying to exercise occasionally mostly just to keep myself sane. One day I tried a yoga class at the gym and let’s just say I was hooked. I had tried yoga sporadically over the years but looking back I’d just never found the right teacher. The teacher I found that summer was perfect for me.

She was an athlete and busy professional so the classes were mostly vinyasa and ashtanga style yoga which are considered more athletic forms of yoga. But they are also flow styles of yoga that connect the breath to movement so my teacher focused heavily on moving through each pose with your breath. Because the yoga teacher was a busy professional and mom she also focused on the mental aspect of the practice. We’d set an intention for each practice, focus on that intention throughout the class, and then end with a meditation. Looking back, these yoga classes were part of the beginning of my regular meditation practice. I got stronger, more flexible, I had less aches and pains, and I started to notice my busy mind felt a little calmer too.

That teacher moved out of state and since then I’ve taken yoga classes on and off at various studios, but looking back I can see now that I developed a foundation that’s helped not only helped me physically but was an important step in building my meditation practice. A few years back, when I suffered from two herniated discs in my back I discovered restorative yoga. While I craved doing the more rigorous styles of yoga, the restorative helped me work through the pain. Restorative yoga can be deeply meditative which helped me mentally deal with the pain and discomfort.

Right now I’m training for a half-marathon and after reading Claire and Aman’s blog posts I noticed that my stretching routine is almost a yoga flow series. I also noticed that I use my stretching time at night and after a workout not only to just stretch my body to help my aches and pains, I use it as a meditation time as well. Like my meditation practice, without even realizing it, yoga has been with me all along.  

Want to explore restorative yoga further? Check out this guided meditation from founder @claireeparsons to pair with the legs up the wall pose. Even if you don’t have any props at home, you can try this by positioning your legs up a wall or over a chair. This meditation offers a variety of breath instruction tools so you can explore meditation and restorative yoga practice t at the same time.

Loren VanDyke Wolff is an attorney, mom, community leader, and long-time meditator and yogi who lives and practices law in Covington, Kentucky. She has contributed several pieces to the blog and has a passion for improving the legal profession. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Confessions of a Reluctant Yogi

As a yoga teacher, I’m not supposed to say this, but I didn’t like yoga at first. In fact, the first class I ever tried felt so awkward and terrible that I didn’t try it again for several years. The impediments for me were manifold. I was not used to “being” in my body. I thought I had bested my perfectionism years ago, and still hadn’t learned that this latent tendency would stay with me for life. I am not small, naturally flexible, or graceful in any context. And I’m kind of a work horse. I do physical activities for a purpose – scoring points or walking to somewhere nice or cooking dinner – but generally not just because they feel good. So, when I first went to a yoga class, I was preoccupied with making the poses look right, worried about how my awkward feelings did not match the picturesque poses of the women in the class who (in my memory at least) looked like runway models, and not falling or pulling a muscle.

So what changed? My body sure didn’t. I’m 5’11” with a solid frame and have had 2 babies since my first yoga class. I’m no more thin or lithe or any of that nonsense than I was when I first tried yoga. My mind and heart, however, are quite different. You see, some time after that first failed and what I thought was humiliating yoga class, I started my meditation practice. At the time, I had no idea I was doing yoga. Some teachers would call my cross-legged seated posture a restorative pose. Others would point out that the yogic path has 8 limbs, one of which is meditation. I didn’t know any of this, however. Instead, I was drawn to meditate because my reading had told me that it might help me handle all the thoughts swirling around my brain. It certainly did that, but also helped me get more comfortable with my body by doing body scan meditations and loving-kindness practices that helped me learn that emotions weren’t thoughts at all, but instead feelings—sensations in the body.

After a few years of this, I had built up enough calm and self-compassion that I noticed my body needed something more. Though an athlete for most of my life, I had let exercise fall by the wayside in the early years of law practice and motherhood. Once I had reestablished some stability after the birth of my youngest daughter, I decided to start exercising again to try to get back in shape. Despite a past history of going all out, this time was different. Having had success building a meditation practice in incremental steps over time, I did the same thing. I started small, adding in walks around my neighborhood and a few exercise classes here and there.

This is where yoga comes in. I knew I wasn’t ready for intense cardio or strength yet, so I decided to give yoga another try. I found a local studio with reasonable teachers and welcoming and compassionate students. I got a trial membership and walked into a “yin” class that billed itself as slow and calming. I had no idea what this meant but, when I walked in, the teacher warned me that I would hold poses for 3-5 minutes. This news might alarm some, but as a meditator, I thought “Oh, I can do that.” Even though I needed tons of props to help me manage my inexperience, and lack of range of motion and strength, I loved the class. It became a regular for me and I gradually worked up to slow flow classes. By the time I worked my way up to power yoga, my exercise regimen was established as a habit.

Though yoga had helped me feel better by getting more into my body, I did the same silly thing I had previously done with my meditation practice: I fell away from it for a while. At it turns out, just like my experience without meditation had shown me, falling away from yoga helped me see how important it was. Once I got my exercise habit re-established, I wanted more intensity. I started going to Orange Theory and so stopped the yoga studio because I didn’t have as much time (or money) for the classes. I loved the classes and still stretched regularly but the tread running caused me to develop plantar fasciitis. I tried a lot of things to fix it, but the problem lingered until the pandemic forced me to switch things up.

In late 2019, I had purchased a Peloton for my husband to try to help him stick with cardio.  By March, 2020, that item was a lifeline for me. At first, I focused on the bike, then added some strength, and then finally explored the yoga content. Lo and behold, the plantar fasciitis started to resolve when I added yoga back into my repertoire. This helped me learn that my body needed intense strength and cardio workouts, but it also needed the flexibility and balance that yoga offered. As I practiced more, I found that sometimes yoga was not just good for a stretch but needed in times when I was too worked up to meditate. I realized that moving first or meditating during a restorative practice was sometimes a more compassionate way to take care of myself.

In other words, I realized that yoga was a practice that could balance and add depth to my exercise and meditation routines. Though I had never been the biggest devotee of yoga and am definitely not doing Instagram-worthy arm balances any time soon, this experience made me curious. I realized that there was another side of mindfulness to explore and, since the pandemic didn’t seem to be ending as soon as I’d hoped, I enrolled in the 500-hour yoga teacher training program with My Vinyasa Practice.  So, now this awkward, unbalanced, hyper-rational lawyer who thought she didn’t like yoga, is a yoga teacher.

So why do I share this story? I share it because it taught me that there are lots of paths to mindfulness. Some of us, like me, are so tangled in thought that we have no choice but to start in our minds. Others, though, may have better luck by starting with the body. In the end, though, these paths intersect and over time can come together like tributary streams forming a powerful river. That’s what happened for me and so I am grateful for all the mistakes and wrong judgments I made along the way that forced me to look at mindfulness again and again so that I could understand it better.

The truth is that I never disliked yoga at all. I disliked myself or at least didn’t like the image I had of myself. Once meditation helped me get a better and more compassionate view, I found that I could enjoy yoga too. Thus, even though I was a reluctant yogi, the practice did for me what it promised to do. The word “yoga” means to “yoke” or unite mind and body. I had started yoga distant from and judging my body for how it looked and what it couldn’t do. When I dropped the judgment, paid attention to how my body felt and gave it what it needed, my mind and body became united and I learned that I had been doing yoga all along.