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. 

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out the new book from our founder, Claire E. Parsons, called How to Be a Badass Lawyer which is now available on Amazon.

Confessions of a Reluctant Yogi

As a mindfulness and compassion 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.

Calm Down Lawyers: Meditation Will Make You More Effective, Not Soft

Attorney wellness is a top concern for many attorneys, bar associations, and firms. Meditation practices are being recommended to attorneys as a simple, cheap, effective and research-based way to ease and manage stress. Yet, one of the concerns I commonly hear lawyers, especially litigators, express is that they are worried that meditation will cause them to “lose their edge.” As a litigator, I know clients praise attorneys for being “aggressive” and that even we lawyers often talk about litigation as if we are discussing war. Thus, there is some truth to the idea that to be an effective litigator you can’t have too thin of a skin.

Still, when you really break it down, the idea that meditation will make a litigator’s skin any thinner is kind of silly. You may wonder why someone trying to persuade you to meditate would use such a judgmental word to mock the concerns of fellow attorneys. Well, that that’s not actually what I mean. I don’t mean lawyers are silly for being concerned about the importance of mental or emotional toughness in litigation. Rather, I’m saying that the thought: a meditation practice will make me less tough, assertive, or action-oriented as a lawyer—is funny. When you examine this thought in very practical terms it actually might make you laugh. Please allow me to demonstrate.

First, the concern that meditation will cause lawyers to be less aggressive is somewhat arrogant or at least based on arrogant assumption. Seriously guys, if anyone was going to think of this argument it would be lawyers, right? It posits that, obviously, if any of us high-achieving lawyers set out to meditate we’d attain enlightenment in no time, with minimal effort, no resistance, no struggle, and our lives would be forever changed. We’d immediately uproot all difficult emotions the first time we focused on the breath and it would supplant any tendency toward anger, reactivity, ambition, or competition. In a word, this worry about “being soft” sort of assumes that you will be good at meditation and attain instant chill.

Those of us who have actually tried to meditate know that this isn’t likely to be true (unless perhaps you are Eckhart Tolle). For the vast majority of us, this process is much more gradual. The changes are more subtle. The practice of meditation can help you make substantial and significant changes in your life, but it doesn’t change your personality or life goals instantaneously. In short, the idea that a meditation practice could derail your litigation practice on its own is tinged with a bit of magical thinking.

If you don’t believe me on this one, consider how you’d react if a friend told you that they were considering getting back into regular exercise but they were concerned that doing so would result in superhuman strength, speed, and agility that might disrupt their life. Such a concern may not be illogical so much as it is impractical. After all, it would indeed be inconvenient if your friend inadvertently ripped off the driver’s side door while trying to get in their vehicle due to the superhuman strength they developed after only one weight training session. Yet, it would also be unlikely to happen. The same is true for meditation. You, yes even my beloved Type A lawyer friends, are very unlikely to become instantly enlightened after a few minutes of meditation. So just calm down and give it a try.

Moreover, the practice of meditation has been shown to help you focus and to pay attention to your direct experience rather than constantly being lost in a sea of thoughts. Therefore, if you start meditating for, let’s say, 5 minutes per day, you are more likely to notice if changes start to happen in your life or law practice. Thus, it follows that if meditation is making you too happy or peaceful or filled with loving-kindness to be a good lawyer, you will probably see it. In that case, you can just stop meditating, adjust your practice, or do things like look at Twitter or TV news to raise your levels of aggression when needed for strategic purposes. In other words, you can cross that bridge when you come to it, but a regular meditation practice is likely to help light the path on the way to that proverbial bridge.

Another thing I always think when I hear a lawyer worry out loud about the impact that meditation could have on their litigation skills is: “Whoa, how much are you planning to meditate?” Sure, if you are thinking of starting out for 8 hours a day, maybe the meditation practice might stand a chance of drastically and suddenly changing your personality. Most notably, it could make you hate your life. Fortunately, for most of us mere mortals, a practice of a few minutes a day is all we can stand at the start. Do you really think a practice of 5 minutes a day is going to mean you can’t still be aggressive? You don’t think that. Nobody really thinks that.

Finally, I think litigators who worry that meditation may “change” their hard-nosed style forget that, with or without meditation, they are unlikely to be tough and competitive in all areas of their life. I mean, are the lawyers worried that meditation will infect their soul with kindness and compassion saying that they are always tough, hard, difficult, and willing to fight? Are they saying that they don’t appreciate a softer touch, humor, kindness, or joy in any other parts of their day? My experience tells me that this isn’t what they mean.

In addition to being a good, aggressive, calculating, tough lawyer, I am also a mom, a friend, a wife, a sister, a dog owner. On some occasions, these roles overlap. A few years ago, I called my husband from the courthouse steps while waiting on a jury to return a verdict to sing my toddler her night-in night songs. Yes, my co-counsel laughed at me while I did so, but I was more worried about my toddler’s wrath when I returned home than I was about heckling from other lawyers. I hope you get where I’m going here: we lawyers can be both aggressive and compassionate. We can be incredibly forgiving and kind to our children and family and tough when we need to be for our clients. Sometimes we can, and I think we should, be both for our clients.

Compassion and care don’t detract from our ability to be strong when necessary. To the contrary, it is a normal and healthy way to live life. Balancing these emotions and different roles, of course, can be challenging and that is exactly why meditation practice can help lawyers to be not just “aggressive” but aggressive in a way that is effective for our clients.

So, if like me, you are a “mean” litigator and you are considering meditation to help you manage stress, increase personal happiness, and stop overthinking all of the time, you can start by not worrying that meditation will make you too soft. Meditation has drastically improved my litigation practice and I think it could do the same for you.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

Like this post? Subscribe to the blog here or follow us on social media: