I have received a few emails now from various students and clients asking me to address some of the complaints they have heard from people regarding the risk factors associated with mindfulness and yoga practices. Articles are being published by people who have attended a mindfulness workshop, for instance, only to feel triggered and have a panic attack upon leaving the room. There are now people researching the risk factors of mindfulness and meditation, announcing that mindfulness is not as therapeutic as people have been claiming. And, as the trend of yoga continues to be rampant, there have been many publications and warnings about how the physical practice of yoga can actually cause injury. I agree that this is an important topic to address and I hope to help clarify some of the misconceptions about mindfulness and yoga that are leading to these adverse effects in the first place.
The main problem in the health-related fields where mindfulness is being applied and where programs are being developed is that practitioners are teaching, packaging, and trying to sell the practices to large groups and in a way that falsely communicates that the same techniques can be applied to all people for the same benefits.
The one-size-fits-all approach could not be more misinformed. The Yoga Journal and other popular publication sources will publish articles titled “Yoga for depression”, or “Yoga for back pain”, or “5 meditation tips to alleviate anxiety”. So, the question that any well-informed therapist would ask is “Whose depression, back pain, and anxiety are we talking about?” The tools in yoga and mindfulness are infinite. The therapeutic application of the tools needs to be highly individualized and very specific to the individual’s constitution, symptoms of suffering, the causes of suffering, their therapeutic goals, their lifestyle, and more. For many people, individual guidance in the form of a prescribed practice is the most optimal choice for wellness and healing.
As it relates to mental health in particular, there are two important responses I have to anyone whose anxiety or trauma has actually been triggered by a mindfulness practice.
The first thing to note is this: if you have been living your life in reaction, dissociation, and slight disconnection from the reality around you in order to survive and protect yourself from harm or the threat of harm, it is natural that you would experience mindfulness practices as triggering because you are bringing to your awareness the very patterns of thought that you were previously either unconscious of or intentionally avoiding. Some of the students or clients I work with therapeutically will actually walk into a session angry with me at times and say “great, I knew i was messed up, but now I know I am even more messed up than I thought”. And to that, I say “perfect”. They don’t like that, but i then explain. It’s perfect because it means they are doing the work. It’s perfect because they are stepping into the awareness which is where the real work toward change can begin. And it’s perfect because it means change is happening. Silent practices in particular where you are being asked to quiet or focus your mind on something may be quite frustrating as this would naturally have you become more aware of just how easily distracted and restless you are. In this sense, ignorance can be bliss. But, hopefully, with the right guidance and support in finding the most appropriate tools for you, you can stay with this discomfort, stay with the practice, and gain a helpful understanding of the root of your suffering in order to address this and move toward freedom from the suffering as you learn to observe the patterns more objectively and live your life more consciously and connected.
The second important response I have is related to the tools being selected. If you suffer from panic attacks, PTSD, or any other anxiety-based disorder where the breath can be restricted, being asked to focus your attention on your breath may very well be one of the most unsafe places to be. Being silent and left with your thoughts if you suffer from flashbacks and serious emotional suffering could be more hindering than helpful. And I share this understanding from my own mistakes made as a practitioner. So, I have no judgment toward those who are learning as teachers. Following 5 minutes of a simple breathing meditation, one of the youth I work with proceeded to engage in serious self-harm as soon as she returned to her room from the practice. In those 5 minutes, she was reliving the atrocious events in the form of memories that she has spent her life trying to distract herself from. I have since received a lot of mentoring and coaching from knowledgeable practitioners and I make a very clear point in my studies to understand not only the beneficial effects of the various tools in yoga, but also the contra-indications. One very simple and fairly safe statement is that, for some people, the best way to expand the breath and quiet the mind is by making sound or chanting. With the appropriate selection of physical movements, breath can be taught in synchronicity with the movement, without having to focus the mind on the breath, and with clear intentions of the desired effect of alleviating problematic symptoms and addressing the root cause of the suffering.
In yoga therapy, we ask ourselves three questions as we enter a therapeutic assessment: what is the desired effect of the practice? where do we want the person to feel the effect (at the level of the mind? in the breath? where on the body?, etc.) and for whom is this effect intended (taking all individual factors in mind about the specific person).
So, if ever you read or hear anything about the risk factors related to yoga and mindfulness practices, it is most likely that the person who has experienced adverse effects was either taught in a group format with a one-size-fits-all approach that was not suitable for that individual, or they may have received the guidance from someone who did not have enough experience to support them through the discomfort by re-evaluating the person’s experience and the tools being applied in order to continually adjust the practice for the desired effects.
I welcome any questions, comments, or experience you may have to share related to this important discussion.