Updated: Apr 26
You will often also hear mindfulness meditation mentioned together and the words used interchangeably as a mindfulness practice or a meditation practice.
Meditation is an ancient set of techniques that are practiced today by around 275 million people across the world.
“The essence of meditation is not something we do; rather, it is simply to be, fully present and aligned with life in the moment.” — Eckhart Tolle
And then there’s mindfulness practices and mindfulness meditation. Using specific techniques to help us to be more aware and pay attention in the present moment.
So what are the differences between mindfulness versus meditation? And can you practice mindfulness without meditation?
Read on to find out more about the definitions of yogic meditation, mindfulness meditation, simple meditation and mindfulness practices you can do.
What is the Purpose of Meditation?
Meditation practices are designed to help you cultivate a calm and alert mind. As well as having beneficial effects on your body, breath, feelings, and emotions.
Despite there being many different meditation practices and traditions, all of these practices are focused on either narrowing your concentration on a single object or expanding your awareness outwards through open monitoring.
Most of us think of meditation as a practice where you sit with your eyes closed and try not to think. And then perhaps feel frustrated and decide meditation isn’t for you when you realise it’s not possible to just choose to stop thinking.
Therefore, it's useful when you're getting started with meditation to know that although we are focusing on narrowing our concentration or expanding our awareness we aren't trying to stop thinking.
Rather we are doing our best to observe everytime our attention slips away into thoughts and then practicing redirecting our focus back to the single object or open awareness.
What is Yogic Meditation?
In the context of meditation and yoga, Patanjali’s Yogasutras (verse 2) define meditation and yoga as “calming the fluctuations of a distracted or agitated mind.”
“Calming the fluctuations of a distracted or agitated mind.” — Patanjali’s Yogasutras (verse 2)
There are three stages of meditation described in the Yogasutras that are seen in the yoga tradition as essential steps when pursuing a meditation practice:
Dharana is consciously focusing your attention on an object. Here you might start by focusing your concentration on watching your breath. Then every time that you notice your mind has wandered away from your breath (which will keep happening) you do your best to refocus your attention back on your breath again.
Dhyana is when you continue to focus your attention on the same experience for a longer period of time. This means that through a continued practice of concentration (e.g. focusing on your breath), you start to be able to focus on this point (the breath) for a longer time without getting distracted.
Samadhi is when you reach a specific point in your meditation practice where it feels effortless. This might just occur for a very short time before you become distracted again. But over time of practicing consistently you will find it possible to start to let go of the specific technique (e.g. focusing on your breath) and move into an intuitive state of open awareness.
Steps for Practicing Meditation
As you might imagine from reading about the three stages of yogic meditation—dharana, dhyana, and samadhi—it’s easiest to start with building your attention and concentration on a single point of focus. This is because if it’s hard to focus your attention on a specific point it will also be very challenging to practice expanding your awareness outwards without getting distracted by thinking.
Having said this, I don’t want to understate how difficult it can be to practice a meditation technique where you are focusing on one single point!
It’s also worth knowing our mind will continuously fluctuate between feeling calm, agitated, and lethargic. Sometimes we might have entire practices where we feel very calm, very agitated, or very lethargic. And just because you had a practice where you felt very agitated or sleepy it doesn’t mean that it was any better or worse than a practice where you feel completely calm and tranquil.
The key thing you want to focus on is can you simply observe and watch what is happening and how you feel in the present moment and do your best to accept this vs. trying to change your experience?
How Often Should You Meditate?
A recent study showed that by practicing a relatively short daily meditation of 13 minutes for 8-weeks decreased negative mood, enhanced attention, working memory, recognition memory, and decreased anxiety.
Regular short meditation practices done daily have been shown to work best to get some of the longer term benefits from meditation. But you’ll also find that you can get some of the shorter term benefits of meditation like a feeling of calm clarity from a single meditation session.
So the best advice is to first see what feels possible to commit to on a regular basis. And then if over time it feels possible to make time for a daily meditation practice you could slowly build up to this.
What is Mindfulness and Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness is about maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surroundings.
Mindfulness meditation and the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program are secular practices that originate from Buddhist meditation and philosophy. Mindfulness was popularized by the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and thousands of studies that document the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation is a specific type of meditation that is focused on paying attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them. Doing our best to let go of the idea that there’s a right or wrong way to think or feel in a given moment.
So when we practice mindfulness we are focusing on tuning into how things feel in the present moment rather than focusing on the past or the future.
It has been shown through scientific studies that a mindfulness meditation practice of at least two weeks you will become more familiar with observing spontaneous thoughts while maintaining an attitude of openness and equanimity. As well as experiencing a reduction in the amount of mind wandering and a better ability to concentrate on a cognitive task.
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines nine attitudes to work on cultivating during a mindfulness meditation practice:
Meditation and Mindfulness Activities
Usually if our minds are quite busy it will feel easier to start by doing some physical yoga practices (asana) and breathing techniques (pranayama). And then once our mind feels quieter perhaps starting with a very short 5 minute meditation practice right after the physical yoga and breathing practices.
Doing a short physical yoga practice before meditation and will help open and stabilize your body so that it feels easier to sit comfortably during your meditation practice. You can of course also choose to meditate lying down to be more comfortable, but this will also tend to make us feel more sleepy and less alert.
Another tip is to try practicing first thing in the morning. Usually our minds are a bit more quiet when we wake up compared to at the end of the day. And since we’ve already been asleep all night you’ve got more chance of staying awake during the meditation even if you choose to lie down.
Can You Practice Mindfulness Without Meditation?
In the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course there are some techniques that are formal mindfulness meditation practices and some more informal mindfulness practices where you work on integrating mindful moments into your day.
The formal mindfulness meditation techniques involve practices such as a mindful seated meditation or walking meditation where you stop any other activities to focus on doing this mindfulness meditation practice.
While informal mindful moments are small exercises that you might do during you daily activities to bring more awareness to the present moment. This might include bringing more awareness to everyday activities like brushing your teeth or locking the door. Or you could include bringing repeated awareness to your breath while doing other activities like working or cooking.
The beauty of mindfulness techniques is that you can practice them at any time of the day, and in any place. And although you don’t always have to practice formal mindfulness meditation techniques to be mindful, you will find that by taking the time to do a regular sitting or walking meditation it will help you more easily be mindful in other areas of your life.
The only thing you have to do is to remember to be mindful – which isn’t always easy – in order to take the time to pause at different periods throughout your day, and be mindful of your breath and body.
Receive Personal Guidance from Irene
Would you like personal guidance to help dive deeper into your yoga practice?
Start a Home Yoga Practice
Do you want to develop a home yoga practice but not sure where to start? Follow the three steps in this free guide to start practicing yoga consistently at home.
Complete your details below to receive your free guide with tips for a home yoga practice. In this guide you'll also receive cheat sheets and links to guided videos for seven short sequences, as well as a practice calendar to get started.