Kaisa Soininen, the COO of Yogaia, is a psychologist who has made her career around different digital services. Mindfulness and yoga have been a part of her life for a long time, and joining Yogaia six years ago made her dive deeper into the research about their benefits. Yogaia is a Finnish startup company that offers various wellness services, such as online yoga and mindfulness classes in Finnish and English, to both individual customers and to different organisations.
What do mindfulness and meditation actually mean, and what’s the difference between them?
- Mindfulness means conscious accepting presence. The difference is that mindfulness is a state of mind, whereas meditation and yoga are practices that can include mindfulness but also other features.
What kind of scientific evidence for the benefits of mindfulness is there?
- Mindfulness has been studied quite extensively, though we cannot say that we know everything about it yet. The clearest benefits that have been discovered in various studies is that mindfulness improves concentration by preventing boredom and mind-wandering. Researchers have also found that mindfulness improves problem solving skills. You could say that mindfulness makes your mind more flexible, which then allows you to come up with different solutions. It also decreases stress, and actually there are even some clinical stress-management programs based on mindfulness. Besides all this, mindfulness increases compassion and makes us more likely to help others.
Does mindfulness actually affect the structure or function of the brain?
- When it comes to brain research, various studies have detected changes in the amygdala and the hippocampus of the brain related to mindfulness practice. The amygdala is the brain component that controls our stress reactions. The research has shown that there is less activity in the amygdala of individuals who have just had a mindfulness session, and less grey matter in the amygdala of individuals who regularly practice mindfulness. On the other hand, the hippocampus is the component that controls our emotions, learning and memory. In this case, the studies have shown that mindfulness increases activity on this part of the brain.
How fast can the benefits be noticed, and how can a beginner start a mindfulness practice?
- The results have been detected both right after a mindfulness session and long-term in different studies. However, we do not yet know how many minutes a day of mindfulness is necessary for the benefits to show. This also depends a lot on the individual, so my recommendation would be to try and incorporate mindfulness little by little to your daily routine and explore what works for you. In the beginning it is important that the practice is not too long - for example 5 or 10 minutes a day is a good place to start.
You don’t even necessarily need to make it a separate practice, but an easy way to get started is for example paying attention to the sensations of your body while showering, eating etc. and trying to be fully present in the moment. Instead of rushing through those activities, try to pay attention to how they feel on your body, what does the food taste or smell like and what kind of thoughts come to your mind during that moment.
As a beginner should one try to focus on the same sense everytime they practice?
- It doesn't really matter on what you focus on, as long as you focus on something. Breath is a common thing to focus on in different mindfulness practices because everyone who is alive breathes, and it is not something that you have to put any effort into. It is also very easy to focus on our senses and I don’t think you should always focus on the same one, though it can make it easier to create the routine and find your own way. On the other hand, for the curious ones it can be more interesting to focus on a different sense each time. The main point is to choose what you want to focus on, and bring your mind gently back to it every time you notice that your mind has started to wander.
Noor: A couple of years ago I participated in a one-day mindfulness retreat with my mum, where I learned the basics of mindfulness quite intensively during just one day. It was a great experience and I kept doing the practices for some time after the retreat. However, such an intensive beginning left me feeling pressured to dedicate lots of time and effort to mindfulness, and eventually I felt like I didn't have enough time and that’s what made me stop practicing. So it’s great to hear that I don’t actually need to give it a huge amount of time but it’s possible to practice just 5 or 10 minutes a day and get some benefits!
- Exactly - you shouldn’t set the bar too high. If this becomes another task you need to accomplish, then you have kind of missed the point.
Miisa: Yeah, I can admit that I have had meditation on my to-do list.
Noor: Maybe we should both change our mindset and start with little moments of mindfulness, instead of feeling like we need to dedicate an entire day to it.
- Indeed, when you start to think about your daily routines, you start to notice that there are actually many things you can combine mindfulness with so that you don’t need to make time for it but it actually happens at the same time with your other activities. Can you think of any examples in your lives?
Miisa: Yes! I’ve actually tried the thing you mentioned about eating mindfully. For example, when I have breakfast I don’t take my phone or laptop with me, but instead I try to focus on just that moment during the 10 or 15 minutes that I eat. I feel like it has really made a difference, my day starts much better when I don’t open my email and to-do list the first thing in the morning. As you said, it’s much easier to combine mindfulness with other activities.
Finally, the last question: how did you first get into these topics and realized their importance?
- Actually I can remember that I borrowed a book about yoga when I was still a kid - so obviously I’ve had some kind of an interest since very early in my life. Also as a young adult I somehow ended up in a yoga course, which was a great counterbalance for my busy working life at that point. I noticed how yoga helped me to shift my mind from work to other things. Later, about seven years ago, I also started a mindfulness practice separately from yoga. I started with a few minutes of mindfulness with a guided practice on the bus on my way to work. I don’t follow guided sessions every day anymore, but I’ve included it as a part of my everyday life. At the moment my favourite mindfulness practice is climbing!
At the end of the episode we got to enjoy a short mindfulness session with Gloria Salo, who is a yoga teacher that has taught many different styles of yoga and studied yoga philosophy and yogic methods for almost fifteen years. She has been teaching at Yogaia since the very early years of the company. Besides her studies around yoga, she has a master’s degree in social psychology and did her bachelor’s and master’s theses on mindfulness meditation.
This little mindfulness session was in Finnish, but for mindfulness and yoga classes in both Finnish and English, streamed live from different time zones, go check out yogaia.com! Aalto Entrepreneurship Society has had an opportunity to try out their classes during the month of April and so far it has been a lovely journey and a great way to create healthy routines to support our holistic wellbeing. We recommend 100%!
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I hope you have a lovely day and see you next time!