We’ve all been barraged by social media posts and magazine ads: “Five easy steps to mindfulness,” “Seven steps to eating right,’” or “Four simple steps to losing weight fast.” These messages are everywhere – on line, in print, and even academic publications. As the leader of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the largest yoga retreat center in North America, I am happy to see them: They prove that mindfulness, yoga and wellness have moved into the mainstream to great benefit. Yet my enthusiasm is tempered by doubt: I am concerned that the proliferation of “quick and easy” steps to mindfulness and wellness do not serve us in the long run.
Too often, these well-intentioned articles promoting mindfulness and meditation offer an oversimplified antidote to one of our life’s complex challenges: stress. It all sounds so simple: set a timer; take deep, directed breaths, etc. But the road to mindfulness is not simple, or paved in five easy steps. It is as complex as the lives we are attempting to “fix.” And for these existential questions, there is no quick fix, no just-add-water instant wellness mix. If it was as easy as connecting part A to part B, no one would be struggling.
I don’t blame the five-easy-steps authors. In fact, we at Kripalu offer easy access points – listicles – as a first step to engage seekers into a deepening practice. We are all responding to the psychological distress that pervades our society, as well as the longing for immediate relief. We’re all searching for coping mechanisms, but easy antidotes as a standalone solution actually undermine wellness, because they do not offer a sustainable key to addressing our dis-ease. The eternal pursuit of the solution-du-jour instead keeps us engaged in the cycle of seeking—and continuously vulnerable to the newest promise.
Here is the truth: There are no shortcuts to wellness. Wholeness of mind, body and spirit is not a product or a quick-fix outcome; it’s the fruit of a process that takes time and discipline. Yet as health and wellness become burgeoning multi-billion dollar consumer markets, we must clearly differentiate between the appetizer and the entrée – between approaches that attract the uninitiated seeker and the ongoing discipline of personal development, which deepens and expands our capacity for commitment, connection and compassion. It’s called a “practice” because that’s what’s required.
Of course, a committed meditation or yoga practice is not for everyone. There’s real value in offering seekers a “taste” of mindfulness and stress resilience. Everyone needs to begin somewhere. For those entirely new to the mindfulness space, five easy steps may be a perfect invitation. But five easy steps are only the beginning; the road is (life-)long, and the commitment is serious.
At Kripalu, we welcome seekers, especially those curious to discover new resources, even as we support and engage with people committed to the long haul, as borne out by our many decades of study, practice and community life. Abundant scientific research illuminates the complex interplay between yoga, meditation, mindfulness and stress – and the myriad effects these factors exert on physiology and psychology alike, including the benefits of yoga and meditation in building resilience and mediating stressors. At Kripalu, we offer an oasis of the self – a place where people can connect more deeply with themselves, even as they learn (and practice) yoga and other wellness disciplines. We meet people where they are – and encourage exploration, growth and discovery. It’s not about how perfectly we hold the pose or ‘gram our designer yoga gear. It’s about something quieter and frankly invisible: how we are with ourselves, and how we understand ourselves in the world.
The kind of transformation that many of us seek requires commitment to “self-observation without judgement” — a reflective practice in which we ultimately renegotiate a relationship with self, inviting self-compassion and connection to replace critique and alienation. Health is an ongoing commitment to embodiment: caring for our bodies, souls, hearts, and minds; rooting our lives in wellness. It takes dedication and commitment to get up every day and do the same thing over and over and over again until it becomes a lifestyle and who we are. Let us, then, recognize and celebrate leaders and organizations that help us sustain our practice and growth for the long haul.
Leaders in the field of mindfulness, health and wellness have a huge responsibility to those seeking healing. We must not hold out false hope for an instant fix, because we know that real change happens over the course of time. Reflective observation demands new ways of being. This stands in stark contrast to simple formulas that focus on “doing.” Essentially, we must take the risk of becoming quiet – still enough to observe rather than judge – and abandon habitual thought patterns by deeply feeling all that lives in our physical bodies. We must go inward and re-experience ourselves. There are no short cuts.
Let us, as leaders, reject simple
antidotes to our collective dis-ease. Democracy itself is vulnerable when
instant fixes gloss over complex problems. A tasty placebo risks convincing
people they don’t have to worry about wellness anymore. Acolytes attached to
teachers and other 21st-century gurus take another risky gamble,
staking their wellness to an extrinsic source – another person – rather than
developing their own inner resources and personal discipline.
So yes, I’m glad the world
is hungry for wellness. But I wonder, how can we encourage people to reject the
instant fix and strive to deepen the practices that, over the course of a
lifetime, advance human development and evolution? We can, and we must.