There is so much mindfulness about it can be hard to choose a way forward. Sarah Strohmaier investigates how you can develop a practice that’s right for you.

During these stressful times, it can feel like we’re being encouraged from all sides to try mindfulness. Even some employers have urged individuals to engage in mindfulness meditation. Not just as a coping mechanism but to increase productivity when working from home. But the confusing thing is the multiplicity of different mindfulness programs available. So how do you know how much mindfulness practice and which program is best?

Mindfulness is a form of meditation where individuals focus on the present moment, on purpose and without judgement on themselves. Many people from different populations find mindfulness helpful for their wellbeing. Some mindfulness programs are delivered in groups, facilitated by an experienced teacher. These programs can have 2-3 hours of fixed weekly face-to-face sessions participants travel to and involve up to an hour of individual home practice every day. Previous research has found these programs to be beneficial for wellbeing.

But a lot of people assume that benefits of mindfulness practice can only be reaped if you practice a lot. When thinking about mindfulness meditation, people often have a mental picture of a Buddhist monk in their head who has been practicing every day for 10 hours since they were a child. 

And that is of course true for some, but that should not discourage someone from reaping the benefits of mindfulness if they have less time on their hands, have a busy job, family and social live or if, as is the case now, there is a global pandemic which renders travel to group sessions impossible. Longer practices can also feel very challenging, especially for those new to mindfulness who are in the early stages of learning it.

Aside from the more intense mindfulness programs, there are also less intense options available, including online courses which have shorter sessions and practices, apps such as Headspace, Calm and Insight Timer or self-help books. These self-help and online mindfulness programs are generally less time-consuming and more accessible for individuals. They don’t involve travel to the location where a mindfulness group is held, and they can be completed at a place and a time which best suits you. Also, those new to mindfulness can find shorter options easier to start with.

The question is whether learning and practicing mindfulness via shorter options is just as helpful or whether you would need to take part in an intense program for mindfulness to work?

Recent research  comparing mindfulness programs around the world for different people suggests that taking part in a mindfulness program, regardless of length or intensity, can improve wellbeing. Essentially, more intense in-person programs can be helpful but so can shorter programs and those delivered online or via apps. Not only can shorter programs and practices be helpful by themselves, they can also be a helpful stepping stone for those starting out with mindfulness who wish to build up their tenacity to engage in longer practices. And in the meantime, this person can already experience the benefits of mindfulness.

Take the example of someone whose aim it is to run a marathon. Would you expect this person to run 42 km the first day they put on their running shoes? Or does it make more sense to start off with running 1 km, then 5 km and slowly build up the tenacity to run 42 km? Remember, the first person to run a marathon in Greek mythology died of overexertion because they had not practiced running this distance before. In parallel, being asked to practice a lot of mindfulness at once can certainly make someone stop practicing especially if long practices seem very challenging and confusing to start off with. Also, asking people to practice a lot from the start might put them off from continuing with mindfulness because it seems too large of a challenge.

So, if you want to reap the benefits of mindfulness or do not have a lot of time to designate to this, it is good to know that there are shorter alternatives available which can also be beneficial.

Sarah is currently finishing a PhD on mindfulness. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahstrohmaier.