These are two words that will bring to mind misconceptions for many people. Something like an image of someone sitting cross legged in a forest with unrealistic calm and serenity (not the sort of thing you have time for when you have horses!)
More recently I have learned that the techniques of meditation can be used by ordinary people and especially sports people in order to feel more in control of their actions and emotions. Notice that I’m not saying your emotions will disappear completely… You will just have more headspace to act how you choose to and not give into frustration or bad habits.
What is it?
Put more simply, meditation is breathing exercises (and sometimes visualisation). The practice of it, in a constructive way, lead me to experience: a difference in my ability to handle negative emotions, increased quality of sleep and increased confidence). It’s not always easy or relaxing at the time of doing it, it’s about being consistent! Then it will get easier. As I have learnt along the way, even a ‘bad’ meditation can be useful because you learn something. You learn that training your focus is like training a muscle. Persistence pays off.
Mindfulness is a particular practice that can include meditation, but it is so much more than that. It is centered around slowing down your brain to notice details in the environment and so anchoring you to the present moment. When I practiced it, I started to feel less worried about the future and less ‘stuck’ in the past.
Why are they important?
As for the science behind it, you are literally retraining your brain to have fewer ‘fight/flight’ responses.
If you are breathing deeply, your body will trigger the relaxation system. Whereas short breaths, occurring as a result of nerves/frustration, will trigger the fear system. The key point is that your body can’t do both at the same time. So the more you train your body in relaxation, the more this will become YOUR ‘normal’.
The ‘more’ part is something I can’t stress enough, you have to do it once or twice a day minimum to experience any difference, like brushing your teeth! Having good ’emotional hygiene’ habits is just as important as having good physical hygiene. They both start with the decision to look after yourself.
There is research which shows that those who have done meditation show actual changes in the structure of their brain. More importantly the changes are in the part of the brain that help you focus and overcome negative thoughts.
It is something that is hard to explain until you actually do it but I hope that this gives you a more informed view. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that it has been life changing for me and I do feel many other people would benefit from it. My confidence and enjoyment in riding has increased massively (we still have bad days from time to time but I find myself bouncing back from them much quicker).
I am by no means an expert but the book that really helped me get to grips with it was called ‘A practical guide to mindfulness: finding peace in a frantic world’.