Mindfulness

Yarn Over, Pull Through: Crochet Your Way to Mindfulness

Several years ago, I found myself writing my dissertation, working on articles and conference presentations, teaching, and searching for a full-time academic job. I was engulfed by academic craziness and couldn’t see my life or myself from an objective perspective. At that time, I fully understood the meaning of “can’t see the forest for the trees.” Then…thoughts of crochet invaded my mind.

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The crochet intrusion was so intense that I was actually unable to finish typing a sentence.

I took up crochet after college because I had “free time” and, like most type-A personalities, wanted to use that time productively. I crocheted gifts and that was more or less it. While working on my dissertation, though, my crochet pastime became a compulsion. The crochet intrusion was so intense that I was actually unable to finish typing a sentence. It didn’t matter what I crocheted at that moment, I had to make something. I decided to listen to my brain and my body. I snatched a ball of yarn from my scrap pile, grabbed a size G/6 crochet hook from its case, and single crocheted until the urge subsided.

I arranged my schedule by hour blocks: forty-five minutes of writing, fifteen minutes of crochet. After several crochet breaks, I returned to work free from obstacles that blocked my mind’s flow. I was more focused, more relaxed, and better able to keep distraction at bay. I became a single tree, surrounded by a forest, but no longer overwhelmed by it.

I have devoted almost every evening since 2012 to crochet. I flip on the TV or an audiobook, grab my project, and get to it. Usually my project is a simple, repetitive pattern, and I confess that sometimes I don’t watch the TV show or listen to the audiobook, it just serves as background noise while I focus my attention on my crochet. If I am particularly concentrated on crochet, my attention homes in on the sensations I experience. I feel yarn slide across my left hand while I move the metal hook with my right. I see knots of yarn emerge as the hook travels through the fabric. I smell the yarn fiber. I hear yarn unrolling from its ball and I sometimes hear the hook pierce through the yarn. My mind counts stitches and repeats patterns like a mantra: yarn over, insert hook, yarn over, pull through, yarn over, pull through. As a religion professor who has taught world religions, my crochet sessions began to remind me of Buddhist mindfulness meditation (also called Vipassana or Insight meditation). I wondered: can crochet be considered a mindfulness practice?

Mindfulness helps you become aware of what you are aware of.

Mindfulness

Philip H. Davidson (Mindfulness Coach, Teacher, and Practitioner at Mindfulness Meditation of Richmond, VA) describes mindfulness as a mental training that provides a sense of internal spaciousness and freedom to an individual regardless of the stressors that exist outside her. An individual can still be doing a lot in life, but through mindfulness she can remain centered and at ease within this busyness. Instead of reacting immediately to stress with more stress and anxiety, mindfulness helps an individual consider all possible responses to a situation and the impact these alternatives have on others and oneself. Then she can mindfully select the response that best resolves the situation. Davidson points out that “mindfulness is not about a truth being conveyed to a person by a teacher.” Rather, mindfulness is an offering of ideas, concepts, and practices that help you “become aware of what you’re aware of.”

According to Davidson, mindfulness encourages us to detach from the drama of our life stories so we may clearly evaluate our lives and the world around us, or so we may learn to distinguish the forest from the trees. We detach from our story by stepping outside of ourselves and observing ourselves to take note of what is happening amidst life’s action. While this sounds difficult, we should remember that mindfulness is a skill we can develop. Davidson likens mindfulness practice to riding a bicycle. We don’t know how to ride a bicycle the first time we try, but with time and practice, bike riding becomes second nature. The same is true of mindfulness.

Many may associate mindfulness practice with sitting quietly in a room, alone with just your thoughts. However, mindfulness practice isn’t about being able to sit with a blank mind for hours, nor is mindfulness about getting lost in thought or “spacing out.” Instead, mindfulness is about cultivating concentration and awareness by paying attention to your mind and body. As Davidson notes, “mindfulness entails a practice of concentration in which you anchor your concentration on breath, sounds, or sensations.” For example, during a seated mindfulness meditation a practitioner may focus on her breathing and sensations that accompany inhalation and exhalation. At the same time, she observes the mind as it creates thoughts. While that sounds simple, Davidson warns that the mind wanders and tries to hijack our awareness of the present moment through its continual generation of thoughts.

Our job in mindfulness meditation is to discipline the mind by observing the thoughts it generates and remaining focused on our present moment. When you become aware that your mind is wandering, you become aware of what your thoughts are doing and how they disrupt your attention. You can then refocus your concentration on your anchor (breathing, body sensations, etc.), and return your awareness to the present moment. Instead of maintaining the perfectly blank mind, Kate Pickert notes in her TIME Magazine cover article (“The Mindful Revolution”), “our ability to recognize that our attention has been diverted” is the crucial part of mindfulness practice.

While sitting meditation is commonly associated with mindfulness practice, Buddhism offers other practices that develop mindfulness. Tibetan Buddhism, for example, includes contemplating mandala paintings, building sand mandalas, and chanting mantras as a form of mindfulness meditation. Japanese Zen Buddhism uses calligraphy, the tea ceremony, and the maintenance of a Zen garden to cultivate mindfulness. All Buddhist traditions share a practice of walking meditation in which practitioners observe physical and mental sensations while walking. Pickert describes her experience of mindful eating. Jancee Dunn states in her article, “Everything You Need to Know About Meditation,” that mindfulness practice can be done “sitting at your desk at work or even standing in a long line at the grocery store.” Being in a calm, quiet environment is favorable, Dunn notes, but being “away from engaging distractions, such as your computer” is more important.

Health Benefits

Mindfulness:

  • May reduce psychological stressors that contribute to anxiety and depression,
  • Helps reduce pain and stress-related inflammation,
  • Increases the ability to handle constant pain,
  • Enhances relaxation, energy, and enthusiasm for life,
  • Increases endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine (important for maintaining good moods),
  • Temporarily reduces blood pressure, and
  • Improves digestion.

In addition to these medical benefits, Davidson says that mindfulness:

  • “shifts the place of stress” in our lives,
  • means the “difference between going through life on automatic pilot—grasping at things that never satisfy you—and being able to be at ease no matter what happens,” and
  • helps us develop and extend compassion to ourselves and others.

My experience with crochet has similar effects: I am more relaxed following a crochet session and my mind is calmer. I concentrate more easily on immediate tasks and think less about the future result of an activity. My response to external stressors is more thoughtful and less reactive. In my two years of almost-nightly crochet, I noticed something else: if I don’t crochet for a few nights in a row, busy thoughts race through my brain like they are in the motorcycle globe of death.

Debbie Stoller (editor-in-chief of BUST magazine and author of the Stitch N’ Bitch craft books) acknowledges she feels calmer when she’s done some knitting and, when she hasn’t knit in a while, “feel[s] more stressed out, less peaceful, and less productive.” Stoller notes that her concentration improves while she’s knitting and, although she doesn’t equate crafting directly with meditation, she writes that knitting is “definitely soothing for the soul.”

Writing about depression in her book Crochet Saved My Life, Kathryn Vercillo cites Carol Hart (author of Secrets of Serotonin), who associates repetitive activity with increased serotonin levels. Vercillo concludes that if repetitive moment boosts serotonin and raised serotonin levels “can help alleviate depression then it is true that [the repetitive movement of] crochet has the potential to assist in alleviating depression symptoms for some people.”

Since crafting seems to do something to the mind, can crochet (or knitting) be considered a mindfulness practice?

Can crochet be a mindfulness practice? Yes and no…

Mindful Crochet

For Vercillo, crochet offers “a focused task that distracts you from the drama that sometimes takes over the brain and tries to wreck havoc.” Crochet is conducive to meditative practice, Vercillo notes, “because [crochet] is a hands-on, focused activity that has repetitive (and therefore meditative) qualities. When you catch yourself ruminating on negative thoughts, you can learn to consistently bring yourself back to the work at hand.” Crochet by nature requires attention to the present moment: if you’re not concentrating while you crochet, you risk making stitch mistakes. And when you don’t realize those mistakes until you’re long past them (like twenty rows past!), ripping out the work is frustrating.

For Davidson, the answer to whether crochet can be a mindfulness practice is yes and no since “meditation practice is difficult enough because of our mind’s function.” Practitioners need to give themselves an experience in which thoughts are not disrupting their present awareness. Adding another element, like crochet, may increase mental distractions when you seek to reduce them. For example, instead of concentrating on an anchor such as breathing, during crochet a crafter’s mind might wander to whether she likes the yarn color or whether the project is emerging as she hoped. Or, she might just lose herself in the project altogether.

As long as you don’t treat the project as something to just get lost in and you can observe yourself performing the activity from an objective perspective, Davidson says, crochet may be conducive to mindfulness practice. Ultimately, whether crochet functions as a mindfulness meditation “lies in that person’s direct experience” of crochet: are you focused on bodily sensations of the activity from an objective position, or are you lost in the craft?

To create your own mindfulness meditative crochet practice, Davidson suggests beginning in an environment without distractions (no music, no audiobook, no TV, no cell phone, etc.). As you start to crochet, focus your concentration on the activity. When distracting thoughts wander into your mind: observe them, let them go, and refocus your attention on your crochet. Be aware of the distinction between being aware of what you’re aware of and of getting lost in the crochet project. Remain focused on the sensation of the yarn, the hook, and the growing fabric in your hands.

We may never quite leave the forest, but through regular and mindful crochet, we can make our experience of the trees calmer by raising our awareness of what is happening within ourselves. As you pick up your next crochet project, remember: inhale, exhale, and yarn over to pull through.

Beginner Crochet Meditation*

  • Find a ball of yarn and a hook that works comfortably with the yarn.
  • Find a distraction-free location (i.e., not in front of the TV).
  • Set an alarm (use a soothing tone on your cell phone) for ten minutes.
  • Take note of the sensations of the yarn and hook in your hands.
  • While you crochet, maintain focus on the following crochet pattern. Repeat the pattern in your mind while you work. If you notice your thoughts beginning to wander, draw your attention back to your mental repetition of the pattern:

Pattern:

Row 1. Chain 21. Turn.

Row 2. Sc in 2nd chain from hook, sc to end, turn.

Row 3. *Chain 1, sc in each sc to the end, turn.

Row 4+. Repeat from * until your alarm sounds.

Do not finish off. Rip out your work at the end of each meditation session and begin anew the next time.

Gradually increase your crochet meditation time as you continue your practice.

*This meditation can also be done as knitting:

  • Find a ball of yarn and a hook that works comfortably with the yarn.
  • Find a distraction-free location (i.e., not in front of the TV).
  • Set an alarm (use a soothing tone on your cell phone) for ten minutes.
  • Take note of the sensations of the yarn and hook in your hands.
  • While you crochet, maintain focus on the following crochet pattern. Repeat the pattern in your mind while you work. If you notice your thoughts beginning to wander, draw your attention back to your mental repetition of the pattern:

Row 1. Cast on 20 stitched. Turn.

Row 2. *K in each st to the end, turn.

Row 3+. Repeat from * until your alarm sounds.

Do not bind off. Rip out your work at the end of each meditation session and begin anew the next time.

Gradually increase your knitting meditation time as you continue your practice.

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