Mindfulness Without Meditation: Knitting

I know several people who swear by meditating. In fact, Carylyne is one such person, and she recently detailed her journey with transcendental meditation.

A Love and Hate Relationship with Meditation

For me, I’ve tried to make a habit of meditating in the past. A few years ago, I set a goal, installed the Headspace app, and dutifully sat mostly still for ten minutes at a time. I also attended morning meditations once a month at MoMA through Quiet Mornings, which was a super special, “only in New York” kind of experience.

Being part of the group meditation at MoMA was meaningful; as is often the case in New York, you can be aware of yourself as an individual and feel quite alone when surrounded by others.

Meditating at MoMA stands out to me because it was distinct from the rest of my meditation practice, and I can recall specifics: a snow falling gently at one session; Dan Harris guiding us through his practice; wandering through MoMA’s gardens and galleries early, before the crowds arrived.

The MoMA meditation sessions are meaningful to me in a way that my day-to-day, sitting-on-my-living-room-floor meditations weren’t. While I’m confident I benefited from making a habit of meditating, I wasn’t so good at letting each thought pass by without judgement, “watching the traffic go by,” as Headspace puts it so well. As a precrastinator, I can have trouble letting thoughts go, especially if they require action. During those meditation sessions, I would often find myself making mental notes of things to take care of immediately afterward, or worse yet, pausing the session to take care of them in the moment.

Choosing an Alternative to Meditation

When I went through a planning exercise last year to establish goals for the year, I deliberately decided not to include meditation in the traditional sense. Instead, I chose to build a mindfulness practice through a quiet hobby that would have me alone with my thoughts and not looking at my phone.

My preferred meditative hobby is knitting, a skill I picked up from my mom a few years ago and that has offered me great comfort in difficult times over the past few years. There’s something very soothing about the repetition of knitting — working with a soft yarn, repeatedly going through the same couple of motions, seeing something as simple as string turn into something lovely that can be worn or given to a loved one. And knitting is forgiving: projects can be interrupted and begun again, mistakes can be corrected, and yarn can be repurposed.

The Many Benefits of Knitting

The cognitive and therapeutic benefits of knitting are many. Knitting has been introduced successfully in a variety of settings. It’s been used to help elementary school students with problem-solving and math skills, Alzheimer’s patients with cognitive and social therapy, and prisoners with focus and patience. Its such a simple craft, and yet it has several ingredients that make it beneficial:

  1. Knitting requires two hands. No scrolling on your phone!
  2. Knitting is repetitive. The same movements are done again and again in a rhythmic manner.
  3. Knitting requires your hands and mind to work together. Studies show that activities such as knitting decreased the odds of mild cognitive impairment.
  4. Knitting projects are patient. Mistakes can be undone and reworked, and projects can be stopped and started again.
  5. Knitting is social. The techniques have been passed down from generation to generation, and there are many resources — both in-person and online — geared toward helping people learn to knit, develop their skills, and connect with fellow knitters.

Learning the Knitting Basics

When I began knitting, I didn’t expect it to be life-changing. I had some downtime on a family trip and asked my mom, an avid knitter, to teach me. She’s someone who always carries around a bag of extra yarn and tools (as opposed to me, a minimalist knitter who only carries around the essentials of my current project). On that trip I learned the basics of knit and purl, worked my way through a simple scarf, and fell in love with the practice.

Knitting in Silence

My preferred way to knit in a meditative way is to knit in silence, aware of my surroundings yet absorbed in my work and in my own thoughts. While complicated patterns and colorwork require focused attention, many patterns have long stretches of the same stitches over and over, and these are the best for sitting with my own thoughts in a calm, non-judgmental way. I often find that knitting in this way gives me new perspective or ideas, similar to how purposely procrastinating can open up our minds to more creativity.

My versions of a favorite pattern: Purl Soho’s Baby Fair Isle Cardigan.

Knitting with Others

When I moved to a new place, one of the things that helped me settle in was visiting a local yarn shop and connecting with fellow knitters. The shop had drop-in sessions that brought a disparate set of people together (pre-pandemic), united by their shared interest in the craft. It was welcoming in a way not all spaces felt to me as a newcomer.

I didn’t expect knitting to be an ice-breaker, but on countless flights, in hotel lobbies, in coffee shops, and even in doctor’s office waiting rooms, I was surprised by how many people would lean over and ask about my knitting, want to see what I was working on, share their own knitting history, or ask how I picked it up.

The pandemic hasn’t put a stop to community knitting for me; instead, it’s shifted it online. I’ve joined the online Ravelry community, a site for knitters, crocheters, and related crafters to share projects and patterns, ask questions, and build friendships. If you’re also a knitter, connect with me on Ravelry!

Knitting During Meetings

I wish it were widely acceptable to knit during meetings. Instead of distractedly checking our phones, scrolling through the latest headlines, or online shopping in the background, our meetings might actually be more productive if more of us were knitting and letting our minds stay focused on the conversation.

The journalist Alexandra Samuel wrote a lovely piece about this idea, “The Day I Brought My Knitting to the Boardroom.” Like many of us (I’ll be the first to raise my hand), the pull to multi-task is strong, and it can be hard to focus our attentions on one thing, especially if that thing is a long meeting. At a conference on digital distraction, Samuel found that pulling out her knitting project helped her truly focus, away from the draw of Twitter and other online distractions. She writes, “For the first time in years, I was able to absorb talk after talk, and presentation after presentation — even if I wasn’t taking notes or tweeting the proceedings. I was able to sit still(ish), lulled by the rhythm of my own needles. I even went hours without looking at my phone, because the combination of manual activity and intellectual absorption kept me fully engaged.”

Where to Start

Though my mom taught me the basics of knitting, I have the internet to thank for upleveling my skills. Following a knitting pattern is like following a recipe: there are certain tools you’ll need to have and techniques you’ll need to understand, and the internet may be the best and most patient resource. There are endless message boards and YouTube videos that you can digest and revisit over and over until you’ve mastered the techniques and can do them in your sleep — or, better yet — sitting alone, with others, or in your next big meeting.

A Few of My Favorite Knitting Resources

  • Ravelry – My favorite social network. Ravelry is a wonderful place to discover new patterns, ask questions, applaud other knitters for their accomplishments and generally nerd out on all things knitting.
  • Purl Soho – The knitting shop that started it all for me. Interesting and accessible patterns, beautiful yarns, and a friendly and caring staff. Pre-pandemic, I visited their shop every chance I got, and I’ve knit my way through many, many of their patterns.
  • Sh*t That I Knit – For ethically-produced knitwear, kits for beginners, an inspiring founder story, and a savvy community of knitting enthusiasts. (Special thanks for teaching us the term “procrastiknit“!)
  • YouTube – I don’t subscribe to any particular knitting channel, but whenever I have a question about how to do something in a pattern, this is my go-to resource.

If you haven’t knit before, I hope I may have inspired you to try it. And if you’re already a knitter, hopefully you now have even more reasons, and resources, to continue your practice!

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