As the modern exploration of practices from various spiritual traditions matures, so does our awareness of the upsides and downsides of these practices, and useful precautions.
For instance, it’s a bit naive to promote mindfulness for relaxation. These practices were evolved for awakening, not relaxation. Relaxation may be an initial pleasant side-effect. But mindfulness practices are liable to eventually take the lid off unprocessed psychological material, and that can be surprising (if nobody told us), frightening, and overwhelming (especially if we don’t have guidance from someone familiar with the process).
This can happen early on, in rare cases even in our initial experience with meditation. And it’s reasonably likely to happen, to some extent and at some point, if we stick with a mindfulness practice over time. This depends a bit on what type of mindfulness practice we engage in, but it can happen with even the most watered-down versions.
So what are some precautions? Participants in mindfulness courses should be informed about what may happen. (“Mindfulness” here can mean yoga, tai chi, chi gong, and various types of meditation.) The instructor should be trained in recognizing it when it happens and either know how to help people through it or send the person to someone qualified to guide them through it. And if someone has a history of trauma, including developmental trauma, they need to know that it’s more likely to happen in their case, they should be encouraged to get help to heal from the trauma, and if they still want to continue with the mindfulness practice, to take it slowly.
Why does it tend to happen? One way to see it is that mindfulness (or awakening) practices aim at opening the mind to what we are, and that tends to also open the mind to whatever in us is not yet processed. Also, mindfulness tends to invite in a healing of the mind, and that includes meeting what in us is previously unmet. Awakening tends to go into unawakening when a wounded part of us is triggered, and bringing these to the surface gives them a chance to be healed. And an intrinsic part of the awakening path is embodiment, and embodiment – living from whatever clarity, kindness, and wisdom is here – can only take place to the extent we are healed psychologically.