Our minds are our greatest weapons. A career in poker requires constant studying, constant learning, and constant improvement to stay on top of the game. Learning strategy is important, but just as important is to keep our minds and bodies healthy and in its best shape to absorb and process the information we take in and apply it on the tables. There are multiple habits we can develop in order to push our bodies to the best shape it can be both physically and mentally, and these habits will be explored in this series of articles. The first of this series looking into meditation and mindfulness. Why not welcome the new decade by pushing your limits to become the best version of you?
Meditation is a mental exercise that involves relaxation, focus, and awareness.
It is the work out of the mind, training in awareness to get a healthy sense of perspective. It is not about shutting off your thoughts and feelings but learning to observe them without judgment, resulting in a better understanding of yourself and a mastery of your own mind.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is being aware of the present. It is noticing and paying attention to thoughts, feelings, behavior and everything else. It can be practiced at any time and place by being fully engaged in the here and now, without judgment and distraction.
Meditation, more specifically mindfulness meditation, has become popular with many poker players.
It is a meditative technique that emphasizes an observant, but nonreactive stance towards your thoughts, feelings and physiological responses. It means that you focus on an anchor, most commonly your breathing, and when random, unwanted thoughts come into your mind, you take notice of it and gently refocus on your anchor. It’s a very simple, but powerful tool. Meditation has multiple benefits, too many to comprehensively list in this short article; so the focus will be on the few that are most relevant to poker players.
Meditation reduces stress and anxiety. Poker is fun, but it’s also a battle of minds and after many hours on the table, it can be very stressful. Facing big downswings can also trigger feelings of anxiety, questioning whether it’s just variance or our game. Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation significantly reduces stress when practiced daily. It has been revealed to lower cortisol levels in the brain, the natural stress hormone. Another study shows that meditation also reduces the density of brain tissue associated with anxiety and worrying, so its effects are not just psychological, but there are physical manifestations as well.
Meditation increases awareness and attention. You may have experienced your mind wandering after a few hours on the tables while studying or reviewing hands. Your mind sometimes goes into autopilot mode because of the repetitive nature of this career. This would be a perfect moment to take a break and meditate because this will help increase your awareness of the moment, it can help you focus your attention to the important details and absorb information better.
Meditation improves cognition. Cognition is the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding it through thought and experience. It is naturally integrated and essential in a poker career whether you’re playing the game, or studying to improve your strategy. Awareness and attention helps you pick up the information, but cognition is processing that information. It allows you to have a deeper understanding of the game and a mastery of your strategy, helps you better analyze your opponents’ tendencies and read them.
Meditation improves your decision-making ability. After absorbing the information and processing them, mindfulness meditation also improves your brain’s decision-making centers. Now that you have all the information you need on your opponent’s tendencies and mastery of your strategy, you will know the best action to take on the tables, acting through logic instead of emotional tendencies.
Meditation helps deal with tilt. Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can increase cortical thickness in the brain, which is associated with higher levels of self-control and lower emotional instability. Meditation allows you to master your mind, take a look at your thoughts in a nonreactive manner and effectively separate the logical from the emotional. So when faced with a bad beat, we can take a few deep breaths, shrug it off and continue to play at your A-game.
How do we start meditating?
Here is one method of mindfulness meditation:
- Sit down comfortably
- Focus on an “attentional” anchor. It is most commonly your breathing, you can count “one” as you inhale, and “two” as you exhale. Make sure you take slow, deep breaths, enough to push out your diaphragm when you inhale.
- When your mind starts to wander, notice your thoughts, but then refocus on your breathing as soon as you can.
Try to practice this method every day for at least 5 minutes, you can also try to work yourself up to longer periods as you get more accustomed to the process.
There are also simpler ways to begin your meditation journey, some poker players have found taking three to five deep breaths is also helpful. Another form of mediation is one we’ve seen Cuat do in his liveplays; just close your eyes, take deep breaths as you count to sixty. Cuat also recommends a method called Jacobson relaxation, a type of progressive relaxation therapy (link here). There are also many meditation apps available to try out such as Headspace, Calm, and Prana Breath.
For many people starting out with mediation, it often feels like they’re doing it wrong because they’re unable to clean your mind of thoughts. Don’t worry, there isn’t just one way to meditate. The mind is designed to have thoughts and they will come and go, but over time you will get better at noticing them and separating yourself from those thoughts. It’s not about controlling your thoughts, more like watching cars pass by as you sit by the side of the road.
Studies have revealed that meditation has both physical and psychological effects on the brain. The benefits that meditation have are very useful to poker players in improving their game, learning strategy, reviewing hands, dealing with tilt and mindset overall. Why not try meditation out for yourself? After all, there’s no downside to trying, but there’s a huge upside if it works for you.