You have probably noticed how much scientific advice and every self-care book recommends introducing mindfulness into our busy lives to help improve our mental wellbeing and find peace and contentment. If you are not already familiar with this practice you may be curious about what it is, how to practice it and if it’s really worth the effort.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is by no means a modern concept. Both the Buddhist 8-fold path and the Ancient Indian scriptures, ‘The Yoga Sutras’, place importance on the act of mindfulness and meditation for ‘enlightenment’ and liberation from suffering. Mindfulness is not a religion or ideology, but can be described as a way of being or a way of responding to the world around us.
To be mindful means to pay attention on purpose; to where we are, what we are doing, in the present moment, without overreaction, overwhelm or judgement.
How Will I Feel Better from Practicing?
Embracing a more mindful way of living can help us in so many ways. We are better able to stop simply running through life without noticing or appreciating what is right there in front of us. It can help to rediscover peace, calm and stability by putting our worries and stresses into better context, allowing us to think and see things with better clarity.
By gaining insight into how we react to people and circumstances, we are better equipped to deal with stresses and challenging situations, reducing the suffering we experience and cause to those around us.
Mindfulness is not just meditation, it is being fully present for all aspects of life, noticing and accepting every moment, instead of being constantly distracted with thoughts about the past or future. By being aware of your senses and of your thoughts and emotions, we are bringing mindful awareness to our experiences.
Many scientific studies have investigated the effects of mindfulness and there is now ample clinical evidence of its ability to impact many aspects of health. 5 of those health benefits are discussed below.
5 Health Benefits from Practicing Mindfulness:
- Reduced stress and anxiety: Hundreds of scientific studies have found that mindfulness-based therapy can be effective in reducing stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms. Being more mindful can help us to switch from ‘doing and thinking’ to simply ‘being’ and can reduce brain activity in the area of the brain responsible for your stress response. Being mindful in the moment allows us the space and clarity to act appropriately to situations rather than immediately react.
- Pain reduction: There has been extensive research regarding the use of mindfulness practice as a tool to manage chronic pain. Studies suggest that the practice reduces brain activity in the areas of the brain that manage pain messages. Present moment awareness of mind and body, without judgement, can help to reduce negative thoughts about the nature of the pain which can, themselves, increase symptoms of pain and anxiety.
- Improved sleep: Many people experience poor sleep due to stress of some sort. In this case, mindfulness can be a really helpful tool to improve sleep as it can help to take the body out of a stress response and into one of relaxation. By practicing these techniques during the day, it can become easier to calm our hyperactive minds and evoke that same calming response when you are struggling to sleep.
- Better supported immune function: It is well understood that chronic ongoing stress has many negative effects on our body, including on our immune system. Our immune system is incredibly complex and multi-faceted and impacted in different ways by ongoing stress, in particular our inflammatory response. There is much evidence to suggest that stress reduction through regular mindfulness training can help the immune system to work optimally.
- Better concentration, less easily distracted, improved working memory: Mindfulness practice can help to hone your concentration skills, which can also then allow you to work more efficiently with less distractions. By directing our attention to the present moment we should feel less overwhelmed with worries, past or future events and more able to pay attention to the task in front of us. It helps us to grow new neural networks in the brain, helping us to rewire the brain to allow us to cope better with stresses and increase our ability to focus and keep information active in our minds.
6 Ways to Practice Mindfulness Regularly
We are all capable of living mindfully but, as with most things in life, the more we practice, the easier it becomes and the bigger the benefits. Cultivating the practice is a process that develops and improves over time. By paying attention to our subconscious reactions and behaviour we can start to act with kindness and compassion to ourselves and those around us.
- Simple mindful walking in the woods: It is so easy to spend time out walking alone and reach the end of your walk having noticed nothing or been present in any way. We instead let out busy monkey minds alternately ruminate over irritations or our perceived failures and plan our next hours, days and years. An outdoor walk is a perfect opportunity to bring mindfulness to our day if we instead pay attention and engage all our senses. Try to look carefully around you and notice everything you can see, hear, smell, taste or touch. Notice when your mind is distracted and bring your attention back to those senses. Notice how your body feels, the ground beneath your feet, the breeze on your skin, how the breath enters and leaves you without you having to even think about it. Observe with compassionate curiosity rather than trying to change anything.
- Daily mindful listening: How many times do we engage with others only to not really have heard what they say as our minds are distracted by our planned reply, our worries, to do lists or our plans for later? Listening is often the most neglected but most needed communication skill that helps to foster good relationships, so definitely a skill worth working to improve. Instead, try to make a conscious effort to actively listen to what someone says to you fully, without being distracted by anything. Try to notice when you start to zone out, take a breath, be proud of yourself that you noticed and redirect your attention back to really listening to what they have to say. If you don’t feel you understand what they are saying, instead of making assumptions or just nodding and smiling, try to be specific by asking them to clarify. The more you practice, the better you’ll get and you should start to really improve your understanding of what the other person is trying to communicate, not just through their words, thereby making a better connection with that person.
- Mindful tea drinking: A simple activity like making and enjoying a cup of tea (whatever type you like) can become a nice way to punctuate your day with mindfulness if you engage all your senses. Start by taking the time it takes to boil the kettle to take a minute to check in with the breath, focussing on the inhales and exhales and checking in to see whether your breath is short and shallow, or longer and deeper. Notice the sounds of the boiling water and how the colour of the tea starts to change as you pour water on the teabag. Notice the sounds and touch of your hands on the spoon, cup, milk and sugar. Maybe you reach for sugar out of habit and now is a time to question if you really need it? When you are ready to drink your tea, pay attention to the warmth of the cup in you hand and how the drink feels in your mouth as you sip it, swallow it and as it travels down to your stomach. Try to savour the taste and be present, moment by moment as you become mindful during something we automatically do without thinking.
- Keeping a gratitude journal: By reflecting on your day and keeping a journal on the things you are thankful for, we become more mindful of what matters most to us, even the smaller things. Journaling at the end of the day, can help to reduce stress and induce a sense of calm at night.
- Practice yoga or pilates: Along with the multitude of other health benefits (see my previous blog post here), both yoga and pilates can be described as mindful movement as both aim to connect the breath to movement, with focus on connecting the mind and body. Interested in seeing how pilates or yoga could help you? Why not book into class here.
- Mindfulness meditation: Meditation enables us to venture into the workings of our minds and notice our sensations, emotions and thoughts. It allows to take a step back from our busy mind and act as an impartial and non-judgemental observer as to how we experience life. During meditation, we do not seek to empty the brain and become free of all thought, but we instead aim to focus on something (such as the inhale and exhale of our breath) and then start to notice what thoughts creep up to distract us.
How to Do a Simple Mindfulness Meditation
- Firstly, decide how long you have to sit and set a timer so you are not distracted by checking the time. It is more important to practice regularly for short periods than the occasional long practice. To begin, even a couple of minutes a couple of times a day can be enough to take a pause from your day and start to reconnect with your thoughts and emotions and feel a bit more in control of your life.
- Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to sit in a cross legged position. Instead, find a quiet spot where you can sit for a short while, uninterrupted, with the spine tall. You could maybe sit on the floor on a cushion with the spine supported by the wall behind you if necessary, or on a chair that allows you to sit tall with the feet firmly planted on the floor. Rest your hands in a comfortable position on your lap or on your thighs.
- Take a few breaths to settle in to your position and then gently start to close the eyes or just lower the gaze.
- Take your attention to your breath and just observe, without trying to change, the speed and depth of your inhales and exhales. When we are stressed our breath becomes shorter and more shallow and it is harder to breathe deep into the lungs and diaphragm. When we are more relaxed, our breath is deeper and longer so that we may only breathe 5 or 6 times a minute. Try to notice the different sensations of the breath as it travels through the nostrils and down into the lungs and back.
- You will no doubt notice after a short while that your mind has started to wander away from focussing on your breath. This is entirely normal and as soon as you are aware it has wandered, gently bring your attention back to the breath, maybe observing what thought drew you away, but without any self-criticism.
- Continue in the same way for the rest of your time. You may feel a sense of stillness and clarity but it may be fleeting. You should start to notice that you can create a little bit of space between your thoughts and feelings so that you are maybe not as reactive to your thoughts. You will begin to see that all thoughts and feelings, positive and negative, are all transient and not permanent. Once your timer has gone off, take a few deeper breaths and then slowly blink open your eyes, pausing to notice your surroundings and how you feel in body and mind before you calmly resume the rest of your day.
- Remember that it is common to find the practice difficult when you begin, but it gets easier with regular practice and you may find that you could happily lengthen your meditation sessions.
I hope you found the above article useful. Practicing yoga and pilates really are two great ways to introduce yourself to mindfulness, whilst simultaneously building strength and resilience. If you’re curious about how they can positively benefit your mental and physical health then why not book in to class here?