- What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness involves cultivating a specific or selective kind of attention to the present moment. In the basic mindfulness instructions, one learns to use the breath as an anchor for this attentive awareness, and gently returning to the breath if distracted by inner thoughts/feelings or external senses. This does not mean that one blocks out thoughts or the sensory world. As long as one is anchored on the breath, one can notice the dynamic interplay of sensory experiences, thoughts, and feelings that flow through the mind. The key is approaching one’s mind with curiosity and non-judgement, and gently returning to the breath. The mental “muscles” that one ends up strengthening, are that ability to place attention back on the object, the breath, and the ability to sustain awareness throughout the course of the day’s activities.
- How do you get it?
Mindfulness is a skill, and like any skill, it requires practice and consistency. One can start by doing embodiment practices. People these days, especially in fields that require a lot of thinking, tend to live in their heads, almost like floating heads, and discard the needs of the body. By doing practices involving body awareness, breathwork and yoga postures, one feels a sense of embodiment, and a sense of the connection between body and mind. From that space, it is a lot easier to then get in touch with the awareness of mindfulness. One feels the rhythm of the breath and becomes comfortable with the body and its senses.
The body and sensory world can be an aid. Feeling the sense of your body in its posture, savoring a beautiful scene, or the taste of a bite of food, can bring forth the awareness mindfulness is meant to cultivate. In fact, in many programs, a sense by sense experience of eating a raisin, is part of how mindfulness is introduced. One can then start to become comfortable with just sitting with the mind, which we’ve become so used to distracting and entertaining at every moment.
- How can I improve my mindfulness?
With embodying practices like Yoga and maintaining a fresh approach with curiosity and gentleness, one can improve the connection between body/mind/emotions. Incorporating daily practices into one’s routine or joining a group, one develops the skills of mindfulness and starts to feel the benefits. Reminding ourselves of the benefits, and even noticing the difference between when one doesn’t do practice, one starts to become eager to maintain practice over time and then the practice improves, similar to gaining strength through physical exercise.
From time to time, however, one may want to take part in a longer experience such as a retreat. There are many secular mindfulness retreats that can be found, from a day or a weekend or more. Usually retreats are held in beautiful natural settings and one is able to get away from the things on one’s to-do list, and really relax. In this setting, mindfulness deepens naturally making it easier to integrate our practice at work, at home and in the world. We hope to soon offer mindfulness days or weekends as part of our programs.
- How does it improve my health?
In the last couple of decades, good scientific research has been funded to study mindfulness and yoga, and published in top-tier journals. Meta-analysis of some of the most well-controlled and powered studies has found significant benefits, especially for depression, anxiety and pain, but also stress and quality of life with an effect size similar to other standard therapies such as medications and physical exercise. Individual studies have found benefits in a variety of contexts, from illness recovery to academic and sports performance.
The relaxation state induced by yoga and mindfulness elicits physiological responses in the body such as balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, as measured by heart rate variability and blood pressure. Even in terms of gene expression, one Harvard study found up regulation of genes related to improved energy metabolism, immune response, insulin secretion and anti-aging (and down regulation of deleterious cellular processes) after just a 20 minute session consisting of both yoga and mindfulness. The benefits were even seen in new meditators but were most pronounced in regular practitioners.
In terms of the mind, yoga and mindfulness help to regulate emotions, and lengthening one’s fuse. Connecting with your inner stillness allows for more global awareness of thoughts and emotions, and increases creativity in meeting challenges.
Mindfulness gives you a life skill on how to respond to yourself and others around you. Over time practice can help uncover the wise mind, needed to make sound decisions that protect the health and happiness of yourself and those around you. The practices help one in approaching the world with curiosity and sense of wonder, which can be refreshing, and give one a sense of purpose, which is correlated with so many health benefits.
- Practical approaches and troubleshooting:
One needs to approach these practices with the understanding that developing the skills of mindfulness and yoga are not linear and takes time to develop.
Even an experienced practitioner is going to have good and bad days, reach the end of even a lengthened fuse, and experience frustration. Mindfulness can improve resiliency in bouncing back from those “bad” days with a sense of humor and gentleness.
Finding a designated time such as first thing in the morning, or during lunch or evening, to practice. One mindfulness teacher even recommended setting a duration to be a little less than what one thinks one can do, so that one has a positive experience, rather than pushing though too much initial discomfort and getting discouraged.
In terms of support, informing family or roommates that one is working on these practices, maybe even getting a little space set up in the house with a yoga mat, cushion, candle, a nice picture or some flowers. One can rely on like-minded friends for support and encourage each other even form a buddy system, as well as take advantage of on-site support at work, such as Yoga classes or mindfulness/meditation drop-in sessions.
- Why should I take time to do it?
Mind/body practices such as mindfulness and yoga, benefit not only yourself but also the people around you, such as your family, co-workers and friends. As we sometimes say to our very hard-working caretakers such as nurses and doctors, taking time to care for yourself is like the instructions for putting on an oxygen mask in a plane: you care for yourself first, not out of selfishness, but so that you can be healthy and able to help others. If you experience burnout, you can’t effectively help others.
Mindfulness can also help one to regularly connect with your sense of purpose. Instead of each day just being another day to slug through, mindfulness can give a sense of being alive in the moment and enhance the ability to really experience life- the good along with the bad, which is a part of everyday life.
When one is with family and friends, one can treasure the moments and not take time for granted. When working, one can appreciate the simple joys that one experiences during the day. One sees that each day is different and there is a sense of freshness in meeting each day. Mindfulness cannot fix everything, and certain factors like external situations and work load may need to be addressed, especially if one is consistently over-tired or mistreated, but mindfulness can help give the tools to address or optimize your life situations skillfully, or carry one through challenges that cannot be avoided.