The topic of mindfulness has been popular within the health and wellness community in recent years. A simple Google search is all it takes to find out how mindfulness will strengthen your relationships, lower your blood pressure, improve your sleep… the list goes on! However, understanding the foundation of what mindfulness truly entails is key to effective practice and reaping these wonderful benefits.
Although popular now, mindfulness is not a new practice. It stems from early Buddhist teachings reaching as far back as 2,500 years ago. While it doesn’t necessarily involve religion or associated social practices, it does borrow from the Buddhist principle of focusing on the now.
Why is mindfulness so important?
First and foremost, mindfulness is a technique that helps us manage our emotions and levels of stress, anxiety and depression. In our busy Western lives, our minds are often crowded with anxieties concerning work, relationships and materialistic pressures. How often do you find yourself thinking about a task or deadline, or dwelling on what someone said throughout the day? We live so much of our lives in the past or the future that we let the present pass us by, and this can become part of the foundation for diminishing mental health.
Benefits backed by science
Mindfulness has not only received support from spiritual gurus and mental health professionals but has also generated curiosity among researchers. The studies have supported a wide variety of health benefits, including:
A meta-analysis of 39 studies investigating mindfulness as a technique to minimise stress and as a base to therapy, concluded that mindfulness-based therapy may be useful in altering affective and cognitive processes that underpin a variety of clinical issues. Another study revealed that subjects who participated in mindfulness-based stress reduction had significantly less anxiety, depression and somatic in comparison to the control group.
More cognitive flexibility
One study found that people who practise mindfulness meditation seem to develop self-observation skills. These participants were found to disengage the automatic pathways in the brain created by prior learning so that they were able to process experiences in the present moment in a new way. It has also been discovered that meditation activates a section of the brain that is associated with a more adaptive response to stressful situations.
A study of novice meditators who were asked to attend an intensive mindfulness retreat, reported less rumination compared to a control group, along with reduced depressive symptoms, decreased negative affect and showed better working memory capacity and ability to focus.
How do I begin practising mindfulness?
In more ways than one! You can practise mindfulness through yoga and tai chi, but meditation is perhaps one of the most common disciplines closely associated with mindfulness. Focus is maintained on the breathing while dealing with intrusive thoughts in a manageable and coherent manner. As thoughts intrude, the meditator gets to choose whether he will deal with those thoughts at that time or simply let them go in a calm and peaceful way.
The process may be simple, but this does not necessarily mean it’s easy. You can begin by using simple strategies to help calm your mind anytime, anywhere. Here are three tips to help get you started:
#1 Anchor your attention through breath
One of the most popular techniques to quieten your mind is to focus on your breathing. Breathing is something that remains constant through all the ups and downs of life and is therefore a good anchor point to centre your attention. Concentrate on the air you draw in and expel with each breath, focusing on the rise and fall of your chest. Allow everything else in your surroundings to melt away.
Click here to read more about calming breathing techniques from our wonderful retreat yoga instructor.
#2 Become aware of the moment
Draw your thoughts to what is happening right here and now by directing your attention to your senses and your immediate surroundings.
What is the air temperature like?
What can you hear?
How is your posture?
These are the details that often get screened and discarded by your brain, yet remind us of the innate simplicity of life.
#3 Accept what you cannot control
A key pillar of mindfulness is to let go of all judgement, yet this can be easier said than done when it often comes as a natural human reaction. Instead, choose to consciously accept a person, place or experience as it is. Once you realise what is outside of your control, you can stop trying to change it.
To begin with, mindfulness is a conscious effort. Rewiring your thinking and the way you process and experience events in life takes some time, but eventually, it will come to you as naturally as breathing. Continue to work on it every day and remember to be patient with yourself.