Is your mind full? Or are you mindful? It’s only been over the past 4 years that I have really understood the benefits of mindfulness and how powerful it is. I came to truly understand mindfulness as a result of reading the coursework books that formed part of my yoga teacher training qualification and then taking a Mindfulness Course to learn more. I remember having this “aha” moment (that’s yoga talk for the penny dropping/ moment of realisation). I realised that I had been not only the victim of my own thinking but I was rarely present! My mind loves to think, all the time! My mind will constantly take me away from the here and now, away from the present moment and what is, to either the past (something that has happened in the past, such as an event, or to something trivial such as forgetting to do something) or my mind will project me in to the future (such as reminding myself of things on my to-do list or the what ifs etc etc) …. and then escalates my thinking. I remember when I use to rush off to my lunch time yoga class in the City, as soon as I got to my mat, my mind would not stop, I would stress myself out worrying about what my boss might think about me taking my lunch hour when I had so much work to do, what if he needs to get hold of me, what if that client calls about the answer to that employment question that I had (whoops) forgotten to research …. and I would think other unhelpful thoughts such as maybe I would have been better staying at my desk, or maybe I should have chosen to go for a quick run instead as it may have been more productive than this yoga class right now ……and so on went my mind. I was rarely present at the yoga class!!
Then, once I learnt what mindfulness is all about (the practice of being present) my yoga class experience was so much different. I was aware of what my mind was doing and what it was trying to do, which was simply to attach to thoughts and distract me from being present at my yoga class, in the here and now. So I changed my attitude – instead I started changing the way I was thinking – I had taken the time out to be at my class so I might as well actually BE at the class (not just with my body but give my practice my mind’s attention), thinking about everything I had to do is not going to change anything right now – I was at my yoga class and I was not going to leave. I then used every opportunity of when I became aware that my mind had wandered away from the present moment, as a moment to strengthen my neural pathways to become better at concentrating by simply bringing myself back to the present moment. Opposed to entertaining and engaging in the thoughts that would come into my mind. Instead, I would bring my awareness back to my breath and focus on my breath or moving with my breath – this is how I have learnt to bring my attention back to being the present moment. Mindfulness is the practice of being aware in every possible moment, while keeping a non-judgemental outlook and, at the same time, observing your own bodily and emotional responses.
Once I truly started to be present in my Yoga class and to concentrate on what the teacher was guiding me to do, yoga worked its magic on me. I would return to my desk feeling calmer, clearer, more focused and feeling better in my body as well as my mind. My body does not like to sit all day and yoga is fantastic at stretching out all those muscles that get tight from sitting and cause us to suffer with mild aches and pains.
Mindfulness and yoga has also enabled me to learn a lot about myself. For example, my new awareness of my thoughts and thinking patterns has enabled me to realise that my lawyer brain was constantly taking me out of the present moment and into the future in my personal life. I had years of training as a lawyer to look at situations and find problems and potential issues of things going wrong for for my clients and drafting water-tight contacts to protect my clients in every situation. But there I was doing that in my own life! Which meant I was living in the future and worrying about the what ifs rather than living in the Now!
This does not mean that just because I know the benefits of mindfulness and have experienced what it can do for my mind and my body that I am mindful all the time. I am not – in fact it’s something that I have to PRACTISE DAILY and have little reminders around my house to remember to be mindful! WHAT YOU PRACTISE GROWS STRONGER so the more you practise being present, the stronger your neural pathways get at concentrating and being present. Science has proven now that we can shape our brain by constant practise. The more you practise and train the mind at simply being here, where you already are, the stronger those brain pathways get. The more you practise being judgemental, critical, frustration, worry etc. the better you become at those things. It is called cortical thickening – the growth of new neurons in response to repeated practise and this shapes your brain! Amazing stuff.
Research shows that our minds wander 47% of the time!!! That means that nearly half of the time we are not actually present in the moment, here and now.
Try this simple exercise that we have been practising in my Tuesday morning yoga class – you only need 5 minutes, longer is fine too of course! You may find you want to stay there longer!
- Take a moment to set your surroundings; be in a quiet place. Lie or sit, just be comfortable. Switch your phone off.
- Take your attention to your breath, feel your breath flowing in and out of your nose.
- Take a long inhale and as you exhale simply let go.
- Start to slow your breathing.
- Listen to the sound of your breath as it flows in and our through your nose.
- Take your right hand to your tummy and your left hand to your chest. Breathe in to your tummy (feel your right hand rise) then breathe into your side ribs, then to your chest (feel your left hand rising as you inhale), then on your exhale, breathe out from your belly, your side ribs, your chest. Repeat. Filling your lungs from the bottom to the top. Emptying your lungs from the bottom to the top. Keep your focus on your breath.
- See if you can start to deepen and lengthen your inhale and exhale.
- Add a count – breathe in for a count of 4, pause, breathe out for a count of 4, pause, breathe in for a count of 4, pause, breathe out for a count of 4, pause … and so on.
If your mind wanders off, simply bring it back to you breath. Remember that hat you practice grows stronger, so just that action of bring your mind back to your breath is beneficial.
You can practise mindfulness anywhere and at any time and it is so helpful at reducing or stopping stress and anxiety (which is the result of our thinking).
- Begin to observe the ‘self’ and any reactions to situations (e.g. such as when you are stuck in traffic, commuting, queuing in shops, or simply when you are with your family, or eating your meals).
- Start to cultivate an awareness of how you are thinking – do not be a slave to your own thoughts and the emotions that they generate but to step back and assess before the usual reaction takes place.
- In your yoga or pilates class – when your mind wanders off, simply bring it back to your breath.
- Stop multi-tasking – research has shown that we are not efficient when we multi-task; instead, focus on one thing at a time.
- Be aware of your emotions – how you are feeling is often generated by a thought!
Give it a go and let me know how you get on!