By now, you’ve probably heard the word “mindfulness” on TV, people talking about it at work or seen the buzzword all over your social media channels. Are we close? Given the many benefits of practicing mindfulness, it makes sense that lots of people are curious about how it could help them address any number of issues. But if you’re still wondering what it is, how it works, or how to start a mindfulness practice of your own, we’re here to unpack all of that for you now.
As physios and physical therapists who continue to ride the biopsychosocial-assessment wave, becoming more self-aware through mindfulness is just what the doctor ordered. This is especially true when working with patients in chronic pain as a healthcare provider. Plus, it’s also a great way to help students develop if you’re a yoga teacher, and on a personal level, it can boost your overall wellbeing.
So how do you find time to be mindful? What do you stand to gain by doing so? What are some great resources, apps, books or recordings to help jumpstart a mindfulness practice?
Here’s everything you need to know to begin practicing mindfulness in a meaningful way
Starting a mindfulness practice can feel like a giant, looming endeavor. Maybe that’s because you’ve never done anything like this before and you don’t think you will be good at it. Or maybe that it’s just one more self-improvement resolution you’re afraid you won’t follow through with. But the truth is that learning how to practice mindfulness is one of the easiest, most accessible and convenient thing you can to do heal, prevent illness and revitalize your body.
The trick is to think about practicing mindfulness the same way you do other everyday acts of self-care like brushing your teeth, for example. You’ve trained yourself to do this every morning and evening as part of your daily routine and applying that same type of conditioning here too—consider it your daily mental flossing routine.
By carving out even a small amount of time (you can start with five minutes a day) to intentionally focus on how you’re feeling and the sensations you’re experiencing in the present moment—without judging what you’re witnessing—you can make noticeable, lasting, helpful changes to mind, body and spirit.
Practicing mindfulness can help you…
1. Learn how to modulate your “freakout threshold.” This refers to how easy it may be for you to go from baseline calmness to emotionally overwhelmed. A mindfulness practices can help increase the amount of time you take to process an input, like, processing getting cut-off by an irresponsible driver or your boss giving you an unachievable deadline. It gives you the power to decide whether or not a freakout is necessary, and if it’s not, what reaction may be more appropriate. Read more about how mindfulness practices like yoga can lower your reactionary reflex.
2. Think more clearly and see the big picture. A regular mindfulness practice has been shown to create actual changes in the brain. But to summarize, the amygdala, which is responsible for such actions as the stress response of fight or flight, shrinks when you’re practicing mindfulness consistently. And the pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with awareness, concentration, and focus, increases in size; therefore, our ability to be aware and focus can override our stress response, helping us to see more clearly and the big picture.
3. Lower your stress in real time and reduce the physiological effects of chronic stress. We sleep better when our stress response is in control and we’re not living in fight or flight mode. When the stress response is dampened, our blood pressure and heart rate are lowered. During high stress, our digestive track effectively shuts down, this can generate symptoms like constipation, reflux, indigestion, or, irritable bowel syndrome. And during sustained periods of high stress, our immune system is depressed, exposing us to higher susceptibility to attack from viruses and bacteria.
4. Recover from chronic pain. Chronic pain is a complex process that many people suffer from. The traditional methods of treatment include powerful, mind-altering medications, nerve injections and physical therapy. However, study after study shows that mindfulness and increased movement with awareness are effective, proven tools that can help combat the source of the chronic pain, the brain. Read more in this pilot study published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy that shows modulation of pain processing in fibromyalgia patients who practiced mindfulness. This article about a yoga teacher teaching mindfulness to veterans suffering from chronic pain in a VA hospital in Virginia is also a compelling read.
5. Develop a stronger connection to yourself and others. Over time, a sustained mindfulness practice may deepen your relationships by helping you develop a sense of gratitude and appreciation for small and big things in life, feeling connected to others and being able to observe life in a more non-judgemental way. It’s one the nine essential qualities of mindfulness psychologists support.
How to practice mindfulness
- Set a timer for 5 minutes.
- Sit, comfortably on a chair or the floor, on a pillow, blanket without support behind your back if you can.
- Push start on the timer.
- Close your eyes.
- Breathe normally.
- When you breathe in, imagine you can watch your breath going into your nose from your nostrils to the bridge or your nose. When you breathe out, watch your breath going out from the bridge of your nose out your nostrils.
- Continue to follow your breath with every inhalation and exhalation.
- If you stray, label it “thinking” don’t judge yourself, and come back to watching your breath.
- When the timer goes off, you’re finished.
Watching your breath is one of the most basic forms of practicing mindfulness. But there are a variety of downloadable apps, websites and books to explore as well.
9 mindfulness guides and resources we love
- How to Meditate, a Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind by Pema Chodron
- John Kabat-Zinn’ body scan meditation on YouTube
- Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield, PhD
- David Nichtern’s online resources (I was lucky enough to have been taught my first meditation teaching by David during my yoga teacher training with Cyndi Lee. He offers online workshops, simple guidelines for starting a practice, and live workshops and trainings.)
- InsightTimer app
- Headspace app
- Calm app
- YogaGlo (I recommend taking mind classes with Rod Stryker or Sally Kempton.)
- TPM memberships (Get all-access to our meditation and movement practices through our digital physiyoga platform.)