How to Start a Mindfulness Practice According to an Expert
You know the feeling: you're in a big meeting or in the middle of a task at home and there's chaos all around you, whether it's noise from your family, a coworker absentmindedly clicking their pen, the garbage truck outside, or the dog barking at the mailman. It's impossible to find a second of peace to center yourself and gather your thoughts, and instantly you begin to feel stressed or overwhelmed. Or maybe you've lost hours of time simply scrolling through your phone and you're trying to find ways to be more present in your daily life and “turn off” some of the digital clutter that makes up your modern existence.
Making mindfulness an integral part of your daily wellness routine helps you better navigate these often-stressful moments, and all you need to practice is your breath and your brain. With time and a bit of concentration, you'll be able to better deal with the ups and downs of everyday life and gain a deeper understanding of your thoughts, feelings, and energy.
Mindfulness made simple
The definition of mindfulness is simple. “Mindfulness is the capacity to be present. It's a heightened awareness of what's going on in our bodies, minds, and environment,” says Stephanie Wagner, meditation teacher and coach, health coach, NBC-HWC. “We are all are born with the capacity to be aware, but often we're so caught up in our thoughts, emotions, and habits that we don’t have awareness.” When you’re present in a moment, you're aware — of thoughts, feelings, even tastes and sensations.
The benefits of mindfulness
Starting a mindfulness exercise can help you become more aware of how you react to certain situations and teach you to respond to them more thoughtfully; it can be very helpful when dealing with feelings of nervousness, excitement, or anxiety. “It’s putting a part of the brain back online that is central to self-regulation [of thoughts, emotions, impulses],” explains Stephanie. “Rather than becoming all wrapped up and invested in a story or thoughts in your mind that may be associated with anxiety, we can see the sensations in the body and the thoughts passing through our mind, and there is space for us to respond versus react.” Stephanie shares that when we're caught up in a strong emotion, we tend to respond out of habit, which may not always be the best course of action.
Mindfulness technique and activities to practice throughout the day
You don't need to jump into a minutes-long meditation practice or start chanting; mindfulness techniques can be as simple as putting down your phone and taking a deep breath a few times per day. “Often times people think of meditation as a seated practice, but you can practice mindfulness while doing an activity: walking, exercise, housecleaning,” Stephanie says. Try making mindfulness a bigger part of your day by taking three deep breaths, clearing your head, and grounding yourself in your environment each time you hear a new email come through or paying attention to the world around you when you get up to walk to the bathroom.
“You can practice anywhere, anytime, at any moment in your day,” shares Stephanie. “You don’t need silence — you can work with the chaos of noise by noticing you’re hearing, the sounds.” She says not to get discouraged if you can’t immediately clear your mind. “The mind thinks. That’s what it does!” she explains. “We're trying to see the thoughts as they are and see them with space so we can respond.”
Tools and tips to make mindfulness stick
You've probably heard of meditation apps like Calm and Headspace®, which provide guided instructions to set you on your path. These can be great tools to help you get started. “An app can be helpful because it gives you step-by-step training and teaches skills associated with well-being, compassion, and kindness,” she shares. (Stephanie also likes the Healthy Minds Program app.) You can also find guided meditations and practices on YouTube if that's more your speed. Even Apple® has a Breathe app and reminder, making a moment of mindfulness as simple as glancing at your iPhone® or Apple Watch®!
You can also try a habit-forming tool called “anchoring,” where you add another habit to an existing habit to make it stick. “If you're trying to meditate and find the morning is the best time for you, you could use a morning habit like brushing your teeth or pouring coffee as an opportunity to remind you to practice and sit down for five minutes,” Stephanie explains. (More on building a health habit here.)
Add a mantra to your practice
Simply repeating a short phrase that feels inspiring to you can be a great way to ground your emotions and settle yourself, as well as set an intention for the day. “Choose something that feels connected to your real-life experience,” says Stephanie. “Repeat it silently and it can become support for mindfulness; when you get distracted, you realize that you're distracted, and you can bring your attention back to the phrase.” That realization isn’t a failure – it's actually a mindfulness success! She recommends the following as intro mantras:
- May I be happy
- May I be calm
- May I be peaceful
- May I be free from anxiety
Mindfulness isn't about instant results and it may take some time to make it part of your daily routine, so don't get discouraged if you don't immediately find inner peace. Like anything worth doing, mindfulness takes practice — but once you've mastered the basics, you may find a beautiful balance within you and around you.
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