Mindfulness Exercises

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a broad term that has a theoretical background rooted both in ancient thinking as well as modern science. It’s often summarized as a way of living in which you focus on the present moment, observing both your internal and external world. It’s a way of witnessing what’s happening in our mind, our body, and our environment without judgment.

Through mindfulness we can learn to come back to the present moment when we find ourselves distracted, returning to the here and now without judgment, accepting that distraction is part of the nature of our minds. Mindfulness is acceptance, presence, and compassion.

There are many benefits to practicing mindfulness that are supported by ancient thinking and modern science such as: good sleep quality, better attention, and reduced stress and anxiety.

The Basics of Mindfulness Practice

The appeal and beauty of meditation are in its simplicity and adaptability. You don’t need special outfits, equipment, or even particular positions in order to be able to meditate. It’s a time and place that’s just for you, so you’re free to make it your own.

The basics of mindfulness practice include a few simple steps:

  • Sit.

Choose a comfortable position that you can stay in for a while. You may prefer a half lotus position, a chair, a couch, the floor, it’s up to you. Laying down in your bed or in shavasana pose on your mat is okay, too. Sometimes lying down can make it more difficult to stay awake and present, so choose the position that works best for you.

  • Observe.

Observe your breath, your body, your mind, and your environment. With patience, notice how everything transforms from one moment to the next. Your inhales and exhales, your emotions, and your thoughts all come and go. Maybe you hear voices outside, or traffic, or nature. Notice your often unintentional reactions to the changes both within yourself and happening around you.

  • Let your mind be.

Your mind runs at a fast and dynamic pace. We perceive and process various stimuli simultaneously. Don’t be hard on yourself if you see that you’re distracted. Know that every time you realize that your mind wanders between the past and the future, you’re actually seeing yourself in the moment.

  • Stay present.

Gently invite your attention to the present. You can focus on your breath, your body, a view, a sound, a smell, or anything that keeps you present in your practice. Observing using your senses can help you stay mindful by acting as an anchor for your mind in the here and now.

  • Be kind to yourself.

Be patient and compassionate toward yourself. Society teaches us to be kind to each other, but we sometimes push ourselves aside, treating ourselves in ways we never would if it were someone else. You can say things to yourself like,  “That’s okay, I’m okay, and if I’m not, I will be,” and you’ll notice that it gets easier and easier to be kind and compassionate toward yourself.

How do I start mindfulness meditation?

Start with baby steps. Spare a few minutes for a short practice. Just give it a try. Beginning with something small can help motivate you to take the first step. By starting out small, you’re also more likely to continue your practice after you get that feeling of achievement.

Maybe you’re thinking you don’t understand or that you’re doing it wrong. Luckily, it’s impossible to meditate the wrong way, it’s all just part of the process. Be patient with yourself as you get used to this new experience. If it feels uncomfortable or challenging to meditate by yourself, try following a guided meditation.

What are some mindfulness-based activities?

  • Breathing Exercises

Focusing on your breath is a great way to practice mindfulness. Your breath is always with you. You can just follow your breath as it flows at its natural pace, noticing how you breathe. Is it long and deep or shallow and short?

Though they’re not necessarily solely about mindfulness, you can try different relaxing breathing techniques, such as square breathing, lion's breath, or 4-7-8 breathing. You’ll experience the relaxing effects of those techniques in just a few breaths and you can try them anytime you’re feeling anxious, want to sleep, or at any point during the day in which you want to bring your mind to the present moment.

  • Body Scanning

Another mindful activity is scanning your body. Like your breath, your body fluctuates and transforms all the time. It hosts many different sensations and feelings. Body scanning is a very simple but effective exercise. You start by scanning your body from top to bottom or vice versa, checking in with each part one after the other. You basically scan your body from top to bottom or vica versa. Starting from your feet, you check in with each part of your body up to your head. Bring your focus to your toes, your ankles, legs, kness, sit bones, and so on. When your mind drifts off somewhere else, simply bring your attention back to your body and continue where you left off or start from the beginning again. Body scanning exercises are great ways to notice any sense of comfort, discomfort, or feelings you may have ignored.  Scanning can also help you to relax and fall asleep more easily. You can try a body scan technique right before bed particularly if you have difficulty sleeping.

  • Focusing on Sensations

Our body is home to numerous sensations and observing those senses is also a mindfulness activity. Focusing on your body or your breath may be uncomfortable for you, which is very common. If that’s the case, you can bring your attention to the sources of your senses. Look at the view, being fully present in the moment as you pay attention, or listen to the sounds around you.  Focusing on your senses in this way can increase the joy and satisfaction you get as you experience them.

  • Raisin Exercise

Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn created an approach called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Kabat-Zinn’s method has proven to be highly effective as seen in several studies and used in many clinical and nonclinical contexts.

The Raisin Exercise was developed within MBSR and is an efficient way of implementing mindfulness into everyday activities. It’s described as being mindful about the different parts of eating a raisin, but you can choose any kind of food you want for your own practice. We often don’t pay attention to every detail of little pieces of food each time we eat, the process becoming automatic. This exercise is just one way to live these small moments more mindfully.

  • Hold. Take the raisin (or any other food of your choosing) in your hand.
  • See. Look at the raisin very carefully as if it’s something very interesting and you’re seeing it for the first time in your life. Notice its color and shape.
  • Touch. Feel its texture, its weight. Is it wrinkly or juicy?
  • Smell. How would you describe its smell? Does it have a particular scent?
  • Taste. Chew the raisin slowly. How does it taste?
  • Swallow. Feel the sensation of the food traveling to your stomach.  
  • Metta Meditation

Metta in Pali, or Maitrī in Sanskrit means benevolence, kindness, and compassion. Metta meditation is also known as loving-kindness meditation or compassion meditation. Here, we’re being mindful about good feelings toward both ourselves and others. We all have negative and positive feelings about others and ourselves, but the positive feelings can often be overlooked against the negative ones. It’s okay to feel things like hate, anger, or resentment. Clinging to those emotions, however, can impact your mood, your self-perception, and your interactions with others. It’s important to acknowledge your feelings, whatever they may be. Cultivating love, compassion, or gratitude on the other hand, can lighten up your day, open your heart, and empower you with a sense of belonging and safety.

  • Gratitude Exercises

We have unlimited internal resources with which to nourish ourselves. There’s beauty in the universe, but especially during more challenging times, it’s not always easy to see it. From an evolutionary standpoint, our minds are inclined to focus on stressful situations or negative cues for survival purposes. Sometimes a small setback gets us down and overshadows the good things happening around us. Gratitude exercises can help you notice positive details as well as unpleasant ones.

Try to count three things that happened today that made you feel grateful. It can be anything: a short walk or an intimate moment with your partner. You’ll see the benefits of doing such a quick and joyful activity as you repeat it regularly. The beauty in your life will be more visible and you’ll get to enjoy moments as you live them.

You can keep a gratitude journal to write down the things you’re grateful for as well. If writing isn’t your thing, you can simply visualize them in your mind or draw them instead. You can keep them to yourself or share them with others. It’s your canvas and you’re free to personalize this practice in ways that work best for you.

In order to make these gratitude exercises mindful, notice the thoughts flowing in your mind and the sensations appearing in your body as you practice.

You can also do a gratitude meditation, bringing your focus to the sources of your gratitude. Recalling joyful and nice moments of your life can lighten your heart, making you feel more at ease.

  • Engage in Creative Activities

Engaging in a creative activity can be turned into a mindfulness-based activity as well. Creative activities are especially aligned with the idea of mindfulness since you attend to the activity itself for the sake of enjoying it. Do you have any creative things that you enjoy? It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece and you don’t have to have a mind-blowing creative effort into the final product. Think of how staying in the moment, engaging only in the activity in front of you. It can be dancing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, or coloring. There are a host of great activities and moments in which to immerse yourself within the flow of life.

Try doing an activity of your choice and do it just because it’s something you like doing. And compare how you feel at the beginning and at the end of that activity.

  • Connect With Nature

Outdoor activities and spending time in nature is very relaxing and restful. If you’ve been indoors for a while, your mood can change just by getting some fresh air and moving your body outside.

According to researchers Gordon, Shonin, and Richardson, we interexist with nature. There’s nature within us from our flowing breath to our changing bodies. And we live within nature: We’re all subject to the laws of nature. As humans, we’re part of nature, but we often distance ourselves from it inside our buildings or on screens in our modern world. Sometimes, those arbitrary boundaries we erect between us and nature can create a disconnectedness and have adverse effects on our well-being. It isn’t breaking news that spending some time in nature can boost your mood. What’s interesting is that practicing mindfulness in nature strengthens the positive effect nature already has on us. The increased connectedness with ourselves and with nature gives us further insight into ourselves.  One study found that participants who practice mindfulness are more often in a better mood and experience fewer negative effects after spending time in nature compared to those who do not.

What are some outdoor activities to practice mindfulness? Here are a couple of examples:

  • Walking in nature.
  • Observing nature for a while, focusing on the details that stick out to you.
  • Walking outside in the grass or dirt barefoot.
  • Picking fruit from trees.
  • Watering your plants.

What are the activities in nature that you love the most? Give yourself a chance to bring your attention to the present moment during your next time in nature and see if this experience has a new impact on you.

How to Sit for Mindfulness Meditation

There are no strict norms when it comes to mindfulness meditation. Meditation practice is a great tool to better know and understand yourself. It may take a while to find the best place and best position for you. And even then, it might change later, just as you change from time to time. Each moment is special and unique, so use your practice as an opportunity to accept each moment as it is.

Some days you may prefer meditating while lying in bed in the morning or at bedtime. Some days you may jump onto a mat and sit in a half lotus position for 10 to 30 minutes meditating. If you’re wondering how to sit during meditation, there’s no right answer. You may find yourself in a variety of different meditation positions or locations. You don’t need extra equipment. You can sit on your bed, on the floor, on the couch, or on a chair. You don’t even have to sit, as it’s also possible to practice mindfulness meditation while walking.

The important thing is to be comfortable and alert. It’s best to find a position in which you can stay focused. You can gently move or stretch during your practice to find the right position for yourself. Having a regular time and place that your mind is used to helps to make a particular activity a daily habit.

Our minds tend to prefer known and familiar activities in changing and uncertain environments. Studies show that we often link feelings and activities with the locations we experience them in and by replicating those same settings we can thereby enhance our memory of those activities. Similarly, let’s say you take a course in the same place, sitting in a particular seat in the classroom. Your performance is likely to be higher if you take an exam for the course in that very seat. We can use this information as we’re trying to make a habit of something or when we’ve a hard time maintaining one. Meditating at the same time and in the same location everyday allows us to maintain this habit more comfortably, training our brains to grow accustomed to the exercise. Once it becomes a habit, it will be easier to make changes every once in a while and to find the motivation to continue your practice.

How To Be More Present

Try to apply the above principles of mindfulness to your daily life. The more you practice, the more it will help you to be present.

Be patient. Small steps can make a big difference as you keep going. Start noticing how you’re feeling right now as you read these sentences. Keep inviting yourself to the present moment during the day. A regular mindfulness practice, even for just a few minutes each day, can help prepare your mind to stay present.

Life and living are not the same thing. Being mindful will help you to “live” your life, not just anticipate it, waiting for the hard parts to end and the best parts begin. The more you invite yourself to stay present, the more joyful each detail of your life will become. You’ll enjoy the time spent with your friends, family, partner, or partners. You’ll enjoy and savor your food more. Attention directed to yourself can help you enhance your insight into yourself, better understanding and attending to your own needs.

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