More and more people are starting to practice mindfulness. That doesn’t surprise me, considering the huge number of people with stress-related health issues, such as burn-outs, depression, and anxiety. In Holland, one in seven employees suffers from work-related stress, and in the United States, 18% of the population suffers from anxiety.
Do you also experience health issues due to stress at work or in your private life, and do you recognize the following symptoms?
- low energy
- stomach problems
- sore muscles
- chest pain
- fast heart rate
- frequently sick
- low sex drive
- quickly irritated
- difficulty concentrating
- low self-esteem
- suicidal thoughts
If your answer is yes, it might be a good idea to start practicing mindfulness. In this article, I will give you a simple explanation of what mindfulness is and I will give you 10 easy exercises that you can do at home.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind. – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Simply put, mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in the moment. Without letting yourself get distracted by thoughts, and without losing yourself in thoughts about the past or the future.
Mindfulness is meditation. It’s a Western approach to Eastern meditation practices and philosophies. But because meditation sounded too ‘spiritual’ to Western people, a group of meditation researchers decided to call it mindfulness.
Although some people still find mindfulness a bit vague, it’s actually a popular practice of many rational people. Bankers, CEOs, and managers regularly practice mindfulness to learn how to deal with their stressful jobs and how to not be guided/controlled by their emotions.
Mindfulness is about being fully present in your body, and being aware of who you are and what you do.
Just think, how often do you try to catch up with your agenda? How fast does another day seem to have gone by? How many times did you drive home without really being aware of what you did on the road?
The majority of people live on autopilot and are controlled by their thoughts.
We worry about the past (“Did I leave a good impression?”, “What if I would have chosen a different study?”) or worry about the future (“Will I have saved enough money?”, Will I ever be able to travel?”).
We often don’t have time to think about what we are doing right now. Or actually, we don’t make time.
But when you do make time, and when you pay attention to what you experience directly through your senses, or when you pay attention to your state of mind and your thoughts (without drifting away on a thought), then you practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is an ability that every person already possesses. Children, for example, live mostly in the ‘now’. Adults have a little more difficulty doing that. We are prone to so many impulses each day, that we forget what it is like to be in the moment.
Fortunately, you can rediscover this through practice. And the more you practice, the better you become.
What mindfulness is NOT
There are some misunderstandings about mindfulness. Let’s have a look at them.
Mindfulness is not an absence of thoughts
Contrary to what many people expect, mindfulness is not a way to clear your head or have no thoughts.
It’s actually quite impossible not to have thoughts. We have around 80,000 thoughts per day. And the harder we try not to think about something, the more persistent that thought becomes.
For example, if I ask you not to think of a pink elephant. What do you see? Exactly.
The way we deal with these thoughts is what matters. You learn to see that you are not your thoughts. You are the one who observes your thoughts.
That pink elephant can stay in your head if he likes. In fact, if you give him space, he will eventually disappear on its own.
Relaxation is a result of mindfulness, not the goal
Although relaxation is one of the greatest benefits of mindfulness, it’s not the goal. You can be mindful when you are angry, rushed or stressed. Being mindful can help to dissolve anger or stress quicker though.
Mindfulness doesn’t mean that you do nothing
When you are mindful, your brain is active. You give full attention to your senses, your emotions, and your surroundings without forming a judgment. It’s not about doing nothing for a moment. You can practice mindfulness even if you’re fully active, working, eating or driving your car.
Why is mindfulness healthy?
Mindfulness brings many benefits that influence both our private lives and our work. Here are three important ones:
1. Mindfulness reduces stress and heals your body & mind
The biggest advantage of practicing mindfulness is that you reduce stress. Although a little stress can be good, too much stress in your body can lead to a variety of physical and mental problems.
If your body is too stressed, your “fight or flight” mode of your central nervous system is constantly switched on. This means that your body can’t relax and can’t quickly recover. After a while, you become exhausted. You feel unhappy and are often sick.
When you practice mindfulness, you activate the other part of your nervous system: your parasympathetic nervous system. This puts your body in the “rest & digest” mode so you can relax, you feel happier and your body can heal itself.
2. Mindfulness helps to let go of addictions
People with an addiction experience a constant craving for something. Whatever they are addicted to, they never have peace of mind. Whether it’s drugs, sex, food, caffeine or even social media, they are constantly looking for their next fix.
The last thing they want to do is to look at their own thoughts and emotions. But this is exactly it! When you suppress your emotions, they just come knocking on the door even harder. Instead, when you give them space, they’ll eventually lose their power.
3. Mindfulness eases anxiety disorders and depression
Psychiatric research shows that mindfulness has a positive influence on the regulation of emotions. The amygdala in your brain (which drives emotions such as aggression and fear) becomes less active.
If you are mindful, some parts of your brain will light up that are normally not active when you do everything on autopilot. You even change the physical structure of your brain.
There are currently 5 known types of brain waves:
- Alpha brainwaves: reflect calm, relaxed thoughts
- Beta brainwaves: reflect active, analytical thoughts
- Gamma brainwaves: these are the fastest brainwaves and active when we learn
- Theta brainwaves: these are usually active during light sleep and meditation
- Delta brainwaves: these are the slowest and active during deep sleep
In the presence of stress, e.g. a presentation at work, a date, an exam or a quarrel, a series of Beta brainwaves are activated.
But when you relax during a massage, or when you practice mindfulness, your brain produces waves with a lower frequency, such as Alpha and Theta waves.
When you’re in an Alfa brainwave state, you’re alert and relaxed at the same time. You can process information and access creativity better.
With Theta waves you are even more relaxed. This is the state between waking and sleeping, in which you are most receptive to creative ideas and your intuition is the strongest. You can access this state in meditation.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
One of the most known names in the field of mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn: founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
He was the first to give the name “mindfulness” to Eastern meditation techniques and developed an eight-week training course. It has been shown that this training significantly reduces worrying, depression, and burn-outs.
If you’re new to mindfulness, I recommend you to start with his book Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.
Or, if you’re looking for a more guided program, check out his Guided Mindfulness Meditation Series 1: A Complete Guided Mindfulness Meditation Program.
10 Mindfulness exercises that you can do at home
Do you prefer to start at home with some simple mindfulness exercises? Here are 10 simple exercises. It is best if you start in a meditation posture, but you can practice mindfulness in any posture that you like.
It’s important when you start practicing mindfulness meditation that you figure out how to keep your body comfortable but active.
Meditation can be practiced in a sitting down, standing, lying down or however you like.
If you’re sitting down, try to keep your body as follows:
- Your spine is straight, assuming your natural posture.
- Try not to round your back, let your shoulders hang down, or hollow your back too much.
- Your spine is relaxed, yet active and long.
- Your shoulders are relaxed and your shoulder blades are slightly pointed towards each other.
- You can rest your hands on a pillow, on your knees or on your lap, so that your arms are relaxed.
- Your head is balanced and your chin slightly bent towards your chest.
- The back of your neck is relaxed, long and open.
- Your face is relaxed. Soften your eyebrows, lower your lower jaw slightly, let your tongue lie heavy in your mouth, relax your forehead and relax your eyes.
1. Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation is best to be practiced in a quiet room, with your eyes closed or open. You can do it as short or as long as you like. Start with 5 minutes and slowly build it up over time.
- Sit in a comfortable position. You can sit cross-legged, keep your legs stretched out in front of you, or sit in a chair.
- Your knees must be lower than your hips.
- Make sure your back is straight and active. Do not lean against the wall or a chair.
- Try to experience what you feel in your body without judging it.
- Do you feel any tension? Pain? Warmth or cold? What kind of emotions do you experience?
Let them be as they are, you don’t need to change anything.
2. Focus mindfulness
By focusing on something, you can observe what happens in your mind. It can be described as “keeping your eyes on the road” because it focuses on a single experience.
The easiest thing to focus on is your breath.
- Close your eyes or keep them open.
- Relax your face, drop your lower jaw slightly from your upper jaw.
- Observe your breath.
- It doesn’t matter how you breathe. Just try to bring your attention back to your breathing every time you notice you drift away on a thought.
3. Awareness mindfulness
In this exercise, you try to look at your thoughts as if they were someone else’s. You observe your ‘mind’ as if it’s a flowing river of consciousness, without judging it.
- Focus on your breathing to shift your attention from the external world to the internal world.
- Take a few deep breaths from your belly. In and out… relax.
- Keep focusing on your breathing as long as you want.
- Now try to see your thoughts, emotions, moods, and sensations as objects that float in a river.
- Look without judgment or analysis, just watch how they come and go.
- Now choose an object from this stream and focus on it. Let the other sensations and thoughts pass by in the background.
- Notice new thoughts or feelings that emerge as you focus on the one object.
- Give it space for a moment.
- When you are ready, let it go.
4. Body Scan
The body scan is about focusing on your body parts, again without judging.
- Lie on your back on the floor or on your bed and close your eyes.
- Take your awareness to your body. Start with your right foot, your right leg, your left foot, your left leg, your hips, your belly, your chest, your neck, your right shoulder, your right arm, your right arm and your fingers, your left shoulder, your left arm, your left hand, your fingers and finally your head. Feel your tongue lying heavy in your mouth, your lips, your nose, your eyes, your forehead and the top and back of your head.
- When you notice a lot of tension somewhere, visualize that you take your breath there until it relaxes.
5. Object meditation
Choose an item that you find special or interesting. Focus all your senses on it and notice the information that your senses give you.
A well-known exercise, for example, is that of the raisin. Hold a raisin in your hand and try to notice everything that you normally don’t notice.
What is the shape, size, color, texture, smell, taste or sound of the raisin or object?
6. Mindful eating
Like the previous exercise, you use all your senses as you focus on food. Eat slowly and notice the smell, taste, and structure of the food.
7. Walking meditation
Take a walk at a relaxed, but normal speed. Observe how you walk, pay attention to the sensations in your body when you walk. Notice how your shoulders feel (Tensed? Relaxed? Strong?), and how your feet feel when you put them on the ground.
Try to let your breath determine the pace of your footsteps.
8. Mindful stretching
You can pay attention to your body in every kind of stretching exercise. Just notice how it feels inside your body when you, for example, stretch your arm.
Another effective way is, of course, to do yoga. Yoga has specially designed postures and transitions where you focus on your breathing.
Or check out my own 7 easy yoga exercises, which are also perfect for surfers!
9. Simply observing
In this exercise you let your thoughts drift by like clouds in the sky. You don’t focus on anything, and you don’t judge. So let go of thoughts like ”I am a horrible person to think this” or “What a sweet thought, I am such a good person.”
If it helps you can try to name every thought, feeling or sensation (“painful neck, pizza, best friend, anger, tingling, empty stomach, pizza again, grandmother, I miss her”).
10. Breathing meditation with counting
Sit in a comfortable position. Take some deep belly breaths to turn your attention inside. You don’t have to do anything with your breathing yet. Just take the time to switch from the outside world to the internal world.
Start to count your in- and exhales. You don’t have to change your breathing, just count. Count 1 at the inhalation, 2 at the exhale, 3 at the inhalation, 4 at the exhale, and so on. When you reach 10, you start again.
Continue to count your breathing for about five minutes. If you find you start to wander, gently bring your attention back to the physical sensation of your breath.
Instead of counting both your inhalation and exhalation, you now only count your exhalation. This might give you a completely different experience.
Count your exhalation again in rounds of 10. When you wander again, try not to judge. It’s normal. Just bring your attention back when you notice it.
Instead of counting, just follow your natural breath. Notice what sensations you feel when you’re breathing. Focus on the transitions between the inhalations and exhalations and vice versa.
Try to see breathing as a continuous process in an infinite cycle of inhalation, transition, exhalation, and transition rather than just a series of inhalations and exhalations.
Here you focus your attention more specifically on your sensations. Try to focus on how you feel when you breathe. Notice the slight sensations associated with each breath, such as the air on your lip when you exhale or the air that passes through your throat to your lungs.
One of my favorite books on mindfulness:
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What is your favorite mindfulness exercise? Do you practice mindfulness in a different way? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.
Cover photo: @quintenjacobsphoto