Anupama Kommu, PsyD
Of late, the term mindfulness has become popular, and a part of everyday social jargon. Many might associate mindfulness as a mental practice of being aware in the moment and developing greater awareness of self. However, mindfulness is so much more than a mental practice, it is an integration of the information that is gained through greater awareness of both the mind and the body in relation to the environment that surrounds us. Through improved understanding of the information gathered from the mind and the body we can improve not only our mental health but our physical health as well. Mindfulness is seen throughout our daily activities. Here we break down how to incorporate mindfulness into your daily activities, as well as a few mindful exercises you can do right now!
During a physical activity such as yoga, one can utilize mindful awareness in breathing, mental focus, flexibility, and strength. Being aware of how our body responds to the different postures is helpful as it informs us on how much more we can exert ourselves or to reduce the intensity in order to honor what the body tells us about pain and sensitivity. Using yoga practices such as breathing, meditation, relaxation, and postures one can get in touch with the specific challenges of movement unique to one’s circumstances. Yoga as a practice inherently incorporates mindful strategies when it is done as intended. Since yoga can be modified to suit the individual’s needs, evidence shows that it is highly beneficial to mange chronic pain.
Chronic pain and Mindfulness
Patients who suffer from chronic pain can often be immobilized by the pain due to the physical aspect of the pain but also the psychosocial aspects of the pain. Since movement is a behavior and a physical activity most people don’t see the importance of looking at the psychological component that is inherent in pain. Chronic pain can often be perpetuated by psychological reasons such as fear, isolation, feeling less than or unable to function at previous levels prior to the pain which manifests as immobility and lack of motivation.
However, if the individual were to begin daily practice of self-awareness through breath work, mindful awareness of the psychological distress of the pain, as well as how it feels within the body to move. Using this information, an individual can gradually increase mobility by slowly becoming aware of the muscle groups involved in the simple act of getting up from a chair. When one practices the chair posture in yoga in a mindful way the benefits from it are far from being simple.
Use mindful practices with your chair
Let’s try this simple exercise. From a seated position in a chair, stand up as you would normally do without much thought and awareness. And sit back down. Now, close your eyes, and bring your awareness to your breath, notice where you feel your breath, how your body responds to your breath and how your body feels while you are seated in the chair. Now, before you even think about getting up off the chair…making sure your knees are above your heels, tighten your glutes, upper thighs, calf muscles, engaging your core, sitting tall, pushing into your heels lean forward with your spine elongated and stretched long, placing both your palms on your thighs slowly raise your body off the chair but not fully, just hover over the chair for a few deep breaths. As you hover…pay close attention to how your body, your breath and your mind are responding to this shift in movement. Using your breath to guide the intensity and lingering in this hover for a few deep breaths. If this feels uncomfortable sit back down and notice how your body responded to the change in position. If you were able to endure through the entire process of the mindful chair posture you might have come away from the experience with a feeling of increased awareness, and surprisingly a degree of soreness that you would not expect from this simple posture. Other activities done mindfully can have similar outcomes.
Becoming mindful includes both mind and body and when you practice this throughout the day, or during any physical activity you will notice an improvement in the quality of what you are engaged in. For example, while walking you might notice that engaging your core, walking with your spine elongated, and engaging your leg muscles gives you more strength and confidence in your stride, and your gait, as well as improving your posture. While playing tennis you might notice that if you are aware of your stroke as your racket touches the ball and how your body responds to it, as well as the presence of your body in space as you lean in to hit the ball, if you are aware of how you breath and how you engage your muscles, the quality of your stroke, and the impact of it might improve. Moving mindfully has an impact on both active movements as well as passive movements.
Sleep and Mindfulness
Even in activities that require minimum movement or rather that are not conducive to movement, such as sleeping, you can benefit from being more aware of your mind and body. Integration of information about your breath, thoughts, and your body, and how stressed or tense you are, how your bed feels, and how tired you feel allows you to implement strategies that would alter the outcome. All these factors and many others can influence the quality and quantity of sleep.
Start by building a nighttime routine that involves centering through meditation, relaxation through breathing, and stretching that reduces tightness in muscles and recognizing any thoughts that interfere with fully letting go and winding down for the day can contribute to your quality of sleep. The more aware you are, and the more integrated this information is will impact the quality of your sleep.
Being mindful through any physical activity can not only improve performance in the activity such as yoga, tennis, swimming, etc, but it can also increase flexibility, confidence in movement and generate a sense of body and mind connection that has the potential for improving your overall sense of well-being.