The term mindfulness gets a lot of play these days. The concept has come far since flower children introduced it to American pop culture in the 1960s. Today, it alludes to a groundbreaking new science of wellbeing and stands at the center of a medical renaissance.
“Advancements in the field of neuroscience have led to astounding discoveries regarding the health benefits of mindfulness,” says Dr. Ugur Yilmaz, a neurologist with the Tidewater Physicians Multispecialty Group in Newport News. For the average person, “adapting a mindfulness practice is one of the most beneficial wellness decisions they can make.”
Yilmaz likens impacts to observing a nutritionally balanced diet and regular exercise. Short-term benefits may include enhanced patience and focus, better sleep and emotional balance and lowered stress levels. In the long haul, mindfulness can help protect against depression, heart disease and cognitive disorders like Parkinson’s, dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Lucky for us, instituting a practice is cheap and easy. Below, some of Coastal Virginia’s doctors, counselors and practitioners offer tips and tricks to get you started.
To adapt a mindfulness practice, you’ll need know some basic principles. Namely, what it is and how to prepare yourself to practice it.
“Mindfulness is the innate human ability to be fully present with where we are and what we’re doing,” writes Laura Stephens, a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction instructor based in Yorktown. She continues, quoting University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society Founder Jon Kabat-Zinn: “It is cultivated by systematically exercising one’s capacity for paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. … It usually involves cultivating familiarity and intimacy with aspects of everyday experience that we often are unaware of, take for granted or discount in terms of importance.”
Mindfulness Community of Hampton Roads Founder Allen Sandler agrees—but is less clinical in his definition. He says mindfulness is, above all, an experience.
“To be mindful is to be really alive, fully aware of our body and mind and of our surroundings in the present moment,” explains Sandler. To practice mindfulness, one must act “with awareness and without rush, aware of each step and each breath.”
Sounds pretty duh. Yet, doing it ain’t so easy.
“Our mind is constantly wandering, constantly busying itself with things that have nothing to do with what we are actually doing,” says Yilmaz. As a result, our consciousness is often divided; we function on a kind of autopilot. For instance, “as an observer, you could see me making my morning coffee and think that’s what I’m doing. And yet, on the inside, I am frantically itemizing everything I will have to do that day and worrying if I will be able to get it all done.”
According to Yilmaz, practicing mindfulness basically amounts to trying to focus on one thing at a time. The goal is simple: Pay deep and systematic attention to what we’re doing.
“To practice, we simply observe our attention,” he says. “When our thoughts begin to wander, we take notice. We smile and say, ‘Ah-ha, I see what is happening!’ Then we congratulate ourselves and gently return to the task at hand.”
To maximize the efficacy of your practice, you’ll want to nurture a certain kind of mindset. Positivity is paramount; a sense of play, a major asset.
“The key is to be gentle and encourage yourself constantly,” says Yilmaz. He asks beginners to treat themselves like a small child trying to learn a new skill. “Attention is like a muscle,” he says. “If you haven’t worked on it very much, it’s going to be out of shape. You have to ease into things and strengthen the muscle bit by bit.”
But unlike rigorous exercise, mindfulness shouldn’t bring discomfort. The point is to destress and cultivate a sense of calm. It helps to approach your practice like a game. Accordingly, Sandler recommends starting with something simple and portable. Mindful breathing is just the thing.
“Our breathing is the stable, solid ground in which we can take refuge and find peace,” says Sandler. “Regardless of our internal weather—our thoughts, emotions and perceptions—our breathing is always with us like a faithful friend. When we feel carried away, caught in a deep emotion or scattered in worries and projects, we can return to our breathing to collect and anchor our mind.”
How do you practice mindful breathing? Here’s the CliffsNotes version, a la Sandler:
- When you notice your mind wandering from the task at hand, close your eyes. Draw your attention to your breath. To do this, you might try asking yourself, is my breathing deep or shallow? Quick or slow?
- Start by simply feeling the flow of air coming in and going out through your nostrils.
- Take a few long, deep breaths. Attune your focus by individuating the processes: Inhale; exhale. Repeat.
- Slowly and gently regulate your breathing. To do this, try counting for 5–10 seconds while inhaling. Pause for about a second when your lungs are comfortably full. Then count for 5–10 seconds while exhaling.
- Continue for 5, 10 or 15 minutes—whatever is most comfortable.
- Getting good at the above? Try counting 10 consecutive regulated breaths without a thought interrupting your flow or causing you to lose track of the count. (Trust me, it’s easier said than done.)
Sandler says mindful breathing is a staple of his daily routine. He calls it the building block upon which all additional practices rely.
“And the best thing about it is, practitioners can use this at any time, in any place,” he says. Whether we’re “walking, gardening or typing, we can easily return to this profound source of inner peace. Mindful breathing is the key to uniting body and mind and bringing the energy of mindfulness into each moment of our daily life.”
Diversify Your Practice
There are myriad ways to practice mindfulness. Your breathing practice can—and should—be incorporated into all of them.
“As a doctor, I work with many, many people,” says Yilmaz. From small children, to prime-of-life athletes, to elderly professors, he prescribes mindfulness exercises for nearly all of his patients. Regimens cater to individual interests. “The more enjoyment something brings, the more likely we are to do it,” he says with a laugh. “Everyone is a little different, so it’s important to find practices that suit our abilities and personalities.”
It’s best to pair your practice with a favorite hobby or activity like gardening, bicycling, cooking or walking. Sandler recommends the latter as a starting point. The practice can be particularly helpful for office workers and those who spend a lot of time on computers.
Start by allotting a daily 15-minute break for a walk. Outdoors is best, but a quiet room or hallway will serve the purpose.
“Begin by directing your attention to the world around you,” says Yilmaz. Outside, try observing natural objects like trees, clouds, flowers and insects. Inside, you could look at art on the walls, observe the world through windows or note people’s expressions. “The goal is to focus on what is happening right now, as opposed to internal thoughts, worries, concerns [and so on]. Whenever our attention strays, we gently remind ourselves of what we are doing and return to our observations.”
Once you’ve mastered that, add breathing. This means coordinating your steps and breath.
“For example, outdoors, we may take two steps with each in-breath and two steps with each out-breath,” says Sandler. In a smaller, more intimate space, slow to one deep breath per step. To attune breaths and steps, try “mentally saying to yourself as you walk: ‘In … in. Out … out.’”
Make the above a part of your daily routine and changes should come quick. These can range from subtle to quite obvious.
“Patients often find their mood is, on average, more balanced, more positive—in short, they spend less time worrying,” says Yilmaz with a laugh. Other sensory benefits may include an enhanced sense of calm, increased compassion, greater ability to perceive and regulate emotions, more energy and better quality of communication. All of which can lead to tangible benefits like “lower blood pressure, better memory, increased brain plasticity, reduced susceptibility to depression [and much more].”
According to Stephens, when we practice mindfulness, we’re practicing the art of creating space for ourselves—space to think, space to breathe, space between ourselves and our reactions. The more we practice redirecting our wandering minds to the here-and-now, the better we get at living in the present. In doing so, we gain a powerful respite from stress. That pause brings greater perspective to our daily lives.
“When things go wrong in our life and we encounter difficult situations, we tend to regard the situation itself as our problem, but in reality, whatever problems we experience come from the mind,” writes Annie Templin, who teaches mindful living courses at the Hampton Roads Center for Modern Buddhism and Meditation. “If we were to respond to difficult situations with a positive or peaceful mind, they would not be problems for us; indeed, we may even come to regard them as challenges or opportunities for growth and development. Problems arise only if we respond to difficulties with a negative state of mind.”
In the long-term, that’s better for our health.
“Studies show a correlation between mindfulness practices and decreased instances of cognitive disorders later in life,” says Yilmaz. The same is true for heart disease and negative effects attributed to aging. “Over the course of a lifetime, the benefits are astounding,” he adds. With an ever-expanding body of supportive research, the medical community has come to recognize mindfulness as a pillar of wellness “on par with exercise, good sleep and healthy eating—it’s that important!”