Practicing Mindfulness

Imagine this:  you’ve had a long day, filled with the usual tasks, responsibilities and moments that have challenged you, and hopefully also some that have brought you joy.  You finally convince yourself to get into bed and although you are certainly tired enough to be heading off to sleep, your mind simply cannot get quiet.  The one thing that would be best for you – sleep – is actually prevented by your awareness of how much you need it.  When this has happened to me, I’ve pictured a little, annoyingly svelte hamster running around and around on his wheel, powering the spinning of my mind.

We’ve all been there – scarfing down a meal while standing and reading emails, getting out of the shower then realizing that we didn’t rinse the shampoo out of our hair.  In our busy world filled with never ending to-do lists, deadlines, appointments and distractions, how do we find time to pause and find awareness in the present moment?

The concept of mindfulness may seem out of reach to us especially when our lists and obligations become overwhelming and daunting.  While we speed through life fulfilling our various roles,  wearing our many hats, our nervous systems run on overdrive and eventually start to tucker out.

Then what?  Cue the hamster.

Exhaustion. Stress.  Insomnia.  Irritability. Anxiety.  Depression…and the list goes on.

Medical research has shown us that people who live in a moderate state of stress are more prone to anxiety, depression, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even some cancers.

Here’s the great news: there are ways to interrupt this cycle, sedate that pesky hamster from time to time so the wheel stops spinning and the mind gets quiet.  We can start by practicing mindfulness, nurturing our bodies with things that make us feel good and remembering to take a time-out and push the pause button.

Mindfulness suggests that the mind is fully attending to what is happening in the present moment. Simply put, mindfulness is awareness of the now.  It’s a natural ability we all have, but it takes practice.

What if there were easy ways to bring mindfulness practice into our day-to-day existence?  While we may not all have 20 minutes to spend in a meditation session (kudos to those who do!) it is essential to overall health and well-being to carve out a few minutes scattered throughout a busy day to achieve a mind-body connection and start cultivating a relationship to one’s self.

A simple way of incorporating mindfulness is through “mindful awareness.”  This is the practice of bringing a heightened awareness and appreciation to seemingly mundane daily tasks – showering, brushing your teeth, eating, driving.  For example, the next time you take a shower, really commit to being present in the shower. Take a moment to enjoy the warmth of the water and moisture on your skin, the steam filling your sinuses and lungs, the smell of the shampoo, etc.  By being more fully present, you will start to notice simple pleasures and experience new sensations.  It also provides us with a forced slow down that can be calming and clearing even while accomplishing a basic, task.

As we are realizing, being mindful is not just a practice from the neck up.  When we learn to bring our awareness to the sensations of the body, we are brought into the present.  When we pay attention to it, the body can be a natural anchor for mindfulness.  Body awareness is something we learned as children – where is our body in relation to our environment, how does our body respond and react in certain situations?  In a more mature yet still basic approach to body awareness, we can think of it as recognizing and acknowledging physical sensations that create an emotional reaction.  For example, being aware of your furrowed brow while studying for an exam, noticing that your jaw is clenched tightly when you’re feeling nervous and so on.

The body experiences through sensations.  Becoming more familiar with patterns of physical sensations can help you take better care of yourself and even minimize your risk of injury.  Further, I would attest that from a medical standpoint, being more connected with yourself can help with recognition of ailments and may allow for early preventative action.  We often walk around with our shoulders shrugged in tension, our backs hunched over and then wonder why we suffer from chronic pain or stiffness.

Bottom line:  the more connected you are with your body, the more optimally it functions.

The following body awareness exercise is known as a “body scan.”  It’s a quick and simple way to check in with yourself.  It can be done in as little as 30 seconds and can be done anywhere and anytime… for example at the start of your yoga practice or in line at the grocery store.

Here’s how it works:

Body scan exercise:

Take a moment to pause. Close your eyes or cast your gaze downward to decrease visual distractions. Begin by taking 2 slow deep breaths.  Then, start to bring awareness to your physical body – starting at the top of your head, noticing any areas of tension or physical discomfort.  Working your way down, over your face (the space between your eyes, your jaw, tongue), neck, shoulders and arms, your upper back, chest, abdomen and lower back.  Then send your awareness down around your hips, legs and finally your feet and toes – The goal is to simply connect to yourself,  noticing how you are holding your physical body, making mindful adjustments to promote relaxation and comfort.

One thing to keep in mind is that this is a practice, not perfection.  There is no right or wrong way to be mindful – it’s just your way, as you’re experiencing it in a given moment.

My personal favorite mindfulness practice?  Yoga.

Unlike conventional exercise, yoga stresses quality of movement, breath control and body awareness while emphasizing physical, emotional and spiritual connection.

The physical and mental benefits of yoga are broad and there are many different types of yoga allowing us to find one that speaks to us.  Regular yoga practice creates mental clarity and calmness, increases body awareness, relieves chronic stress patterns, centers attention and sharpens focus.

As a physician, I must admit that although much research has been done on the health effects of yoga, many of the studies have been small and somewhat lacking in quality evidence. However, the medical community supports that yoga is generally safe for healthy people when performed properly and it has shown promise in helping to manage a multitude of health conditions.

Among a myriad of benefits yoga improves strength and flexibility, boosts the immune system, decreases blood pressure, helps control blood sugar and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.  This is the part of our nervous system that activates the relaxation response.  Isn’t it amazing that by moving our bodies in certain ways and making minor adjustments to our breathing patterns we can literally change our hormonal milieu?

I am so grateful for the opportunity to share some thoughts with you.  Join me in my next post as I discuss breath control and how our breath is the direct conduit to our nervous system.  I will teach you some ways in which you can tap into your parasympathetic response particularly in times of stress and anxiety.  In the meantime, I encourage you to start thinking about your own mind-body connection, try out a body scan or mindfully experience a seemingly ordinary task with an enhanced sense of awareness.

Until next time…

Be kind.  Be mindful.

Laura M. Hays MD, FACEP

RYT200

Laura is a board-certified emergency physician, assistant professor at Campbell University School of Medicine and a registered yoga instructor based in Charlotte, NC. Her ongoing practice focuses on body awareness and the exploration of how breathing techniques, meditation practice and physical postures can work together to help alleviate symptoms of common ailments.  One of her main passions is helping people manage stress and anxiety by cultivating their own mind-body connection. 

“I believe in the power of the pause. When the journey seems hectic and the world is moving so fast around you, take a moment to pause – breath, reconnect and find your intention. As a mom, an emergency physician and well, a human, I find this challenging at times. Yoga helps remind me to focus on the present, move with intention and stay balanced.  As we navigate through life’s amazing journey it is essential that we practice introspection, open-mindedness and show kindness and gratitude to others and to ourselves.”

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