How to begin a mindfulness practice
The concept of mindfulness is widely talked about these days, but you may be unsure how to actually practise it. We’ve asked a few experts for their take on what mindfulness means, why it’s useful and, most importantly, how to do it.
For Sara Hodson, founder and CEO of LIVE WELL Exercise Clinic, mindfulness can take the form of just about anything.
“A ‘mindfulness practice’ used to invoke the image of sitting on a pillow on the floor in lotus position, chanting ‘Om’ with incense burning,” she says.
And while that’s a perfectly good way to practise mindfulness, it’s not the only way, by any means.
“Anything can become an act of mindfulness when you’re fully present and engaged with the task in front of you,” adds licensed therapist Nicole Arzt, who sits on the advisory board for Family Enthusiast. “That means you can certainly be mindful while meditating, but you can also be mindful while doing the dishes, brushing your teeth or driving to work.”
Tara Stiles, yoga expert and author of Clean Mind, Clean Body: A 28-Day Plan for Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Self-Care, agrees – mindfulness can be a way to do anything – not just a way to do some things, or just those activities themselves.
“When you approach mindfulness as slowing down, checking in and paying attention to how you feel and what’s happening around you, you can really apply that to all the time,” Stiles says. “The fun part becomes noticing when you are disconnected and deciding to come back to yourself.”
“We think about mindfulness with movement, with eating, with conscious breath work – even washing dishes can be done as a mindfulness practice. Quite simply, it is being present and trying to still the chatter in your head,” Hodson adds.
And there’s a lot of chatter in our heads. Hodson points to a study by Queen’s University researchers released earlier this year that found we have more than 6,000 thoughts a day.
“And,” she adds, “COVID-19 has increased anxiety and stress, making the chatter in our head a little more negative.”
The benefits of mindfulness are wide-ranging – and they include reducing some of that added anxiety and stress you may be experiencing.
“It can also help us feel more focused, alert and attuned to our body and mind,” says Arzt. “This attunement allows you to become more conscious of your needs and limits. Over time, meditation can lead to more gratitude, generosity, and compassion.”
Hodson says practising mindfulness can also help lower blood pressure, aid in weight management, and can help people stick with exercise programs. “Lots of studies have shown that people who practise mindfulness daily sleep better, and are able to regulate their emotions,” she adds. “Definitely something we all want to be doing every day.”
So how do you get started? There are so many ways!
Hodson suggests spending time in nature, “listening to the wind, noticing the sunsets, breathing deeply.”
For beginners, Arzt recommends focusing on single tasks.
“Start small. For example, the next time you brush your teeth, really focus on the task. Pay attention to how the brush feels, how the toothpaste tastes, and the sounds of the movement. It may seem amplified and even a little silly, but this kind of practice increases your awareness of the present moment.”
This is something Arzt, a self-proclaimed “die-hard multitasker”, uses herself to be more mindful. It’s not easy, she says, “but I remind myself of the benefits, and I always feel better when I avoid cluttering my mind with all those excess distractions.”
Another thing you can try is some mindful breathing, Arzt says.
“Start with two-minute breaths. We can do almost anything for two minutes. Set a timer, close your eyes and take deep breaths. Inhale for five counts through your nose and then exhale all the air through your mouth and hold for five counts. Repeat until the timer rings.”
Hodson also suggests practising mindfulness when it comes to eating and moving. Mindful eating can involve taking time to appreciate how your meal looks on the plate and tasting all the different flavours. Mindful movement, which she says is especially important for beginner exercisers, can involve noticing how you feel after a workout.
“Research shows only 10 minutes of movement can improve your mood,” Hodson says. “But you have to train your brain to notice it!”
To start being more mindful, Stiles suggests simply slowing down, softening your body and noticing your breaths.
“Activities like walking, gardening and drawing, along with yoga and meditation can be luxurious moments of mindfulness – and opportunities to connect back in so it’s easier to be mindful with more of your time,” Stiles says. She adds, “It’s important to remember it’s not the activity that’s mindful, it’s you choosing to be connected instead of disconnected.”
She suggests starting with just taking time for yourself as often as you can – even if it’s just two minutes at a time. “Crawl down to the ground and sit however you are comfortable. If sitting on a couch or a chair is better, that’s great, too. Allow your body and mind to soften a bit so you are moveable. It’s our rigidity that we cling onto for a sense of control, but also what allows stress to thrive in us. Let yourself drop the rigidity and roll around for a bit. Think of a tree. It responds and moves with the breeze instead of fighting against it. If a tree fought with the breeze it would break.
“The more you make time for mindful breaks and connecting with your breath, the more you’ll experience that ease in all you do,” she adds.
And if you find it difficult to be mindful in the beginning, don’t worry – that’s totally normal.
“Mindfulness takes a lot of practice,” says Arzt. “At first, it may seem really hard and uncomfortable. We’re so used to thinking about the future or obsessing about the past. Embracing the present moment can feel a bit foreign. This is normal, and eventually it passes.”
The important thing is that your mindfulness practice feels like you, Stiles says. “Find a way to do these things and feel like yourself, not some version of you being good at mindfulness doing these things. You are the main ingredient in your mindfulness. … This is about you, experiencing your life to the fullest. You deserve that.”