Mindfulness, The Ultimate Exercise

brain training leadership mental fitness mindfulness resilience wellbeing Sep 27, 2022

Mindfulness is proven to enhance well-being, relationships, resiliency, happiness, and performance. It seems that everywhere we turn, we hear about mindfulness and its benefits. Yet, it can be confusing because the term mindfulness is thrown around loosely and seems to mean different things to different people.

The truth is that there isn’t a single, correct definition of mindfulness. That’s not surprising when you consider that mindfulness spans many beliefs, disciplines, sciences, and interventions. It has rich roots in eastern spirituality and modern branches in neuroscience, physical wellbeing, mental health interventions, and cognitive performance. Mindfulness is defined depending on how it is practiced and the targeted outcome.

From a neuroscience perspective, we begin to see that mindfulness is brain training that creates a sense of calm clarity as we practice it. This facet of mindfulness is called a state effect, because while we are practicing, we enjoy the cognitive and emotional benefits of mindfulness.

Neuroscience also shows that when we practice mindfulness consistently, over time we change our brains. This creates a trait effect that lasts beyond the mindfulness exercise. As a trait effect, the gifts of mindfulness become a part of who we are. Mindfulness becomes our nature. By routinely practicing mindfulness, we create lasting benefits that stick with us. For this reason, mindfulness is also seen as a powerful intervention able to address a wide variety of personal improvements including, managing stress and anxiety, enhancing self-awareness and emotional intelligence, and improving cognitive agility and work performance. How individuals define mindfulness is influenced by the type of mindfulness practice used and the change they hope to create through mindfulness. It is helpful to consider the four facets of mindfulness and how they influence our understanding of mindfulness.

As a practice or an exercise, mindfulness is defined as mental training of emotional and attentional regulation that involves the ability to stay focused (Lutz et al., 2008), conscious, and present in the moment while being attentive to ourselves, others, and our environment (Chaskalson, 2011; Johhson, et al., 2020).

Neuroscience helps us see that mindfulness is brain training that creates measurable changes in brain chemistry, anatomy, and electrophysiology. Much like working out at the gym changes our bodies, mindfulness exercises change our brains. When we engage in an exercise routine, over time, we notice muscle gain and weight loss. Not as obvious to others are changes in strength, endurance, flexibility, and range of motion. And for those of us who have done the heavy lifting, there is the bonus of a little pep in our step and a boost in our confidence. Our world may even expand as new experiences and activities become accessible with our improved physical health.

The positive effects of a healthy exercise routine go far beyond the obvious, observable, physical changes. The same is true for a mindfulness routine. There are observable neurological changes and noticeable positive shifts in behaviors. The proven benefits of mindfulness enhance every aspect of our wellbeing. For this reason, mindfulness is often seen as an intervention. The most popular western intervention aims to reduce stress and anxiety. Other interventions fall into the spiritual, leadership, interpersonal, and performance realms. Targeted outcomes include connecting with a higher purpose, improving attention and focus, fostering self-compassion, bettering interpersonal relationships, and enhancing personal, work, and physical performance.

WHAT MAKES SOMETHING A MINDFULNESS EXERCISE?

Mindfulness exercises follow four simple steps. They begin with an intention to focus our attention. Next, our focus drifts. This happens naturally and frequently. It is normal for our attention to drift about 50% of the time. The third step is noticing the drift, and the fourth is to redirect our attention back to the intended focus. It is that simple.

Although the breath is a common and convenient focal point, there are many others to explore. What we choose to focus on is a personal choice. There are infinite ways to practice mindfulness, yet, all mindfulness exercises fall into three broad categories.

THERE ARE THREE TYPES OF MINDFULNESS EXERCISES

  • Meditation
  • Mindful Movement
  • Sensory Awareness

MEDITATION

Meditation usually comes to mind when we think of mindfulness. Images of someone sitting cross-legged, head raised, and eyes closed quickly surface when we hear the term mindfulness. This category of mindfulness exercises includes a broad variety of practices because it pulls on eastern spiritual roots as well as western medical branches. Within meditation, we can further categorize exercises as guided or self-directed. Many classes, apps, and online sites offer guided meditations that are easy to follow. Self-directed meditation requires a little knowledge and discipline, but offer the benefit of being able to exercise anytime without “props” or outside support.

Meditations can also be classified as focused, open, or a combination of focused and open. With a focused meditation we choose an anchor for our attention, such as our breath, or sounds in our environment. With an open meditation, we direct our attention to what pops up. We still focus our attention. We simply focus it on what the present moment offers us and we shift our attention as time moves and new focal points emerge in our environment. Some meditations combine focused and open techniques by sandwiching open awareness with a focus on the breath in the beginning and end of the meditation.

MINDFUL MOVEMENT

Mindful movement involves directing attention to an awareness of the movement and coordinating movement with the breath. While yoga, tai chi, and qigong are common, traditional mindful movement exercises, almost any physical activity can become a mindful movement exercise. Mindful movement helps us gain information through the experience of being in our body, noticing how it feels to be in our body, and the awareness of our body in a particular space. This is called embodiment.

Embodiment is an important aspect of mindfulness. We have all heard of the mind-body connection. Embodiment theory explains how cognitive processing is grounded in our sensory and motor experiences. What we experience through our body has an undeniable effect on the mind. The body is directly involved in cognition (Barsalou, 2007). That is why embodiment is powerful brain training. Studies connect embodiment to changes in the brain that increase our ability to act empathetically and compassionately towards ourselves and others (ref).

SENSORY AWARENESS AND DIA EXERCISES

Sensory awareness can turn a routine, daily task into a mindfulness exercise. It is simply using our senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste, to experience the present moment. This type of exercise is appealing to individuals who find it hard to meditate or whose schedules don’t allow dedicated time for mindfulness. It is time efficient because mindfulness can be seamlessly integrated into daily activities. Any task that we do routinely offers an excellent opportunity to train our brains. I like to call this type of exercise a DIA “Doing It Anyway” mindfulness workout. I have noticed most activities that use water offer a great opportunity for this type of exercise. The water instantly provides an auditory experience and often comes with a tactile sensation as well as a scent. Think about it. Tasks like washing your face, making coffee, cooking, and washing dishes all offer sight, sound, touch, and smell. Taste can be incorporated when we enjoy a morning a cup of tea or coffee and every time we eat. These are examples of how simple daily activities can become mindfulness exercises.

Ellen Langer, a Harvard professor, popularized this type of mindfulness. She characterizes it as being sensitive to one’s environment and its changing nature as well as being open to new information. She describes mindfulness as the opposite 4 of mindlessness. In other words, noticing what is really transpiring in the moment rather than thinking and doing based on past experiences and acting in an automatic, thoughtless way. Research associated with Langer’s style of mindfulness shows positive effects on learning, creativity, performance, problem-solving, attention, and cognitive flexibility (Khoury et al. 2017).

MINDFUL EATING

Mindful eating is a DIA sensory awareness exercise that offers an opportunity to take better care of ourselves as we train our brain with mindfulness. All five senses serve up a rich feast of information that pulls us into the moment. Slowing down to appreciate and savor our bites and sips, enhances awareness and gratitude.

Eating becomes an intentional, single-tasking activity. We focus on the sights, sounds, aromas, tactile sensations, and taste of our food and drink. When our attention drifts, we notice, and gently redirect our focus back to our meal, snack, or drink. We get curious about everything from the weight of our plate to the temperature of our food. Awareness of our eating habits increases. We notice how much we consume, how quickly we eat, and how we feel as we are eating.

Mindful eating is an exercise we can do every day. With mindful eating, we naturally become more aware of our habits and choices. This simple daily practice can reveal opportunities to improve our diets and encourage healthy changes.

When beginning to practice mindful eating, we start by focusing our attention while drinking a cup of tea or coffee or eating a snack or meal. As we become more proficient with mindful eating, we can expand the exercise to include food preparation and cleaning up after the meal.

MINDFUL JOURNALING

While not a pure form of mindfulness exercise, mindful journaling is worth exploring for its ability to build resilience, enhance self-awareness, and create knowledge. Mindful journaling combines the benefits of a mindful state with the insight of reflection. Mindfulness brings us into the present moment. We become centered, open, and receptive. This amplifies the benefits of journaling.

Mindful journaling heightens our growth and insight. It is beneficial when we are open to personal growth and transformation. This can be during steady times in our lives when we are ready to progress or during times of struggle and great challenge when we are searching for solutions and positive changes.

HOW DOES MINDFUL JOURNALING WORK?

This type of mindfulness exercise combines meditation with the reflective exercise of journaling. There are several ways to approach mindful journaling. We can engage in a brief breath exercise or self-directed meditation and then journal. Another option is to listen to a guided meditation and then journal. At Resiliency Well, we offer mindful journaling courses that pair themed meditations with corresponding journaling prompts to create the most productive mindset for insight and personal growth.

About the Author

Beth Guyton is an executive coach, author, and workplace mindfulness strategist with a Masters in Industrial and Organizational Psychology who is passionate about creating positive work environments and helping individuals, leaders, and organizations become their absolute best. She is a New Orleans native and well-rooted Dallas transplant who draws on her creative spirit to paint, journal, and make mindfulness simple, easy, and accessible through her work at www.ResiliencyWell.com

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