Mindfulness is the practice of pausing to pay attention to thoughts, feelings, body sensations or actions in that moment with no distraction of thoughts of the future or past.
You can make any form of exercise a mindful practice, simply by paying attention to what you are doing. If you are out running, pay attention to your breath, the environment, your footfall, the rhythm. Rather than ‘blocking out the pain’ with loud music, worrying about what happened at work today or what you are planning to do later on.
Body-sensing is noticing sensations and feelings within the body without judgement and is one of the most effective practices for refining your responses.
I like to practice a simple body-scan either sitting or laying on the floor. Scan from the toes upwards, paying attention or any areas of tension or other sensations.
The trick here is to not get involved in any story or make any judgement on the sensations. Say, for example, you have an achy hip so you notice this and then associate the fact that this is your ‘problem hip’. Now you’ve added a story and evoked an emotional response, rather than just noticing a sensation. I’m not suggesting here that there may not be an issue with the hip, but this could be compounded by judging why.
Have you ever been running in a different environment, with new people or on a new route and noticed that you ‘didn’t notice’ that dodgy ankle? I had a client who returned from holiday to declare that he didn’t feel his usual knee pain on his holiday runs. I’ve experienced this too. You don’t get chance to worry about any niggles during three days trail running on the Costa Brava.
There are lots of factors involved pain of course, but the simple body-scan and body-sensing exercise can help to clarify what is actually going on. Regularly practice can also help activate the parasympathetic nervous system to encourage deep physical and mental relaxation and enhance your body’s natural resiliency for dealing with stress.
Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital have found that if people continue to meditate over several years, the physical structure of the brain is altered for the better1.
David Gelles, in his book Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from Inside Out, states that if a situation is determined to be threatening, the amygdala (part of the brain that plays a role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional responses) is activated and the flight or flight response kicks in.
This is all well and good if you are in a genuinely threatening situation with the only chance of survival either to flee or fight. However, being stuck in a traffic jam or a queue at the supermarket can often elicit a similar response. The problem then is that we don’t get to rebalance our hormones by fighting or running fast to escape.
Gelles concludes that eight weeks of meditation can shrink the amygdala, making it less likely to overreact. The brain can be trained!
Meditation will counterbalance the fight or flight response, encouraging rest and recovery. And we all know how important rest and recovery is in any training programme. Too much fight or flight and not enough rest and recovery inevitably leads to overtraining.
The good news too is that there is now plenty of science to support this. For my own practice, the simple focus on effortless, soft, rhythmical nasal breathing just a few times a day creates a real sense of calm and relaxation.
A focus on the breath brings you into the moment. Don’t be put off if you drift off into thoughts, this is normal. When this happens avoid attaching feeling or emotion to the thought. Just recognise it and then gently bring your attention back to the breath.
Similarly with sounds and sensations. Gently guide your focus back to the breath. Jack Kornfield, one of the US’s leading meditation teachers offers a great analogy. He likens the mind to a puppy being trained. When the puppy wanders off you gently guide it back and give it the cue to ‘stay’.
Over my years of personal practice, I’ve gained an insight into the profound effect a mindful practice can have. Not only on my training but also relationships and general approach to life.
Gray Cawsadventures in movement
Master Instructor and Director Chi Running UK & Ireland
Oxygen Advantage Instructor
Master Kettlebells Coach
Specialist Personal Trainer
More often than not when I talk to people about the idea of a mindful practice I’m met with a blank stare. The word mindfulness or a mention of meditation and body-sensing can actually be off-putting for some. Does this mean spending hours a day sitting in a darkened room avoid any thoughts or sensations of any kind? But perhaps if we understood a little more, incorporating each into our daily routine could add a whole new dimension to training.
A chance to revisit a piece written in 2008 by Robin McNelis, Respiratory Physiotherapist. “Nose breathing technique will limit you to running at the top level of your aerobic zone which is about 80% of your maximum heart rate and the most efficient level to do most of your training at for distance running.”
The Oxygen Advantage practice of reduced breathing at rest (taking less air into the body) without creating tension or restricting the breathing muscles, helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest, regeneration, recovery, earthing, gathering energy).