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A Comprehensive Guide to Starting a Mindfulness Habit

Mindfulness practice offers many benefits for your everyday life and well-being. Here is a detailed guide to mindfulness—the history, the practice and how it can serve you.
by Jennifer Duffy | Mar 24 2020

Over the past few years, the mindfulness movement has really gained momentum. Today, more people than ever are aware of the benefits of mindfulness practice in a fast-paced world. But what is mindfulness really about? What is the evidence behind mindfulness, and how can you integrate mindful meditation into your routine? Read on for an overview of mindfulness, its benefits and how to practice.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is all about being fully present in the current moment. It is a practice of developing awareness and creating a more compassionate relationship with yourself. It is now linked with ideas of well-being, inner peace and good mental health. Mindfulness teaches you to be with yourself, and find peace there. Grounding in the present moment is central to mindfulness, as Buddhist monk, writer and mindfulness teacher, Thích Nhất Hạnh states: “The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.”

A Brief History of Mindfulness

While it’s often thought that the practice of mindfulness has its roots in ancient Buddhism, there is also some evidence to suggest elements of meditation were practiced by Hindus in the context of yoga even earlier in around 1500 BCE. However, mindfulness as we practice it now in the west is largely founded on Zen principles and the training of sati. Sati is the “moment to moment awareness of present events”, but also “remembering to be aware of something” which come directly from Buddhist theory. What we can be certain of is that mindful meditation has been practiced in Eastern cultures for thousands of years. However, now mindfulness is not connected to religion. Mindfulness became more mainstream with the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs first piloted in the 1970s by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn.

What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?

Practicing mindfulness can help you develop compassion and understanding towards yourself, which can be helpful in regulating your emotions and understanding your reactions. It can help you focus your attention on your thoughts and emotions.

A number of studies have shown the health benefits associated with mindfulness. Here are a few that are discussed in Mindfulness (2011) by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. A study in the Psychosomatic Medicine journal in 2003 showed that mindfulness can boost your immune system. In 2008, Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues showed that mindfulness can help in managing chronic pain. And Kees van Heeringen showed that, in conjunction with antidepressants, mindfulness can reduce the chance of a relapse into depression from 68% to 30%. The benefits of mindfulness can also be seen in boosting practitioners’ memory, reactions and endurance.

Compassion is at the core of mindfulness. “Mindfulness is a way of befriending ourselves and our experience,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness can help you be kinder to yourself, and build your empathy for others also.

Mindfulness-based approaches have proved effective as part of coping with anxiety, addiction, depression, eating disorders and more.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

A common misconception is that practicing mindfulness is all about positive thinking. In actual fact, mindfulness is about accepting both the positive and negative aspects of life.

In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, yoga and exploration of patterns of behavior, thinking, feeling and action.

This eight-week program teaches participants a range of mindful meditations and exercises, helping them gain awareness of their thoughts and responses, and practice grounding themselves in the present. It also helps with prioritizing tasks that are fulfilling and boosting, allowing people to eliminate activities that may have a negative or draining impact. This can help you recognize old habits you are falling into and find clarity.

In Mindful Work, (2015) David Gelles notes that according to the World Health Organization, (WHO) stress costs American companies up to $300 billion annually. It is well worth companies’ time investing in mindfulness initiatives for their employees to help counter burnout and workplace stress.

Mindfulness for Beginners

Practicing mindfulness can start small – you can spend a minute a day on mindfulness, and work yourself up to longer stretches. With a range of apps, books and online resources, mindfulness practice is more accessible than ever. Let the thoughts come as they are and pass by, like clouds in the sky. Notice them, but don’t pass judgment on them.

How to Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is not a quick-fix for problems as practice is essential to train your brain into new ways of thinking and reacting. However, taking this time to care for and tend to yourself will pay off in the long run. It is recommended that you give yourself a routine or set time for your practice, so that your brain will associate this time with slowing down and being mindful.

Sharon Salzberg, mindfulness teacher and writer, expresses the importance of practice when she says, “Mindfulness isn’t difficult; we just need to remember to do it.” Putting aside time in your day for mindfulness will pay off, as you build your practice and your awareness. This focused time is a formal way of practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness can also be practiced informally through drawing your attention to the present moment when undertaking other tasks.

Mindfulness Techniques

The main types of mindfulness exercises include breathing practices, mindfulness meditation and yoga. Yoga shares a focus on breath and the body with other mindfulness practices. This practice of being aware of the sensations in your body and grounding through the breath is very mindful.

Many mindfulness techniques focus on the breath – becoming aware of your breathing, taking deeper mindful breaths, and using this to self-soothe. “If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath,” writes author and philosopher Dr. Amit Ray.

Two Simple Mindfulness Exercises

These examples of mindfulness meditation will give you a start in your mindfulness journey. The most important thing is making your practice work for you – choose a posture that feels comfortable and right for your body.

The most basic form of mindful breathing is focusing your attention on your breath, on the inhale and the exhale. You can do this standing, seated or lying down — whatever suits you at the time. Then when you are aware of your breath, you can practice inhaling for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 2 seconds, and then exhaling for 4 seconds. If your mind drifts, don’t worry. Just guide your attention back to your breathing. This is a very useful exercise as it can be done anywhere and at any time. If you feel stress mounting during the day take the time to do a few cycles of mindful breathing to help slow your racing mind down. This exercise is also recommended as a technique for helping to manage anxiety.

I, personally, find body scans very soothing — this is also something you can do seated or lying down. First, notice the weight of your body; how it comes in contact with the chair or the ground beneath you. Close your eyes, if you are comfortable doing so. Starting at your toes, draw your awareness to each part of your body moving upwards. Notice the different sensations and try to breathe into these parts of yourself, using long, slow inhales and exhales. If you observe yourself holding tension somewhere (for me this is my back) spend some extra time focusing on this part of yourself. Breathe slowly and steadily, and feel yourself becoming more relaxed. Finish off this practice by taking a few moments to breathe fully into your whole body, feeling present. Slowly open your eyes, and try to carry the sense of calm and presence from this exercise forward with you into the rest of your day.

Practicing these two simple exercises regularly will help you deepen your breath and build a greater connection with your body. They are also an excellent way to check in with yourself, and destress when necessary.

The Best Mindfulness Books

With such a wide range of books about mindfulness on the market, it can be hard to know where to start! Here are some of our favorite mindfulness titles – some tackle the question “what is mindfulness?”, others focus on mindfulness practices, or on applying mindfulness to your life whether in the office or on the sports field. For a full list of our favorite mindfulness books, click here.

The Miracle of Mindfulness (1975) by Thích Nhất Hạnh is a guide to meditation, and shows the Buddhist foundations of mindfulness. This text shows the value of keeping your consciousness in the moment, and focusing on the here and now. It also introduces the practice of conscious breathing which brings your mind back to the present and grounds you in your body.

Mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s 1994 book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, explores the centrality of concentration to mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn takes the reader through mindful meditation techniques step-by-step, providing a useful guide for beginners. Kabat-Zinn’s experience in developing MBSR makes him an expert in this field. His work has been a big factor in mindfulness becoming a popular mainstream practice.

Bestselling title, The Power of Now, (1997) by Eckhart Tolle shows the readers ways to be fully present and to detach from their ego. By focusing on the here and now you can minimize the stress that comes with being stuck in the past, or worrying about the future. It is important to note that mindfulness isn’t solely about the positive – this book will teach you to deal with the negatives as well.

The Mindful Athlete (2015) by George Mumford teaches readers to use mindfulness as a tool to reach their peak performance, be that in work or sport. Mumford writes about five superpowers: mindfulness, concentration, insight, right effort and trust. Mumford likens a state of mindful awareness to being a Watcher – observe your thoughts, and stay in control of them rather than being controlled by them. This book also shows the benefits of conscious breathing for focusing your mind and helping you get in the Zone.

How to Have a Good Day (2016) by Caroline Webb is a guide to bringing mindfulness practices into the workplace to help you manage the stresses of your day-to-day life. This book helps you boost your productivity by giving yourself clear goals, and being able to focus on these. To help maintain focus, Webb recommends taking breaks at least every hour and a half.

These books, as well as classes in mindfulness and yoga, or online resources can provide useful guides as you incorporate mindfulness into your life. Remember as you journey into mindfulness to be curious about different mindfulness exercises and what they can bring to your life. Also, be compassionate towards yourself and your practice.

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