Archive of ‘Meditation’ category

How to Start a Mindfulness Practice

…for the people who are already rolling their eyes at the thought of it

Before we get started, I have a confession. It wasn’t that long ago that I was eye-rolling at the practice of mindfulness. I didn’t get it and it seemed to me, in my overwhelmed and often flooded state of mind, that anyone who thought mindfulness was going to do anything for me had no idea the type of stress I was under. Part of what made it feel out of touch was that it sounded unrealistic. I had a distinct picture in my head of what mindfulness was and who practiced it. That visual image was so far away from where I was starting that I couldn’t grasp how it could apply to me or my life. 

It’s been through my own journey that I have found: Mindfulness is unavoidable for those of us on the path to greater peace and groundedness in our lives. And in fact, those of us who don’t have time for mindfulness or think it doesn’t apply to us, might be the ones who need it the most. 

This blog is for anyone who eye-rolls at the very thought of mindfulness, anyone who doesn’t get it, and anyone who is curious but doesn’t know where to start.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is simply the practice of coming into the present moment. The challenge is that while our bodies live in the present moment 100% of the time, our thoughts and emotions rarely do. Our thoughts and feelings (arguably our defining human experience) are often rooted in the past or the hypothetical future. We spend most of our time processing events that have happened or ruminating on ones to come. The consequence for these habits are well-documented, as a quick google search on mindfulness will show. For the sake of keeping it straight forward, I’ll sum it up as this: It doesn’t feel good and it is incompatible with peace, joy, and gratitude.

The practice of mindfulness is like an antidote or a release valve. Do you have a pressure cooker? If you do, you know this moment. That’s effectively what a mindfulness practice does for our emotional, mental, and physical state. Mindfulness is the skill to hit reset from the busy-ness and the pressures of life.

Alright, that’s all fine and well, you say, but give me something tangible here. How do I practically incorporate mindfulness into my life? I’m glad you asked. Here are five simple places to begin.

1. Tune into your breath.

The most simple mindfulness practice is intentional breathing. Our breath is a metronome for our lives and most of the time, we don’t give it much thought. Intentional breathing is one of the easiest and most adaptable practices for coming into the present moment. For the sake of full transparency, I’m basically constantly practicing mindful breathing. In line at the grocery store? Yep. Driving? Yep. In session? You betcha. Writing this blog? Yes. It is incredible how easily our breath goes to auto-pilot and how healing it can be to reconnect with it.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, try pausing and simply asking yourself, “Where is my breath right now?” 

  • Notice if your breath is shallow, fast, or choppy. See if you can slow and smooth the rhythm of your breath just a little.
  • Are you exhaling? Extend your exhales a little longer. See if you can exhale the tension from your chest or release any holding in your shoulders.
  • Try to direct your breath to your belly. As if you have a book rested on your stomach, try to gently move the book up and down. 

Give it 3-5 breath cycles (one inhale/exhale = one cycle). Within just a few cycles, you may notice feeling more grounded and calm. Notice what shifts in your experience by tuning into your breath. Our perspective can change subtly by re-connecting to our breath, and the ripple effect of the shift will have significant benefits. 

You can also check out visual breathing exercises like this video and this video

2. Go Outside.

If you have a couple of moments, step outside. Stand or sit in silence for just a couple of minutes. A great mindfulness hack is to connect with your senses (more to come on this with #4). If the weather is nice, connect with the earth by kicking off your shoes and standing barefoot on the grass. 

  • What do you hear?
  • What do you see?
  • What do you smell?
  • What do you feel?
  • What do you taste? (Okay, that one is kind of weird. But maybe!)

If you can’t get outside, go to a window. Just notice what is happening. It amazes me every time I pause and look at the nature around me. Have you noticed that trees are constantly moving? The leaves never stop moving. It’s incredible. Stand and ponder the subtle movement of nature around you. It will connect you to the present moment and get you out of your head.

You can learn more about the benefits of the outdoors in this blog by my colleague, Amber Jekot.

3. Don’t look at social media for the first hour upon waking tomorrow.

This tip is super directive and it’s all about strengthening intentionality. Give it a shot. Notice how your mood and perspective changes when you don’t immediately hop on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook (or whatever is your social media platform of choice!). Social media is great, but it can also trigger a domino effect of negativity. More than that, it immediately pulls you out of the present. After the first hour of being awake, intentionally make the choice about when and how you want to engage with social media.

How does your day start differently by making this mindful choice up front?

4. Engage your senses.

Engaging your senses is one of the easiest ways to come back to the present moment. The ideas here are endless and it can be quite a bit of fun to find new ways to use your senses mindfully. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Essential oils are having their day in the sun and for good reason. Create essential oil rollers with just a few supplies. All you need is a bottle, a carrier oil, and your favorite essential oil. I’m personally loving lavender and peppermint combined right now! Roll the oil on your temples, the back of your neck, or your wrists throughout the day. The scent does not last long, but each time you become aware of it, it is like a little reminder to slow down, reconnect with yourself, and breathe. You can also diffuse your essential oils if you really want to go all in.
  • Weighted or fuzzy blankets feel comforting and safe. While you probably don’t have time for a nap, you can easily wrap yourself up in a blanket, breathe for a couple of minutes, and then write that email. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, try wrapping yourself in your favorite blanket and notice what happens.
  • Drink a glass of cold water. Drinking cold water might be my oldest mindfulness tool. Many years ago, a co-worker of mine (hey, Jola!) noticed that I drank more water on days when I was under higher stress. In fact, she named it before I realized I was doing it. My physical body was soothed by drinking cold water, and the irony is that my brain did not fully realize that’s what I was doing – but it was! The next time it all feels like too much, pause and have a glass of water. Notice any subtle shifts before you get back to the grind.

5. Meditation podcasts.

Alright, bear with me. I’m not about to suggest you take up full blown meditation (but maybe one day!). I get that meditation may feel like the furthest available tool from where you are today. But I am going to suggest that you give a guided meditation podcast a try-on. My favorite time to listen to a meditation podcast is while I’m driving. I am cracking up at myself just writing that. Use caution. You obviously need to be alert on the road, etc., but having someone direct your breathing at a time when you might otherwise be at the height of rumination on any moment but the present one is an incredibly helpful tool! 

My favorite meditation podcast is Guided Meditations by One Mind Dharma. You can find their podcast easily, however you access your podcasts. You can also check out two of my favorite episodes on YouTube. 

If you aren’t so sure about my tip while driving (ha!), other times you could listen that don’t require stillness: Walking the dog, washing dishes, folding clothes, or in the shower. Check them out and feel what happens. 

Summing it up.

Mindfulness, in short, is anything that brings you back to the present moment. If it pulls you out of the storm of thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing, even if only for a couple of seconds, it is a mindfulness tool. 

Mindfulness is not magic. It is a skill and it needs to be sharpened. It takes consistency and intentionality, but it does not take an abundance of time or resources. While you are building your mindfulness practice, it is important to notice any shifts you experience. Those subtle shifts are what builds the momentum. 

After each mindfulness intervention (for example, drinking a glass of cold water), pause to observe any physical, mental, or emotional changes. 

  • What cognitively changes for you? 
  • How does your perspective or outlook shift? 
  • How do you emotions change? 
  • What physical differences do you notice? 

The benefits are there, but you have to notice them. Your ability to detect those shifts will strengthen each time you mindfully engage with yourself.

If you are curious to learn more about the science behind mindfulness, The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is a thorough resource. If you want to take your mindfulness practice to the next level, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering by Thich Nhat Hanh is an incredible guide.

You can also connect with me on instagram (after you’ve been awake for an hour) @counselingandyoga or via email at [email protected] 

Written by: Katy Manganella, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Susan Gonzales, LPC-S, LMFT-S

8 Ways to Practice Mindfulness with Children

Often, when we think about mindfulness, we think about meditation or a formal, structured exercise that helps us tune into our thoughts or somehow clear our minds entirely. Perhaps you have heard that mindfulness is good for children, that you can even practice it with your preschooler. Maybe you have tried this and it worked, or maybe you tried and your child squirmed, wiggled, and complained that it was boring. For some children, particularly those who are young, have experienced trauma, or appear to be bursting with energy, sitting still for more than a few seconds may seem impossible. Today, I want to share some ideas for sneaking simple, fun mindfulness activities into everyday life and everyday play. While mindfulness can be a discipline, a way of moving through the world, it shouldn’t cause added stress or power struggles. 

So what is mindfulness?

According to Sylvia Boorstein, “Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.” It can be practiced at any time, in any place, during any activity, without changing a thing except the way that you relate to the present moment. 

Why practice mindfulness?

You might wonder, why even bother? I often have parents tell me that their children don’t seem to know how to calm themselves down, or they’ll explode, seemingly out of nowhere. When the parent asks what happened, the child may shrug, or say that they were mad. While they may have been angry, there were likely other thoughts or feelings that led them to express anger. If children (and adults) can tune into themselves in the present moment and notice their emotional and physical states, without judgement, they may begin to notice when difficult feelings are just starting to bubble up. How much easier is it to calm ourselves down when we’re just a little bit upset than when we’re hysterical? Mindfulness can help us connect the sensations in our bodies with our thoughts and feelings, thereby increasing our understanding of ourselves and our reactions. Further, research is showing that mindfulness can help children and teens who struggle with symptoms of ADHD and Anxiety. It gives them an experience of stillness and calmness. It helps them focus on the present moment without worrying about the future or lamenting the past. 

While mindfulness is less about the specific activity, and more about our relationship with the present moment, the activities below can help facilitate the practice of mindful awareness. Ideally, these are practiced when your child is calm, and then can be used to help them return to calm when they begin to feel anxious, angry, or frustrated. 

Mindful Listening

Tell your child that you are going to play a game. They can close their eyes if they’re comfortable doing so, or just soften their gaze. Tell them that you’re both going to listen carefully and see how many sounds you can hear. Pick an amount of time that you think is doable for your child, up to about a minute, and set a timer. When the timer goes off, compare notes on the different sounds you heard. This exercise could be completed on a nature walk or while sitting at your kitchen table.

Nature walk

Take a walk in nature and ask them to notice what they hear, see, feel, and smell. You can also have them find an object in nature and then explore it together with different senses.

Bag of Objects

Fill a bag with objects of different shapes, sizes, and textures. Have your child reach in without looking and describe what they feel. Have them guess what’s in there.

Bubbles

Blow bubbles together and notice the colors, sizes, and how/where the bubbles float. Blowing bubbles is a great way to practice breath awareness too–have your child take deep breaths, filling up their belly like a balloon, then breathe out slowly. They can even see how big or small the bubbles get depending on how quickly or slowly they breathe out.

Strike a Pose

Do a yoga pose together, such as tree pose. Have them imagine that one of their feet is rooted to the ground, and slowly lift the other until it is resting on their calf. See if they can raise their arms up to “grow” branches. Can they sway in the wind? You can ask them what sensations they notice in their body. If you or your child loses balance (which will probably happen), laugh together!

Rocking a Stuffed Animal

Have your child lie down on the floor with their favorite stuffed animal or doll resting on their belly. Tell them that you are going to rock their animal to sleep. Take slow, deep breaths together and notice how the animal moves up and down with their breath.

Chime or Singing Bowl

Tell your child that they are going to practice listening. Tell them that you will ring the chime or singing bowl and that you’ll both listen closely and see how long you can hear the sound. When they can’t hear it anymore they can raise their hand.

Engine Checks

One way to help children tune into the physical states is to have them think of their body like a car engine. Ask, what happens if a car is going too fast? They might say it crashes or runs off the road. What about if it goes too slow? It might cause a traffic jam, or stop all together. What if it is going just the right speed? How would that feel? Tell them that our bodies are kind of like car engines. Sometimes they feel like they’re going too fast, sometimes too slow, and sometimes just right. What is it like when they are going “too fast”? (Maybe they have lots of energy, can’t stay still, get in trouble at school). What about “too slow”? (maybe they are tired, lack energy, it’s hard for them to do things). What does “just right” feel like? (calm, focused, in control, etc.) Check in with your child occasionally by asking how their engine is running. Once they get used to this language, you can ask them when you start to notice that they might be starting to run “too fast” or “too slow.” When children are more aware of their physical and emotional states, they are more likely to use calming strategies like mindful breathing.

Any of the above techniques can be incorporated into everyday life. These tools will help your child (and you!) become more aware of the present moment and their relationship with the here & now. What mindfulness technique are you going to try today?

Written by: Magdalen Marrone, LCSW

The Practice of Gratitude

With December marking the end of the year, it is natural to reflect on what kind of a year you’ve had. I encourage having reflections that include gratitude’s and appreciations; it is imperative reflect on the positive things that have occurred over the past year. Having that perspective on how you have seen growth and change, or maintenance and consistency, in a positive light can reduce stress and anxiety and make it easier to reflect with a positive outlook in the future.

I’ve heard the different perspectives of positive and negative described as a cloudy lens and a sunshine lens. I love the simplicity that provides as a visual because looking at your past year in a cloudy lens could lead to feeling sad, conflicted, and unmotivated. This cloudy lens has the ability to reach in all areas of life and makes it hard to find those sunshine moments. Looking through a sunshine lens doesn’t mean negative and bad things don’t occur, rather a sunshine lens means choosing to find something that you are grateful for, no matter how big or significant that something is. Examples could be feeling grateful that you survived your day, you went to a concert, hanging out with close friends, or ending your day with a nice hot bath.

To start a gratitude practice, set yourself up for success. Choose a time during your day that you can have 5 minutes to reflect. Once you have your daily time scheduled, reflect on one thing of gratitude. Just one. If you think of more, that’s great! But only start with one, so that way you feel encouraged to continue this gratitude practice. Once you feel like your reflection time has become consistent, then move up to listing three to five items of gratitude.

Practicing gratitude is like building strength in a muscle. It takes time and consistency to see growth and change in how your perspective shifts from a cloudy to sunshine. I hope with the reflection of this past year, you are able to find those moments that you truly appreciate and are grateful for!

Julie Smith MA, LMFT-A under the Supervision of Kirby Sandlin Schroeder, LPC-S, LMFT-S Senior Clinician at Austin Family Counseling


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