How to Start a Mindfulness Practice - Reboot

Its a big buzzword, Mindfulness. From on trend continuing education for high stress employees in big corporate America, to popping up in the pain science world as the answer to our chronic pain patient’s problems, to a bazillion apps, programs, retreats that offer the promise of more mindfulness in your life, we are being bombarded.

Mostly, for good reason. There are so many benefits to the practice, they are listed below in the body of the blog.

As physios and physical therapists who are continuing to ride the biopsychosical assessment wave, becoming a more mindful, self-aware provider through mindfulness is just what the doctor ordered when working with patients in chronic pain.

Not to mention, once you as a provider or teacher are comfortable with the practice, it becomes so much easier to teach them to your patients. Just like learning how to swing a golf club, it will help you dissect and teach that movement to your rehabbing clients.

So read on for a truly basic introduction to this practice and how to use it!

How do we find time to be mindful? What are the benefits of being mindful? What are some great resources, apps, books or recordings to use to start a mindfulness practice? 

Here's a great resource that our co-founder, Diana Zotos Florio wrote just a few short years ago that is still so very useful and relevant.  We find it extremely valuable to pass along to our patients and clients that are not sure how to start a mindfulness practice and why.  Particularly in those instances of those in chronic pain or those who could benefit from more awareness practices within their rehabilitation. 

How do I actually begin a mindfulness practice?

Mindfulness is becoming a buzzword.  You hear it on TV, people are talking about it at work, and it’s all over your social media pages.  So what is it, how is it useful, how do you start? Let’s dig in…

A mindfulness practice can feel like a giant looming endeavor. Maybe that’s because you’ve never done anything like this before, or you don’t know how, or you don’t think you will be good at it.  Or maybe that its just one more self-improvement resolution you’re afraid you won’t follow through on.

BUT, in reality, starting a mindfulness practice is probably one of the easiest, most accessible and convenient things YOU can do, to heal, prevent illness, and revitalize your mind and body.

We already do certain things everyday to take care of our bodies, like brushing our teeth, for  example. We’ve conditioned ourselves to do this every morning and evening as part of our daily routine of mandatory self-care. And if you’re really good, maybe you even floss when you brush.

Think of starting your mindfulness practice as starting your daily mental flossing routine.

WHY should you start this? You’ve barely have time to brush your teeth, eat dinner, work-out and read a book. Because in a small amount of time (you can start with 5 minutes a day) and in a variety of locations (not while driving, etc) you can make noticeable, lasting, beneficial changes, including:

  1. Learn how to modulate your “freakout threshold” This refers to how easy it may be for you to go from baseline calmness to full on freaking out. A mindfulness practices can help increase the amount of time you take to process an input, like, processing getting cut-off by an irresponsible driver, or your boss giving you an unachievable deadline.  It gives you the power to decide whether or not a freakout is necessary, and if it’s not,  what reaction may be more appropriate.   Read more in this article.

  2. Think more clearly and see the big picture A regular mindfulness practice has been shown to create actual changes in the brain. The amygdala, which is responsible for such actions as the stress response of fight or flight, shrinks, and the pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with awareness, concentration, and focus increases in size. Therefore, our ability to be aware and focus can override our stress response, helping us to see more clearly and the big picture. Here’s a link to an article with more information.

  3. Lower your stress, and the physiological effects of chronic stress
    Sleep: we sleep better when our stress response is in control, and we are not living in fight or flight.
    Blood pressure: when the stress response is dampened, our blood pressure and heart rate are lowered.
    Digestion: during high stress, our digestive track effectively shuts down, this can generate symptoms like constipation, reflux, indigestion, or, irritable bowel syndrome.
    Immunity: during sustained periods of high stress our immune system is depressed, exposing us to higher susceptibility to attack by viruses and bacteria.
    Help to recover from chronic pain: chronic pain is a complex process that many people suffer from. The traditional methods of treatment include powerful mind altering medications, nerve injections and physical therapy. However, study after study show that mindfulness and increased movement with awareness are powerful, proven tools that can help combat the source of the chronic pain, the brain. Read more in this pilot study showing modulation of pain processing in fibromyalgia patients, or here in this article about a yoga teacher teaching mindfulness to veterans suffering from chronic pain in a VA hospital in Virginia.
    -Develop a stronger connection to yourself and others: over time, a sustained mindfulness practice may begin your relationshipo with yourself and others. Developing a sense of gratitude and appreciation for small and big things in life, feeling connected to others familiar and not, and being able to observe life in a more non-judgemental way. Here’s some more information.

Sounds great, right? How to get started:

There’s a variety of downloadable apps, websites to subscribe to, and resources to purchase which are all listed below.  Or, simply start in a no frills way, by doing a technique called “watching your breath”. In this technique, you use your imagination to visualize the passage of your breath in and out of your body.  By doing this your mind should follow that, and stay attached to “watching your breath”.

However, it is the nature of our minds to scatter and stray to other thoughts like “What’s for dinner? Did I finish that project or Send that email? What’s on TV tonight”.

When your mind strays, without judging yourself saying “I knew I couldn’t do this, or, this is too hard for me” or being disappointed, acknowledge the straying by saying “thinking” and then return to watching your breath. Over time, it will become easier.

How to:

  • Start by setting a timer for 5 minutes.

  • Sit, comfortably, without support behind your back if you can. You will be here for 5 minutes so make sure it is sustainable. Sit on a chair or the floor, on a pillow, blanket.

  • Push start on the timer.

  • Close your eyes.

  • Breathe normally.

  • When you breathe in, imagine you can watch your breath going into your nose from your nostrils to the bridge or your nose. When you breathe out, watch your breath going out from the bridge of your nose out your nostrils.

  • Stay attached to watching that.

  • If you stray, label it “thinking” don’t judge yourself, and come back to watching your breath.

  • When the timer goes off, you are finished.

Here’s a list of other wonderful resources to get you started and maintain a mindfulness practice:

  1. Read or listen to Pema Chodron “How to Meditate, a Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind”From “When it comes to meditation, Pema Chödrön is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost teachers. Yet she’s never offered an introductory course on audio-until now”

  2. Or watch meditation pioneer John Kabat-Zinn, in this easy to follow body scan meditation

  3. Or read Jack Kornfield, from Meditation for Beginner’s“ “Insight” or vipassana meditation is the time-honored skill of calming the spirit and clearing the mind for higher understanding. Now, in this course created especially for beginners, Kornfield offers a straightforward, step-by-step method for bringing meditation into your life.”

  4. Connect with David Nichtern , I was lucky enough to have been taught my first meditation teaching by David during my yoga teacher training with Cyndi Lee. He offers online workshops, simple guidelines for starting a practice, and live workshops and trainings.

  5. Download the insight timer app  The highest rated meditation app on itunes that blends tons of free meditations with opportunities for community building as well.

  6. Download the headspace app They cleverly call it a gym membership for your mind. They offer free access to original content of guided meditations for 10 days, then paid subscription.

  7. Download the calm app  a free app, ideal for catching a few minutes of relaxation throughout the day, but not ideal for learning meditation techniques.

  8. Sign up for YogaGlo at $18/month and take mind classes with Rod Stryker or Sally Kempton  This a wonderful online source for home practicing. There are yoga, meditation and breathing classes for a variety of levels, time durations, and skill sets. Yogaglo gives you access to thousands of classes taught by qualified, intelligent teachers.

  9. Purchase “Overcome pain with Gentle Yoga” Videos.  These are a collection of movement practice videos that are applicable for all levels of practice, even beginners. Each video begins with a mindfulness meditation, and has an option for practicing the entire class in a chair. The videos emphasize awareness and releasing tension through movement to help with chronic and persistent pain.

I hope you give it a shot. There is a wealth of support and guidance available for you to utilize on this path.  Stay tuned for the next blog… and feel free to share this one with your family and friends.