Research has shown that when we incorporate mindfulness practice into our day-to-day activities, it can help rewire or reshape our brain and improve the quality of our life experiences. Mindfulness is very easy to incorporate into our daily life and it can be improved with practise.
What is mindfulness?
Let’s start with a couple of definitions. According to meditation teacher Guy Armstrong:
“mindfulness is knowing what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it. It is moment-to-moment awareness, has the quality of being in the now, a sense of freedom, of perspective, of being connected, not judging”
Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Rick Hanson, author of “The practical neuroscience of Buddha’s brain” defines being mindful as having good control over your attention. “The attention can be placed wherever you want and it stays there and when you want to move your attention to something else you can”. He adds, “Attention is like a spotlight and what it illuminates streams into the mind and shapes your brain. So developing greater control over attention is the single most powerful way to reshape the brain and thus the mind.”
These different definitions all point to the fact that mindfulness is a practice where we focus on whatever task we are doing at a particular moment, giving it our undivided attention, aware of our thoughts and emotions but not reacting to or judging whatever flows through the stream of our mind.
What is mindfulness not?
Mindfulness is neither trying to relax nor emptying the mind of its thoughts. Rather, as we practise mindfulness, we learn to be a silent observer of our thoughts or emotions without the need to get involved with them, hence experiencing the moment. This helps us react less and make intimate contact with each moment of our lives however trivial or mundane it might be. When we stay present and aware as we do our day to day activities, it becomes an informal meditation practice and can substantially help reduce the stress we accumulate throughout the day.
So how can we improve our attention?
We all have different attention spans and these days many of us feel like we’re losing them - but with practise we can improve it. Here are a few ways which have been shown to improve attention and focus:
1. Set an intention
Set an intention to become more mindful at the beginning of any activity that requires focus. The intention can be a simple phrase like “may my mind be steady”. Repeating the intention every few minutes can help us stay focused.
2. Get alert
The brain cannot be attentive unless it is fully awake. A few factors that can increase alertness are sitting tall, visualizing, deep breathing and keeping the mind quiet.
Sitting tall sends signal to the nerves in the brainstem that are involved with wakefulness and consciousness to stay alert.
Neurologically, the brightening that happens as we visualize a ray of light involves a surge of epinephrine throughout the brain which fosters alertness.
Taking several deep breaths can increase oxygen supply and revs up the brain.
3. Quiet the mind
When the mind is quiet, fewer things bubble up to distract it and it is easier to stay mindful. One way of achieving this quiet state is by becoming aware of the whole body. To become aware of the whole body, we start by bringing attention to the breath and observe the sensations at the nostrils, throat, chest and movement of the belly. Then the attention can be moved to the sensations in the whole body which helps perceive the whole body as one unit. This helps in quieting the mind. As the mind calms down, resting in awareness becomes much easier.
Awareness being the state in which the objects of the mind like thoughts, perceptions and emotion keep coming and going. We notice them but are not identifying with the contents of awareness.
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Formal and Informal Mindfulness
Mindfulness can be formal or informal. Mindfulness as an informal practice is when we choose to pay attention on purpose to what is occurring in the present moment while doing our routine activities. It could be a simple thing like focusing on the feeling of the soles of your feet touching the ground while standing. Informal mindfulness can also be practised while eating, walking or cleaning your teeth. For example, practising mindfulness when eating means not just knowing that you are eating but being with the whole process - feeling the taste, the texture of the food changing, how you chew, what emotions or thoughts arise and how they change.
On the other hand, formal mindfulness practice is more intensive. Formal mindfulness is when we set aside time to explore being mindful of what we are sensing, feeling or thinking- like in meditation. It helps us look into our minds at a deeper level and with regular practise can yield deeper insights into our mind. Just observing without getting attached to the outcome while doing a particular task can help bring in peace and calm.
Practising formal mindfulness:
The best way to start being mindful is to find something that we can use as an anchor, that we can come back to when the mind starts getting distracted. Sound, body sensations and breath are good examples of an anchor.
- Sound as an anchor: The simple task of listening to different sounds can be made into a formal mindfulness practice. We start by listening to sounds with the eyes closed and let any sound come trickling in. When we listen without judging or labeling, listening to the sounds can be very relaxing. As we listen to the sounds, we may find that we unconsciously start labeling them. It is okay to label but when we start labeling the sounds, it takes the focus away from listening. When we find our mind doing that, we just bring our mind back to listening to sounds which was the focus of our attention in the first place.
- Breath as the anchor: Feel the breath as it enters the nostrils, moves through the throat, into the chest and observe the movement of the belly as you breathe. We could begin by just focusing on the in breath or just on the out breath. Then we could expand by observing the natural pause between the breaths. If we find the mind getting distracted, we simply observe the thoughts or emotions, but come back to observing the breath. With more and more practise we can train our mind to stay in the present moment.
- Body sensations with the breath as the anchor: We start by observing the different sensations in the body. It could be anything like tingling sensations, heartbeat, cold hands or tension in any part of the body. If we find ourselves getting distracted, returning to and following the flow of the breath for a few minutes and then switching back to tuning into body sensations again helps regain the attention. Thus mindfulness meditation is a constant switch between one pointed awareness to open field awareness. If observing the breath constantly is causing stress, we can switch to the feeling the sensations in the body and vice versa.
How do we incorporate mindfulness in yoga?
The meaning of yoga is to yoke or unite- the body and the mind. When we coordinate movement with the breath, paying attention to the sensations in the body as we move, completely feeling the experience in that moment without any judgment or expectations, respecting our boundaries with self-compassion and kindness, yoga becomes a mindful exercise in itself and it becomes a meditative practice. When the mind does wander, we can always use the breath as the anchor.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
There are a wide variety of benefits to mindfulness practice. Research has shown it can help us regulate our emotions, reduce stress, lower judgmental attitudes, improve memory and focus and even reshape our brain structures.
Emotions are triggered in the brain by thoughts, which are often unconscious. When we are confronted by a potential threat, this can trigger fear, anger or other emotions. When we are overcome with emotions, our capacity for rational brain thinking is reduced and we are likely to overreact and resort to bad/inhibiting behavior. Mindfulness practitioners develop the ability to recognize when thought patterns arise and observe them in a detached manner without the need to become involved with them. Researchers at the University of California have found out that when we label the emotions that we are facing and constantly switch our attention between emotion and an anchor such as breath, it actually calms the brain. When we return to our emotion again, we are in a better shape to deal with it. When we resist something, it becomes difficult to let go.
Furthermore, research has shown that we can change the way we react to situations and perceive things when we practise mindfulness. When we do not react unnecessarily, the mind quiets down helping to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and the relaxation response. The more we start paying undivided attention to what we are doing, the less judgmental we become. We are still aware of the emotions and thoughts but do not react as much and this helps control the activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
Mindfulness brings insight and wisdom and the best way to improve mindfulness is through meditation. Researchers have found that meditation increases the gray matter- the part of the brain that holds the actual brain cells, in brain regions that handle attention, compassion and empathy. It also helps a variety of medical conditions, strengthens the immune system and improves physiological functioning. Psychologists studying the effects of mindfulness meditation found that the participants showed significant improvement in their critical cognitive skills after only four days of 20 minutes training each day.
Reshape your brain with mindfulness
A group of Harvard neuroscientists interested in mindfulness meditation have reported that brain structures change after only eight weeks of meditation practice. The neuroscientists did a study with 16 people in an eight-week mindfulness based meditation course to test their idea. The group received audio recordings containing 45 minutes of guided mindfulness exercises. They were also taught to practise mindfulness informally in day-to-day activities like walking, eating, washing the dishes etc. On average the group spent about 27 minutes a day practising some form of mindfulness. MRI scans of the brain were done before and after the training. A control group of people who did not do mindfulness training also had their brains scanned.
After completing the mindfulness course, all participants reported significant improvement in measures of mindfulness such as “acting with awareness” and “non-judging”. What was startling was that the MRI scans showed that the mindfulness groups showed increased gray matter concentration within the brain regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, sense of self and perspective. The increased density may reflect an increase in connectivity between the cells. Britta Holzel, the lead author on the paper said
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that by practising meditation we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”
Lazar and Holzel have also recently reported that the region of the brain most associated with emotional reactivity and fear- the Amygdala- has decreased gray matter densities in meditators, who experience less stress.
These studies and the evidence presented above show that mindfulness practice helps reshape the brain. It helps balance our emotional well-being as we learn to detach ourselves from our thought patterns and emotions by just observing them and not reacting to them. It also helps gain greater control over our attention which is a major factor in reshaping the brain and hence the mind.
About the author:
Vaijayanthi Sridhar was introduced to yoga as a teenager in India. Since 2005, she renewed her deep interest in yoga and pursued yoga education and practise. Continuing her passion for yoga, Vaijayanthi trained with Esther Ekhart to become a yoga teacher and completed her certification in March 2015. She now teaches Hatha flow yoga classes in Houston, USA. Her goal is to help her students practise yoga with awareness and self- acceptance to derive maximum benefit for a healthy body and a healthier mind.
Resources: Buddha’s Brain-happiness,The mindful path to self-compassion, Massachusetts General Hospital, Mindbodygreen, Mindfulnet and American Psychological Association.
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