Mention the term "strength" and you might automatically think of physical fitness and conjure images of sinewy musculature (or maybe that's just me…). Not surprising given the increasing attention we are paying to looking after our bodies through exercise and equally, what we eat. But, I ask you, what are you doing to ensure a fitter mind?
As the veil lifts on the dark reality about the detrimental impact stress is having on our mental health, attention is turning to how we can support stronger minds and balanced emotional health. As a champion for mental health awareness, I support raising awareness on these issues. Whilst I am all for raging abs and perky bootays, without our actual minds functioning well, what do we really have left of ourselves?
Practically all Asian cultures have ancient practices rooted in meditation — yet in our modern day, meditation has been likened to a New-Age-woowoo trend, with perceptions of much fanciful fluff and no actual substance. In reality, meditation can be viewed very much as "exercise for the mind" and a plethora of scientific studies have verified its powerful impact: from elevating our mood to reducing the effects of stress, meditation can improve cognitive function, lower blood pressure and boost physical health (#fitspo goal crushers, this is for you too), enhance creativity and the quality of our sleep. Who doesn't want these gains? The knowledge is all out there for you to validate with your own reasoning.
There are many forms of meditation, and mindfulness is one such form of meditation, where we aim to bring attention to the present moment, in order to focus and calm the mind. The most basic method of mindfulness meditation is to quite simply, just breathe. No woowoo here!
You can flex those mental muscles anytime — morning, evening, during the crazy work-day, even on the commute, whatever we happen to be experiencing. The concept is to "notice" and maintain attention on your breathing. Our mind will naturally be distracted by — and be full of — thoughts, but "stopping thought" is not the aim of the exercise: rather, to gently encourage attention back to the breath without any judgement of good, bad, wright or wrong. With benefits to be gained from practices as short as 10 minutes, what are you waiting for? Let's breathe!
Try this simple mindful breathing practice:
Find a place you can sit upright comfortably for 10 minutes (crossed-legged on the floor or a cushion, a chair, sofa etc). If you're at the office, book out a meeting room or find quiet corner. Some find this easier to do standing. Start a timer on a device for 10 minutes and begin.
Bring awareness to your whole body: your feet in contact with the floor; your hands resting on your lap, or by your sides. Create some length up the spine and the back of the neck – you can tip the chin down slightly to help – and relax the shoulders away from the ears.
Take 5 deep, slow breaths, expanding your chest and belly, inhaling through your nose, exhaling through your mouth. On your last exhale, close your eyes.
Breathe normally, in and out through the nose. Notice your environment around you: the air temperature, any sounds you can hear. Let it exist in the background.
Return to your breath, being aware of the rhythm and sensation of inhaling and exhaling. Begin counting passing breaths: "inhale, 1, exhale, inhale, 2, exhale …" all the way up to 10. Then start again. If you lose track of the number, just start again from 1.
Allow thoughts to come and go: if you're distracted, wondering about the clock, or experiencing feelings of impatience or boredom – acknowledge them, and bring yourself back to your breathing. Lose any self-judgement. Keep going until the timer ends.
Open your eyes, check your body one more time and notice your surroundings.
Congrats, you just completed a mindfulness meditation! I find it helpful to keep pen and paper to scribble any significant insights that may have come up during practice, but it is completely fine if there are no thoughts in particular.
Aim to avoid setting expectations about what you think you should be experiencing. This exercise will always differ, just like when you work out your body: some days feel easy, others more challenging. A 10-minute daily practice would be ideal (think about it!) but otherwise, try 3-4 times a week to begin with. Regularity will level-up your mental strength, and hopefully the benefits will speak for themselves across a variety of life areas.