How to get started with practising mindfulness

Learn how to create a mindfulness habit and reap the wellbeing benefits.

Mindfulness is a technique that can help us to understand ourselves a little better and appreciate the small things in life. But if you’ve never tried it before, it can be tricky to know how to get started.

To help with this, we’ve asked three mindfulness experts for their advice on how to begin, and why we should all make time to live a little more mindfully.

Three charcoal pebbles in water with the words mind, body, soul written on themCredit: Shutterstock/New Africa
Mindfulness is linked to mind, body and soul benefits

What is mindfulness?

When we practice mindfulness, we’re intentionally focusing on the present moment. This helps us to become more aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the sights and sounds of our surroundings.

Mindfulness is also associated with a number of wellbeing benefits. Smriti Joshi, lead psychologist at Wysa, a mental health app, tells us more.

“Regular mindfulness practice is associated with helping to manage and reduce stress as it helps to break the cycle of worry and anxiety,” she says.

“It can also help to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression by reducing the tendency people have to react to negative mental and physical states, maladaptive behaviours (those that stop you from adapting to new or difficult circumstances), and ruminating thoughts. This self-awareness can help us to manage our emotions more effectively.”

Joshi adds that the regular practice of coming into a focused state during mindfulness can benefit our health by lowering stress cortisol levels, reducing blood pressure and helping us to sleep better.

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How mindfulness works

Becoming more aware of the present moment can help us to recognise our thoughts and emotions more easily. This promotes greater self-awareness as it enables us to stand back from our thoughts and spot any negative or all-consuming patterns.

Over time, mindfulness can help us to spot signs of stress or negative thinking, and deal with these better.

“Mindfulness helps us to recognise our thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in them,” Joshi explains. “Being non-judgmental helps us to learn to respond better to emotional situations, rather than react impulsively. Through intentional attention, we can learn to better adapt to our changing circumstances.”

Mindfulness can be particularly effective at breaking the cycle of chronic worry, as being in the present moment brings with it an accepting attitude towards the thoughts that come and go. This can help us to respond to stress in a more adaptive manner, Joshi adds.

Lady practising mindfulness in a seated cross-legged position in a zen poseCredit: Shutterstock/fornStudio
You don’t need to clear your mind of all thoughts before you start a mindful activity

What people misunderstand about mindfulness

One of the biggest myths about mindfulness is that you need to clear your mind of all thoughts before you start. That’s not true, simply because your brain is not designed to switch off, says Lynn Boudreau, a psychotherapist at Mind by Design and TherapyFinders.

“People say they can’t sustain a mindfulness meditation because of their busy minds so they decide it’s not for them,” she explains. “Our minds are deeply conditioned to react in habitual ways based on our past experiences.

“No matter how busy your head feels, when you are mindful you are no longer at the mercy of your thoughts. You can choose to engage with them or let them go. Separating from your thoughts during mindfulness can also help to create choice so you feel more in control of how you respond to situations.”

Other misconceptions about mindfulness include not having enough time to do it – you can practise mindfulness in just a few minutes – and feeling you need a goal before you start a mindfulness session. Not true, says Boudreau.

“For some people this can include feeling as though they need to achieve a higher consciousness, spiritual awakening or inner peace when they practise mindfulness,” Boudreau explains. “And when this doesn’t happen, they convince themselves they’ve been doing it wrong.”

She explains: “Engaging in mindfulness can certainly bring about a sense of ease and emotional contentment, but you don’t need to have a goal in mind to benefit from it.”

“No matter how busy your head feels, when you are mindful you are no longer at the mercy of your thoughts”

Middle aged lady enjoying the benefits of forest bathing as a form of mindfulnessCredit: Shutterstock/Tanja Esser
Mindfulness can help us to spot signs of stress and deal with it better

Expert advice on practising mindfulness

Learn how to get started with mindfulness using these tips from our experts.

Allow for a moment of pause

“There’s no need for a yoga mat or a completely silent space,” says Cheryl MacDonald, a yoga and meditation teacher and founder of YogaBellies. “All you need is an environment that allows for a moment of pause.

“Start by focusing on your breathing, taking note of each inhale and exhale. Daily activities like having a shower or washing the dishes can also become good opportunities for mindfulness.”

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Tune into the sensation of your breathing

“One really simple mindfulness exercise is to focus your attention on your breath,” Joshi explains. “Notice the sensation when you breathe in and out, how your chest rises and falls, and the feeling of the air entering your nostrils and leaving your mouth. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the now by focusing on your breath.”

Tap into your senses

It’s very natural for your thoughts to wander during mindfulness. A handy tip to refocus your attention is to tap into your senses (what you can smell, hear, taste, touch or see) to tune back into what you’re currently experiencing.

Try this “notice ten things” mindfulness exercise

To help with tapping into your senses more, Boudreau suggests picking up on ten things you are experiencing during mindfulness. “This include everything from feeling your feet on the floor and hearing a distant clock ticking, to noticing a smell in the room or the location you’re in, and tuning into how the clothes you’re wearing feel on your skin,” she advises.

Don’t get caught up in analysing your thoughts

“Try to notice your thoughts and feeling without labelling them as good or bad,” Joshi adds. “Remember that thoughts are just thoughts, not reality. Instead, imagine your thoughts as a cloud floating by.”

Have a go at a body scan

A body scan is one of the most accessible ways to practise mindfulness, where you bring attention to your body – noticing sensations or any tensions – as you mentally scan down from head to toe.

Give eating mindfully a go

“Pay attention to the smell, taste, texture and colour of your food,” Joshi advises, “and then notice how every bite makes you feel.”

Man looking up at the sky while walking in natureCredit: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens
Get started with mindfulness via activities such as walking in nature

Head out for a mindful walk

Connecting with nature and the environment around you is great for your mental health, and it can also help to bring you into a mindful moment. “While you’re out on a mindful walk, look out for three things you can see, three things you can hear and three different smells you come across,” Boudreau suggests.

Here are some other pointers on how to rouse your senses during a mindful walk.

  • Listen out for: Different types of bird song and the wind rustling in the trees
  • Look out for: Feathered friends flying above and furry friends scurrying below such as squirrels and rabbits. Many people enjoy cloud watching and looking at flowers and plants.
  • Follow the scent: A great way to mindfully tune into scents is to focus on how the air smells different following a rainy day, compared to how fresh the air feels when it’s windy or warm.
  • Feel the nature connection: A warm day is an ideal opportunity to take your shoes off and be at one with the ground – particularly if you’re in a luscious park or having a day at the beach. You can also tune into your touch senses by picking up pine cones during a nature walk or running your hands over tree bark.
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Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her

Published:

Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time. She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, Doctors.net.uk and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

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