Mindfulness has gained a huge amount of popularity recently. In a fast-paced modern world, much of this enthusiasm is surely down to claims that mindfulness can reduce stress.
That said, the benefits stretch far beyond the anecdotal and there are now several scientific studies citing numerous benefits of practising mindfulness to our health and well-being. As well as managing stress, mindfulness can offer improvements to your mental health and quality of life, aid in weight loss, improve your sleep quality and more. Mindfulness is also claimed to boost your immune system by reducing the effects of chronic stress.
What is Mindfulness?
The concept of mindfulness itself is relatively simple. At its core, the aim is to bring increased attention to, and awareness of, the present-moment experience. It’s easy to not really notice our surroundings, especially when we are feeling stressed or anxious.
Think of your brain as an internet browser with twenty tabs open. The aim of mindfulness is to close them all, then open one, and really focus on that one single thing. This can as simple as drawing our attention to what our senses are experiencing at that moment. What can you hear, what can you see, what can you smell? By bringing yourself back to the present moment and paying attention to what is going on inside, and outside of ourselves, we can reduce our stress levels and increase our focus.
Why Practice Mindfulness?
Arguably the best thing about mindfulness is just how simple it is. Really, anyone can do it! No need for specialist training or equipment and once you’re confident with the basics, you can add mindful practice into many aspects of your daily life.
Not only that, but mindfulness can be a tool available to us in every moment. It can be as simple as making a conscious effort to notice the different flavours in your lunch or taking a moment to take some breaths before a meeting. The first time you try it, you may find it surprisingly difficult. Our minds are often used to working at a rapid pace. Even when trying to bring your attention to the now – the next, and the what’s for dinner might find themselves creeping into your consciousness even uninvited.
You can boost the benefits of mindfulness practice by getting out in nature. Being outside is linked to a host of benefits, and when combined with mindfulness can be a powerful tool for our mental and physical health. Whether you’re a mindfulness newbie or just looking for some extra inspiration, here are a few ideas on how to practise mindfulness while immersing yourself in nature:
Mindfulness on your own
Let’s start with the basics: mindful breathing. Bringing attention to the breath is the bread and butter of mindfulness and is a technique that is available to draw upon as and when we need it.
What to do:
All you need to do is pay close attention to the sensation of your breath coming in and out of the body as you inhale and exhale. You don’t need to change how you’re breathing. Just pay attention to how your body feels. You may find it helpful to place a hand on your stomach and notice as it rises and falls along with your breath.
Go for a mindful stroll
One of the most simple ways to incorporate some mindfulness into your routine is to go for a mindful stroll. Being outdoors has so many benefits, take it from Headspace, they agree that being in nature brings you more joy. Even if you walk every day, it’s easy not to truly pay attention to what’s going on around you.
Many of us walk simply to get to our destination, headphones in and eyes down on our phones, only looking up to swerve a lamppost. Spending time outside and moving is good for us regardless, but you might find that making an effort to take in what you can see, hear, and feel during your walk will make it a whole different experience. So make some time, get your coat, and get out the door!
What to do:
You can make any walk a mindful walk, but it’s easier if you aren’t under a time pressure. So if you can, take some time when you don’t feel rushed to be anywhere. Walk at a slow, easy pace. Notice how your body moves and how the ground feels under your feet.
Listen to how the ground sounds under your feet. Consider the sway of your body and arms as you walk. Bring your attention to your breath. Take in the sights, smells and sounds around you. Usually, we interpret our senses all at once and don’t take notice of each individual one. Make an effort to single them out. Allow yourself to be immersed in the environment rather than just passing through it.
Can you hear birds, running water, or voices? Notice the different colours you can see. Beyond just “green”, appreciate all the different shades of green. You may even find that things that you always thought of as one colour, are quite different when you really pay attention. Once you’re well-practised, you can easily use these strategies to take a mindful moment or two even when you are just running errands.
If you’re not able to get out the house so easily, don’t worry. These techniques can be done at home too. A garden or any space in your home that you feel comfortable in will do and you can practise mindfulness in your own environment.
Physical activity offers a whole array of benefits to our mental and physical health. We move more; we feel better. It’s possible to add some mindfulness to your exercise routine and maximise the benefits of both.
What to do:
Moving your body mindfully can take many forms, and there’s no right or wrong way, so choose an activity that you enjoy. Low-intensity exercises such as yoga or tai-chi are the most common choices for mindful exercise, but this doesn’t have to be the case. If you enjoy jogging or weightlifting, you can apply the same principles!
Start by taking a moment to practice some mindful breathing to centre yourself. As you begin, pay attention to the way your body moves in space. Notice where the tension in your body is and where it feels relaxed. Feel how your weight is distributed through your feet. As you move, notice how this changes to allow you to move. If you feel your mind starting to wander, bring your attention back to your breath.
Watching birds is an inherently mindful activity. There’s something very restorative about watching a murmuration of starlings across the sky, or even just a blackbird meticulously stripping a holly bush of its berries. What’s more – it’s actually pretty good for you! A study from the University of Exeter found that when people witnessed more birds in their daily lives, they experienced reduced prevalence and severity of depression, stress and anxiety.
You don’t need to be a birding expert to reap the benefits either. Studies show that even complete beginner birders can gain the same benefits to health from watching birds as experts. If you are a newbie to birdwatching here is a good guide to help you start birding. Whether you are an avid twitcher or not, watching birds can be an incredibly enjoyable and calming activity. Here are a couple of ideas to incorporate some mindful techniques into your bird-watching session:
What to do:
Birdwatching, as the name suggests, tends to be mostly an exercise of the eyes. But by paying closer attention to the sounds, you can add a new dimension to your birding session. You might find it easier to close your eyes completely and listen closely to the sounds of the birds.
- Differentiate between all the sounds of birds that you can hear.
- Can you hear the closest bird?
- Can you hear the farthest bird?
- Can you hear two birds responding to each other?
Find a quiet spot to sit and spend time just sitting and observing what birds you can see. Sitting still for a prolonged period, you may find birds (and sometimes other creatures!) begin to feel at ease in your presence. You may even witness behaviours that you haven’t seen before just by being patient and still. To really hone your observation skills, you can try your hand at some nature journaling.
The Birda app allows you to log which species you see, but you can also add notes on the specific details you noticed with each sighting. Why not try adding specific observations about the birds you’ve spotted during your session? Maybe you really noticed the metallic sheen on the plumage of the wood pigeon or the high-pitched song of the wren. Noting these details down reinforces your observation skills and will even help you identify species more easily in future.
Mindfulness is a simple way to bring some moments of calm into your day that not just feels good but is scientifically proven to be beneficial to your health. Have a go and see for yourself!