Mindfulness meditation has long been recognized as a healthy way to relieve stress, but emerging research suggests that it may affect your physical health and DNA, too.
Recent studies show promising connections between mindfulness meditation and the reduction of physical inflammation. (1) While more clinical trials are needed, initial results found that adults who participate in mind-body practices have reduced activity in the genes related to inflammation, thus lowering their risk of developing inflammatory disorders such as asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and even some types of cancer.
Similar research found lower levels of Interleukin-6 (a protein that is produced at sites of inflammation) and better functional connectivity in participants who were taught basic mindfulness meditation techniques. (2)
While the science is very new, these initial discoveries offer exciting possibilities for long-term health and happiness. Of course, there is one caveat—you need to start a daily mindfulness practice in order to reap the benefits.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the act of paying complete attention to your experience in the present moment, rather than being distracted by your thoughts or what’s happening around you.
The goal of “being mindful” is to simply stay focused. This means that whatever you’re doing deserves your whole attention, without thought for what comes next or what came before. By keeping your attention on the here-and-now you can calm your body and mind and are better able to cope with illness, pain, and stress. (3)
The most common mindfulness practice is mindfulness meditation. This very gentle meditation practice simply requires you to sit comfortably with your eyes closed and to focus on your breath and the feeling of your body, for a set amount of time (usually two to 20+ minutes). Any time you catch yourself with wandering thoughts you just softly steer your focus back to your breath.
Do I Have To Meditate?
The physical and psychological benefits of meditation are well documented, but I can also appreciate the challenge of making this a habit. Despite acknowledging the pros of the practice, many people struggle to dedicate time out of their already busy day for meditation.
As a health coach, I’ve spent the past five years helping clients incorporate mindfulness practices into their daily routine, but you may be surprised to learn that I never suggest that they start with meditation. Instead, we focus on turning simple daily habits into mini-acts of mindfulness, so that they can reap the relaxation benefits without having to learn an entirely new skill!
5 Ways to Bring Mindfulness Into Daily Habits
Meditation for beginners can seem overwhelming, but instead, you can start with these five common daily habits and transform them into acts of mini mindfulness.
Showering is a wonderful entrance activity for your mindfulness training, as, unless you have a Bluetooth shower head, it’s unlikely that you can be distracted by your phone or other people.
Begin your practice from the moment you step into the bathroom. Hear the click of the door as you close it. Notice the order that you take off your clothes. Listen to the water as you turn on the tap.
Once you’re in the shower, stand for a few moments with your eyes closed. Pay attention to how each part of your body feels; from your feet to the top of the head, take a mental scan to notice each sensation in your muscles and on your skin.
Next, focus on the cascading water. As the water travels over your body, running across blades and dipping into creases, it reminds you that your body is whole. To be even more present, explore how different sections of your body feels under the water: How is the pressure? How is the heat?
Continue with the showering process, lathering soap and shampoo, all the while acknowledging each action that you take. Mentally say to yourself: I am washing my hair, I feel my fingers on my scalp, I smell the shampoo…
Finally, look at your hands as you turn off the water and feel the friction of your towel as you dry off. Moisturize and dress with the same intention that you’ve been holding, and then continue on with your day, feeling a little more present (and much cleaner)!
While driving should also be a relatively distraction-free environment, that’s usually not the case, so you’ll have to be vigilant in staying mindful during this activity.
Cell phone use is a no-no, both for driver safety and your mindfulness practice. Keep your phone in your bag (preferably in the back seat), or in the glove compartment, and if you’re using it for GPS then commit to that being its only purpose.
Begin your experience from the moment you unlock the car: hear the click of the lock, feel your body take a seat, and notice the sensation of buckling your belt. As you turn on the ignition imagine lighting a powerful tool that needs 100 percent of your focus.
To stay mindful, the radio must stay off. Your attention is on your hands on the wheel, your position on the road, and the speed of your car. Be intentional as you indicate and make lane changes, and consciously acknowledge where you’re going…even if you know the route like the back of your hand.
Once you arrive at your destination, take a moment to turn off the engine and just sit. Offer up thanks for another safe trip, and mindfully exit your vehicle and move on to the rest of your day.
Running and walking have already become popular mindfulness practices, with coaches, courses, and techniques that teach mindful movement.
The benefits of mindful running include:
- Natural breath formation
- Relaxed mental state
- Present-moment focus
- The ability to discover your natural running stride
- Feeling how to run faster, lighter, and with greater ease
- Reducing the risk of injury
As with other mindfulness practices, the goal is to pay close attention to what you’re doing, without judgment. I think this is especially important to remember during physical activity, as we’re often quick to self-criticize if we feel like we’re not reaching our personal best. Mindfulness running lets you get back to the simple joy of running.
Running and walking have three main aspects that keep you anchored to the present moment, and it’s quite easy to train your brain to focus on them:
- Your breath: Feel AND hear your inhalations and exhalations—notice when they are easy and when they are challenging. Experiment with different types of breath patterns to bring more ease to your lungs by filling and emptying your diaphragm at different rates, and practice breathing techniques that offer quick cardiovascular recovery, such as nose breathing.
- The sound of your feet hitting the ground: Again this is a sound and a sensation that keeps you connected to your activity, your body, and the earth below you. Focus on your stride length and what section of your foot strikes the ground first.
- Body sensations: This is both an internal and external experience. Listen inwards to find out what’s going on with your knees, hips, and hamstrings, etc, and focus outwards to feel the weather against your skin.
As with the other practices that I’m sharing, make this a mindful activity from start to finish. From the moment you lace your sneakers until the moment you take them off, your focus is on running.
Mindful cooking is one of my favorite practices as the variety of external tasks makes it easier for me to stay focused.
Say, for example, that I’m chopping a carrot. I choose the carrot from the crisper, I feel the texture as I wash it in the sink, I notice the thin ribbons that fall away as I peel it, and I hear the crunch and crack with every chop. These are a lot of different components to keep my mind interested, but they are also all related to my current task.
Simple activities in the kitchen can be very rhythmic. Cutting, rinsing, stirring…if you’ve ever made a risotto you’ll know that it can put you in a trance-like state! But keep in mind that mindful cooking tends to be simple cooking. Unless you’re a master chef, it’s a lot easier to stay focused and feel calm when you are only dealing with one or two dishes at a time.
5. Having a conversation
I love the art of mindful conversation. Like a good game of tennis, where the ball is hit forward and back across the net, the conversation should also be thoughtful, received, and two-sided.
I’m sure you’ve spent time with someone who drones on and on with little regard for your interest in their topic (or that dentist appointment that you’ll now be late for). Similarly, I’ll bet you’ve experienced speaking to someone who constantly interrupts you, or worse, keeps checking their phone while you’re talking! So frustrating!
While you can’t do much about other people, you can set an example by practicing mindful conversations. All this means is that when you’re talking with someone, you give them your complete attention. Rather than thinking about what you want to say next, or what you’re going to be doing later, you listen to the words that they’re saying and you respond thoughtfully. When you’re the one speaking, bring enthusiasm and energy into your voice (sharing your words like a story is much more engaging), and stay mindful of the fact that it is a dialogue and not a monologue, so be willing to pass the conversation back, perhaps with a question.
As you can see, it is easy to bring more mindfulness into everyday activities that you are already doing. Start by focusing on one of the habits that I mentioned today and see how it feels for you. Just remember that the ultimate goal isn’t to be perfect at this whole meditation thing, rather, it’s simply to relax your body and mind by focusing on the here-and-now.