By Laura Volmert, MA and Liz Pawelko, MA, LPC
“Mindfulness” has worked its way into our cultural conversation recently, but what does it really mean?
Some people associate it with meditation or with body/mind practices like yoga or Tai Chi. Others see it as a fuzzy concept promoted by advertisers and talk show hosts.
Mindfulness is an ancient practice that new research shows can have a powerful effect on our modern lives. Mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness without judgment that enhances our attention, body awareness, and emotional reality
Mindfulness is what all Fairbanksans do the moment we have to cross an icy parking lot to get to our car. We slow our thinking about everything else and we connect with our body. Strides shorten, feet fall firmly beneath our center of gravity and paces slow accordingly. That mindful movement keeps us the present moment, which keeps us upright in that parking lot.
There are many mindfulness practices, one of the most basic being attention to the breath.
Few of us focus mindfully on our own breathing, even though our respiratory system is a first responder to strong emotion and stress in our environment. Our breathing can be full and robust during times of relaxation, yet short and rapid when we need to act fast.
Take a moment now to consider how full your breathing may be. Notice how the inhales and exhales may be in or out of balance. If you try to breathe more fully, what do you experience?
Many people struggle to adopt fuller, more relaxed breathing because it feels like they just cannot inhale any more deeply. Tightened stomach and chest muscles could be the culprits, as these are also frequent cues to nearby stress.
Another approach to mindful breathing is to focus on exhaling. Think about a potato in a car tailpipe. It cuts off the exhaust escape route, which prevents air intake and the engine stalls out. Let’s apply this to our lungs. Try focusing on allowing as much of the carbon dioxide out of your lungs on the next exhale and notice the follow-up inhale deepen.
Mindful breathing allows us to manage our breathing for intentional and active relaxation. Our central nervous system responds and eases the rest of our body into a state of awareness without unnecessary action or emotion.
With mindfulness practices, we experience the actual moment at hand, not the moment we wish were in. As a result our emotional realities feel more manageable and more meaningful.