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Mindfulness in the workplace

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This is the third installment of my Monday Wellness series, watch out for new editions in the coming weeks.

As I started my yoga teacher training this year, one of the wellness buzzwords that I’d heard a thousand times was “mindfulness”. Even as someone who had attended dozens of yoga classes and dabbled in meditation, I didn’t feel that I really understood what mindfulness meant or its benefits, until I started researching it further.  According to the University of California – Berkeley, mindfulness is about having a thorough an awareness of our thoughts, feelings and surroundings. Sounds simple right?  In fact, it’s difficult for most people to stay in the present moment. Do you find yourself thinking about that problem you had at work last week or replaying a difficult conversation you had with your mom, all the while you are at work or with friends, or supposed to be relaxing? You are not alone. A Harvard study found that people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing.

In my most recent Monday Wellness blogs, here and here, I interviewed two amazing people who seem to have mastered the art of managing a busy work life and a healthy personal life, all the while maintaining their health and fitness. It’s no coincidence that both interviewees mentioned that  aiming for mindfulness at work helps them with this juggle. With my weekends dedicated to Yoga School, I want to make sure I’m approaching my work week in with as much balance as possible. Clearly mindfulness is something worth looking in to, but where to start?

The research

The good news for potential sceptics out there is that the body of research around mindfulness has grown significantly in recent years. There are conclusive results that state that mindfulness improves concentration and the ability to problem solve—hello— two things I would love to be better at!  Particularly at work, around 2pm during the post-lunch doldrums. Being mindful can make us more resilient in stressful situations, and improves our interpersonal relationships. With a mindfulness practice, we are more compassionate with colleagues, friends and family and we’re more likely to forgive transgressions. In high-pressure situations, those are two traits I would love to have at the ready.

How to get mindful, part 1

Like many people, when I think mindfulness, I immediately think of meditation. Meditation is a systematic method of focusing your attention, and a way of nurturing and expanding mindfulness. With well-researched studies backing up the value of a mindfulness practice, I understand why meditation is being taught in businesses and schools. Even If you don’t have access to an in-person instructor, there are plenty of free resources available to start your own practice and start seeing the benefits.

Forming a meditation habit

As part of Yoga School, I set a goal of meditating for 10 minutes a day. Honestly, even those 10 minutes feel hard to achieve sometimes, but as I’ve settled into a routine, and have formed the habit of meditating, I don’t have to focus on willing myself to sit down. The idea behind this is that if we rely on our self-control, we’ll eventually fail—even with the best of intentions, self-control doesn’t always work and that kind of white-knuckling is tiring. Instead, habits take your new meditation practice out of the drudgery of scheduling and monitoring and into something more effortless. There are whole books on habit-forming and its benefits, and personally, I’ve found it helpful to set aside a particular time of day to meditate—evenings work best for me—and I’ve started involving my partner to have some additional accountability.

Redefining ‘real’ meditation

One of the things that overwhelmed me when I first tried create a mindfulness practice, was that I thought it was only ‘real’ meditation if I was sitting in silence for 30 minutes with no distractions. Also I thought I probably needed to look really blissed out all the time, wear more linen and drink less coffee. While I probably should drink less coffee, I have recognised that there’s no one right way to meditate.

Body scanning is simple way to get started with meditation. I’ve stopped looking for the perfect location or moment—there’s no doing meditation wrong! If sitting on the floor hurts your back, choose a comfortable chair or lay down. If you fall asleep you probably needed the rest anyway. Don’t enjoy closing your eyes? That’s ok too, just focus your eyes softly on your surroundings. It’s really about making your meditation approachable and something that works for you.

Start by thinking about the top of your head. Notice any pain or discomfort with a sense of detachment. Move down your body from there, thinking about where you might be able to soften or relax. There will always be distractions and thoughts—your mind’s job is thinking, so don’t stress if it gets distracted. Just gently bring yourself back to the feeling of body. This kind of body scan can be done in your car before you start work or just before you fall asleep.

Resources

Somewhat counterintuitively, you can find a wealth of mindfulness information on your phone. Headspace is my current meditation app of choice. You can choose a meditation period from 3-20 minutes and a gentle-sounding guide will talk you through your practice. I’ve found this app helpful because as you’re taken through the meditation, you’re reminded that there’s no right or wrong; if your mind wanders, that’s perfectly fine. If you want to shell out for the yearly subscription, you have access to a massive library of meditations, but the free version has plenty to get started with.

Some of us are more visual and there are also meditations that help guide you through imagery; imagining a series of scenes helps me focus when I’m feeling too distracted to just breathe. A current favourite is this rainbow-themed one on Youtube. It’s pretty hard to feel down about dreary winter weather when you’ve thought about the colours of the rainbow for 10 minutes.

One of my teachers encourages us to make our meditation practice special by creating a ‘Gold Class’ ritual when setting up your space. Depending on how woo-woo you want to get, that can mean lighting a candle and burning some sage or just plumping up a comfy pillow and a soft blanket. I find that I’m most comfortable sitting up with my back supported against the couch. I sit cross-legged and roll up a wool blanket into a log shape to tuck under my knees. The extra support keeps my legs from falling asleep and the preparation helps me mentally get in the right space for meditation before I actually start. The sage, candle, blanket ritual definitely isn’t required, though—if all you can fit in is 3 minutes with the Headspace app in your car before starting work, then congratulate yourself for doing that much.

 

I’m currently making a number of changes in my work week, from 10 minutes of meditation to daily yoga, so I’m not sure I can say that it’s meditation alone that’s made an immediate change in my life, but it certainly hasn’t done me any harm. With the science-backed benefits I listed above in mind, I’m happy to continue giving it a go. Even incremental changes in my problem-solving abilities and interpersonal relationships will go a long way in improving my day-to-day life outside of Yoga School.

Mindfulness is a big subject, so keep an eye out for part two on the topic mindfulness, where I’ll talk about other ways to get mindful at work.