Active Mindfulness: 5 Meditative Practices for the Skeptic

The everyday activities you don't realize are mindful acts—that don't require sitting in silence.

We are knee deep in a mindfulness movement. And the growing body of scientific research backing the health benefits of meditation—the practice of mindfulness—makes it increasingly harder to write it off as a New Agey pastime.

A recent study published in Biological Psychology looked at the effects of mindfulness on the brain. They split participants into two groups: a mindfulness group and a relaxation group. Everyone was led through stretching exercises, but the mindfulness group was told to pay close attention to bodily sensations, while the relaxation group was encouraged to talk and ignore their bodies, while their leader told jokes. After three days, all of the participants reported feeling refreshed and better able to cope with stress, but follow-up brain scans only showed differences in those who underwent the mindfulness meditation. There was more activity among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calmness. Plus, four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels of an inflammatory marker in their blood than the relaxation group (even though few were still meditating.)

Other studies have linked mindfulness to increased immunity, reduced anxiety and depression, improved learning and memory, better social relationships and even reduced back pain. And practicing some degree of mindfulness everyday may be key.

Researchers at Brown University found a significant association between practicing mindfulness everyday and a higher likelihood of having normal, healthy glucose levels. The study revealed that the lower risk of obesity and greater sense of control that come with being more mindful may have been responsible for healthier levels.

It is undeniable that there are some very tangible benefits to the practice. But for the skeptical among us, diving head first into a full blown meditation can seem daunting or hokey. But silent meditation isn’t the only way to practice mindfulness in your daily life. Ease into the practice with one of these more active approaches to bringing yourself into the present moment.

Listen to the City Sounds

Yes, we’re telling you to hone in on the honking cars and sound of the train that more often than not leave you stressed and annoyed. MNDFL, a brand new meditation studio in New York City, offers a class centered around the city sounds. Most of us are surrounded by sound for most of our waking day—and many of us write it off as background noise or an annoying distraction. But, teaches the studio, we can actually learn to use the noise as a form of meditation by focusing on individual sounds to achieve a calm state. It may be a siren or passing cars, the sound of the baristas making coffee or the chattering of other patrons at the cafe. Zeroing in on background noise is a trick to bring yourself back into the present, replacing stress and anxiety with an awareness of your surroundings (the same thing one hopes to achieve with meditation). Once you practice creating an awareness around the noise on a daily basis, it becomes a habit that becomes a signal to be more mindful.

Clean Your Apartment

“For people just starting out, diving into formal seated meditation can be very overwhelming,” said Dr. Kathy Gruver, PhD, a health and wellness expert and author of The Alternative Medicine Cabinet. “For someone who is active, I recommend a walking meditation or a mindful exercise with an activity like doing the dishes or brushing your teeth.” Yes, even your least favorite chore can get the job done when it comes to bringing you into the present moment. “Mindfulness is simply going about an activity with curiosity, focus, all of your senses and remaining in the present moment,” said Gruver. “You can do the dishes mindfully: Really feel the temperature of the water on your hands, the smoothness or roughness of the plate. Smell the lemon coming off the soap, listen for the sound of the water rushing into the sink or the bubbles crackling in front of you. Observe the plate, your hands, the water, the bubbles. Does one float away, a little rainbow existing inside and then pop with a spray of water? Observing all of these things using all of your senses brings you into the present moment and it is a meditative practice. If you find yourself wandering from your task or letting other thoughts intrude just acknowledge that you were thinking and return to your activity. This helps train us to respond rather than react.”

Do Yoga

Yoga is a physical practice built around the idea of a mind-body connection that inherently encourages a certain degree of mindfulness—there is even a designated period of meditation during each session. If a seated 20-minute meditation isn’t appealing to you, yoga is a great active alternative, refocusing and calming the mind, while having the added benefit of engaging the body and working your muscles. A report published in the journal PLOS ONE found that relaxation-response techniques, such as meditation, yoga, and prayer, can reduce the need for health care services by 43 percent. Research published in Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy found that a yoga intervention can be a viable method for increasing levels of mindfulness in a healthy population, potentially serving as a preventive method for the development of negative emotional mood states (like anxiety and depression).

Go For a Run

Physical exercise, like hitting the treadmill, has been linked with health benefits similar to those associated with meditation. And anyone who has headed out for jog after a particularly stressful day can attest to the mental benefits of stepping away from the anxiety and reconnecting to the present moment (which is impossible not to downhill your huffing through a three-miler). “The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong,” said Michael Otto, PhD, a professor of psychology at Boston University. “Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect.” Not only is exercise linked with a short-term mood boost, but research also shows that it can help alleviate long-term depression. A study co-authored by Otto found that those who participated in a two-week exercise program showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity when compared with a control group. Plus, a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health showed that 30 minutes of running during the week boosted sleep quality, mood, and concentration during the day, ultimately inducing relaxation, a major benefit associated with the practice of mindfulness.

Drink a Cup of Coffee or Tea

“How can a person begin to practice mindfulness in everyday activity? A very simple technique is to slow down an ordinary, common activity, and pay attention to the small experiences that make it up. Choose something you do often, and do it very slowly, noticing your sensations in each small step of the activity,” wrote Ann S. Williams, PhD. “Think of sipping tea. A person sipping tea in the usual way may be aware of holding the cup, smelling the aroma before the first sip, and the taste of the first sip. The experience of drinking the rest of the tea may blend into one single experience that has to do with noticing the decreasing amount of tea in the cup. Taking a sip from a cup of tea with mindfulness, however, is quite different.” It begins with noticing the cup of tea—the shape, the handle, the color, the steam rising from the cup, the texture of it in your hand, the weight of it. Then, “with the first sip, notice the small movement of your wrist that allows the tea to flow into your mouth. Notice the slight shift in the weight of the cup. Notice the temperature of the tea as it enters your mouth and your perception of the flavor as the tea moves from the front of your mouth to the back,” wrote Williams. Continue to drink your tea, noticing each detail and being aware of your senses during the process. This process may be just a tad different than your usual routine (chugging your green tea latte as you speed walk to work), but setting aside 10 minutes to actually focus on the experience is an accessible way to incorporate mindfulness practice into your routine.