Several years ago, I was in three automobile accidents and was not the driver in any of them. On two of the occasions, I was sitting in the passenger seat. One of the accidents was particularly frightening. I was in a van driving on a smaller road during a harsh snowstorm in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. The driver took a turn too quickly and slid towards a cliff but managed to stop before going over the edge.
After the third accident, I felt tense whenever I had to drive anywhere. A friend recommended I pause before getting in the car and try to calm myself. He wasn’t a mindfulness practitioner, just a friend concerned for my safety. So before starting the car, I would sit in the driver’s seat, close my eyes, and simply feel what I was feeling. For maybe two minutes or so, I would notice any sensations that arose, where or if I felt tense, and if my breathing was fast or slow. Then I’d review in my mind the route to where I was going.
This practice stopped the chatter in my mind and the tension in my breathing. It allowed me to drive with more awareness and with a sense of freshness as if driving was a relatively new and enjoyable experience.
Before going to work was another good time to take a pause in what I was doing. I was a teacher for almost thirty years and would get to school, step out of the car, and just look at the school, the trees, and the hills. The school was up on a hill, and I could see the city spread out below. I’d take in the view and appreciate it. Taking a moment to breathe in and appreciate what was around me allowed me to then enter the classroom with more clarity. When the students saw me as comfortable and open with them, they were more comfortable, appreciative and open with me.
Practicing mindfulness in your house, at a pre-selected time, and isolated from distractions is one way to practice. It trains your mind and body to monitor feelings, sensations and thoughts and be more aware, present, and comfortable in your life. But little momentary practices throughout the day, reminders, pauses, helps spreads mindful attention throughout your life.
One of the main times to use mindfulness is before going to sleep. At the end of the day, it is so easy to feel the burdens of the day or feel sad that another day is over and gone. The sense of an end can be poignant.
So, I leave a little relaxation and enjoyment time before going to bed. I put aside my phone. Maybe read a fun or inspiring book. Then I close my eyes and feel how soothing and nourishing a breath can feel. I put my attention on my shoulders, or wherever I feel tension, and feel them expand with the inbreath, and relax, settle down with the outbreath. I go next to feel my eyes, jaw, chest, belly, or lower back¾simply feel how they expand with the inbreath, let go, settle down, and I feel warm and comforted.
Gyms are strange places. They can be big rooms full of people, many of whom are strangers. Before I start a work out, maybe in the locker room or before I start an exercise, I’d check in with myself, do a quick scan of my body similar to the ones described above. I’d close my eyes partly or fully.
Whether I’m standing, or sitting, I notice my breath. When I breathe in, I feel the breath going from my head all the way to my feet. I feel whether my feet are shoulder width apart and pressing down on the floor, the weight evenly distributed. I notice if there is any tension in my knees, lower back, belly or shoulders or if any thoughts enter my mind. Then I open my eyes and look around, taking it all in.
It’s helpful to be clear about why you are working out. Some go to the gym to socialize or meet people. Some go in order to counter hours of sitting at their job, or because they are in pain or they want to get in better shape or look better.
If you know why you are doing what you are doing, it’s easier to commit to working out for a certain length of time. Exercise is not just for the body. As you develop physical strength by overcoming weight resistance or learning to welcome physical challenges, you can learn how to overcome any sort of obstacle and think of it as an opportunity.
I would sometimes find myself counting the number of moments I work out and wanting to speed up time. Time is life itself. Yet once you define a length of time and rope it off, it can become a great obstacle to struggle through or distract yourself from.
The first five minutes of a half hour aerobics routine can become a giant burden. So, when you’re on the elliptical or some other aerobics machine, focus on one moment at a time. One minute–that might be way too easy. Then do five minutes. Five minutes you could do. Then another five.
Or after using a weight machine, I’d breathe into a particular muscle activated by the exercise. When I was young, I remember being told to breathe into a tense muscle to help it relax. I didn’t know, then, what that even meant.
But after experimenting, I learned to simply feel the muscle expand as I breathed into it and relax as I breathed out, similar to the scan I do at night. You could imagine a smile on the muscle to make the workout more fun. Think about someone you know or saw in a movie who had a full and genuine smile. And imagine yourself with such a smile. And the muscle will relax. You might also get better at keeping in touch with your body and experience fewer pulled or strained muscles.
Or after completing an exercise for the upper back or shoulders, you could bend over from the waist, let your arms hang freely, like they were heavy weights. This practice actually came from a college theatre group I was part of. Move your right hip in a clockwise circle, then your left counterclockwise. Moving your hips will also move your arms in circles without engaging the arm or shoulder muscles. The muscles will relax as tension drains away. When you are ready, push down with your feet in order to rise up. People in the gym might think you weird, but the exercise is deeply relaxing.
Before talking with a friend, driving, eating, sleeping or working out, practicing mindful awareness can make the moments of your life fuller and more joyous. It is a great gift to give yourself and, indirectly, anyone you interact with.
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