Sport Friday, January 13th Words by: Adam Knight

Herefordshire health gurus on why mindfulness matters

Sport Friday, January 13th

Herefordshire health gurus on why mindfulness matters

In 2016 mindfulness took on kale and quinoa for the title of That Thing That You Should Have In Your Life But Don’t Really Know What It Is. See also hygge and athleisure.

While lifestyle trends will come and go, mindfulness is here to say - with good reason. Less about being able to bend space and time, it's the simple act of reconnecting with the world around you.

Phil Jackson (the Alex Ferguson of basketball with 12 NBA titles) has employed a mindfulness coach for years. [another example]. Oprah gives herself "a healthy dose of quiet time" at least one - "and when I'm on point, twice" - a day.

More than ever we are becoming aware of the links between mental wellbeing and physical health. One doesn’t fire fully without the other.

To find out more we spoke to three mindfulness coaches who live and work around Herefordshire to find out what it means, why it matters, and how a mindfulness crash course might just supercharge your 2017. 

Stay woke, people.

Mindfulness or meditation? What’s the difference?

Cat Lawford [founder of Gym and Tonic, Hay-on-Wye who runs The BrainFit Workout]: "They’re both ‘tuning in’, stopping the mind chatter, and being in the moment. Meditation might be construed as setting aside the time to do so."

Ross Powell [runs Yogipfitness blog, Hereford-based yoga teacher and personal trainer]: "The two compliment each other and go hand in hand, both originating from ancient times. Mindfulness tends to be lent to a focus on an object or specific focus such as the breath. Observing those things for what they are in detail to help bring the mind to the present moment. 

Wendy Harvey [counsellor and craniosacral therapist who runs mindfulness courses in Hereford]: "There are many kinds of meditation and most religions include a meditative aspect – it means focusing the mind in a particular way in order to cultivate qualities seen as spiritually desirable. Mindfulness is one aspect of ourselves that can be cultivated via meditation, simply put it is the practice of non-judgemental moment-to-moment awareness or presence.  The opposite of mindfulness is being on automatic pilot."

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Once the preserve of Tibetan monks, what is it about modern life that has led to more and more everyday people turn to mindfulness?

WH: "Everyone seems to be chronically stressed, tired and generally frazzled. Mindfulness encourages us to slow down, to stop hurtling mindlessly towards an ever-disappearing future, and instead to inhabit our present moments with full awareness. This sounds simple but it takes endless practice.  It’s actually radical and can totally transform our experience. We can begin to appreciate what we already have, the good, the bad and the ordinary." 

CL: "Our lives are so fast paced, so full of ‘things’ (possessions) and disconnection from each other due to the telly and social media. I think we are all starting to realise there is a big element missing, and if you don’t believe in God (which used to give us our spirituality), this might be that missing element."

RP: "Some people simply can't relax and take their work body and mind home. Time is not precious, the now is. People often don't plan well enough for the future and are often rushed at getting to places so they can't fully take in the journeys but instead in a constant state of anxiety." 

Will I be able to levitate, cross-legged after a couple of sessions? And, if not, what kind of benefits can people get from continued practice?

RP: "One of the myths is that it's portrayed to be someone levitating off the floor cross legged, but you can meditate whilst walking, showering or looking at the sky." 

CL: "You’re not ‘after’ either! You’re not ‘trying’ for anything. What you might get however – is clarity, peace and feeling happier in yourself."

WH: "Vanishingly unlikely! Spiritual acrobatics and psychic powers do come naturally to some people after years of dedicated practice but it is not considered helpful to emphasise these as it could feed the ego and that’s the opposite of what spiritual practice is intended to do. A consumerist culture tends to translate even spiritual teachings into a matter of what we can get out of it for ourselves."

What does a mindfulness/meditation session look like – both for you personally, and for someone starting out? Do you need a fully stocked cupboard of incense sticks or are there ways of practising being mindful in you have a spare five minutes at home/sitting in your car?

WH: "You can practice mindfulness informally wherever you are and whatever you’re doing – in the supermarket queue, eating food, or on the loo.  The idea is to be mindful, fully aware, in as many of our actual lived moments as possible (but don’t get too comfortable, it’s all too easy to doze off!)"

RP: "My mindfulness meditations are not full of incense sticks however I do enjoy a candle here and there! I usually feed it through the practice of yoga, physically preparing the body for meditation in shavasana (corpse pose)! Yoga in itself is essentially meditation in movement connecting breath and body." 

CL: "No incense sticks required.  You can start with just 5 mins. Find a place you can sit or lie with no distractions."

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Would you describe practicing mindfulness as more being able to switch off, or the ability to switch on? Or both?

RP: "Mindfulness can be simply a matter of not crossing the road on a red man, even if the path is clear to cross. Take the time to wait there for the green man and take in your surroundings." 

CL: "Some may disagree – as there is no right or wrong but I think – allowing yourself to switch off – in turn enabling you to tune in (which in a way IS switching on as it’s self-awareness)."

WH: "Switching off, or rather acknowledging and then letting go of - ‘monkey mind’, rumination, being-up-in our-heads, intellectualising, being fixated in past or future, emotional reactivity. Switching on, or waking up, to and acknowledging whatever we’re experiencing in the present moment." 

What’s your take on the range of mindfulness apps currently out there? Are there any you would recommend for people starting out?

CL: "I’ve not used one so can’t comment. I bet they’re awesome."

WH: "People seem to like Headspace by Andy Puddicombe. You get 10 free days to try it out, then you pay a small amount for daily meditation practices to be sent to your device. A book called ‘Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman includes a clear introduction to mindfulness practice and a practice CD and has been a help to several people I know."

Is it normal to get the giggles if you’re sitting around in total silence?

CL: "Go with whatever happens. In Hypnotherapy (which I’m qualified in) - you can get ‘abreactions’ which might be laughter to crying. Ride the storm.

WH: "It has been known to happen, but then anything can happen when you are practicing because you are hopefully letting go of the familiar and opening up to the unknown. On a cautionary note, strong emotions or past memories may come to the surface, especially with longer meditation periods, and it’s best to practice meditation at times when you are in a reasonably stable phase of your life and able to deal with whatever might come up, and to keep to shorter meditations time to start with. Like any skill, it’s best to proceed gradually and in a balanced way." 

Phil Jackson (basketball coach with 11 NBA titles to his name) has famously been employing a mindfulness expert to work with his teams for years. How can being more mindful help even highly successful (sports) people (or businesspeople, artists, whatever) tap in to something within themselves?

CL: "For me – if you practise ANY form of self-knowledge you’ll possibly uncover your drivers (what makes you tick) – which in turn would help to motivate you for keen performance and adherence. Also even apparently highly successful people appreciate the additional confidence my mindful sessions give them. Only this week I learnt this lesson. I teach The BrainFit workout and wrongly assumed a personal training client wouldn’t want to know. She did."

With people you’ve helped/coached – or from your own personal experiences – are there any stories which illustrate how mindfulness can help individuals?

WH: "I know someone who permanently kicked a longstanding alcohol habit after teaching himself from the book mentioned above. The people who’ve done an 8 week mindfulness course and then keep up a regular daily practice in their lives do seem to become wiser, more contented, compassionate and steadier human-beings."

CL: "Where to start! Put another way, WITHOUT it I’d be seriously short of tools in the tool box. You’ll find it hard to lose body fat, adhere to exercise and stop negative internal chatter without some form of it."

Are there any little exercises you could suggest that people could try at home tonight?

CL: "This is not something I practise or give out myself as I’m used to working 1-2-1 with clients, but looking in the mirror, straight into your own eyes and using an affirmation YOU need (always a positive statement), such as 'I feel my power' or 'I am confident' is a start. Sounds naff? Try it. Suspend disbelief. 

WH: "Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Sit upright, either cross-legged on a cushion or on an upright chair with your back straight but not rigid, hands resting on your knees or in your lap. You can either close your eyes, or keep them open with a soft focus about a meter ahead. Begin to notice how your body feels sitting here, what body sensations are you aware of right now.

"Then turn your attention to your mind, is it busy and full of thoughts or calm and quiet, either way is OK, just notice and let go of thoughts as they arise, opening into the next moment.  Do your best to not get carried away by trains of thought. You can notice any sounds that are there in the present, rather than thinking about them, just experience them like physical sensations.

"Now turn your attention to your breathing, breath going in and out, natural breathing, keep coming back to awareness of the breath moment by moment and sustain this awareness of the breath for the rest of the practice. When your mind gets caught up with thoughts, patiently bring your attention back to the breath right now.

"When the timer goes to end the practice, slowly transfer your attention to the space around you, doing your best not to rush back into things and keeping connected to whatever sense of calm presence you may have experienced.  You can take this mindfulness with you into whatever you are doing next and for the rest of the day as best you can."

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Cat Lawford runs The BrainFit Workout at the Gym and Tonic Health Club, Hay-on-Wye. Contact her at mizzfit@mail.com.

Ross Powell writes at Yogipfitness. He runs PT classes and yoga sessions, including broga (bro yoga) at Cafe Miro, Hereford. Get in touch with him via Facebook.

Wendy Harvey is a Hereford-based counsellor and craniosacral therapist. Contact her at wendydharvey@gmail.com / wendyharveytherapy.co.uk.

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