Your Mind Really Matters

Mindfulness. Ugh.

If the mention of mindfulness already has you checking out of this blog… we don’t blame you. That sh*t is hard. And even if we’re into fitness… we don’t naturally gravitate toward difficult things.

(Just us? Oh, maybe you like difficult things? Ok, carry on with your burpees and wind sprints, we salute you!)

Our psyche tends to want to protect us from things that make us uncomfortable (feelings, spiders, that weird house down the road). So when we are greeted with something that makes us uncomfortable, we tend to avoid it. It’s a relic of our hunter-gatherer times, when discomfort typically meant a threat. Nowadays, our more recognizable discomfort comes from things like over-long Zoom calls, or booking appointments at the dentist. Or, meditating.

This seems calming.

Mindfulness can conjure up a lot. A weekend business retreat without phones and with yoga mats. That thing that powerful executives do (like Virgin mogul Sir Richard Branson, at 30,000 feet), and definitely Gwyneth Paltrow has something to do with it (and it’s probably expensive). For the rest of us mortals, meditation may seem like a wishy-washy means of sneaking in a nap while sitting up (we won’t argue with you there, sleep is important!). But as it turns out, mindfulness is a broad term that has a far more practical application for everyday life… and especially when it’s engaged with movement.

Mindfulness finds its origin in meditation.

“Our life is shaped by our mind, for we become what we think.”

— Buddha (… yes, THAT Buddha)

“Mindfulness” is a buzzy word these days. But it’s not a new concept. And, in its purest form — meditation — mindfulness has its origin in the Buddhist psychology tradition, more specifically in the texts known as Satipatthana Sutra. If it sounds a little “out there,” it’s actually the complete opposite. In simple terms, it’s the practice of being present in the current moment (and not multi-scrolling your social feeds while binge-ignoring that popular show on Netflix). This in turn allows an individual to pay attention and remain aware of their thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. So it’s not “out there,” it’s actually “in here.” As in, inside your own head.

Sounds simple, right? You just sit still, breathe deep… and try not to think about the millions of things your brain immediately vomits up into your consciousness. 

Simple.

This is like, Literally Impossible

If the idea of stillness with only your own thoughts for company makes you feel… decidedly uncomfortable… you’re not alone. Mindfulness is hard. And, historically, our brains developed with the understanding that sitting still while disengaged from our surroundings would often make us an easy meal by any passing predator (who was not busy practicing mindfulness). And, fun fact, every time we do something new, our brains dump a little hit of dopamine in the frontal lobe; dopamine is the major reward neurotransmitter in the brain. 

“The brain rewards us for obtaining new information and having lots of thoughts because doing so might have survival value,” explains Gary L. Wenk, PhD., Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University and Medical Center.  “After all, everyone knows that knowledge is power. The more you know, the more likely you are to survive and pass on your inquisitive genes to the next generation.” This instinctive wiring for constant thought and stimulation is part of the reason we love coffee, or cocaine, or social media.

This makes it ever more difficult to purposefully disengage our minds from our racing thoughts, tasks and objectives, and the brain’s own built-in “default mode” (more widely known as “daydreaming,” which is surprisingly beneficial) … and to that end, it’s ever more important to practice doing so.

Your brain actually loves mindfulness, but you have to train it.

Impossible or Not, You (really) Need It

There has been a notable increase in interest about the concept and implementation of mindfulness and its effects on the brain, emotion regulation, and stress reduction (and couldn’t we all use a little of that). And, the findings are solid. And Gray.

Your brain density will benefit

A 2011 study comprised of an eight-week mindfulness program found that participants’ gray matter increased significantly, and in zone specific regions of the brain. Compared to non-meditators, people practicing mindfulness  showed more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which handles impulsivity and mental flexibility. The hippocampus, which is related to emotion and memory, mindfulness participants shoed increased gray matter.

You can decrease stress and improve your sleep

Listen, there are lots of ways to reduce stress. But hear us out. Some very smart people over the course of dozens of studies have articulated evidence that demonstrated positive changes in brain waves, hormone levels, and the presence of beneficial neurotransmitters among various participants who engaged in mindfulness practice. They slept better, were able to identify and regulate their emotions, and provided measurable evidence of stress reduction (brain waves, it’s a real thing). And because our brains are not actually as hard-wired as previously thought, we can “practice” mindfulness with the same approach as we do other disciplines — with practice, you improve… and as such, effectively re-train our brain’s response to stimuli. 

Emotional regulation isn’t just for kids

It turns out when we’re stressed, overthinking, and anxious, our brains aren’t just working overtime; our central nervous system is also being taxed, and, in a manner not unlike a fight-or-flight scenario, we are experiencing adrenaline dumps and various spikes in other hormones (cortisol, anyone?), as well as a widespread impact physiologically that can have catastrophic effects over time. Your heart, your lungs, your GI, even how your brain processes and forms (or forgets) memories can be affected. And by taking a few minutes to breathe and focus your attention, either on your own or through movement, your body can reduce this high-alert status and return to more normal, homeostatic functioning. 

Pat Washington, leading a Ptale class.

How to Practice Mindfulness

This is where things can be up for a little interpretation. As mentioned, its most traditional form is meditation, or the practice of turning oneself inward to one’s own thoughts without judgment or pretense. But if you’re itching to move and can’t imagine sitting still with only yourself as company, you can explore mindfulness with movement through programs like Body Flow, Yoga, or Ptale.

“If you’re new to any sort of mindfulness practice, you can start with movement,” explains Patricia Washington, VENT Niskayuna Manager, RIDE instructor and Ptale co-founder. Ptale is a  60-minute ode to purposeful stretching to improve your mobility and calm your mind. “You might think of it as ‘just stretching,’ but when you stretch your body, you slow down. You focus inward on your breath. Your intentions are to give peace to your body, calmness to your mind, serenity to your soul. And, it works.” 

Body Flow is another great option — this hybrid format will gently elevate your awareness (and your heart rate) by combining yoga, tai chi, and Pilates. The bonus? There is a guided meditation, gently issued by the instructor, to close out every practice. 

Not every instance of “mindfulness” means stillness or yoga — your brain benefits from strength and cardio training, too.

Not so much into these gentler approaches? That’s ok — research has also shown significant improvement in stress levels, mental health, and even brain cell production after strength and cardio workouts. The main intention is being present, in your body, during these efforts, and taking cues from it and from your emotional, physiological, and physical responses.

 

The Takeaway

Mindfulness can be achieved in as little as a few focused breaths a day. And, not to make it sound so infomercial-ly, but it really can rewire how your mind works. And while mindfulness is often considered synonymous with meditation (and rightfully so), it doesn’t have to be just sitting in stillness. Mindful movement can be beneficial as a method of bringing your focus to simple movement, breath work, and the present, in a manner that can be easier for some people to achieve. But regardless of where you start or how well you do your first few tries, the key is to keep going.

”Once you learn relaxation techniques, it’s a safety net,” Washington says. “You learn how to acknowledge your emotions — your stress, your racing mind — and you can use breath work, movement, and awareness (without judgment) to allow those moments to pass through. You could have a mantra, or learn one pointed attention or breathing method — people respond to different techniques. Find the one that works for you.”

See you in the clubs!