Struggling to be present and enjoy the moment? Here are some top mindfulness exercises, and why they work.
In the holiday season, it goes completely against my inclinations to be mindful. I mean, I’d like to be. But there’s just so much to do. Who has the time to enjoy the moment?
Fortunately, this has been, and continues to be the year to practice mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
The definition of mindfulness is “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something,” and “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations” (according to Oxford Languages).
To me, it’s a conscious effort to fight overthinking, or getting lost in my own thoughts, or fretting too much. (Harvard researchers describe it as “ruminating“.)
It’s intentionally making the most of this moment in time – and accepting it as it is, without judgment, with positivity and confidence. So often I long for “the perfect moment” and spend so much time trying to make it happen that I miss the amazing ones.
And…it works better when you cultivate it in the peaceful times, so you’re ready for the hard ones. (I.e. Practice mindfulness, instead of trying to apply it as needed when life is spiraling out of control.)
What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?
For one thing, it’s just what you need when so many things are outside your control or when you’re waiting. It helps you find relief from overthinking and instead find fulfillment and peace in the here and now. (Something we aim for here on What You Make It.)
Also, as you cultivate it, it can shape your mindset. Studies have shown that regularly practicing mindfulness can decrease depression and anxiety, and improve mental health.
More measurable benefits of mindfulness include:
emotional connection in relationships
It seems the more we train our minds to be present and appreciative of the moment, the more we shape our brains to view the world and our circumstances with positivity and openness.
- Breathe in for a 4 count, hold for a 4 count, breathe out for a 4 count, hold for a 4 count.
- Completely fill your lungs, and completely empty them.
- Breathe in for a 4 count, hold for a 7 count, breathe out for an 8 count. (This one helps me get to sleep! Do it until you can’t anymore, and see if it knocks you out.)
Take your breathing practice a step further, and incorporate your mind by focusing on your breath and clearing your mind, visualizing, or focusing on a mantra or affirmations. It’s an opportunity to be still, and intentionally draw your mind back to the present when it wanders off. It means being intentionally still.
Prayer is my way of presenting everything to God – my feelings, worries, to-do lists – and focusing back on who he is and that he is willing to and capable of walking me through whatever I am going through.
It’s a time for me to practice gratitude, and pay attention to the things around me that glorify him. It’s also being intentionally still and focused. So basically – it’s a whole lot of mindfulness practice in one.
Yoga and Stretching
- Cat / Cow Stretch: get on your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Curve your back up and release your head down (as if looking at your belly button) – this is “cat” pose. Next dip your stomach down while keeping your shoulders and hips in place, and look up – this is “cow” pose.
- Child Pose: sit on your heels and keep your knees wide. Stretch your arms forward and put your forehead on the ground.
- Any balance pose is very grounding. Simply standing on one foot can help bring you into the moment.
(A review of my favorite Pilates program is here – check it out!)
Make a List
Instead of getting lost in everything you need to do, get it out of your mind. Write it down! Make a to-do list.
It sounds a bit counterintuitive. (Shouldn’t I not be focusing on all the things I need to do?) But in your mind those things you need to do morph into something bigger and more stressful than they need to be. Writing it down makes it straightforward, instead of ambiguous.
Use your list to organize what you need to do today, and what you can afford to let go of. Also, who doesn’t love checking something off their list? Instant dopamine boost – a happy hormone that releases when you achieve a goal.
Focus in on Your Senses
This is a simple mindfulness tactic you can practice anytime, anywhere, with what’s right in front of you. Stop, take a deep breath, and notice. What can you see, hear, smell, taste, touch? What’s happening right now around you? What’s something you don’t usually pay attention to?
Practice Gratitude Daily
Gratitude is something you can cultivate, much like mindfulness. It helps you sort past the ruminating thoughts and land on the positive, and often involve the solid things that aren’t changing right at the moment.
Don’t confuse this with toxic positivity. You don’t have to force yourself to find things to be grateful for in the middle of a trying time. Instead, consider building up your positive mindset consistently to prepare yourself for difficult moments.
Try practicing gratitude daily by taking a short time at the beginning or end of the day to focus on what you’re thankful for. You can write them down, speak them out loud (might feel awkward, but even just to a family member or friend you’re thankful for), or simply go over them in your mind.
Consider How Much You’ve Grown
Ruminating tends to correlate with negative thoughts. (How often do you spend a long time contemplating your greatest qualities?)
Instead of going over and over your faults and failures, or worrying about what’s to come, think about the ways in which you have learned and developed and blossomed over the years. How might you be handling this situation differently than you used to? What victories have you seen lately? Take some time to honor how far you’ve come.
Find a Mantra (and Keep Going Back to It)
I find mantras – positive quotes, scripture, or sayings – to be effective in keeping me grounded and focused when my mind threatens to run away with itself.
Here are some mindful mantras to try:
I can do this.
You are enough.
Find what’s best.
Let it go.
“Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.”
And if not, He is still good.
(See a full list of self-affirmations here.)
This is something that doesn’t always come naturally. It can feel awkward to speak a compliment to someone, especially if you’re rusty at it. But say something nice! Compliment others – or, hey! Say something nice about you. Make note of things around you that are lovely and admirable (or basically all of Philippians 4:8). Praise God for these amazing things.
Do Something Different
Shake up your routine. Try something new. Again, this may sound counterintuitive. Won’t doing something new add to your stress?
Actually doing something you haven’t done before (or in a while) requires you to focus your mind on the moment. You have to be present. It’s difficult to let your mind wander when you’re following a new hiking path, shopping at a different grocery store, trying a new activity, or playing a game you haven’t tried yet.
Take a Walk
Getting outside is enough to flood your senses with things you’re not used to – different sights, sounds, and smells. Walk and try to focus in on those senses. Observe it all. Turn off the headphones and just be present for the moment.
Taking the opportunity to create something is another way to focus in on the present. You can paint, draw, doodle, journal, hand letter or copy a quote or poem, color. You might even take the time to do a word puzzle or similar activity.
There is a lot to be said for doing nothing – even actually being bored. Boredom can prompt you to grow creatively and be more productive – see the book Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi for more.
Take the time to put everything else away. (You could do this on your walk, too.)
The times when I slow down and play with my kids, I have to focus on them. They won’t allow me do anything else 🙂
You can play a board game, tag, kick around a soccer ball, toss a baseball, play a video game; just for a few ideas.
(More things to do together here!)
How about you?
How do you stay mindful and present? Which of these top mindfulness exercises will you try?
Also, can I send you a little help? Download free mindfulness journaling pages to use whenever you feel like you need some centering and grounding. Fill out the sign-up sheet below for access.