4 beginner mindfulness exercises you can do without an app

These mindfulness techniques can help you find your center during stressful times.
These mindfulness techniques can help you find your center during stressful times.
Image: KIEFERPIX / SHUTTERSTOCK

March Mindfulness is Mashable’s series that examines the intersection of meditation practice and technology. Because even in the time of coronavirus, March doesn’t have to be madness.


Mindfulness apps are ubiquitous. But mindfulness and mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that focuses on present moment experiences, existed long before smartphones arrived on the scene, and have been used to soothe humans in stressful times well before COVID-19.

Ginny Wholley, a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction instructor at UMass Memorial Health Care Center for Mindfulness, defines mindfulness as an awareness that comes from the practice of paying attention with a kind and non-judgmental attitude.

Awareness helps us respond to stress and pay attention to triggers and automatic reactions, says Dr. Jud Brewer, director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, addiction psychiatrist, and neuroscientist.

If we reach for a cigarette whenever we’re agitated, for instance, mindfulness can help us realize we do that and work to change course if we choose. If we’ve developed unhealthy habits during the pandemic and would like to stop, mindfulness can be a tool for changing our behaviors.

But you don’t need to meditate to be mindful, says Brewer. Nor do you need an app, or to pay money to get the benefits of the practice. Opportunities to unlock mindfulness are tucked in everyday moments.

Below are four beginner mindfulness exercises you can practice sans an app, as recommended by Wholley, Brewer, and Diana Winston from UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center.

1. Five-finger breathing

This mindfulness exercise, a breathing technique that pairs touching your fingers while inhaling and exhaling slowly, can help ground you when you’re anxious and trying to quell your worried thoughts, whether they’re about the pandemic or your upcoming work deadline.

Why it works:

Five-finger breathing engages several of your senses at the same time, incorporating sight and touch, as well as requiring you to concentrate on your breath. This takes up a lot of your brain’s working memory, so it can help you think about something else, at least momentarily, as you do the exercise. Breathing exercises that only focus on the breath are not as effective at diminishing anxiety because your working memory still has room and worry can sneak in.

And if your worrying thoughts come back after you’ve done the exercise, at least you may have calmed down enough to respond to your worries without spiraling. They may even be easier to let go of after the exercise.

“Worrying [is] our brains way of doing at least something when we can’t really do anything about a situation,” Brewer says in an instructional video about five-finger breathing.

How to do five-finger breathing:

  1. Start off by placing an index finger of one hand on the outside of the bottom of your pinky of the other hand.

  2. As you breathe in, move your index finger up the outside of your pinky. Follow your index finger with your eyes as it moves.

  3. As you breathe out, move your index finger down the inside of your pinky. Again, watch your index finger as you trace your pinky.

  4. Breathe in again, as you trace your pinky up your ring finger, watching your index finger the whole time.

  5. Repeat this process until you move your index finger around your entire hand. Feel free to reverse the process, starting your index finger at your thumb, and eventually, ending at your pinky.

You can also follow along with Brewer’s video below as you do the exercise.

 

 

2. Walk mindfully (wherever you go)

The pandemic has turned many of us into walking fiends, even if our daily jaunts simply involve checking our mailboxes 100 times a day. But even as we went outside and into the world, many of us were likely caught up in our thoughts, oblivious to the surroundings or the feeling of the breeze on our faces. Instead, be mindful while you walk. This practice can help you notice the little moments around you and the sensations in your body you might have missed before. In doing it consistently, you can help train your brain to be more mindful during other everyday moments too, like spending time with loved ones.

How to walk mindfully:

  1. First, set the intention that you’re going to walk mindfully. You can tell yourself “I’m going to walk mindfully.” Before you begin, take a long deep breath in and then breathe out, to signal to yourself that you’re about to initiate this mindfulness practice.

  2. Start walking. As you lift your leg and place it back down, notice what you feel. Take note of the connection between your foot and the earth. What sensations do you feel? Does anything twinge? What feels good?

  3. Observe the shifting of your body as you move from one step to the next.

  4. Repeat this process throughout your walk.

  5. As you walk, your mind will wander. That’s natural. When it does, acknowledge it. Then bring your attention back. You can even think “Right now, I’m walking mindfully,” to help.

3. Begin and end each day with mindfulness

You have two mindfulness opportunities awaiting you every day; bedtime and waking up. You might find it difficult to practice mindfulness throughout your day so taking advantage of these two natural windows can help. That said, do what works best for you if these natural timestamps aren’t helpful.

How to go to bed mindfully:

  1. Pull back your comforter and sheets and notice how they feel on your fingers.

  2. Once you lay down, observe the physical connection between your body and the bed.

  3. Feel the weight of your head on the pillow.

  4. Close your eyes.

  5. Use all your senses to take in the experience of your body preparing to drift off to sleep. For example, notice how your arms feel against your sheets or concentrate on the sounds you hear.

How to wake up mindfully:

  1. Draw awareness to the entire body. How does each body part feel?

  2. Feel your breath and lean into any stretches your body naturally initiates while still in bed.

  3. Don’t immediately rush to jump out of bed and start your day. Continue laying down for a few minutes and try to focus your attention on your body, rather than what the day might bring.

“So often we wake up in the morning and before we even get out of bed…we start running through our to-do list and then our feet hit the floor and we go, go, go,” says Wholley. Waking up mindfully can set you up to be more aware throughout the rest of your day.

4. Short Body Scan (3 minutes)

UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center has a host of meditation and mindfulness exercises available on its website. If you’re new to mindfulness, its “Short Body Scan,” which guides you to bring awareness to your entire body, can be a good introduction and is available in both English and Spanish. In April, the center’s app and website-based basic meditations will be available in 10 to 12 additional languages, including Mandarin, Arabic, Tagalog, and Armenian.

It’s effective because you home in on specific parts of the body, feeling each one individually, and noticing the sensations that arise. This centered focus on our body parts is unusual in our distracted lives.

Read the instructions to get acquainted with the body scan and play the audio below to guide your practice (or guide yourself from what you remember reading).

How to do the Short Body Scan:

  1. Bring your attention into your body.

  2. Close your eyes if you find that comfortable.

  3. Feel the weight of your body on the chair, floor, or wherever you’re seated.

  4. Take a few deep breaths.

  5. As you take a deep breath, allow more oxygen to enter your body.

  6. As you exhale, feel a sense of relaxing more deeply.

  7. Notice your feet on the floor and the sensation of your feet touching the floor, the weight, pressure, vibration, and heat.

  8. Notice your legs against whatever you’re sitting on and sensations such as pressure, pulsing, lightness, heaviness, and lightness.

  9. Notice your back against the surface it’s resting against.

  10. Focus your attention on your stomach area.

  11. If your stomach is tense or tight, let it soften.

  12. Take a breath.

  13. Notice your hands.

  14. If your hands are tense or tight, allow them to soften.

  15. Notice your arms and feel any sensations present in them.

  16. Let your shoulders soften.

  17. Notice your neck and throat and let them soften.

  18. Soften your jaw.

  19. Allow your face and facial muscles soften.

  20. Notice your entire body.

  21. Take one more breath.

  22. As best as you can, be aware of your whole body.

  23. Take a breath.

  24. When you’re ready, open your eyes.

It can take some trial and error to make mindfulness a consistent part of your life. To turn it into a practice, incorporate it into something you already do, such as showering, suggests Winston of UCLA’s mindfulness education center.

Mindfulness is a practice so it requires repetition, she says. If you get bored with an exercise, or find it unhelpful, try being mindful in silence, or try a different one.

“…consider when we attend a yoga class and do the same postures over and over. It’s always different internally, which is the same in mindfulness,” she says. “We do the same technique, but have a different inner experience every time.”

Winston recommends doing a mindfulness  meditation exercise once a day. Work up to longer practices, such as the center’s 19-minute “Complete Meditation Instructions” one. Like anything, the longer you practice mindfulness the easier it often becomes. More practice is better but if you can only manage a few minutes a day, that’s much more beneficial than nothing.

The most important part of the practice is noticing how mindfulness impacts your life. While it takes consistent effort to make it part of your routine, if you get positive results that will be the impetus to keep going, says Winston.

Learn more about meditation

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