It has happened to all of us: we hastily pull on our running shoes, head out the door, run the same route, worry about what we still need to do at work tomorrow, and before we know it, we’re back home, barely remembering much about a run that was supposed to add to our health benefits and even help us to de-stress! Well, next time you head out the door, try to be mindful, try to run in the moment and you might just have one of the best runs of your life. Here’s how.
A MIND FULL OF WHAT?
But what is mindfulness and how can we apply it in our daily lives and sporting life? Dr Georg Feuerstein, expert on yoga, Tantra and Hinduism, explains in his article The Art of Mindfulness that even though we may think we are aware of things going on around us, the majority of our lives unfold in a “dimly aware or even unaware state of consciousness.”
He says mindfulness can help us interrupt the automatic process of becoming lost in our own mental processes. “The mind is largely on automatic. Thoughts and emotions seem to perpetuate themselves in us, even when we would like them to stop. After just a few seconds of conscious self-observation, we find ourselves lost in our own thoughts.”
Linda Kantor, psychologist and co-director of the Cape Town Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programme (MBSR) agrees and explains mindfulness as “moment to moment attention without judgement. It is about being more aware of the present moment, and noticing when we are habitually pulled out of the moment by our own ruminations, fantasies, concerns and plans. When we observe what the mind does, we realise it is seldom in the present and can work with it more skilfully,” she says. “If practiced regularly in daily life, mindfulness can relieve stress, enhance health and wellbeing through the relaxation response, and improve concentration, to name but a few.”
THE PSYCHOLOGY BEHIND IT
Several studies in sports psychology have linked mindfulness with sport. Jim Taylor and Gregory Wilson, authors of the book Applying Sport Psychology: Four Perspective, claim that performance in sport is greatly influenced by athletes’ ability to be mindful, to remain in the present and be centred, regardless of what is happening in the competitive situation. They write that “by focussing on the present rather than dwelling on past mistakes or future results, an athlete will be more alert to relevant performance cues, and more easily disregard distracting ones. It produces a relaxed psychological state that enables the body to perform in competition what it has learned in training.”
So instead of your mind cruising on auto-pilot, Linda says it helps to improve athletes’ focus by managing anxious or negative thoughts, because they can now notice what is going on around them and in their minds, and bring their attention back to the moment they are in. This distinct form of awareness has been likened to the state of perceptiveness you experience when you go into the fight-or-flight mode, but without the accompanying alarm. And just as it can lead to a state of wellbeing in life, it can be carried over to the sports field or race course and lead to better performance, as athletes can voluntarily get themselves closer to that elusive point of peak performance we call “in the zone.”
HOW CAN I APPLY IT?
Even though mindfulness has its roots in Eastern meditation practices, Linda says you do not have to have any background in meditation to practice it. “Mindfulness is an innate capacity that everyone has, regardless of their background. Anyone can learn to be more present and work with the movement of the mind more skilfully, as long as they choose to take the time to. The difficulty is that people often don’t know how to stop being ‘busy’ and give time to just being and noticing. The practice is simple, but takes some degree of commitment, and it helps to have some kind of formal mindfulness training.”
As a start, she says you can begin with a short daily breath awareness practice. “Sit in a quiet, comfortable space and for five to ten minutes feel the passage of your breath, either at the nostril, chest or belly. When you notice your mind wandering, bring your attention back to your breathing. Don’t give yourself a hard time about the mind wandering, that’s what minds do; practise noticing it with gentle awareness and come back to feeling the breath.”
The same strategy can be used with running as you start by focussing on your breathing and feeling how your diaphragm helps your lungs to suck in air and push it out again. Once you’ve mastered this art, you can extend your awareness to the rest of your body. Pay close attention to the feeling of your feet as they hit the ground and notice how your arms and legs move in synchrony. When you notice your mind wandering, bring your awareness back to the sensations in your body and you should be on your way to running in the moment!
So no more planning tonight’s dinner or tensing up in anticipation of a hill around the corner, run like you did when you were ten years old. Run in the here and now, without fear or tension. Just run.
For more information or to find a mindfulness workshop, visit the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programme’s website at www.mbsr.co.za.