Mindfulness For Athletes

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Just “go with the flow” – seems like a ridiculous thing to suggest to fitness professionals or indeed to our clients! After all, we’re encouraged to have goals, to have plans, to beat a PB and, by definition, we’re pretty energetic individuals impatient for results.

This is the first in a series of articles I was invited to write for Personal Trainer Magazine and was originally published in April 2015.

For many years my life used to be ALL about deadlines and goals; I thought by making sure I had my running shoes in my suitcase, multivits, energy bars and my sachets of wheatgrass at the ready would be me sorted. I could still train for that half marathon, work long hours and be fit and healthy – wrong!

Enter stage – mindfulness practice

Ever wondered what the heck it is? Or, what’s that got to do with you or your clients? Mindfulness-based stress-reduction has been around for several decades as a therapeutic tool. By turning our attention to what is actually happening in the present, we’re able to see the situation for what it is, allowing us to have absolute control over how we react in any given moment. That’s mindfulness in a nutshell. We are invited to simply be aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different.

The benefits of introducing this practice into our daily lives as fitness professionals are huge: we learn to relax (allowing the body to heal), we learn not to dwell on the last bad training session or match, which can seriously affect our performance (it’s gone, it’s in the past!) and once we have a plan in place, we learn that the “how we get the results” doesn’t always come about in the way we expected.

How to get started?

The first stage is learning to relax. Try this the next time you’re feeling frazzled after a full day of coaching or weary from over-training. Take 10 minutes to sit or lie down undisturbed (we can all find 10 minutes) and connect with your breath. Inhale and exhale deeply, using all of the muscles involved in breathing: the abs, diaphragm, intercostal muscles, and up into the chest, noticing any areas of tension in the body and allowing yourself to simply relax. Just notice any thoughts that come into your mind, allow them to come and go (you can’t stop your mind having thoughts, but you can become an observer rather than a participant in them). With this technique, you’ll automatically switch on the parasympathetic part of your nervous system allowing you to relax naturally. You wait, 10 minutes will soon become 15 and so on.

Yes, it takes practice, but the rewards are instant and exponential. Every few minutes that we choose to direct our attention to the breath and relax into the body, is like having a 30-minute power nap, only much quicker and longer-lasting.

With love and wellbeing wishes,

Chrissie Tarbitt - Integrated Wellbeing

Meditation: Why, How & When?

Chrissie Tarbitt, Integrated Wellbeing

“My top priority is for people to understand that they have the power to change things themselves.” Aung San Suu Kyi

Contemporary research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology now confirm what sages, gurus, monks and other followers of contemplative practices have known for millennia: With practice, we can train our brains and re-programme our minds to be happier, more insightful, and caring (both of ourselves and others) and ultimately live the life we choose.

What sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom in relation to mind matters, is that we worry about the future, feel guilty or resentful of our past and beat ourselves up about the present – ouch, no pressure then!

The primordial part of our brain that gives us our sense of threat (fight or flight response) has unfortunately not evolved in tandem with other parts of the brain. And thus anxiety about the day ahead or worry about a difficult conversation you had last week will have exactly the same effect on our minds (and therefore bodies) as it would have had thousands of years ago in the savannah preparing to flee from the teeth of wild animals.

We have no inherent way of dealing with this state of hyperarousal and for many of us the fight or flight hormones rushing around the body become a permanent state and feelings of tension, elevated heart rate, butterflies and sweaty palms are the default in our lives. We also know that this state of hyperarousal can lead to many ailments, hormone imbalances, poor sleep, headaches, muscle soreness and the list goes on. The upshot is that our overall sense of wellbeing is thrown off course in a big way.

In last month’s blog on an Introduction to Mindfulness I talked a little about how, by bringing our full attention to whatever activity we’re engaged in, we become the observer of our thoughts – this subtle shift away from reacting to those thoughts to paying attention, observing in a non-judgmental way, offers us some respite from the constant stream of self-talk (so often negative) which in turn gives us the space we need to see things for the way they really are. This will be a constant theme throughout the Mind, Body and Food Matters blogs as mindfulness and meditation can positively affect every aspect of our lives.

Chrissie Tarbitt, Why Meditate?

Despite the fact that humans seem to be programmed to focus on the negative, the great news is that, with practice, we can re-programme our minds. I’d encourage you to explore the possibility of being able to free yourselves of negative cycles of thinking and adopt a playful almost childlike quality to this spirit of inquiry. I’ve found that the key to living a more mindful life is to develop a regular meditation practice.

I first started a daily meditation practice about 5 years ago, really not knowing what to expect (having no expectations was, I soon discovered, the most rewarding and freeing approach!), but I knew that I wanted a bit of what I had observed other regular meditators had: more inner peace, self-acceptance and self-compassion, more compassion and patience with others, along with an ability to flow with life rather than pushing and striving against the tide.

What?

Meditation is not a contest. Meditation is a practice. There is no right or wrong way of doing it. We simply pay attention to our thoughts, notice them, drop them and focus on the breath. Drop any need to know whether you are doing the right kind of meditation. The part of us that wants to know is the same part of us that has pre-conceived ideas of right and wrong ways.

How?

As this is a practice, it’s helpful to choose a space that you can go back to every time; this could be a corner of any room in the house where you won’t be disturbed. Traditional meditation practice involves sitting cross-legged with a straight spine, if possible with the knees below the hips to form a firm triangular base, the crown of the head extended, eyes open or closed (choose what works for you). You can either place your hands on your knees palms down, in traditional yogic position with palms turned up forefinger and thumb touching or simply place them folded in your lap.

The important thing is to be comfortable so that your shoulders and face muscles can relax. If your hips are particularly tight or you have long legs, try using a larger meditation cushion – these come in crescent shape Zafus or full round Zafus. Alternatively, try a small meditation bench and kneel on a blanket – these are ideal if you are very tight in the hips and lower back or want to avoid any unnecessary twisting of the knees in a seated position. Equally, you can settle in a similar position sitting on a chair.

The Breath

If you have experience of yoga, then you’ll know that the use of the breath is key throughout your practice. In the same way with meditation, once settled in a comfortable quiet place, begin by lengthening your breath. Draw your attention to your breath, inhaling and exhaling through the nose, gradually slowing it down. There are many different forms of meditation; and I would encourage you to research different methods, join a group or search for videos on YouTube that resonate with you. For me, keeping it simple is key. I like to simply focus on my breath, counting 1 – 10 on each exhale. If the mind wanders, which it will, simply notice it, let the thoughts drift away without judging them and come back to the breath.

When?

Again, there is no right or wrong time to meditate. Traditionally, meditation takes place first thing in the morning and/or in the evening. I find first thing in the morning the most convenient as I can stick to the same time 9 days out of 10. Meditating in the mornings is also a wonderful way to start the day. I get up earlier than anyone else so I get that extra 30 minutes of sanctuary – just me, my mat and my cushion.

Start with 10 minutes each day (any less than 10 minutes and I found I wasn’t giving myself a chance to experience at least a feeling of deep relaxation) and set a timer so that you are not focusing on how long you have sat for. Practice for 10 minutes a day for the first 14 days and extend this to 15 minutes for the next 14 days. If possible, write down your experience of your new practice (it doesn’t have to be after every session, but it really helps to track one’s progress).

I learned pretty quickly that one doesn’t need to be a mystic or a monk in order to reap the rewards of this kind of practice; who wouldn’t want to be able to relax almost instantly, experience a greater sense of calm in difficult situations when you might have otherwise reacted negatively and enjoy an all-round greater sense of wellbeing?

Matthieu Ricard, who has been called the happiest man in the world, is a French born Buddhist monk who, after gaining his doctorate in molecular genetics, devoted his life to Tibetan Buddhism. He has a wonderful, clear teaching style and I love this video of him talking about “The Art of Meditation” in which he not only demystifies the practice, but describes in such a practical and compelling way, all of the benefits of a regular meditation practice.

I’d love to hear from you about your meditation practice, whether you’re trying it for the first time or have years of experience. Please share your thoughts on this wonderful free wellbeing tool that’s available to us all.

With love and wellbeing wishes,

chrissie-signature

An Introduction To Mindfulness

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A few years ago, my husband gave me a card (slightly tongue in cheek, but a humorous nod to my enthusiasm for my mindfulness and meditation practice), entitled ZEN DOG. It has a picture of a dog languishing in a bath tub boat, donning sunglasses, bobbing along at sea, the sun beating down on him. The words below read like this:

“He knows not where he’s going
For the ocean will decide –
It’s not the DESTINATION…
…It’s the glory of the RIDE”

I actually framed the card and it now hangs on my bathroom wall, serving as a daily reminder that striving for answers to everything or trying to second-guess the future is a pointless, energy-sapping exercise.

When I do allow myself to come away from all that’s going on in my head and notice any tension I may be holding in my body, it really is such a relief, as I know that help is at hand and it’s entirely down to me!  So, for self-confessed control freaks out there, how cool is that?!  By turning our attention to what is actually happening in the present, we are able to see the situation for what it is – we have absolute control over how we react in any given moment. That is mindfulness in a nutshell.

Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).

“Go with the flow” – what a ridiculous thing to suggest when life was ALL about deadlines, rushing about to catch planes and trains, answering emails at the same time as talking on a conference call, etc., etc. – you get the picture. How could it be possible when we all have so many responsibilities and ‘to do’ lists, to “go with the flow”? I used to think that I had a high tolerance of stress but, in reality, that belief simply meant that I’d take on more responsibility and add more stress to my life!

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The saying “necessity is the mother of all invention” springs to mind when I think back to the turning point in my life; to the time when I realised that if I wanted to continue functioning as the person I really wanted to be and knew deep down that I was, I’d need to make some fundamental lifestyle changes. Enter my inspiration and dear friend Shelley, fellow yogi and meditation junkie. For the next several years I went on my own wellbeing journey and soon discovered the joys of a meditation and mindfulness practice. The changes didn’t mean quitting my job and living in a yurt (I have been tempted!), but I went in search of the peace within that would enable me to regain the natural energy needed to live a happy and fulfilling life, that would fully embrace the day job, and my role as mum, wife, friend, daughter, etc.

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time with Zen Buddhist monks and inspiring yoga teachers around the world, I’ve read many dozens of books and have attended several wonderful courses, all in pursuit of inner peace. And do you know what the single magic ingredient is that makes this all possible? The breath! How we direct our Chi, Qi, Prana or, simply, energy with the use of our breath, is the answer to living mindfully, in the moment.

In yoga we learn that the breath is the link between the mind and the body. Learning, moment by moment, to direct our attention to the present using the breath as our anchor, can be truly life-changing. It’s such a simple thing but, of course, as with many simple concepts, that isn’t synonymous with easy. Yes, it takes practice, but the rewards are instant and exponential. Every few minutes that we choose to direct our attention to the breath and relax into the body, is like having a 30-minute power nap, only much quicker and longer-lasting and no-one need notice ☺.

So, the next time you’re feeling frazzled or just out of synch with life, take 5 minutes to sit or lie down undisturbed (we can all find 5 minutes) and connect with your breath. Inhale and exhale deeply, noticing any areas of tension in the body and allowing yourself to simply relax. You wait, 5 minutes will soon become 10 and 10, 15 and so on.

You may have realised that I’m a big fan of quotes so I thought I’d sign off this introduction to mindfulness with one by Albert Einstein:

Life is a preparation for the future; and the best preparation for the future is to live as if there were none.”

Join the conversation by commenting below, and let me know your favourite life quotes too.

Until next time, enjoy the moments!

With love and wellbeing wishes,

chrissie-signiture