“Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out,” the yoga instructor from the Equinox on 92nd street calmly instructed. I watched the people around me melt into their mats and fall into a state of deep and utter relaxation. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to recreate that same feeling of calm that the other yogis had so effortlessly found. I felt overwhelmed, anxious, and a bit embarrassed. I mean, isn’t the whole point of mindfulness to ease my worries and help me relax? I decided that practicing mindfulness simply wasn’t for me. That was, until I actually learned what mindfulness is.
In an effort to become more self-actualized, I decided to take The Science of Living Well at Barnard, a new course about positive psychology. Within five minutes of our very first class, Professor Scott Barry Kaufman had the entire class meditating together. I thought to myself, “Oh no, not this mindfulness nonsense again.” I thought that meditation was something that only hippies wearing loose-fitting pants could do. The first guided meditation we did involved observing our thoughts like trains going through a train station; they come and go. When a thought popped into my head, I let it pass instead of dwelling on it. I was truly in control of my thoughts. After those short five minutes, I actually felt calmer and more clear-minded. I realized that I wasn’t completely incapable of being mindful. I just had been grossly misinformed on what exactly mindfulness was and how to practice it effectively.
By reading about mindfulness meditation, meditating during almost every class and recitation, and listening to guest speakers who use mindfulness either in their work or other settings, I continue to learn new ways to be mindful, like practicing body scans, breath awareness, and, my personal favorite, sound meditation.
Most importantly, I learned that every meditation session is unique and not everybody practices mindfulness in the same ways. For those who have trouble falling and staying asleep, doing a deep sleep meditation before bed can be the difference between a night of restful sleep and one where you wake up every 30 minutes in a state of sweaty panic. For others, it can be part of your daily routine in which you give your mind a break. Mindfulness helps you escape your worries and focus on yourself.
Unfortunately, the term “self-care” is often confused with mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation is a form of self-care, but not every stress-relieving event that Barnard or Columbia advertises is mindfulness. While putting on an overpriced Dr. Jart+ face mask and sipping on a cup of peppermint tea from Well Woman might help you relax, those activities are not the same as practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is an inward practice that strengthens the relationship between your body and mind. Remember, mindfulness isn’t something that you do once and then call it a day. It’s not a 5-hour Energy drink that instantly slams your system with caffeine. If that were true we would all be living our best, most stress-free lives right now. But mindfulness is a practice, not a simple act.
Practicing mindfulness is something that I still find extremely difficult. It sounds easy in theory, but thinking about nothing is actually quite challenging. Our thoughts and anxieties are relentless and demand attention like the water-bottle guy on Low Steps, (what a man, am I right?). Just as you begin to drift away into a state of relaxation, your mind suddenly decides that now is the perfect time to worry about your upcoming calculus midterm or settle the debate of which Jonas brother is the cutest (it’s Joe).
Once you start to experiment with mindfulness, you slowly learn how to let go of your thoughts. I personally find it beneficial to say the word “breathing” in my mind after each inhale or exhale, or to scan my body from head to toe, tensing and then relaxing each muscle. Remind yourself that mindfulness is something you deserve. With your undoubtedly busy schedule, I implore you to find a few minutes for yourself. With practice, you can gain a clearer perspective as well as improve your well-being and mental health.
Mindfulness is your time to be a human being, not a human doing.
Lisa Sholomon is a freshman at Barnard College who relies on mindfulness to keep her sane because she is pre-med and plans on majoring in psychology. And no, she probably can’t hang out right now because she is most likely studying for her organic chemistry exam.
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