Mindfulness practice can be formal or informal

Practicing mindfulness, formally or informally, has proven health benefits.

A man in a hat breathing deeply with his eyes closed, outside.
Photo: Pexels/Kelvin Valerio.

Mindfulness is a popular and effective practice for stress reduction that lets us live life in the moment. In contrast, mindfulness is not a technique nor is it the process of learning stress management. Numerous studies from over 55 years of research have demonstrated the positive benefits of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) approaches on people’s physical and mental health — including helping people navigate anxiety, depression and chronic pain.

In addition, research suggests that the practice of mindfulness improves the immune system. Brain functioning can also be improved with mindfulness practice because it increases gray matter, which is involved in memory, emotional regulation, empathy, and perspective taking. 

Mindfulness is the practice of active, open and nonjudgmental awareness. It is paying attention in the present moment with openness, curiosity, kindness and flexibility. For many of us, thinking about mindfulness may conjure up images of sitting for hours in silent meditation. While formal sitting meditation is one way of practicing mindfulness, there are many formal and informal practices to integrate mindfulness into our lives.

The formal practice of mindfulness includes a regular, intentional commitment of time. These designated practices invite us to dwell with awareness on one thing, such as our breath, an aspect of sensation or stillness, or a focus on our whole body. Practicing formal mindfulness changes our brains in ways that help us to bring mindfulness to our daily life in more informal ways. Examples of formal mindfulness practice that are part of approaches like MBSR include:

  • Sitting meditation: Sit upright in a strong, relaxed way for several minutes just "being" and experiencing stillness. Practice noticing your thoughts, emotions and sensations with curious, open, compassionate, nonjudgmental awareness.
  • Awareness of breath: Gently guide your focus to your breath as you naturally breathe in and out, allowing your breath and your awareness to be expansive. It might be helpful to bring your attention to receiving and releasing. For example, breathing in and receiving hope, peace and joy and breathing out, releasing anger, pain and suffering. 
  • Walking meditation: Take a walk and notice your feet making contact with the earth with each step that you take and noticing the sensations in your body. For those who don’t use their feet for mobility, this can be a moving meditation with a focus on what you’re experiencing and noticing as you move in your chair or other adaptive device.
  • Eating meditation: Focus mindfully on anything that you may be eating as you fully experience the smell, texture, taste and other sensations of the food as you eat it very slowly.
  • Sensory-guided meditations: Pay attention intentionally to what you’re hearing, touching, smelling, tasting and/or seeing in an open, nonjudgmental and expansive way.
  • Body scans: Scan the body in a slow and intentional manner with your mind focusing from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. The focus is on being relaxed and aware as you reclaim a connection, rather than resistance to your body, and the sensations that you feel. If you’re experiencing pain, for example, the practice is to notice the sensation and not try to block it. The aim is to practice noticing rather than judging and to practice being comfortable with the uncomfortable.
  • Yoga: Integrate your mind, body and spirit through breath, poses, flow, movement and mindfulness. Yoga often includes a strong focus on letting go of resistance and grasping while accepting where our minds, hearts and bodies are with patience, acceptance, and love.

One of the often-cited challenges to practicing mindfulness is finding the time to do it. The good news is that practicing mindfulness informally, for even 10 minutes a day, has many of the same benefits found with practicing mindfulness in a more formal way. All of the formal practices outlined here can also be adapted into informal practice or “everyday mindfulness.”

When we practice mindfulness in a more informal way we notice our experience from moment to moment, and bring our attention to one thing as many times as we can throughout the day. Some moments that occur often in which we can practice informal mindfulness can include:

  • Washing dishes: Notice the water and feel the sensation of the warmth, the bubbles, and your hands on the dishes. Slow your movements down and pause for a moment to pay attention to each item you’re washing.
  • Noticing nature: Listen to the sounds of the birds, insects or the leaves rustling in the trees as you walk by. If you live in the city, listen to the sounds of cars going by or the voices of people as they walk by your window.
  • Listening: Listen deeply to people in your life with an open heart and mind. Practice not giving advice and just listen and allow people to be where they are. Listen with gentle, open focus on the laughter of people you care about.
  • Showering: Feel the sensations and warmth of the water. Listen to the sound of the spray of the water around you. Notice your thoughts and feelings as you take in the entire experience of the shower.
  • Driving: Pay attention with focused attention on what you see, the feel of the steering wheel in your hands and what you’re hearing around you. Relax your shoulders and notice what you’re feeling and experiencing as you mindfully drive.
  • Parenting: Pause as much as possible and bring your full intention and attention to your parenting. Research shows that mindfulness can strengthen our parenting skills and impact our children in positive ways.
  • Movement: While walking, running, stretching bending or anytime you’re moving your body throughout the day, bring your focus to the sensations in your body.
  • Self-compassion: Notice when you’re being harsh and judgmental with yourself and guide your thoughts toward self-compassion.
  • Breathing: Your breath is always with you, and you don’t need a formal practice to benefit from breath awareness. Pausing at any time throughout our day to connect to our breath and notice ourselves inhaling and exhaling is an important part of informal as well as formal mindfulness practice.

We all have the capacity to practice mindfulness in our daily lives. Practicing formal and/or informal mindfulness as often as we can helps us to learn the skills we need for our overall health and wellbeing when the stakes are low. During difficult times of change, pain, reactivity, stress, grief or trauma, our ability to shift our focus in the present moment acts as a buffer. Thus, allowing us the space to draw on these tools, skills, and practices to help us respond in ways that are lined up with our deepest values and wisdom.

Michigan State University Extension offers programs and resources that support mental health and well-being, such as Stress Less with Mindfulness, Mental Health First Aid, Managing Farm Stress programs and RELAX: Alternatives to Anger. 

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