Mindfulness on the trail
The topic of mindfulness continues to garner a lot of attention in 2019, and for good reason. Scientific study after study proves the benefits of mindfulness on our mood and overall mental health. It has been proven to change the way our brains respond to stress and can reduce our tendency to worry. Mindfulness is linked to gratitude and can improve our ability to deal with difficult situations. So, what is mindfulness exactly? In its broadest sense, mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment (as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn).
Unlike mindfulness practices we do indoors, using it on the trail gives us the opportunity to engage all our senses in intriguing ways. A misconception I hear regularly is that mindfulness is meant to be a still, silent practice. Adventurers can be turned off by the thought of sitting motionless for too long. However, paying attention to the present moment can take place through a variety of physical activities, including hiking. The sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations offered up by Mother Nature are like no other, especially when accepted without judgment, which is key to a healthy mindfulness practice. Here are four mindful exercises to use on your next hike.
Focus on the breath
Though breathing comes naturally, this mindful practice can be a challenge during a hike. While there are many breathing exercises to choose from, I suggest finding your own natural cadence by taking a deep, cleansing breath in through your nose. Follow this by exhaling slowly through your mouth. As you continue this practice, fill your belly or lower lungs with air as you breathe in through your nose again. Notice the deflating sensation as air leaves your body through your mouth. Continue this for five minutes or more. Observe any thoughts, feelings, and sensations you encounter like a curious scientist, without judgment. Using paced breathing, whether on or off the trail, engages the parasympathetic nervous system. This system sends an “all clear” alert to the brain, reducing anxiety, fear, and worry.
2. Engage the senses
Start by focusing on the sensation of your feet on the trail. Is the trail smooth or rocky, flat or at an incline? Notice the brain’s tendency to want to label as good or bad, easy or hard, right or wrong. Attempt to describe the experience without judgment by stating facts only. Then, with the same non-judgmental aim in mind, shift your attention to the sounds of birds, other hikers, the wind, and so on. Spend a few minutes observing and then describing each sound. Move towards noticing smells, again with a gentle reminder to describe the experience objectively and without judgment. If you can’t see it, you can’t name it. For example, without seeing the bird doing the singing, you can only label it as a chirping sound. You can’t be sure that smell is a skunk, without encountering the critter. And, let’s hope you don’t! With practice, you can learn to apply this same technique of neutral observation and description when you are faced with a stressful situation. It will help you detach from the negative emotions stress usually conjures up, so you can think more clearly and respond effectively in the moment.
3. Build distress tolerance
We often get the message that we should avoid pain at all costs and distract ourselves from it if we are not able to avoid it. Hence, our society’s attempts to numb feelings through mindless scrolling, addictions, and quick fixes. Psychologists argue that it is more helpful to build distress tolerance skills, that is, the ability to endure stressful and uncomfortable situations. Our problem-solving brain, whose goal it is to keep us safe and comfortable, will naturally ask “How can I make the pain stop? How can I get myself out of this?” Shifting our focus back to the here and now is crucial when we notice this pattern. Enduring less-than-pleasant sensory experiences by hiking a bit further gives your brain a chance to see that it is tolerable. Don’t distract yourself from the experience. Instead, embrace it by describing it through a body scan: “I feel sun shining on my face. I feel tension in my shoulders. My pack feels heavy on my back. My legs feel strong and solid. I am feeling a mild burning sensation in my feet.” When we expand our awareness to our entire experience, and not just the painful content, we are reminded of a part of our story that typically gets overshadowed by negativity. And, this part of the story is powerful.
4. Practice gratitude
Gratitude has been proven to decrease anxiety and depression when practiced regularly. It has also been shown to improve sleep. While trudging up switchbacks to get to Yosemite Falls this spring, my calves and lungs were screaming, “Make it stop!” My brain, full of judgment, was crafting up all sorts of quick fix solutions and justifications for turning back. “Fake an injury. Just give up now and save yourself the trouble. If you don’t make it to the Falls, you won’t miss much.” Using a mindful gratitude exercise, I was able to turn my attention to the present moment, again and again, over the four hour hike. By asking yourself, “What am I receiving from this hike? How have I made it this far today? What’s the most beautiful or inspiring thing I’ve seen on the hike today? What’s been the biggest challenge on the trail and how have I overcome it? Who is hiking with me and what do I appreciate most about them?” you too can build a gratitude practice into your hike. It’s a simple reminder that on your hike, in that moment, you have all you need.
These four mindful exercises will help you build the skills necessary to observe your thoughts and experiences with less judgment. During these exercises, when you notice yourself judging (because you are human!), don’t judge the judging. Simply, let go and return to the present moment. With practice, you will begin to reap the rewards given to those who engage in mindfulness regularly.
If you’re in the San Antonio area on a third Saturday of the month and would like to practice mindfulness, make plans to join us on a women’s wellness hike. Along with building our mindfulness muscles, these monthly hikes connect like-minded ladies, cover mental health related topics specific to women, and offer the unique opportunity to engage our physical and mental health at once. See you on the trail!