Mindfulness for Sports Performance

In an earlier post, I discussed how playing tennis can develop mindfulness through building the capacity to pay attention in the present moment for the purpose of competing and being able to do so non-judgmentally (suspending self-criticism).  The very act of managing making mistakes in tennis helps to develop acceptance of what is and to reduce negative self-evaluation.  While tennis can help us to grow in mindfulness, using mindfulness practices on a regular basis develops our tennis performance.  Hence, playing tennis and mindfulness are mutually reinforcing.   I particularly noticed this mutual influence while watching some of the women’s matches during the US Open.

Being in the zone

Victoria Azarenka (unseeded) beat Elise Mertens (16th seed) 6-1, 6-0 in the US Open quarter-final round.  She achieved this despite not having played in a quarter-final since the 2016 Australian Open (Victoria gave birth to her son Leo in December 2016 and took a 9 month break from tennis during a lengthy custody battle for her son).  In her interview following the match with Elise, Victoria described how she saw the ball so large and with a bright yellow colour (she could even read the “US Open” imprint on the ball).  She also commented on the fact that the ball seemed to always be where she needed in order to hit the shot she wanted to play (in reality, it is likely that she had moved to be in the right spot to play the ball).   In the match, Victoria displayed heightened sensory perception, anticipation, and flexibility of movement.

The interviewer suggested that what Victoria was describing was known as “being in the zone” – an experience reported by many committed sports people such as car racing drivers and cricketers.  Mindfulness can develop the capacity to be-in-the zone as it achieves increased integration of body, mind and emotions – an alignment necessary to achieve the “flow” of being-in-the-zone.  Mindfulness practices such as yoga and Tai Chi can enhance sports performance and the likelihood of being-the-zone by developing bodily awareness, focused intention, groundedness and balance.

Finding the calm mind

Victoria lost 6-1 in the first set of the semi-final against Serena Williams who was determined to assert her ascendency as early as possible and to keep the rallies short (she had played four tough three-set matches leading up to this match).   However, Victoria went on to win the next two sets 6-3, 6-3.   When asked on interview how she went on to win after such a devastating start to the match, Victoria commented that Serena had dug her “in a big hole” and she had to “climb her way out”. 

She was able to do this because of the work she had been doing “to find the calm mind”.  She explained that she had learned to change her mindset from that of victim always seeking to ask why bad things were happening to her.  She stated that she recognised that she was responsible for what she did and how she reacted to situations and this had enabled her to “become a better person”.  Previously, Victoria had been noted for her on-court emotional outbursts that impeded her performance and progress as a professional tennis player.  During Serena’s lengthy injury break at a critical time in the match, Victoria was able to close her eyes and go inside herself and draw on her inner strength.

Mindfulness builds calmness and tranquility even in challenging times, develops self-awareness and helps us overcome negative self-evaluations.  It enables us to realise that there is a space between stimulus and response and that we have a choice in how we react to negative stimuli or testing situations.  Sharon Salzberg maintains that mindfulness develops wisdom in multiple ways including accepting what is beyond your control, managing your emotions and response and appreciating moments of wellness and joy.  Over the course of the US Open matches, Victoria frequently expressed her freedom from expectations and sheer joy at being able to participate in the competition and to play champions of Serena’s calibre.   

Body awareness and movement

At the start of the second set in her semi-final, Victoria began energetically bopping up and down.  During an interview following the match, she was asked what she was thinking when she “started to bop around at the baseline”.  Victoria explained that she was conscious of her need to bring her energy level up and movement was her way of doing that.  She was also able to tap into the fact that she started each day with a smile on her face and spent time on self-care to “focus her attention and energy”.

Processes such as body scan meditation can build body awareness, identify energy blocks, and provide a way to release tensions and the aftermath of traumas.   Mindful movement through yoga or Tai Chi can serve to build the mind-body connection and activate the body’s energy flow.

Reflection

Christian Straka, former tennis coach for Victoria Azarenka, is also a mindfulness facilitator with UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC).  He has created a specialized approach to mindset training by developing methodologies that apply “evidence-based mindfulness techniques in sports”. 

Many sportspeople consciously develop mindfulness to enhance their sports performance.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can access multiple benefits that facilitate achievement of high-performance levels in sports, as well as in our work and everyday life.  As with the pursuit of any competence, these benefits are more extensive and sustainable with regular practice.

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Image by Tomislav Jakupec from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness Strategies for Well-Being

Dr. Trisha Macnair, in her book Live Well, offers 100 ways to develop well-being.  Trisha has been a medical doctor for over thirty years and developed a speciality in “active ageing”.  Her book is focused on developing a healthy and long life and her many simple ways of achieving this include suggestions re nutrition, exercise and lifestyle.  Here I will focus on Trisha’s suggestions that relate to mindfulness.

Mindfulness for a healthy and long life

Trisha recommends several well-being strategies that are directly related to mindfulness:

  • Meditation – the psychological and physical benefits of meditation are well researched and documented.  Besides being a calming influence and source of tranquillity, meditation improves clarity and creativity and can contribute to mental health by helping to reduce negative thoughts, improve mood, develop wisdom and manage challenging emotions.   
  • Find your happy – underlying Trisha’s suggestions in relation to enjoying the physical and mental health benefits of being happy, is a focus on mindfulness.  This involves awareness of what contributes to happiness and unhappiness in our lives, tuning into experiences of well-being, and making time for ourselves to enable self-care.
  • Keep moving – several of Trisha’s recommendations relate to movement and she extols the physical benefits of walking, yoga and Tai Ch.  The mental health benefits of these practices can be enhanced by adopting mindful walking, treating Tai Chi as meditation-in -motion with conscious breathing and bodily awareness, and focusing on the meditative elements of yoga. 
  • Spending time in nature – the benefits of time spent in nature are increasingly being linked to improved physical and mental health and longevity.  The mental health benefits of nature can be enriched by meditating on the elements of nature, being conscious of the healing power of nature and developing our capacity for sensory awareness while in nature.
  • Doing acts of kindness – the happiness benefits of doing good deeds are well researched.  Mindfulness itself can have really positive outcomes for others as well as ourselves by improving many aspects of our interactions – our mood, ability and willingness to listen for understanding, capacity to regulate our emotions and express “sympathetic joy” and our sense of gratitude (not allowing envy to grow).  Loving-kindness meditation can also enable us to draw energy and vitality from our sense of connectedness to others and facilitate compassionate action.  Through mindfulness we can discover our unique way(s) to contribute to the well-being of others through specific acts of kindness.

Reflection

Trisha reminds us that there are many simple and readily accessible ways that we can use to develop our well-being and a healthy and long life.  The benefits of many of the practices she suggests can be enhanced as we grow in mindfulness.  Meditation itself brings substantial physical and mental health benefits.  The cumulative effects of the suggested practices can be life-changing because they are mutually self-reinforcing. 

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution, Non-Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Resilience through Self-Compassion

Sounds True founder, Tami Simon, recently interviewed Pema Chödrön as part of the podcast series, Resilience in Challenging Times.  The theme of Pema’s interview podcast was Compassionate Abiding – an emphasis on building resilience by abiding in, or inhabiting, difficult emotions while extending loving-kindness to our self and others.  Her focus was on ways to become “embodied” – being fully in touch with the physical manifestations of our feelings. 

Pema acknowledged that many people worldwide are feeling lost and experiencing “groundlessness”.  This is normal and natural in these challenging times when everything has been upended – intrastate, interstate and international travel, location of work, availability of work, education of children and adults, health risks, financial security and relationships.  We are now having to connect from a distance – with our colleagues, friends and extended family.  People in the streets, cafés and shops are wearing masks and observing social distancing – avoidance is the new norm in interactions.

Becoming grounded in your body

With this pervasive upheaval, it is difficult to stay grounded and avoid being swept away by a torrent of difficult emotions. Pema maintains that the one, immediately accessible control point is your body.  Your difficult emotions can manifest in your body as tightness in your chest, pain in your arms or legs, headaches, upset stomach, racing pulse or any other physical form of constriction, acceleration or discomfort.   Pema contends that the pathway to resilience lies in immersing yourself in your feelings and associated bodily sensations through your breathing.  She argues that it is important to “lean into your sharp points and fully experience them”.

Pema offered a breathing exercise during her interview podcast (at the 16-minute mark).  She encouraged listeners to get comfortable (sitting, lying or walking) and to ask themselves, “What does a specific feeling (e.g. anxiety) feel like in my body?’  You are encouraged to explore the depth and breadth of the feeling through self-observation and self-exploration – locating the point(s) of manifestation of the feeling in your body. 

Conscious breathing with kindness and self-compassion

Having named your feeling and fully experienced its manifestation in your body, the next step is to take three conscious breaths – breathing in and out deeply, feeling your lungs expand with the in-breath and experiencing a sense of release/relief on your out-breath.  Pema argues that in this way we are accessing the “wisdom of our emotions” – emotions that have been shaped by our personality, life experiences and responses to triggers.  This process can be repeated over a longer period if the level of personal agitation is high.  Pema mentioned that in one of her recent experiences of a difficult emotion, it took her half an hour to achieve equilibrium and peace through this breathing exercise.

For some people, the focus on breath may be too traumatic because it generates painful flashbacks to adverse childhood experiences or too demanding because of respiratory difficulties or other physical disability.  In this scenario, Pema suggests that embracing yourself, rocking, tapping or a more analytical approach could work to tame the emotions and dampen the associated feelings.

As you breathe into and out of your feelings, it is important to extend loving-kindness to yourself – avoiding negative self-talk that is debilitating and disabling.  Each person has a different way of expressing self-compassion and acknowledgement of their inherent goodness.  Pema maintains that “the essence of bravery is being without deception” – having the courage to face up to what we are not happy with in ourselves, as well as what we admire.  By holding our faults, deficiencies and prejudices in loving kindness and understanding, we can move beyond self-deception, self-loathing and self-recrimination.  It takes a brave person to face the reality of what they feel and why, and to open themselves to self-intimacy and self-empowerment.   Pema suggests that as we extend kindness to our self, we imagine our heart opening wide and filling an ever-expanding space.

Reflection

Pema is a humorous, grounded and practical meditation teacher who has written many books including Start Where Your Are and When Things Fall Apart.  She provides a free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön.  Pema has also developed an online course, Freedom to Love, covering the principles and practices mentioned in this blog post as well as a penetrating exploration of resilience through compassion towards others.

After many years of meditation and teaching, Pema Chödrön has developed a quiet, down-to-earth, insightful approach that makes you want to learn more from her.  To me, she evidences the calmness and peace that she promotes. 

Consistent with other mindfulness teachers, Pema encourages spending time in nature, walking and other forms of movement.  As we grow in mindfulness through our breathing, self-exploration and self-intimacy, we can better access our own sense of peace and resilience in the face of very challenging times.

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Image by jplenio – My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Discipline Creates Freedom and Success

Koya Webb, in her recent presentation at the You Can Heal Your Life Summit, spoke passionately about how discipline creates freedom and success.  She made the point that discipline underpinned her success as a college track star and more recently as a celebrated holistic health healer and yoga instructor.   Koya sustained two serious injuries that shattered her dream of becoming an Olympic track and field competitor.  It was a breathing meditation incorporated in yoga practice that enabled her to recover from the dark hole of depression after her injury and go on to establish a highly successful career as a globally recognised yoga teacher.  Koya has recently published her book, Let Your Fears Make You Fierce.

Koya maintained that discipline incorporating mindfulness practices leads to freedom because it releases you from negative self-talk and fear that depletes your energy and power and enables you to create the life you want and to make a difference in the world.  She recommends a daily routine incorporating mindfulness practices in the morning and at lunch time.  Koya suggests starting your morning practice before you become lost in, and stressed by, your email, text messages or your news channel.  I have found this approach essential to sustain my daily practice of researching and writing this blog.  Koya’s suggestion concerning a lunch-time daily practice is designed to break down the accumulated stress of the morning.

A daily routine of mindfulness practices

Koya described her daily routine that incorporated several mindfulness practices.  Her recommendation is to develop your own rituals to create a daily routine that suits your preferences but engages your body and mind to reinforce your mind-body connection and tap into your life force.  Some of the elements that make up Koya’s routine are as follows:

  • Breathing meditation – Koya begins each day with several breathing meditations, some involving slow, deep breathing, while others require quick, sharp exhalations.  These breathing exercises clear away fear and anxiety if you envision the outbreath releasing you from their hold.  The in-breath is envisaged as drawing in energy and power.
  • Movement – yoga is Koya’s preferred choice of movement; other people may prefer Tai Chi or similar meditation-in-motion practice.  Her YouTube© channel provides videos offering training in several yoga poses for different levels of practitioners, along with inspirational videos on holistic health practices.
  • Connect to nature – there are numerous ways to connect to nature and enjoy its energising and healing benefits.  For example, you can be mindful of the breeze, cloud formations, the movement of birds and butterflies and the sight of rivers, oceans or mountains. 
  • Visualisation – the focus here is to visualise a positive, ideal future to replace negative perceptions about the past or present or a fearful future.
  • Writing a gratitude journalgratitude has numerous healing benefits and serves to replace fear with hope, envy with appreciation and apathy with energy.  It also blocks out negative self-evaluations and diminishing judgments about self-worth.  Writing itself reinforces and deepens insight, leading to growth and development.

Koya maintains that the discipline of a daily routine incorporating mindfulness practices enables you to set up your day so that it works for you, not against you.  She argues that if you establish a daily ritual for your mindfulness practice you will “put yourself in a higher state of vibration”, your energy will flow more fully, freed from the blockages of fear and anxiety.

Reflection

The discipline of daily practice is difficult, but the rewards are great.  It requires forgoing some things and making space in our lives to enrich it in a holistic way.  As we grow in mindfulness through these diverse mindfulness practices and the discipline of a daily ritual, we can restore our energy and motivation and experience freedom and success.

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Image by NickyPe from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Challenges for Couple Relationships During Quarantine and Working from Home

Rick Hanson, in one of his Being Well Podcasts, spoke of Coping with Quarantine.   His focus in this discussion was on the intrapersonal and interpersonal challenges of physical distancing and restrictions on movement.   In the podcast, he identified the challenges and highlighted the fact that the pandemic and associated quarantine conditions have contributed to an increased divorce rate in China since the pandemic outbreak.  Rick spoke of the interpersonal challenges brought on by the confinement conditions and the mental and emotional pressures experienced by couples working from home.

Challenges of social isolation for couples working from home

The unusual conditions for a couple working from home in the context of other social constrictions creates increase emotional pressure for individuals in a relationship as well as for the relationship itself.  Rick describes some of these challenges as follows:

  • Heightened emotional activation: both individuals in a relationship who are working from home will be experiencing heightened emotions in the form of anxiety, fear and frustration as a result of the Coronavirus and associated restrictions on location and movement.   Couples typically experience daily aggravations with some of the comments and actions of their partner.  These aggravations can be intensified in the situation of limited physical space in the home environment and restrictions on movement.  The home environment can become a place of continuous annoyance, conflict and anger rather than a haven of peace and contentment.  Married couples in this situation can experience suffocation and/or staleness and need to draw on considerable internal resources to increase their tolerance and maintain their relationship.
  • Loss of social support: physical distancing can separate us from people we usually associate with and from whom we draw support and reinforcement.  Normally, we gain validation and confirmation of our competence and self-worth through these external relationships.  The change to a working from home environment means that we have lost the daily “water cooler chat” and with it the exchange of information, including sharing of our thoughts and feelings.  The loss of various forms of social reinforcement can cause us to challenge our self-concept and self-worth – difficult feelings compounded by feeling inadequate working from a home environment where we lack the personal capability for remote communications or the working space and technology to take advantage of the positive aspects of remote working.
  • Loss of structure: it is surprising how many people report in the current situation that they “don’t know what day it is”.  This is due, in part, to a loss of structure in their day.  The loss of regular, repetitive activities results in a loss of anchors to our days that serve to remind us what day it is.  We no longer get dressed for work, take the train or car at set times, play our social tennis on Monday nights, watch the footy together on Friday nights, visit our extended bayside family or the local market on weekends or undertake any other activity that serves to structure our day or week.  Rick suggests that these structures normally “prop us up” and their absence can leave a sense of “groundlessness”. 
  • Loss of familiar role:  in the work environment, we can feel competent and in control.  When forced to work from home in a more complex and difficult environment, we can feel overwhelmed by all the challenges and be ill at ease for much of the time.  For some people, this can be temporary as they develop the skills to master their circumstances; for others, being able to adapt becomes a real issue and aggravates the feelings of frustration and reduced self-esteem.  The intense sense of ill-ease and associated stress can debilitate people and hinder them from seeing a way forward and acquiring the necessary skills to capitalise on the current situation and personal conditions.
  • Loss of freedoms: with the restrictions on movement and need for social isolation, people can experience a loss of the fundamental right to “freedom of association”.  Along with this, may be the experience of a lack of privacy where both partners are working from home, especially where for many years one partner went to work every day for an extended period.   Introverts may experience a loss of access to their “cave” where they would normally retreat to recover from extroverted activity, including interactions with their partner.   One or both partners in a relationship may feel that their other partner is constantly “under their feet” – a complaint frequently voiced by people where one partner usually works from home and the other partner has recently retired from their job in the city or away from the home.

Reflection

Quarantine as a result of the Coronavirus and enforced working from home conditions can place increased stress on couples and their relationship.  The current environment also offers an opportunity to develop our inner resources through meditations (including mantra meditations), mindfulness practices and reflection on our resultant emotions and responses.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a deeper understanding of what we are experiencing, keep issues and aggravations in perspective, develop tolerance, build our skills and draw on our innate resourcefulness and resilience.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Stillness of Mind and Body through Mantra Meditations

Lulu & Mischka recorded the final day of their 6-day online journey into mantra meditation that brought together hundreds of people around the world at this time of anxiety and uncertainty brought on by the Coronavirus. Their chanting and accompanying music on the guitar and harmonium provided a haven in these turbulent times.  Their harmonies are enriched by Lulu’s operatically trained voice that transports you into another reality – beyond fear and anxiety. 

In today’s recorded session, Lulu & Mischka focused on the mantra, Jaya Ganesha, which they translate to mean:

Ease and flow wherever we go, open to the mystery each day. Calling for protection on our journey, guidance and blessings on our way.  Bless away the obstacles, open to the miracles.

Inherent in the mantra is acceptance of what is and letting go of the resistance that aggravates the suffering of the present moment.  Their mantra meditations can bring “openness of the heart, quietness of the mind and comfort of the body” in times of enforced lockdowns, social distancing and social isolation.  They have designed an online mantra meditation course to enable their global audience to continue their journey into inner peace.

Incorporating yoga breathing

At the beginning of their mantra meditation sessions, Lulu & Mischka incorporate yoga breathing and often finish with this practice. Lulu describes this process as deep breathing, as if drawing breath through a straw – the inbreath moving from the lower abdomen, expanding the lungs and filling the chest.   The outbreath reverses this process and enables release of tension, stress and resentment.

The deep breathing enhances the calming influence of the chanting and movement that forms part of their daily ritual that they share with others through their recorded music such as the Enchanted CD which is available as a download.  Lulu and Mischka are strong supporters of the charity, A Sound Life, that helps people in need to improve their wellbeing through yoga, meditation and music.

Reflection

There is something about Lulu & Mischka and their approach to mantra meditation that is engaging and effortless and appeals to people around the world.  Their international festival appearances attest to this appeal. The combination of chanting accompanied by deep breathing and musical instruments (the harmonium and guitar) act as a form of music therapy that is capable of transporting us beyond the pain and preoccupations of the present to a place of calm and equanimity.  As we grow in mindfulness through mantra meditation, we can find an inner peace, a strengthened resolve and a willingness to extend compassionate action to others.

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Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Movement and Mindfulness

Often meditation techniques involve sitting still in a relaxed, grounded, upright posture with your hands in a comfortable position; alternatively, they can involve lying down on the floor or the ground. In either case, these mindfulness approaches involve immobility – they are designed to create stillness in both your mind and your body. However, one can make a case for supplementing these immobile meditation techniques with mindfulness practices that involve movement.

The need for movement

Much has been written about the impact of a sedentary lifestyle on our physical and mental health and overall wellbeing. There is also increasing research about the health benefits of walking. Movement exercises our muscles and activates the various systems of our body, e.g. cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive systems. So movement is essential for good physical health. Physical exercise, too, helps to reduce the symptoms of depression.

Another consideration as the population ages, is that physical capacity declines progressively as we age. For example, the Harvard Medical School recently released a report on Preventing Falls and highlighted the fact that from our 50s onwards, our balance can be adversely affected by a number of factors. They highlight the impact of aging on our gait (the distinctive way we walk – encompassing aspects such as pace, weight transfer, stride length, swing of the leg and foot placement pressure). According to the report, our gait is considerably affected by the time we reach 70, even if fit:

Gait often changes with age. For example, healthy people in their 70s generally have a 10% to 20% reduction in the speed of their gait and the length of their stride compared with healthy people in their 20s.

This physical decline is accelerated where no movement or exercise is undertaken on a regular basis.

Combining movement and mindfulness

Two key ways to achieve the combination of mindfulness and movement to help redress physical and mental decline are mindful walking and Tai Chi. While mindful walking in the open brings the added benefits of engaging with nature, mindful walking on the inside (indoors) can be more readily accessible, especially when the weather is inclement and uninviting.

Earlier in this blog, I discussed the many physical, mental and emotional benefits of Tai Chi, including enhanced mind-body connection. A recent Harvard Medical School report, An Introduction to Tai Chi, reinforces these benefits and highlights the research showing that Tai Chi develops a “sharper mind”, offsetting the natural decline in your mental faculties, which can lead to dementia.

Whether you engage in mindful walking, Tai Chi or yoga, these practices have in common “meditation-in-motion” and strengthen the mind-body connection. So, combining movement and meditation, simultaneously strengthens our mental and physical capacities and their interconnection.

As we grow in mindfulness through combining meditation and movement, we can supplement and enhance the many benefits of sitting, standing or lying meditations. We can reduce the mental and physical decline that comes with age and improve our overall capacities, especially the connection between mind and body.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of silviarita on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.