How Mindfulness Can Help at Work

“We spend a lot of time judging ourselves harshly for feelings that we had no role in summoning. The only thing you can control is how you handle it.” – Dan Harris

Throughout my life, I had been an anxious, impatient, and impulsive person. Very highly strung. The first time it came really to fore (i.e., I had to really acknowledge it) was when I needed counselling and medication to deal with exam related anxiety whilst studying for my MBA at Monash Business School. That was in 2002. I was okay for a few years after that until I started climbing the corporate ladder. During this time, I also followed society’s timetable, got married, bought a house and we now have two beautiful children. As far as I can remember, despite doing well, I was never happy with corporate life. I just did not know what else to do with my life and hence continued to go through the work-eat-entertainment-sleep cycle day after day.

It all started around 2015 when the pressures of doing something I did not enjoy along with the busyness of family life started to get to me. It was around the same time that I discovered mindfulness. I found that if I sat down quietly for a few minutes and observed my breath I felt a lot better. As I delved deeper into my mindfulness practice, I began noticing a pattern to my thoughts. What I noticed was an unrelenting inner dialogue which was very unforgiving of my past mistakes. I also worried a lot about the future i.e., is this all that there is to life? And am I going to be stuck doing what I am doing right now for the next 30-35 years. This thought was enough to send shivers down my spine.

During the second half of 2018, I started taking time off during my workday to formally meditate. Around lunch time, I would book a meeting room and sit there alone with my thoughts for about 20 minutes or so most days. If meeting rooms were not available, I would go to my car and meditate. Practicing mindfulness during the day was even easier if I was on the road for customer meetings. I have a habit of arriving early for my appointments. Bigger the customer, the earlier I am. My mindfulness practice placed me in a great frame of mind for the rest of the day and I was able to approach my work with a sense of calm and improved focus and concentration. At one stage I was formally meditating three times a day i.e., first thing in the morning, after lunch and before bed on most days. Over a period, my mindfulness practice has also made me a more patient person.

Mindfulness is the practice of bringing nonjudgmental awareness to the present moment. Most of the time our attention is caught up indiscriminately in the ever-changing kaleidoscope of our busy minds i.e., thoughts, emotions, memories, stories, worries, plans, and so on. By practicing mindfulness, we are developing our ability to be more present. The key qualities in mindfulness are openness and curiosity. Non-judgement refers to acknowledging our thoughts and emotions without labelling them as negative, positive, or otherwise. Paying attention to our current state and being present in the moment can be very empowering. Our awareness is focussed on the here and now. Eventually, we learn how to bring mindful awareness to every area of our lives and to both inner and outer experience.

Mindfulness in a not a recent idea. The concept of mindfulness is core to Buddhism and can be traced as far back as the fifth century BC, when it appeared in the 37 factors of Enlightenment – the Buddha’s most essential teachings. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is often credited with stimulating the west’s interest in mindfulness. A growing body of recent research points to the numerous benefits of mindfulness practice.

Benefits of Mindfulness at Work

There have been thousands of research papers written on the benefits of mindfulness and its health benefits over the last 40 years. From a business point of view, mindfulness is a single, elegant, well-researched solution that can enable employees to be more relaxed, less stressed out, happier, heathier, more creative, more focused, and productive.

Stress Reduction: Numerous studies have demonstrated effectiveness of mindfulness in stress and anxiety. Since employee stress can be one of the greatest sources of lost revenue in businesses, mindfulness can be an essential safeguard for the corporate bottom line. Brain scans of mindfulness practitioners consistently show a shift in activation and gray matter density from the areas of the brain associated with negative emotions like stress, anxiety, frustration, and dissatisfaction to the areas associated with positive emotions like happiness and contentment. Practicing mindfulness also reduces levels of the primary stress hormone, cortisol.

Improved creativity: Innovation and creative problem-solving require an ability to examine situations from multiple perspectives simultaneously. Research in the Netherlands demonstrates that mindfulness reduces the intrusion of habitual thinking and facilitates insight-based problem solving. Mindfulness reduces cognitive rigidity and opens subjects to novel and adaptive ways of responding.

Increased resilience: Resilience is the cluster of qualities that enable us to withstand stress and thrive in challenging situations and every one of these qualities is cultivated and enhanced with mindfulness practice. Furthermore, positive mental states such as compassion, contentment, and equanimity, mindfulness also improves the ability to be open to new perspectives, to think creatively, to distinguish thoughts from feelings and to respond to challenges rather than merely react.

Improved focus & concentration: As discussed earlier, mindfulness is the practice of returning attention again and again to the present moment and the task at hand. As such mindfulness activates and grows areas of the brain associated with cognitive processing, emotional regulations, and increased communication between attentional networks. Researchers have found that brief mindfulness training can lead to enhanced ability to sustain attention. There are also benefits to working memory, executive functioning, and visuo-spatial processing.

Improved Collaboration: Research has shown that happy, engaged knowledge workers tend to be more productive, creative, and lean better. Engaged happy people tend to collaborate better, thus driving productivity.

Workplace harmony: The ability to empathise with another’s experience and point of view is at the heart of a harmonious workplace relationships. Mindfulness increases empathy and altruism as it encourages feelings of interconnectedness. Mindfulness fosters the ability to empathise without taking on negative emotions.

Greater employee satisfaction and well-being: Numerous studies have demonstrated a direct correlation between the practice of mindfulness and positive mind states such as happiness, contentment, equanimity, and compassion. Regular mindfulness practice can result in reduced emotional exhaustion and more job satisfaction. Being mindful makes it easier to pay attention to the pleasures in life as they occur. As such by focusing on the here and now, it is less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past.

Mindfulness – Essential Life Skill for Children

“We do not know what specific knowledge our children are going to need ten or twenty years from now, because the world, and their work when they come to it, will be so different from ours. What we do know, is that they will need to know how to pay attention, how to focus and concentrate, how to listen and learn, and how to be in wise relationship with themselves – including their thoughts and emotions – and with others.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness is about living in the now. Essentially, it is about being more aware and awake in every moment of our lives. Mindfulness involves intentionally paying attention to each moment, being fully engaged with whatever is happening around us (externally) and within us (internally). It involves bringing an attitude of curiosity, acceptance and friendliness to whatever is being experienced, rather than judgement and criticism. Mindfulness therefore means maintaining a present-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, or surrounding environment. It also includes the intentional nurturing of positive states of mind such as kindness compassion and gratitude.

Mental Illness is a major concern facing all Australians. One in five adults will experience mental illness in any one year and one in two people in their lifetime. Data from the Australian National Mental Health Survey shows that young people have the highest incidence and prevalence of mental illness across the lifespan, with almost one in seven 4-17 year-olds assessed as having mental disorders in the previous 12 months. Mental health is an essential part of children’s overall health and has a complex interactive relationship with their physical health and their ability to succeed in school, at work and in society. As such the emotional wellbeing of children is just as important as their physical health. Good mental health allows children and young people to develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.

COVID-19 has brought about a complex array of factors such as uncertainty, social isolation and parental angst that have an impact on the mental health of children and adolescents. Predictability which is a major stabilising force for children and adolescents, has been disrupted. Children have worried about whether they will see their friends and extended family, go to school, or get sick. I have experienced this firsthand in my own household with my 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. We as parents are usually adept at making plans for children, however, our future plans are also on hold. The challenges facing parents have interfered with their usual ability to address their children’s emotional needs. At times it has been difficult for parents to calm their children’s anxieties because of the uncertainty in their own lives.

An online survey administered to children and adolescents aged 7 to 18 years during the spread of COVID-19 in China found higher than previously reported scores of youth depression, anxiety; youth who had a family member or friend with COVID-19 had higher levels of anxiety than those who did not. The emotional impact of the COVID-19 quarantine was also assessed for children and adolescents from Italy and Spain. Participant parents of children aged 3 to 18 years who completed a survey about the effects of the quarantine on their children, compared to before the home confinement period. The study found 85.7% of parents reported changes in their children’s emotions and behaviours during the quarantine. The most frequently observed changes were difficulty concentrating (76.6%), boredom (52%), irritability (39%), restlessness (38.8%), nervousness (38%), loneliness (31.3%), uneasiness (30.4%), and worries (30.1%). About 75% of parents reported feeling stressed about the quarantine situation. Parental stress was associated with increased reports of emotional and behavioural symptoms in their children. According to a report by Australian Human Rights Commission and Kids Helpline, surveyed children and young people spoke about worry, stress, feeling trapped, frustration, anger, sadness, loss and grief.

For children, mindfulness is an excellent way to provide experiences that enhance their emotional intelligence including self-regulation, impulse control, understanding their emotions, controlling their emotions and generally become more aware of themselves as a whole person. The benefits of regular mindfulness include keeping themselves calm, reducing stress, being less reactive, increased resilience to life’s inevitable difficulties, a decrease in anxiety, and a renewed energy and reservoir of strength. Children of all ages can benefit from mindfulness, the simple practice of bringing a gentle accepting attitude to the present moment.

There have been thousands of research papers written on the benefits of mindfulness and its health benefits over the last 40 years. It has been proved that even just a few minutes of mindfulness a day has enormous benefits and helps children to focus and bring full attention to their tasks. To date, majority of research into the effects of mindfulness on children and adolescents has been carried out in the United States and, to a lesser degree, in the United Kingdom, at least one study has also been conducted among primary school children in Australia. This research has shown that the mental health and wellbeing outcomes for younger people are consistent with those observed for adults. In particular, reduction in stress, and depressive and anxiety symptoms, and increases in calmness, self-esteem, self-acceptance, self-regulation and sleep quality have been regularly observed. In the Australian study, there was a significant reduction in depressive symptoms and the number of children falling into the borderline or diagnostic category of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) following completion of a 10-week mindfulness in schools programme. Other benefits of mindfulness training among children and adolescents include improved social and emotional competence, and behavioural regulation.

Research also suggests that mindfulness practice also has more direct benefits on academic achievement, including an increased ability to transfer previously learned material to new situations, increased creativity and independence, an improved ability to retain instructional knowledge, an improved ability for selective attention and a decrease in levels of test anxiety.

By teaching mindfulness to kids, we can provide them with the tools they need to build confidence, cope with stress, and relate to uncomfortable or challenging moments. In terms of life skills to teach children, mindfulness is up there with learning about money, sustainability, etiquette, resilience, and adaptability.

Are you placing limits on yourself? What is your story?

“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t you’re right” – Henry Ford

A few years ago during my midlife crisis I came across a TED talk by Emily Esfahani Smith. According to Smith, happiness comes and goes, but having meaning in our life i.e., serving something beyond ourselves and developing the best within us gives us something to hold onto. She goes on to describe in detail the four pillars of a meaningful life in further detail in her book “The Power of Meaning”. The four pillars are: a sense of belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. The one that resonated the most with me at the time was storytelling. Smith says that “storytelling is really about the story that you tell yourself about your life, about how you became you. It’s your personal myth.”  

As Sapiens we often form our beliefs first and then search for evidence in support of them afterwards. We usually form beliefs from subjective, personal, and emotional promptings in social and historical environments that influence their content. Our brain is always seeking to find meaning in the information that pours into it. Once the belief is formed, it rationalises the same with explanations usually after the event. With time the brain becomes invested in these beliefs and reinforces them by looking for supporting evidence whilst ignoring anything that is contrary. As such our beliefs eventually become powerful motivating forces in our lives.

A self-limiting belief is a negative thought pattern that we tell ourselves about who and how we are and has the impact of luring us into thinking that we are incapable of moving past it to bigger and better things. We all have limiting beliefs that stop us from taking actions towards our dreams or everyday goals and inhibit our progress. These limiting beliefs can range from feeling not good enough, or smart enough, to not deserving success or happiness. Some of these beliefs are formed due to our childhood experiences, societal conditioning, through consumption of media or by observing others.

Over the years, I have had my fair share of self-limiting beliefs:

I am not a creative person

This one started in high school in my arts and drawing classes. I used to struggle. To make matters worse I started comparing myself to the kids who were best in class. I concluded that I am not a creative person. From then on, I stared to connect creativity with artistic expression i.e., being an artist or a sculptor. I have now come to realise that is not the only definition of creativity. Creativity can also mean creative thinking i.e., when I am putting together a sequence of yoga poses for my class or writing blogs and problem solving.

Career Path – safety over passion

My father is a Chartered Accountant. His mates were accountants, and their children were either already accountants or studying to become accountants. That was my entire world growing up. Furthermore, I was conditioned to think that accumulating as much wealth as quickly as possible was the key to a happy and great life. So, despite an interest in sport and movement, what did I do, I took the safe path, and completed my CPA exams and spent my time working in finance. I did not derive any work satisfaction from my 14-year finance career. I am much happier now teaching yoga and mindfulness.

Owning a business

If I must give advice to my 21-year-old self, it would be to pursue a career in movement and start his own business. But I chose the safe path. Besides my societal conditioning deep down I thought to myself that I would never be good at business and will end up being a failure. In hindsight I should have taken the risk of failure much earlier in life. It would have saved me a lot of emotional anguish. Ultimately, in 2020 I launched Minderly, my own yoga and mindfulness business. I am going to give this a red hot go as the worst thing that can happen is that no one wants my services. At least I will avoid the regret of not having tried it on my death bed.

In my personal experience, the biggest problem with self-limiting beliefs is that most of the time we are not even aware of their existence. We assume these beliefs to be part of our own story and continue living our lives. These beliefs also have the habit of appearing at the most inopportune times in our life i.e., when we are facing uncertainty or an existential crisis. Therefore, it is important to recognise and do something about these beliefs before they start limiting our potential.

Mindfulness can help

Mindfulness is the process of purposefully paying attention to thoughts and emotions without judgment. It is really about experiencing life in the present moment. Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis helps us become familiar with our thoughts and emotions. We can start identifying these beliefs, stories, and scenarios which our brain often creates rather than making them a part of our story. As we continue our observation, we can begin to identify these self-limiting beliefs and let go of them.  Through mindfulness I found that I have imposed beliefs and limitations on myself though my own history and societal conditioning without even questioning them. Through my mindfulness practice, I have also come to realise that it is normal to have these negative voices in my head i.e., they are part of the human condition and that I need to continue to observe, isolate and ignore them so that they don’t become part of my story.

RAIN Methodology

According to Tara Brach, the acronym RAIN is an easy-to-remember tool for practicing mindfulness and compassion using the following four steps:

  1. Recognise what is happening. Consciously acknowledge, the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that affect us and lead to the formation of self-limiting beliefs
  2. Allow the experience to be there, just as it is. Letting the recognised thoughts, feelings and emotions to simply be there. Avoid judgment, or distraction by focusing attention elsewhere
  3. Investigate with interest and care. This step requires natural curiosity. Asking ourselves questions such as Is this belief true? How long have I been believing this? Do I need to continue believing this?
  4. Nurture with self-compassion. This is the homecoming where we start to loosen the grips of our limiting beliefs. It is important to be kind to ourselves and practice self-care

According to Smith, our storytelling impulse emerges from a deep-seated need all humans share: the need to make sense of the world. The story we tell ourselves (and others) about our own life can increase or decrease how meaningful our life seems. If you want to have more meaning, try to tell a positive story about your life.

Want/Need to Change Habits – Start Small

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new” – Socrates

A habit is a routine behaviour that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously i.e., we do not give it any conscious thought usually. Ever come home late at night, flipped the switch, and then realised that the light bulb stopped working yesterday and needs to be replaced. When you flip the light switch, your behaviour is a result of the desire for a state of illumination coupled with the belief that a certain movement will lead to it. The very context of having arrived home in a dark room automatically triggers your reaching for the light switch. We know that the bulb needs to be replaced, yet our habit persists. 

It is common knowledge that our brains are responsible for everything that we do. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for all complex behaviours. According to neuroscientists habit-forming behaviours belong to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which plays a large role in movement control, emotion, cognition, pattern recognition and reward-based learning. The first time that you do something, it is being controlled by the prefrontal cortex but over time with enough repetition it will eventually be controlled by the basal ganglia. It is kind of learning a new skill but one day with enough practice, you can do the same thing without even thinking about it. In the 90s, researchers from MIT found that when a certain behaviour or response is performed repeatedly, our brain eventually encodes a habit response. Once these pathways are created in our brain, they are always there. So, if you feel like your goal sucking habits are impossible to break, stop beating yourself up, because you are right.

Automatic behaviours are beneficial because it frees up the mind to be able to think and do more complex things. Habits, therefore, are an essential part of living. They help the brain save energy by automating behaviour that need to be repeated over and over again. But wait, there is a catch, the brain does not know the difference between good or bad habits. Once a behaviour is filed under the automatic category, it is hard to get it back out.

We have all heard the saying that a journey of a thousand miles beings with a single step. Despite this many never even take the first step towards starting the journey. There could be several reasons for this, the journey may seem overwhelming, sometimes it feels like a lot needs to be done, we are not sure how to go about achieving our goals or we want immediate results (common malaise of the modern world). However, it is possible to change your response by creating a new routine. It will take time and effort, but by consciously working towards replacing your old habit with a new one, the new, more useful habit can become your default habit. Just as we have limited decision making resources, we are also on a limited willpower budget.  For most of the population it is not possible to will their bad habits into submission with willpower! Instead, we need to work our brains to develop alternatives.

If I want to change a habit, I like to break it down into small steps towards a big goal. These small steps are usually not onerous and require little to no willpower, only a minor tweaking of my routine. As such these steps are more like SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely). This creates minimal resistance and eventually creates a new habit for me.

Weight Loss

I remember weighing myself in January 2014, my weight had ballooned to 84.6 kgs. Just to give you a perspective I am only 167 cm. tall. My ideal weight should be between 68-71 kgs. I first noticed my weight going up after the birth of our son in 2008. Did I do something about it, absolutely not. In fact I picked up bad habits along the way. I was working long hours so I would have a lunch of biscuits and tea at 3pm and grab a kebab on the way home at 10pm. In between I would snack on all kinds of unhealthy foods and drink copious amounts of tea and coffee. Do not even get me started on my sweet tooth. In the back of my mind I knew I had to do something about it but wasn’t sure where to start. Around 2013 I started reading about the various diets. I remember that sugar and carbs were the major culprits at the time in popular media. So, I decided to cut down my sugar and carbs intake. I have an emotional connection to food so I decided to wean myself slowly.

  1. My first step was to change my goals, instead of trying to lose 15 kgs I decided to lose 1kg. I told myself that once I have lost the first kilogram, I will set a goal to lose another
  2. After doing a lot of research (almost a year), I chose a low carb diet. Problem, I am Indian, rice is a big part of my diet, so I decided to do anoint Tuesdays as my low carb day. At the same time, I quit dairy and moved to soy milk
  3. After 2 months of low carb Tuesdays, I started following my new diet on Thursdays as well
  4. Cravings came back and things got a lot harder. Sunday night became a cheat night, allowing myself to binge during one meal was a massive relief
  5. Started running
  6. After about 6 months of this routine, something shifted, I started enjoying my new routine and I was following my new eating regime almost five days a week.
  7. In October 2014, I weighed 66.2 kgs. I had lost 18.4 kgs over 10 months. Everyone said I looked emaciated, so I had to put on a few kilos back on

By setting a goal of losing only one kg and making small changes to the way I eat, I was able to lose my excess weight. My eating habits have shifted since and I am usually within my weight range of 68-71 kgs. In 2020 I am vegetarian and have reintroduced some carbs and dairy in my diet. I am much more aware of which foods work for me and which do not. I still have not conquered my sweet tooth the way I would like to though.

Running

Running a full marathon has always been on my bucket list. Problem, I had never been a long-distance runner. The best I could do was run a terribly slow 400 metres.

  1. To improve my running, I decided to run for time instead of speed and distance
  2. I started with 15 minutes, twice a week. Every second week or so I would increase my time by 5 minutes until I hit the 45-minute mark
  3. Once I got to 45 minutes, I started working on my speed. I am not overly quick, but I am not super slow either. I also started experiencing “runner’s high” at the end of the run and running started to become addictive
  4. I was on track towards running a full marathon in 2014. However, I tore my right ACL whilst running my first half marathon in July 2014 and my running plans for the year had to be shelved
  5. I have had my knee reconstructed since and have started running again. I have run two more half marathons but the full remains elusive

In 2020, as Australia went into lockdown and yoga studios closed, I found myself at home without any work. So, I decided to run 1000 kms for the year. My previous best was 853.7 kms in 2015. As I completed 200 kms in June, I decided to change my target to 1500 kms. At the time of writing this blog I have run 1,381.9 kms for 2020 and I am on track to achieve my goal.

Habits whether good or bad are sticky and I personally find that making small changes is a much easier way to changing them rather than trying to put pressure on ourselves by making wholesale changes. Once we repeat our new behaviours, we can form new and positive habits. Sooner than anticipated we no longer need to think about doing the behaviour. It becomes automatic. Embarking on a journey to change a well-entrenched habit is not easy so please remember:

  1. To not be too hard on yourself to make the change. Self-compassion is extremely important
  2. Keep the “why” in mind. Remembering why you are trying to make the change will make the new routine more sticky
  3. Recruit someone to make yourself accountable. This could be a friend or a coach
  4. Patience is the key. Good things never happen overnight
  5. There will be small or big setbacks along the way. Do not be too harsh on yourself, pretend as if nothing happened and restart your small changes
  6. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness brings you back to the present moment and makes you aware of what you are doing and thinking. Once you become aware, you can make choices about how to respond to automatic and unconscious behaviours
  7. Celebrate the small wins, keep track of how far you have come

I understand that a lot of us want to make big life changes after what we have endured in 2020. But making these changes is hard and requires not only a huge commitment but also immense mental strength. As we look to 2021 with renewed optimism, it seems like a great time to start thinking about something that you can change by identifying and implementing small changes towards bigger goals. These small changes will result in a major difference over time.

Silencing the Inner Critic – Be Nicer to Yourself

“It’s not what you say out of your mouth that determines your life; it’s what you whisper to yourself that has the most power” – Robert Kiyosaki

We all have an inner critic. Most of us in fact, myself included have a number of them. Inner critics are those reactive and internal voices that shine a floodlight on aspects of ourselves we are not entirely pleased with, areas where we lack confidence & qualities, we flat out wish were not so. Our inner critic shows up during a variety of perfectly inopportune moments. The more at stake, the greater likelihood our inner critic will make an appearance. While we find it easier to shut out external criticism it is tougher for us to switch off our internal voice.

When we are awake, we think all the time and the brain is providing us with instructions on what to do, we are constantly evaluating and interpreting stuff. Self-talk can be as mundane as what we are going to have for dinner or wonder what is on TV tonight. Some of the self-talk we indulge in is quite reasonable. For example, if you need to go shopping after work for a gift for someone and you think about what you want to buy, that is fine. On the other hand, a small amount of negative is normal. For example, you forget your wedding anniversary and forget to wish your wife, and you think to yourself that you had remembered the anniversary. Excessive self-criticism, however, tends to backfire, because it leads us to focus on our perceived failures instead of the small ways that we could have improved. Left unchecked, such thoughts can do deep harm to our mental health and our life.

Negative self-talk comes in many forms:

  • If something doesn’t go exactly as planned, we see it as a total failure falling victim to all-or-nothing thinking
  • We use words such as “always” or “never” whilst generalising discouraging events as a part of a permanent trend
  • We focus on the negative events while discounting the positive events
  • We don’t take enough credit for positive events by explaining achievements away by external factors
  • We jump to conclusions by assuming that someone is having negative thoughts or intentions towards us without clarifying or inquiring
  • We predict a negative outcome to an event that could turn out in many ways

Self-criticism or negative self-talk triggers the brain’s threat system. This is the oldest part of our brain that tells us to fight or take flight. When this system gets triggered, cortisol (a stress hormone) is released, and this activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight response). This tells the body to get ready for danger. From an evolutionary point of view this is important because if a wild animal is chasing us, then we better do something to ensure our survival. As such this threat system provides protection by preparing us as best as it can with the means to fight or flee. However, in modern times we rarely encounter situations where our environment is triggering our threat systems. Our minds are in fact triggering our own threat systems with negative predictions, painful memories, or hard harsh judgments and self-criticism.

There are three broad ways to overcome our negative self-talk

Mindfulness

Our cycle of negative inner dialogue is always focused on the past or the future. We are preoccupied with thoughts about things that were not done well in the past or worried about the outcome of things in the future. We start living life in moments before or what is about to come after but not the actual moment we are in. Once we start making a conscious effort to become aware of the moment we are in, though breath or by just being present, a transformation starts to happen. Earlier this year I spent a lot of time with a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka who has been practicing mindfulness since 1960s. A lot of our discussion centred around my anxiety and fear of failure over leaving the corporate world to start my own business. He taught me the following four steps to overcome my negative self-talk

  1. Recognise the negative thoughts or negative thought patterns as they arise instead of continuing rumination
  2. Tell myself that this is just a negative thought and that this is actually not happening
  3. He then instructed me to ask myself, “What evidence do I have to support this thought?” I quickly found out that I am not in possession of any evidence
  4. Replace the negative thought with a positive one. They do not have to be related. For example, if the negative thoughts relate to work, countering positive thoughts can be of our family or a hobby we are good at

Self-Compassion

Self-compassion means accepting everything about ourselves wholly and treating the self with warmth and understanding. Self-compassion helps us take responsibility for our actions while acknowledging that a lot of things in our life are outside our control i.e., our gender, our race, the families or countries we were born into and the actions of others. We need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious, and fruitful life. According to the School of Life, we need to practice the following to inculcate self-compassion:

  1. We’re so in love with success that we fail to notice the scale of challenges we routinely set ourselves. We may have failed, but given the mountain we were trying to climb but the conclusion doesn’t have to be that we are simply fools
  2. We all have tricky family histories. Things happened to us at the hands of others which can help to explain some our troubles
  3. One look at the media and we tend to think that everyone is successful. But in reality, undramatic, quiet failure is the statistical norm by a huge margin
  4. Acknowledging the importance of luck as a genuine feature of existence. We are robbing ourselves of a fair conciliation by believing we are entirely in control and therefore entirely to blame when we crash
  5. We are not only our achievements. Status and material success are only one bit of us as an individual
  6. Sometimes it feels that the crisis will never end. It helps to reduce our expectations to zero for a time and take each moment as it comes

ABC Method

The ABC method developed by Dr. Albert Ellis and Dr. Martin Seligman allows a more flexible response to negativity:

A-Adversity

Describe the event that happened. Leave out any evaluations or judgments. Simply put a description to the event that happened in a way that is as unemotional as possible.

B- Belief

Explain how adversity was interpreted. Not how you think it ought to be, but what your default belief/interpretation was.

C- Consequence

Think about the feelings and actions that result from these beliefs. Go back with a level of introspection and ask yourself how you handled things. Dig deep. How and when do those emotions/feeling lead to certain behaviours and actions.

D- Disputation

Do you have any grounds to dispute these automatic reactions? What are the possible repercussions of following through on those emotions? Think about whether there are greater benefits to moving on from the situation and stopping that baseline (often impulsive) response in its tracks.

E- Energization

This is the last step that’s done when successful disputation occurs. Did you manage to turn things around? Put all your focus on the positive feelings that ensued as a result of reframing your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. Ask yourself, what’s different between how I just handled this situation versus how I would normally handle it? Relish in those personal rewards.

Ultimately our inner dialogue will either fuel success or prevent us from reaching our full potential. Silencing the inner critic does not work. We need to start taming our inner critic and silencing the negativity so we can coach ourselves in a productive and helpful manner. At the end of the day it is just a voice that has learned how to respond to life in a particular way, based on what it knows. It’s all a part of us. We can start by accepting that the inner critic is here to stay and that it can be managed, and that the relationship is one that can shift with time.

The Myth of Flexibility in Yoga

“The success of yoga must not be measured by how flexible your body becomes, but rather by how much it opens your heart” – T.K.V. Desikachar

“I would love to do yoga but I am inflexible”

“I am a bloke you know and I do not have the right body type to try yoga”

“I can’t touch my toes”

“Mate, I am really stiff, you got no idea”

“No worries, I will register for your workshop and start working on my flexibility straightaway”

I don’t even have to prompt or ask. As soon as people find out that I am yoga teacher, they straightaway start giving me reasons for not practicing yoga. One of the most common reasons given or excuse made is the lack of flexiblity. A lot more by men and a few  by women. I can understand why, one look at popular media and you will see images of thin, statuesque, people with their leg wrapped around their head. In fact the yoga industry has long been using such images and unsurprisingly yoga has come to be associated with a certain image and it is usually of female perfection. Flexibility seems to be a pre-requisite to practice yoga. Furthermore, there are very few yoga teachers in the public eye that are unable to do a full split or twist themselves like a pretzel.

Thousands of years ago when yoga was first taught in India, the students were all men. For thousands of years, yoga meant stilling the thoughts of the mind in order to connect with the self. As such yoga is a pretty equal-opportunity pursuit. As recently as the 1930s, Mr. Krishnamacharya, one of the founders of “modern yoga”, taught at a school for boys and developed a physically demanding sequence of yoga poses that included elements of gymnastics and wrestling. At that point women were not included in the classes. However, since moving to the west, yoga has mainly become a female-centric activity. Yoga was never an inherently female practice. The roots of yoga and the growth of yoga as a practice is by males for males. 5 years ago when I decided to start a regular practice by joining a yoga studio, I discovered that I was the only male student in the class; that became two and recently I have being to classes where almost half the class comprises of male students. Does that mean that the myth of flexiblity is being challenged? The answer is yes but not enough.

I practiced yoga for three years before becoming a teacher and let me share the good news, you don’t have to be flexible to practice yoga. You don’t have to be able to touch your toes or stand on one leg. When we start working out in the gym it takes some time to build muscles and strength. Similarly, yoga is a practice that needs time and dedication to see results. The practice of yoga is not about attaining the full expression of a certain pose or being flexible enough to do a full split – all of these things come as a result of immersing yourself in the practice. Significantly, the practice of yoga has more to do with self-awareness, becoming more in tune and grounded in our own body, and learning as well as honouring this ancient art and tradition. All you have to do is just go as far as you can go in each pose.

Ultimately, flexibility referes to our ability to move muscles and joints through their complete range. We are born with this ability (I have never seen an inflexible baby) but lose it over time as our lives become sedentrary and restricted. Even if we’re active, our bodies will dehydrate and stiffen with age. By the time we get to adulthood, our tissues have lost about  15 percent of their mositure content, becoming less supple and prone to injury. The normal aging of our tissues is similar to the process that turns animal hides into leather. Stretching slows this process of dehydration by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants. Yoga helps with the stretching of the ligaments, tendons and fascia. You don’t have to be flexible to reap these benefits.

Along with stretching connective tissue, much of the work in yoga aims to enlist neurological mechanisms that allow our muscles to release and extend. Yoga poses will stretch your muscles and increase your range of motion. Yoga, however, is more than a form of exercise or workout. Yoga is a way to become aware of your body and mind and for this we need patience. Initially I practiced yoga for the physical benefits. After about 18 months of practising, I started to experience the mental benefits of yoga. Here are a few things you can do if you are new to yoga or wish to try yoga:

  • Do some basic stretching before the yoga practice. I have very tight hips so I always got to the class 10 minutes and early and spent that time stretching my hips and activating my glutes
  • Connect breath with movement i.e., breathe slowly and consciously
  • Stop when you feel any pain in any pose. With time the body will get used to stretching and pain will disappear
  • Practice regularly, I practice everday but I understand this is not possible for everyone, so practice as regularly or as often as possible
  • Do the poses slowly and regularly. Yoga is meant to nourish the body and mind and not act as a punishment. You can always pick up the pace once who feel more comfortable and confident
  • Be kind to yourself, do not be too harsh on yourself if you are next to someone who can do the poses easily as you are not aware of their yoga journey and life story

Yoga helps you to practice mindulness, learn how to listen to your body and reduce stress. Each pose will allow your body to sink, deeply stretching muscle fibres and loosening you up. It will take time, but not as long as you assume. The body and mind simply have to make the connection. Increased flexiblity can be one of the fitness goals, provided it is paired with strength and stability.

Yoga is for everyone. Tall or short, thick or thin, young or old, yoga is meant to adapt to you, not the other way around. Even though I am not as flexible as some of my colleagues, there are things I can do now which I couldn’t five years ago. Flexibility is the by-product of a regular yoga practice not the other way round. I urge you to ignore the crazy flexible poses on your social media feed and learn how yoga can benefit your physical and emotional health. Yoga is not for the flexible, it is for the willing.

Mindfulness Myths

“Don’t be satisfied with stories. How things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth” – Rumi

Mindfulness is about living in the now. Essentially, it is about being more aware and awake in every moment of our lives. Mindfulness involves intentionally paying attention to each moment, being fully engaged with whatever is happening around us (externally) and within us (internally). It involves bringing an attitude of curiosity, acceptance and friendliness to whatever is being experienced, rather than judgement and criticism. 

There is increasing evidence about the benefits of mindfulness. According to science, mindfulness improves our overall well-being by making us less reactive and less stressed. This in turn can help us lead happier, healthier lives. However, as mindfulness programs become popular in schools and workplaces I have come across (and had my own) misconceptions around mindfulness over the years. I wish to address some of these myths in this blog.

#Myth 1: Mindfulness is based on religion

Most religions contain an element of mindful contemplation. Mindfulness, however, is not a religious or spiritual practice. It is an evidence based secular practice. The practice of mindfulness does not need to have a religious affiliation and we do not need to hold any beliefs or values to practice mindfulness. According to the writer and mindfulness expert Daniel Rechtschaffen, “Mindfulness does not belong to Christianity, Buddhism, or Taoism, just as the breath we inhale, and exhale does not belong to any of us.” 

#Myth 2: You must clear your mind

Like a lot of people, I used to think that mindfulness is about clearing the mind of all thoughts before I started my own mindfulness practice. I found the very thought of emptying my mind extremely daunting. The reality is that the human mind is like a monkey. It likes to jump from one thought to another. Mindfulness is the process of sitting with our thoughts and observing them without judgment. Even if we become aware of lots of thoughts or distractions that is okay. 

#Myth 3: Mindfulness needs to be mastered to make it worth doing

Mindfulness may require patience and persistence, but it certainly does not require perfection. I used to think that if any negativity arises during mindfulness practice, I must be doing something wrong. This is where being non-judgmental is extremely important. After almost 5 years of consistent practice I find that I still have busy sessions where the mind is unsettled. I just bring my attention back to my breath. Mindfulness is just like any skill. The longer we practice it, the more mindful we become over time.

#Myth 4: Mindfulness requires too much time

We live in busy times. Our social and work calendars are packed. It feels onerous to clear time in our schedules to practice mindfulness. Whilst I know people who meditate at least 30 minutes every day, you do not have to do the same. Even 2 minutes of mindfulness twice a day can make a big difference. 2 minutes is all you need to need to do to experience the benefits of your mindfulness practice. 

#Myth 5: Mindfulness is meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a formal practice. With mediation we usually sit with our eyes closed and focus our attention on the breathing or a mantra. We can also practice mindfulness in other ways. We can practice mindfulness whilst eating, taking a shower, washing the dishes, and during a walk. All we must do is bring our attention to the present moment. When we do this, we become aware of the mental chatter, when it arises and with time, our mind will quieten down.

#Myth 6: You must be into yoga or a hippie or a vegan

Yes, I am a yoga teacher, and I am vegetarian. There is a common misconception that you need to be into yoga or live some sort of lifestyle to practice mindfulness regularly. Mindfulness in fact is for everyone i.e., doctors, CEOs, salespeople, nurses, and anyone else who is looking to release their stress and calm their mind. I have personally coached people who have never set foot in a yoga studio and will never give up eating meat.

#Myth 7: I will need to sit cross legged on the cushion or floor

When we think of mindfulness, the most common picture that comes to mind is of the Buddha or someone else sitting cross-legged on the floor. You can do this if you like, but you do not need to. I normally sit on my couch for my formal mindfulness practice. All you need to ensure is that your spine is as straight as your anatomy allows it to be. Mindfulness can be practiced on a bus or a train or as we walk down the street. In my corporate job I had the habit of arriving early for my customer appointments. I would sit in the car and meditate until it was time to walk into the customer’s office.  

#Myth 8: Mindfulness will automatically make me peaceful

Unfortunately, this is untrue. Mindfulness is about paying attention to our feelings the way we are feeling. Some days we may feel calm and happy whilst other days we may be stressed, anxious or sad. I have a daily practice and I teach mindfulness and yoga. I have plenty of moments when I am unmindful. However, since I have started practicing mindfulness, I am quicker to notice my thoughts, and forgiving myself. The more I practice, the more mindful I become in other parts of my life. After all, we are all human and experiencing unpeaceful thoughts and moments are part of the journey. 

#Myth 9: Mindfulness is only for people who are stressed 

There is a growing body of scientific evidence about the benefits of mindfulness in relation to effective stress reduction and management. However, it is wonderful to practice mindfulness when we are not feeling stressed as it helps us open our mind to the details and vividness of life so that we become familiar with it. It is during one of my mindfulness sessions that I came with the idea of starting this business and teaching mindfulness to children and adults alike

#Myth 10: Mindfulness is easy

When we initially start practicing mindfulness and start noticing our thoughts, it can be quite confronting and overwhelming, it was for me. I wish I knew in the beginning that it was going to be challenging at the start. Another mistake I made was not seeking a teacher right at the beginning to learn the fundamentals and clarify any questions that I had. Mindfulness is just like any other skill. The more we practice, the better we get at it. Starting my own mindfulness practice is one of the most valuable things I have done in my life.

8 Benefits of Mindfulness

“Mindfulness is way of befriending ourselves and our experience” – Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn

According to Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness is the practice of focusing awareness by paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity and without judgement.”1 Mindfulness, therefore, is the process of paying attention to what is happening. This includes our senses i.e., wheat we see, hear, taste, smell or touch and our inner world of thoughts and emotions. By practicing mindfulness, we are developing our ability to be more present. The key qualities in mindfulness are openness and curiosity. Non-judgement refers to acknowledging our thoughts and emotions without labelling them as negative, positive, or otherwise. Paying attention to our current state and being present in the moment can be very empowering. Our awareness is focussed on the here and now. 

Mindfulness in a not a recent idea. The concept of mindfulness is core to Buddhism and can be traced as far back as the fifth century BC, when it appeared in the 37 factors of Enlightenment – the Buddha’s most essential teachings. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, is often credited with stimulating the west’s interest in mindfulness. A growing body of recent research points to the numerous benefits of mindfulness practice. 

Stress Reduction

We live in a fast paced society which contributes to and exacerbates everyday stress. Our lives are increasingly busy and full. Many studies show that practicing mindfulness can reduces stress. Mindfulness-based therapy may be useful in altering affective and cognitive processes that underlie multiple clinical issues. Mindfulness can also lower the levels of cortisol, which helps us feel more relaxed.2 Whilst mindfulness will not make the stressors in our life disappear, it certainly can help us to respond calmly to stressful events. Once we start managing our stressors effectively, we automatically experience less stress itself.

Manage Anxiety

Mindfulness helps train our mind to focus on the present, making us less likely to ruminate on anxious thoughts.3 Most of our anxiety is a result of overthinking. Some thoughts cause anxiety and our natural urge is to try and make things better by thinking our way out of it. As we try and control or fix our situation, our anxiety only becomes worse. Mindfulness helps us to be observant of our thoughts without getting involved and thus keeps us grounded in the present. Lastly, studies have also found that MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) can help those with anxiety calm their minds.4  

Improved Focus and Concentration

Mindfulness can improve concentration on other tasks in daily life. Researchers have found that brief mindfulness training can lead to enhanced ability to sustain attention. There are also benefits to working memory, executive functioning, and visuo-spatial processing.5 Mindfulness also affects our ability to suppress distracting information. Better attention is directly correlated with cognitive flexibility and attentional functioning. Mindfulness also is one of the best ways to control and regulate our attention. 

Increased brain gray matter.

Another surprising finding is that mindfulness appears to increase gray matter in the brain. A controlled longitudinal study investigated pre-and post-changes to gray matter that were attributed to participation in MBSR. Researchers found that increases in gray matter concentration occurred in the regions of the brain that are involved in memory and learning processes, regulation of emotion, self-referential processing and taking perspective.6

Increased cognitive flexibility

In addition to helping people become lease reactive, mindfulness can also them give them greater cognitive flexibility. People who practice mindfulness appear to develop the skill of self-observation, which neurologically engages automatic pathways that were created by prior learning and enables present-moment input to be integrated in a new way.7 Mindfulness also activates the brain region associated with more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations. 

Improved empathy and benevolence for others

The great exiled Tibetan leader Dalai Lama often talks about how mindfulness contributes to him remaining kind-hearted and compassionate despite everything that has happened in his life. Studies have shown that even a brief mindfulness intervention made participants 50% more compassionate. Regular compassion meditation practitioners showed more brain activity in regions linked with empathy.

Increased resilience and equanimity

Richie Davidson(neuroscientist) and Paul Ekman (world leading researcher on emotions) – performed series of studies on Lama Oser (right hand man of The Dalai Lama). He is a European monk with over 30 years of mindfulness experience. The researchers found that his left-to-right prefrontal cortex activity ratio asymmetry indicated unusually high levels of equanimity, well-being, and resilience to setbacks all of which are largely attributed to his discipline of mindfulness. 

Improved well-being

Being mindful makes it easier for us to pay attention to the pleasures in life as they occur. As such by focussing on the here and now, we are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past and are better able to form deep connection with others.

For me personally, a regular mindfulness practice has made a huge difference. I feel a sense of space in my mind every time I practice mindfulness. When friends and family ask me to describe this feeling I tell them that before I started my daily mindfulness practice my mind was similar to a messy room with things scattered all over the floor. These days it feels more like a library where all the books are arranged in bookcases. 

Please note that it is probably not huge deal if your home mindfulness practice does not resemble any of the above results from clinical trials. Sometimes it is best to think about mindfulness in the same way as other things that make us feel good i.e., an early morning walk, or relaxing with a good book. Mindfulness in general is an extremely helpful tool as we look for ways to de-stress, learn more about ourselves, and lean toward mental well-being. The risks of practicing mindfulness are minimal, and all the evidence points to positive impacts such as being less reactive, less stressed and feeling better overall. 

References

  1. Kabat-Zinn, J. Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. 1994. London: Piatkus.
  1. Turakitwanakan W, Mekseepralard C, Busarakumtragul P. Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. J Med Assoc Thai. 2013;96 Suppl 1:S90-S95.
  1. Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EMS, et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357–368. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018
  1. Niazi AK, Niazi SK. Mindfulness-based stress reduction: a non-pharmacological approach for chronic illnesses. N Am J Med Sci. 2011;3(1):20-23. doi:10.4297/najms.2011.320
  1. Zedian F, Johnson SK, Diamond B, David Z, Goolkasian P, Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. 2010. 19(2): 597-605 
  1. Holzel K, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yeramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW, Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. 2011. 191(1): 36-43
  2. Siegel DJ. Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007;2(4):259-263. doi:10.1093/scan/nsm034

My Journey towards Mindfulness

“We train ourselves all through our life to waste energy following our inner narratives. We are often unconsciously driven by our fears, worries, and fantasies. Enter the space of awareness of the present moment with no emotional filters, no regrets nor hopes, no daydreaming and no nightmares” – Natasa Pantovic

Growing up in Mumbai, I thought life worked like this:

  1. Listen to your parents and get good grades (excel academically) in school
  2. Once you have finished school, get into a good college (university)
  3. Once you have finished college, do your MBA
  4. Get a good job and climb the corporate ladder, anything less than becoming a CEO is an abject failure
  5. Accumulate as much wealth as quickly as possible so that you can be happy and have a great life

So, I set myself on the path to achieve all the above things. I got good grades in school, went to one of the best colleges in Mumbai, moved to Melbourne and completed by MBA and CPA. Along the way I got married, started a family, and bought a house. My career started progressing and life got busier. I was working 65-70-hour weeks and all our free time was dedicated to driving the kids from one activity to another. Every now and then I would stop and say to myself, “How good is this, life is amazing!” Being busy and doing more and more things became a badge of honour. Little did I know that my life was about to turn in an unplanned direction. 

Nine years ago, I got my first senior role reporting to a Managing Director. Working with my new boss was an amazing experience and he taught me many things that I continue to apply today in my life. However, 10 months into that role, I experienced my first doubt towards my ambition to become a CEO. I started questioning whether I really had the desire or mental fortitude to lead a company. But I pushed these thoughts aside and continued to live my apparently successful busy life. 

Two years hence we met our financial planner to plan our retirement and align our superannuation and insurance. He asked me what my goals in life were. When I told him about my plan to become a CEO he said, “Ryan, that is an excellent career goal but I need to understand what your main goals in life are as a couple so that we can plan for your future financial security”. We came home that night and over the next few days put our life goals on paper. After looking at the goals written down on paper, I experienced my second doubt towards my grand career plan. My main thought was I do not need to be a CEO or accumulate extreme wealth to achieve these goals. 

Fast forward two years later. 3rd July 2015, I switched on my radio in the morning to commence my commute and tuned into SEN (radio station) to listen to the latest footy updates. The breaking news that morning was about the death of Phil Walsh, who was the coach of the Adelaide Football Club. He was stabbed in his own home. For reasons I cannot explain, the fragility of life really hit me that day. I could not concentrate on my work that day and have never hugged my family as hard as I did when I got home that night. 

The following 18 months or so were spent in extreme mental anguish trying to understand the meaning of life and decipher my purpose. I started questioning whether this is the path I really want to pursue and what I genuinely cared about in life. I was unhappy and derived zero satisfaction from my seemingly successful corporate roles. Furthermore, I was in this place mentally where I did not know what to do with my life and what my next step should be. That is when I started practicing yoga regularly. My body started feeling good as I improved my strength and flexibility. By focussing on my breath whilst transitioning from pose to pose I realised the beauty of the present moment. That is when I started my own mindfulness practice and decided to become a yoga teacher. It is during my yoga teacher training that I learnt more about the benefits and science behind mindfulness. 

In the beginning, I started small, practicing 2 minutes at a time on a regular basis. I did all the research and understood that all that I had to do was observe my breath. Easy right? Sitting down with my thoughts was not easy as I had been conditioned to be goal-oriented, work extremely hard and define success and meaning in materialistic terms. Slowing down was difficult.  That is when I sought a teacher who could teach me fundamentals, answer my questions and above all keep me accountable. 

After years of practice, things have really clicked with my mindfulness practice over the last 10 months (more on that in another blog). I have learned to be more tolerant and less judgemental. I have come to realise that my inner dialogue for years was overly critical, never feeling “good enough, smart enough or nice enough”. It usually takes me a long time to forgive myself for my mistakes as I continue ruminating over the past. Therefore, the area where I have had to do the most work is to learn to be kinder to myself and inculcate ongoing self-compassion. However, I will be honest, quietening the monkey mind is not that easy. I still get distracted by many thoughts, but I have become better at observing my emotions without getting involved and turning my focus back to the breath. 

These days when I finish my mindfulness practice, I feel more aware of my surroundings, more at peace and less anxious. I am more aware of being present, or bringing myself to the present, instead of ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. My mind is calmer. 

My mindfulness journey thus far has been amazing and full of growth and stepping out of my comfort zone. My experience with mindfulness has created a philosophical shift in the way I look at my world, leading me to see glimpses of the bigger picture around me with humility and compassion for myself and others. My motivation to become a mindfulness and yoga facilitator comes from the benefits I have experienced and the realisations I have achieved which I wish to share with the world.