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Two Mindfulness Techniques For People Who Can't Sit Still, From A Meditation Icon

Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO By Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth.
mindbodygreen Podcast Guest Sharon Salzberg

Mindfulness can feel a little daunting for some. While there is really no "right" way to do it, many people may brush off the practice, saying something along the lines of "I just can't sit still." But mindfulness doesn't have to be difficult or require a huge investment of time. Take it from Sharon Salzberg, a world-renowned meditation teacher, founder of the Insight Meditation Society, and New York Times bestselling author.

"The mind is powerful—you can use the same tools no matter the circumstances," she tells me on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. 

Even if you don't consider yourself a meditation buff, Salzberg says it's not so difficult to dip your toe into the mindfulness waters. Try one of these two techniques to help you get started: "Formal" and "informal" daily mindfulness. While both are valid in their own right, you might gravitate toward one or the other depending on how much time you have in a given moment. Here, we dive into the two practices and how each can shape your well-being.

Formal mindfulness and how to practice.

Here's where your familiar practices come into play: Salzberg defines "formal mindfulness" as those dedicated periods of stilling your mind. Whether it's five, 10, or 15 minutes of practice, you're consciously taking time out of your day to sit down for a mindfulness session. 

But even though Salzberg deems it "formal," it's not so high-stakes: Sometimes, all it takes is a bit of breathwork. "In states of high anxiety, a lot of research shows the effectiveness of just having your 'out breath' longer than your 'in breath,'" she notes. That said, formal meditation doesn't have to be so fancy; you can switch it up with different counts, even holding in your inhales for a beat to spice up your practice. The core message is just to exhale longer than you inhale: "Your parasympathetic nervous system will be more pronounced, which will cool out your whole being," Salzberg adds.

Interested in starting a formal meditation practice? Here's Salzberg's favorite, quick lesson (be sure to tune into the episode to hear her teach in real time):

  • Close your eyes (or not; whatever feels comfortable for you, she says), and settle your intention on the feeling of the breath. If focusing on the breath doesn't work for you, try setting your attention on some other sensation of the body. 
  • Rest your attention on the feeling of the breath. "The operative word is rest," she notes. When you find your mind wandering, don't worry about it. The magic moment is the one that comes next—you can let that next moment go, bringing your attention back to the breath. 
  • Focus on your breath and stilling your mind from as little as 30 seconds to as long as desired.
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Informal mindfulness and how to practice.

On the other hand, Salzberg recognizes the importance of informal meditation. She deems them as "short moments, many times," as they might not last very long, but they'll add up to a pretty substantial amount at the end of the day. If taking five to 10 minutes out of your day to meditate sounds a little daunting, this strain of mindfulness may be perfect for you.

Sometimes it just takes a few seconds of intention: "Try taking a breath before sending an email or letting the phone ring three times while breathing before picking it up," says Salzberg. Instead of multitasking in the morning, drink your coffee or tea, feeling the warmth from the mug seep into your hands. Breathe in the aroma, notice how you feel when you drink it. "Research has found it's very impactful for people to do just that," Salzberg notes. 

Which one should you do?

In terms of which practice is better than the other, it entirely depends on which one you'll actually do. "I have a bias toward those dedicated periods because I usually forget during the day unless I have that pattern," Salzberg mentions. But if mini, informal moments is more your style, feel free to use them to your advantage. "Just choose a structure that works for you," Salzberg adds, "whatever is actually going to be doable, and do it."

No matter what style you opt for, Salzberg says just seven to nine minutes of meditation each day has the potential to change your brain. Whether that's sitting down for seven minutes to breathe or using 30-second increments throughout your day, it doesn't take too much time to see the positive shift mindfulness can make in your life. According to Salzberg, "The important thing is simply doing it. You can't just admire it from afar."

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