Rebekah Gass, Ashley Robertson and Jennifer Austin attend a yoga class with Angela Fileccia at Om Land Yoga in Brewer. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Throughout the course of your day, your body and mind are on high alert. Between your phone, jobs, morning and afternoon pickups, errands and meals, we can forget to pump the brakes and find time to take care of ourselves.

But in the midst of all the chaos, stillness can be found through mindfulness. And you can practice it anywhere.

What is mindfulness?

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, as well as writer and meditation teacher, mindfulness is the act of paying attention, on purpose and with intention. You are aware of your surroundings in the moment, not about events in the past or future.

It may seem impossible for some, and the process can be really challenging and awkward at first , according to Angela Fileccia, a yoga instructor at Om Land Yoga and clinical social worker. It’s because we are so used to multitasking at all times, whereas being mindful requires us to focus on a single task.

But maybe that is what we all need.

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The two different forms of mindfulness based practices are mindfulness-based stress reduction (developed by Kabat-Zinn) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which focuses on one’s relationship to unwanted thoughts and their reaction to them.

In a 2017 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S., or 18.9 percent of the population, living with “any mental illness,” a classification on the survey.

According to a study by the American Psychological Association, the benefits of mindfulness can include stress reduction, reduced rumination, decreased negative affect such as depression and anxiety, and less emotional reactivity and more emotional regulation.

How do I start?

In January, Fileccia held the first of a three-part series at Om Land Yoga in Bangor called Mindfulness Yoga: East Meets West to Reduce Stress. The workshop covered how to apply mindfulness in one’s yoga practice and how to use it in everyday life. It included an intro to mindfulness, meditation techniques, reflection and a yoga asana (poses) practice.

“Yoga in the west is focused almost exclusively on the physical aspects of the practice with much focus on strength, flexibility and other physical benefits. There is little, if any, focus on the mental/emotional benefits of the practice,” Fileccia said. “I thought it could be helpful to participants to discover how being mindful can improve mental and emotional well-being.”

The workshop covered the “Mindfulness How-To’s,” which include different practices of mindfulness: observing, describing and participation. Observing requires being in the moment and allowing ourselves to experience feelings and events without judgment or fixation. Participation is about awareness and being in the moment without ruminating on worries or being totally present in an activity. (This tool in particular is helpful for those who are in distress.) Describing is noticing the different experiences without a focus on emotional feelings such as the feeling of soap or the color of the water while washing dishes.

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American psychologist Albert Ellis formulated the phrase “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself.” An aspect of describing is watching for “should statements,” such as “I should have woken up earlier,” “I should have gone to the gym,” or “I should have practiced more.” “Should” statements put blame on yourself, release negative emotions and are considered a form of self-harm.

“It [the phrase] goes to the heart of mindfulness in a way. Don’t get fixated on things that have occured” Fileccia said. “It creates a focus on things that we have already done and creates stress and pain.”

Fileccia said the key to mindfulness is to practice on an ongoing basis. Mindfulness is not something to attain but is an ongoing practice.

An easy way to start, she says, is to have a mindfulness meal. Instead of watching TV or browsing on your phone while you eat, you sit and focus on aspects of the meal like taste and texture, or just the process of eating. The practice helps with single-tasking, which will train your brain to focus on singular events, like the present, instead of past or future ones that could cause stress.

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“We really live in a culture that has become focused on multitasking,” Fileccia said. “Our multitasking has contributed to the challenges we have in our day-to-day life. If you incorporate mindfulness in your life, you can meet some of those challenges head on.”

Where can I be mindful?

One can practice mindfulness in other ways through yoga and meditation. Meditation can have many definitions but can be described as sitting in stillness and being aware of your thoughts. It allows your body to slow down so you can explore the thoughts and be mindful.

Meditation can be practiced in many ways, through guided practices or silent practices, where you concentrate on one thing such as your breath or body.

Fileccia said practicing yoga can help train your brain to be mindful from a body perspective and requires you to focus on what your body is doing and feeling, such as pressing your heels and hands on the yoga mat or relaxing your shoulders.

At her January workshop, Fileccia had participants practice a sun salutation — a series of 12 postures where the yogi goes from standing, down to the mat and standing again — with each movement coordinating with the breath. She had participants close their eyes so they could focus more on the breath and other senses without getting distracted. It was all about being in the moment and paying attention to a singular thing.

Mindfulness and your self-care journey

Meaghann Foster, a yoga instructor at Om Land Yoga in Portland and owner of Meaghann Foster Massage and Wellness, said her interest in mindfulness started when she began yoga nearly 10 years ago. She said mindfulness, in part, has changed the way she lived.

Foster credited mindfulness and yoga with helping her become more aware of self-destructive habits from her youth and determine the changes she needed to live a healthier life. With mindfulness, she realized how her behavior affected her life and her relationship with herself and others.

Foster said any amount of mindfulness can go a long way. Not reacting to our thoughts is especially important, she said. That is not about avoiding or ignoring thoughts but allowing us to ask ourselves what and why were are feeling before we respond.

“I think a lot of people think that mind and body are separate, but if you really want self-care, you have to realize that mind and body are not separate at all. Your thoughts and feelings have an impact on your body,” Foster said. “Yoga and mindfulness give us permission to slow down and start listening.”

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Besides mindfulness and yoga, Foster has been practicing breathwork — taking deep continuous breaths through the mouth — since 2015, taking a formal training course in 2018. In breathwork, many things may happen including laughing, crying, emotional release and hand tension. The practice affects the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system but helps access our parasympathetic (rest and digest) system, which helps create a sense of calm and release pent-up emotions.

“I think that breathwork can help create mindfulness in everyday life,” Foster said. “When I started to do breath work, I started responding differently to situations in life. It’s amazing what pausing and taking a few breaths can do before you react or make a choice.”

She credits the three with helping her improve her personal and professional communication, lower her stress levels and become less reactive in situations.

And although it is not a cure for depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders, Foster said mindfulness and yoga can be tools to help those who are on a healing or self-care journey.

“When you start on a self-care, mindful journey, you start to pinpoint where things started and what happened to cause that reaction,” Foster said. “When you start to be aware of these things, you start to change your patterns and behaviors, and healing can begin.”

Fileccia said mindfulness has helped her worry a lot less, as she tends to be an anxious person. She uses mindfulness with clients at work, and it has helped her appreciate her day to day life more.

“I find it to be one of the best things that I’ve done.”

This was originally published in Bangor Metro’s May 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.