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5 Ways You Can Use Mindfulness to Improve Your Health

05/09/2013 09:36 am ET | Updated Mar 26, 2014
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"Health comes from inner peace" according to a talk I recently attended by the Dalai Lama. He makes it sound so simple. Doesn't inner peace sound easier than giving up French fries or learning how to make kale palatable?

But how do we cultivate inner peace and thus health? We start with mindfulness.

I've studied mindfulness for the past 20 years. With all my reading and meditation retreats, I thought I knew a lot about mindfulness. Three years ago, when my life depended on it, I realized I knew nothing. Having found myself burnt out and just diagnosed with a potentially debilitating autoimmune disease, I realized I needed to bring my knowledge of mindfulness and put it into practice to create my own inner peace and health.

The research is replete with evidence of how mindfulness helps us become healthy -- just in case you don't want to take the word of a globe trotting 77-year-old Buddhist monk. Mindfulness lowers blood pressure. Mindfulness can alleviate depression and anxiety. Mindfulness reduces cortisol levels. Mindfulness improves sleep quality.

While the benefits of mindfulness are part of our collective conscious, the idea of sitting in meditation evokes resistance for many. The good news we don't have to meditate to become mindful. Mindfulness can be practiced in everything we do. Below are five ways you begin to practice mindfulness and create inner peace and health.

1. Eating. In the Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh writes of being mindful while peeling and eating a tangerine. When we slow down while eating, noticing every bite, our body shifts out of the stress response and focuses on digestion, absorption and assimilation of all the nutrients. We eat less. We get healthy.

Mindfulness in action: Take in the food with all your senses. Become aware of the color, texture and smell of your food before popping it in your mouth. Then roll it around so you notice the texture and flavors. Begin to chew, chewing each bite at least 25 times. Notice how the texture and taste changes. Pause before your next bite.

2. Walking. We often hurry to get from one place to another. While rushing to get to our destination, we often can't remember the journey. Walking is a perfect way to practice mindfulness and experience more of life. Mindful walking increases flexibility, lowers blood pressure, and alleviates joint pain.

Mindfulness in action: Whether walking to a meeting, to your car or around your neighborhood, start by taking in a deep breath and then scanning your surroundings. Notice the air temperature, the way the light hits surfaces, any smells and sounds. As you walk, notice how your foot lands on the ground and how it lifts up. Notice the points of contact. Notice how your femur bones moves in your hip joint. Notice how your arms swing and how you hold your hands. Be aware of each sensation.

3. Doing dishes. Another mindfulness practice inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh is household chores. Being mindful during mundane tasks such as washing dishes, folding laundry, and emptying the trash allows us to multitask (what every over-achiever desires to hear). Multitasking reduces our accuracy and productivity. Mindful cleaning, however, reduces stress and gets you a cleaner, healthier home.

Mindfulness in action: From the moment you start to stack the dishes to the moment you hang up the towel, notice every sensation. The sound of the water running, the sight of the bubbles, the smell of the dishwashing liquid, the sounds of the silverware hitting each other in the drainer, the feel of the dishes in your hands, the warmth of the water. Move slowly. Concentrate on the task, instead of you to do list.

4. Driving. Being mindful while driving is the ultimate in safety measures, yet something we rarely do. I commuted 45 minutes each way in traffic. I would notice that I often couldn't remember the drive once I got home. Yet driving is a perfect multitasking way to practice mindfulness while doing something you have to anyway.

Mindfulness in action: Start your car. Turn off the radio. Turn off your phone. Look around. Know where are other cars are at all times. See the scenery. Be mindful of everything around you. Feel your feet on the pedals. Notice things you've never seen before. Tune into everything around you. Don't drive? You can also practice mindfulness on a train, bus or bike.

5. Checking e-mail. Practicing mindfulness at work is an advanced technique for sure, but one worth mastering. There are unlimited distractions at work -- new emails, phone calls, and co-workers stopping by. All these distractions limit our productivity and drain our energy. Each time we flip from one task to another, we slow ourselves down and then we wonder why we can't leave the office at 5. Practicing mindfulness while working will help you stay focused and complete tasks quicker and easier.

Mindfulness in action: Do one task at a time. If you are checking email, turn off everything including your browser and phone. Check one email then respond, delete or file it for future reference. Open the next one. Notice how you feel. What sensations come up in your body around certain e-mail. Notice if you feel anxious, nervous or angry. If you do, file that email away to answer later. Move on to the next email.

Mindfulness doesn't have to take a lot of time or be difficult. Know that it is a practice. If you find your mind straying toward your to do list while you are driving, don't beat yourself up, simply return your attention to the road. Others times you can practice mindfulness include: while talking with others, during your personal care routine, or during meetings. Pick one task where you will be mindful this week and being to practice. Mindfulness does a body good.