Mindfulness Practices

Formal & Informal

Formal and Informal Mindfulness Practices

Formal meditation simply refers to the types of meditation which have developed over the centuries into specific practices. The most common types of formal meditation practices are:

- Sitting meditation with mindfulness of breath
- Sitting meditation focused on sensations, thoughts and emotions
- Mindful movement--Walking meditation and mindful yoga
- Body scan

Informal mindfulness practices include many ways to bring mindfulness into your everyday life. These are usually only a few minutes in duration and are techniques to call us back to the present moment. Below, we give brief instructions for formal mindfulness practices followed by examples of informal mindfulness.

Sitting Meditation With Mindfulness of Breath

Formal Practice

This is the classic example of formal mindfulness meditation. You sit upright in a chair or on a cushion on the floor, with back comfortably upright, eyes gently closed, and focus your awareness on your breath. It helps to identify the part of your body where you can feel your breath most vividly, whether at the nostrils or through the rise and fall of your chest or belly. If you like, you can silently note "breathing in" on the inhale and "breathing out" of the exhale. That's it but, as many people have observed, mindfulness meditation is simple but not easy. Your mind will wander and when you become aware of this, gently bring your mind back to your breath. No judgment, no criticism.

Informal Practice

- Sitting at a stoplight: Use the forced "time-out" to take three deep breaths and relax your shoulders and back.
- Hand on the doorknob: Pause and take a deep breath before opening doors.
- Breathe in and out mindfully before reaching to answer the phone, or look at a text. Allow those "dings" to serve as a mindfulness bell, calling you back to the moment.
"Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing. To cultivate mindfulness, you may have to remember over and over again to be awake and aware. We do this by reminding ourselves to look, to feel, to be. It's that simple."

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are.


Sitting Meditation: Mindfulness of Sensations, Thoughts, & Emotions

Formal Practice

In this form of meditation, we begin by focusing on the breath, as above, and then begin to expand our awareness to external and internal sensations—what we are hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling or seeing. We may notice pain, or hunger, the sound of the birds outside, whatever is present to us. We notice, and then let go, turning our attention to thoughts that are going through our minds. Again, we let the thoughts go, as if they are clouds drifting across the sky. Finally, we notice emotions. There could be anxiety, excitement, boredom, anger. We accept whatever arises, noticing, “I feel anxious”, and then let the emotion pass. No judgment or “shoulds.” What we experience is what we experience. Finally, we return to the breath and focus on breathing in and out for the last few minutes of this formal meditation. This type of meditation is good training for incorporating mindfulness into everyday life and lends itself to informal mindfulness practice.

Informal Practice

- Pay attention to the sensations of showering. Notice the sound and the feel of the water. Smell the shampoo and soap. Feel the sensations of the water and soap on your body. Breathe it all in instead of thinking about what you have to do that day.

- When you stop outside in the morning, stop and feel the temperature of the air, notice the clouds or sunshine, the smells and sights. Take a moment to check in with your mood and your internal sensations. Are you hungry, tired, grumpy or excited to begin the day? As always, no judging, just noticing.

- As you interact with coworkers or family members, pause occasionally to do a mindful check-in with yourself. Notice if you are feeling overwhelmed and need a short break, if you are feeling annoyed with something someone said. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you are feeling and then, if you choose, to mindfully act upon your feelings.

- Try eating a meal mindfully. Pause when you sit down and take in the sight and smell of your food. Take a small amount and focus on the taste, smell and texture of the food as you put it in your mouth. Savor the food as you slowly chew it. This is most easily done when you eat with no distractions, such as the TV, phone or a book or newspaper. Start eat with eating mindfully for the first five minutes of a meal (set an alarm). Afterwards, notice what was different about this experience as compared to your normal way of eating.
“One of the most effective means for (achieving mindfulness) is the practice of pausing, or creating a gap. We can stop and take three conscious breaths, and the world has a chance to open up to us in that gap.”

Pema Chodron


Walking Meditation, Mindful Yoga and the Body Scan

Formal Practice

The formal practice of walking meditation involves finding an area about thirty feet long, where you can walk unimpeded and then turn at the end and walk back. Traditionally, you walk very slowly, noticing each movement, noting in your mind “lifting” as you lift your foot, “moving” as you move it forward, and “placing” as you place your foot on the ground. As always, in mindful meditation the idea is to bring awareness to what we are experiencing in this very moment.

“The first thing to do is to lift your foot. Breathe in. Put your foot down in front of you, first your heel and then your toes. Breathe out. Feel your foot solid on the earth. Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Walk.

Informal Practice

Informal walking meditation is a delight to practice. Simply pay attention to your feet touching the ground and notice your breathing. You don’t have to coordinate your breath with your steps. Just notice breathing in and out, feel your body moving through space and your feet landing.
“Some people just find it virtually impossible to stay seated and mindful with the level of pain or agitation or anger they feel. But they can walk with it.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are.

“The first thing to do is to lift your foot. Breathe in. Put your foot down in front of you, first your heel and then your toes. Breathe out. Feel your foot solid on the earth."

Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Walk.

Mindful Movements

Formal Yoga Practice

Mindful yoga just means doing yoga with a focus on the breath and coordinating your breathing with your movement. Most yoga teachers teach how to do this and encourage awareness of the breath during the yoga postures.

For example, “In the first stage of Kripalu Yoga, you learn how to bring yourself fully present in your body and practice the classic yoga postures with a flowing breath, proper alignment, and a mental focus on sensation.” Richard Faulds, Kripalu Yoga.

There are many guided yoga sessions available online and on CD but it is best for true beginners to start with a teacher. Classes can be found everywhere now. Check that the teacher is certified to teach. There are classes for people with physical disabilities, for those over fifty, for those with “round bodies.”

Informal Stretching Practice

Take a moment at various times throughout the day to stretch your tight muscles. When you awake in the morning, stay in bed and stretch your arms over your head, point your toes and stretch your legs out. Before you walk into your place of work and sit at your desk or stand behind your counter, take time to stretch and breathe. Many people set an alarm on their phones to remind them to stretch.
“The first thing to do is to lift your foot. Breathe in. Put your foot down in front of you, first your heel and then your toes. Breathe out. Feel your foot solid on the earth."

Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Walk.


Body Scan

Formal Practice

The body scan is a formal meditation practice often taught at the beginning of mindfulness stress reduction classes. This is a lying-down, guided meditation. The teacher will instruct you to begin focusing on your right foot and gradually move through all parts of the body. It is not a relaxation exercise, but a way to bring awareness to each part of the body in turn, noticing what sensations, if any, are present in that body part. As you are slowly moving your awareness from body part to body part, you stay in touch with your breath.

Informal Practice

Doing short, informal body scans is an extremely useful informal practice to do throughout the day. You take a moment to shift your attention from whatever else you are doing and ask yourself, “What am I feeling in my body right now?” If there is pain or tension, notice it and bring awareness to what your body needs: movement, stretching, a shift in position, a bathroom break. Many of us plow through our day with no awareness of the strain and tension we are holding in our body till we go home with stiffness and aches.
“Direct sensing of the body turns up the volume on the body’s messages and turns down the volume on mental chatter.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn et al.


Other Informal Practices

Mindfulness is about paying attention. Paying attention to the clothes as you fold them, to the dishes as you wash them, to your child swinging on a swing, to your spouse telling you about his or her day.

“Attention is the most concrete expression of love. What we pay attention to thrives. What we do not pay attention to withers and dies.” Karen Maezen Miller, Hand Wash Cold.

Too often our attention is focused on worrying about the future or rehashing the past. The present moment is all we have. Whether we are sitting at the hospital bed of a loved one or enjoying a decadent dessert, we want to be there, in the moment. We want to live our lives, not miss our lives by always focusing our attention on to-do lists. So the most important practice is being present and paying attention, putting down our phones, doing one thing at a time and bringing ourselves fully into the only life we have.