MINDFULGym: Mindfulness Rest-Shop for Stress Reduction & Wellness

Amidst grappling with day-to-day tasks and pushing through deadlines, it’s easy to forget how important it is to slow down, take a break, and just breathe. As a student, one can become all-too-familiar with feeling fretty, anxious, disconnected, or burnt out. How can these troubles be managed? The answer, in fact, already lies within oneself. Sunway Peer Counselling Volunteers hosted the “MINDFULGym Workshop” on Friday, 28 May 2021, through Zoom, with guest speaker Dr. Phang Cheng Kar to address how to access power within oneself and demonstrate various mindfulness techniques. Check them out below!

As a consultant psychiatrist and mindfulness-based therapist, Dr. Phang is known as the developer of MINDFULGym, a stress reduction and wellness programme supported by scientific research. His service has been backed by the Ministry of Health (MySihat) and Berjaya Cares Foundation as he’s conducted hundreds of mindfulness workshops, such as this one. 

About mindfulness practice 

Back in the past, mindfulness practice was only practised as a religious tradition and was more commonly linked with Buddhism and Hinduism. It was only until 1979 when Dr. Jon Kabat-Zin developed and introduced the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program to the medicine field, which aimed to reduce stress in chronically ill patients. 

Since then, more research has understood the benefits of mindfulness. One of the studies reported that the activity of the amygdala, a part of the brain that is related to anger and anxiety, was reduced after participants carried out mindfulness meditation practices. Another benefit is that it can increase beneficial brain waves (alpha and theta waves) that help relax and concentrate. With these brain waves, students can study better because of the improved focus and memory. 

“Mindfulness is remembering to pay attention to the present moment with an attitude of kindness, a beginner’s mind & wisdom.”

This was how Dr. Phang defined mindfulness. Neither constantly regretting the past nor worrying about the future, one can have better focus in the present. This would reduce stress, enhance memory and enhance interpersonal relationships. To add on, kindness is about listening to the body’s and mind’s feedback and making adjustments. Having a beginner’s mind would mean staying curious and willing to try out different methods that are suitable for oneself. Lastly, with wisdom, one can understand how things work and apply in everyday life.

( Source: mindful.org )

To Relax the Body and Mind… 

Sitting down in front of a screen for a long period of time can cause our bodies to get restless or start aching. The following 4 mindful body stretches encourage one to pay more attention to the body by tensing and relaxing muscles around the head, neck, and shoulders. 

Posture 1 – Tortoise: 

  1. Push your head into the “tortoise shell” shape, paying attention to the sensations around the head, neck, and shoulders. 
  2. Hold the pose while counting to 10. 
  3. On the count of 10, release the tension by exhaling deeply and relaxing all muscles. 
  4. Repeat steps 1-3, twice more.

Posture 2 – Superman: 

  1. Push your elbows to the back, your chest forward, and tilt the head back, paying attention to the sensations around the head, neck, and shoulders. 
  2. Hold the pose while counting to 10. 
  3. On the count of 10, release the tension by exhaling deeply and relaxing all muscles. 
  4. Repeat steps 1-3, twice more. 

Posture 3 – Push the Ceiling: 

  1. Push horizontally out from your chest and maintain this form as you raise your arms and head up towards the ceiling. Pay attention to the sensations around the head, neck, and shoulders. 
  2. While facing the ceiling, hold the pose and count to 10. 
  3. On the count of 10, release the tension by exhaling deeply and relaxing all muscles. 
  4. Repeat steps 1-3, twice more. 

Massage, tap & rotate: 

  1. With one hand, reach behind your neck and gently massage the area with your palm. Repeat using the other hand.
  2. With one hand, reach across the front to the opposite side and massage the area between the neck and shoulders. Repeat using the other hand. 
  3. With both hands, reach behind the neck and repeatedly tap with your palms open. 
  4. With each hand, repeatedly tap the back of the neck (as in Step 1). 
  5. With each hand, repeatedly tap between the neck and the shoulders (as in Step 2). 
  6. Rotate the head thrice in each direction. 

It is recommended to practice these mindful body stretching methods for 5-10 minutes in the morning and/or night. To ensure that one is not putting too much pressure by tensing the neck, try to use feedback from the body to adjust accordingly. Be gentle. 

To Calm the Mind… 

Tackle mental stress by practicing mindful breathing. It has been shown to activate the vagus nerve, which connects several organs in the body, helping to balance psycho-somatic stress and lead to relaxation. 

Qi Gong Style: 

  1. Gently raise the head and hands out in front of you as you inhale slowly through the nose.
  2. Gently lower the head and hands down to your sides as you exhale slowly through the mouth with a sound of relief. 
  3. Repeat steps 1-2, twice more. 

Valentine Style: 

  1. Inhale through the nose while drawing a large heart shape with the hands. 
  2. Send the “heart” forward with the hands while blowing it away by exhaling through the mouth. 
  3. Repeat steps 1-2, twice more. 

It is recommended to practice mindful breathing every few hours. As you practice mindful breathing, try to smile–be kindful, gentle, and graceful with the movements. Focus on the present–sensations of the whole body and sound of breathing. Think of mindful imagery (e.g. a tree, leaf, flower).

Mindful Stretching & Breathing

Once you have familiarised yourself with mindful stretching and breathing, you may combine the two and practice them simultaneously (using breathing to replace counting for Postures 1-3) or sequentially (alternating between a mindful stretching and a mindful breathing exercise, one after the other). 

Apps to Remind You to Practice Mindfulness 

Consistency is key! If it is challenging to remember to breathe every few hours of every day, Dr. Phang recommended the following phone apps to send helpful reminders. 

3 Minute Mindfulness for Apple 

(Source: App Store)

Mindful PDF & Now-ing

The working pace nowadays has sped up rapidly. With a ton of tasks on hand, one could easily fall into the trap of multitasking, which can reduce work efficiency and take a toll on mental wellness. No one would ever want to experience that anxiety, overwhelm-ness and helplessness. Dr. Phang also added that although multitasking may seem efficient, it actually causes more mistakes with a high cost of energy and time.

To help manage tasks on hand better, Dr. Phang introduced Mindful PDF to the audience. PDF is the acronym of Prioritize, Delegate & Divide, and Focus

  1. Prioritizing would help one to focus on one task at a time, which is the most important step to stop multitasking. Make a list and pick the most important and urgent tasks to start on. 
  2. This step can be helped by the Delegate step so the unimportant tasks can be passed to someone else to assist us. 
  3. Besides, big projects can be divided into smaller tasks, so it will be easier to focus on. 
  4. Speaking of better focus, Dr. Phang shared with the audience a technique known as mental labelling. By repeating the intended action or goal in mind, it keeps the mind from wandering while doing the task, hence reducing distractions and improving focus.

Mindful Communication  

Mindful Communication is divided into two parts, Mindful Listening and Mindful Speech. Acknowledging the importance of mindful listening in daily lives, especially for the peer counsellors who organized the session, Dr. Phang said that these simple yet useful tips could help improve one’s listening performance. The acronym for Mindful Listening is  M.I.Y.A.O.W?, where each letter represents a form of answer one can give when listening to someone. 

M for “mmhmm”

I for “I see…”, “I agree, …”

Y for “Yeaa, …”

A for “Ah~”

O for “Ohh…”

W for “Woww…”

Most Malaysians would use these words subconsciously in everyday conversations. However, with sincerity, these words can actually show the speaker one’s attention in the conversion and the acknowledgement towards the speaker. To enhance the conversation, one can also ask questions to care about the speaker’s feelings. Non-verbal communication, like smiling or nodding while listening, is also important to encourage the speaker to continue his or her sharing.

Next, the acronym for Mindful Speech is B.A.T.A. To be mindful of words used in a speech, one must always consider whether the speech is beneficial, agreeable, truthful, and appropriate. This resonates with the saying “think twice before you speak”. Below is an example explained by Dr. Phang for a better understanding. 

A doctor has to be mindful when revealing the actual diagnosis to his patient. Using the B.A.T.A. guide, some of the questions can be asked: 

  • What’s the truth of the medical condition?
  • Is it useful for the patient to know his/her condition?
  • Is the patient ready for the truth now?
  • How and when should the truth be revealed, to patient & family?

With careful consideration, one can be more mindful of speeches and enhance the quality of daily conversations.

Audience Q&A session

Q: Are there any immediate ways to calm down when you feel yourself getting overwhelmed by emotions? 

A: Whenever possible, it is recommended to practice mindful walking, even just for 10 minutes, mindful walking consists of focusing on the walking movement and paying attention to what one can see and hear in the surrounding environment. Both the physical and mindful components work together to help one stay present, instead of spiralling further into worries about the past or future, and ultimately combat overwhelming emotions. 

A: Besides, Dr. Phang also introduced another method called the Butterfly Hug. This simple technique requires the person to cross the two thumbs like making a butterfly from both palms and landing that butterfly on the chest. Slowly and gently, tap the left and right “wings” on the chest alternately, and pay attention to the tapping sound and sensation. Doing this for around 30 seconds can help one calm down from overwhelmedness effectively. 

Q: How can I deal with burnout?

A: Dr. Phang proposed “A.B.C.”, his acronym for Awareness, Balance, and Connecting to resources. Awareness involves being mindful of one’s stress level, as some people aren’t even aware they are going through a burnout. One must pause, breathe, and monitor themselves by asking how the body and mind feels. Balance is about balancing between work and life to reduce the source of the stress, making an effort to organise how much time goes into studies and how much time goes into recreational or social activities. Connecting to resources includes all the mindfulness tools shared. On top of recharging by oneself, it is also good to connect to other peers or professions who can provide emotional support or connect to prayer. 

Q: How should I focus on the present when I am constantly reminded to think of my future?

A: Dr. Phang pointed out that while being present, one cannot rule out proper planning as it helps to provide direction for future events or personal life. However, it is also important to remember that everything planned is still uncertain, so one must be flexible and open with any unplanned situations. Besides, M.I.Y.A.O.W? can be used when accepting other people’s advice. The point is to listen and acknowledge their viewpoints but not necessarily act according to the advice provided. 

Q: How can people with mental illnesses (e.g. depression or ADHD) identify where their mental illness begins and ends so that they may practice mindfulness more effectively? 

A: Dr. Phang replied that his mindfulness tools are intended for general stress reduction; clinical conditions would require much more beyond mindfulness alone, such as individual therapy and follow ups. He advised that people suffering from mental illnesses seek professional help, which is more personalised and effective. 

Q: What should I do if I cannot seek professional help?

A: Speaking of this, Dr. Phang was very pleased to say that as compared to other universities, Sunway University had done a good job preparing a number of professional counselling staff for the students. The student-led Sunway Peer Counseling Volunteers (PCV) is available to help out and provide support. He was also willing to help if one is having difficulties seeking professional help. With all the resources being accessible, the ultimate first step for that person is to be willing to seek help and support.

To address all questions in the Q&A session, Dr. Phang was willing to stay for an additional 30 minutes and share additional insightful tips to the audience. When the event had come to an end, the committee expressed their utmost gratitude to Dr. Phang for his wonderful sharing and commitment. Overall, this session provided the audience a general understanding of mindfulness practice and a constant reminder to be present. For people who are interested, don’t miss out the chance to learn more from MINDFULGym Malaysia website

Written by: Michelle Cheong, Chee San

Edited by: Jamie

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