How to be mindful in the mountains

In The Mountains author Ned Morgan explains why spending time at high altitudes can have real benefits for our wellbeing

Woman sitting on a mountain top enjoying the sunshine

Many studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can produce positive effects on psychological wellbeing, reducing stress and anxiety and improving overall happiness. However, one study at the University of Massachusetts Medical School showed that mindfulness can produce physical changes in the brain after only eight weeks. These changes occur in the areas of the brain involved in mind-wandering and the regulation of emotions, learning, memory, the ability to take another perspective, empathy and compassion.

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The physical changes in the brains of those who practised mindfulness for eight weeks were accompanied by a reduction in levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and the participants reported that they felt less stressed and less anxious. They also said that they experienced fewer instances of their mind wandering, and reported an increase in their quality of life – and all of this in just eight weeks.

Read on to discover mindfulness techniques and meditation exercises to help you make the most of your time in the mountains…

Mindfulness tips

  • Focus on the things around you, really noticing the smallest details.
  • When your mind inevitably wanders, just simply bring it back to the present moment, without judgement, as many times as necessary.
  • Be kind to yourself and stay calm and focused – it takes some practice so don’t get frustrated if your mind wanders a lot to start with.

Woman wearing an headscarf looking at the mountains
Unsplash/Laurentiu Moraniu

How to be mindful using your senses

1

Vision

Notice the play of light and shade on the landscape as clouds move across the sky. Watch the clouds moving and changing shape. Compare the colours and textures of the different features that make up the view in front of you, the patches of forest, heath, bare rock. Examine the small details around you: the mosses, lichens, tree bark, stones.

2

Hearing

Noises can sound more distant in the mountains. Can you hear the wind? Listen for the sound of the trees rustling in the breeze, the cries of birds of prey, noises from people far below you. What sound are your feet making on the paths underfoot?

3

Scent

Mountain air usually smells clean and fresh. Can you pick out any other smells, such as wildflowers, tree sap or moist earth?

4

Touch

As you walk, feel the differences between the surfaces you are walking on – hard rock, soft patches of grass and so on. Use your fingers to feel to explore the textures around you – cool, hard rocks, rough or smooth tree bark, soft or spiky grass, snow if it’s cold.

5

Taste

Take a few deep breaths through your mouth to taste the air. Can you taste anything? Take out any snacks you have and eat them mindfully, really tasting the nuances of the food. Trail mix is a good one to try for this. Take each element separately and really experience its flavour. Then take a small handful of mix and slowly chew, seeing whether you can identify the flavours of the individual elements.

Woman hiking along a narrow mountain ridge
Unsplash/Kalen Emsley

Mountain mindfulness exercise 1: Use your senses

Mountains are the essence of permanence and continuity and can make us feel very grounded and part of the bigger picture. Find a patch of bare rock and sit on it, if possible, arranging yourself in a comfortable, relaxed position. If it isn’t too cold, take off your shoes and place the soles of your feet on the rock. If not, place the palms of your hands directly on the rock. Aim to spend about 10 minutes on this exercise.

  1. First look closely at the rock – is it jagged or smooth, what colours can you see in it, are there patches or flecks of different minerals?
  2. Feel the temperature of the rock against your skin. Does it feel very cold or has it been warmed by the sun?
  3. Concentrate on the texture. Draw your hand or foot over the surface. Does it feel hard, porous, gravelly, rough or smooth? Are there crystals poking above the surface or has it been weathered smooth?
  4. Think about the depth of the rock beneath you. Think about the continuity of rock reaching down and down to the earth’s crust far below, one continuous massif of rock anchored to the earth.
  5. See yourself perched on the mountain, a tiny figure on an enormous chunk of rock in a vast landscape.

Mountain mindfulness exercise 2: Notice your surroundings

This exercise is about looking down at the world from a height. The feeling of detachment from society this gives, from being outside but looking in, helps engender a sense of perspective and can make life’s problems seem less significant. Choose a high spot with an extensive view and make yourself comfortable. You can use a pair of binoculars for this exercise if you like.

  1. First take in the general scene. What can you see? Are there areas of habitation, towns or villages maybe, or individual houses? Are there areas of forest or agriculture, bodies of water such as rivers or lakes?
  2. Look more closely at the different colours of these different features. What pattern do they make – geometric shapes, a rough patchwork, or uneven sprawling areas? Is there a repeating pattern?
  3. What can you see moving below you? Depending on the landscape, there might be birds or animals, either wild or domestic. You might see the wind blowing the trees, waterfalls flowing, even human activities such as vehicles moving.
  4. Can you see any individual people or animals in the landscape? Take the time to look closely. If you spot any, can you gauge their activities?
  5. Spend 10 minutes really focusing on the scene below you, clearing your mind of all other thoughts as you notice all the details in the landscape.

Woman meditating in the mountains
Unsplash/Jessie Frode

How to meditate in the mountains

The connection between mountains and the Buddhist practice of meditation may not seem immediately apparent but is in fact close, largely due to Tibetan Buddhism and its roots in the Himalayan ‘roof of the world’. One could say that Tibetan Buddhism is inseparable from the Himalayan peaks that serve as worshippers’ guardian deities, such as Kawakarpo. Tibetan Buddhism’s prominence in the West is due in part to the cause célèbre popularity of the Dalai Lama, the top monk and Tibet’s head of state until the Chinese began their occupation of the kingdom in 1959.

The Dalai Lama now lives in exile in northwestern India on the lower slopes of the Himalaya. Whether Buddhist or not, everyone can benefit from a session of meditation, which will feel all the more powerful if you try it in a mountain setting, allowing you to really connect with the landscape around you.

Regular meditation leads to a range of psychological and physiological health benefits.

  • Reduces anxiety and stress
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Boosts feelings of happiness
  • Heightens self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Boosts the production of serotonin, the happy hormone
  • Reduces overthinking and rumination
  • Helps to strengthen the immune system
  • Decreases headaches or muscle pain, related to tension
  • Increases energy levels
  • Enhances creativity
  • Improves concentration

A mountain meditation practice

Sit on the ground or on a rock in a stable, comfortable position with your body balanced over your hips, your hands in your lap and your shoulders and arms relaxed and free from tension. Close your eyes and start by paying attention to your breath. Don’t try to change it, just observe it as it comes and goes.

After a minute or two, open your eyes and look around you. Gradually become aware of the mountain you are sitting on, sensing its magnificence and sheer volume, its top high in the sky and its base rooted in the earth. Feel the shape of the mountain beneath you, its sloping sides and massive weight.

As you continue to focus on your breath, feel you are part of the mountain, an ageless presence unmoving yet alive. Become aware of the patches of light and shade changing on the surface of the mountain as clouds move across the sun, or the sun moves across the sky. Think of gusts of wind buffeting the surface and showers of rain drenching the rock. Imagine clouds plunging the mountain into obscurity, then clearing to allow the sun to warm the rock.

The surface of the mountain is continually changing as the weather changes hour by hour, day by day. Yet the mountain is unwavering through time. We can feel in ourselves that same core of stillness and strength, unmoving despite all the changes and challenges life throws our way. The essence of us remains the same through all the ups and downs, the turmoil and the tranquility. Recognise that sunshine always returns after a storm and, like the mountain, we can remain unmoved.

How to practice yoga in the mountains
Unsplash/Madison Lavern

How to practise yoga at altitude

The practice of yoga has been developed over thousands of years and is more popular than ever today. Many people appreciate its spiritual value but others simply enjoy the serenity and sense of calm it offers, as well as the physical benefits of strength and flexibility.

Yoga retreats

Yoga retreats have been around as long as yoga itself and many take place in isolated mountain settings. More and more are being offered as time-out from busy Western lives, and it can be hugely beneficial to spend several days or a week doing yoga in a mountain setting, cut off from the stresses of daily life.

Mountainside practice

If you have tried yoga before and are familiar with some of the poses, try taking your yoga mat when you visit the mountains. Find a level spot with an amazing view and work on your favourite poses. Choose poses that aid relaxation and focus, and let the natural surroundings do the rest.

Complete beginners can try the mountain pose (Tadasana). Its simplicity belies its power – it’s a basic pose but there’s a lot going on. This standing-up pose can improve posture and balance, help with sciatica, reduce stress and improve breathing technique:

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  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart. Lift your toes to make sure your weight is distributed evenly over the four corners of your feet, then relax your toes back down to the ground.
  2. Engage the muscles in your calves and thighs and lift your body from the crown of your head. The crown of your head is the top of the mountain.
  3. Open your shoulders and lift your spine. Your arms should be positioned by your sides with palms facing your thighs.
  4. Draw in your navel and tuck in your tailbone. Your head should be centred over your heart and your heart over your pelvis. Draw energy up through your body from your heels to the crown of your head.
  5. Your throat should be soft, and the tongue wide and flat on the floor of your mouth. Soften your eyes and hold the pose for 30 seconds to 1 minute, breathing steadily.

Book extract taken from In the Mountains: The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Spending Time at Altitude by Ned Morgan (Octopus, £14.99).

In The Mountains cover