My passion as a teenager was always to be a professional rugby player and that turned out to be my life – I captained for England under-18s. Yet, underneath that, I was struggling with my own trauma and things that happened in my family. Rugby became my outlet.
I learnt a lot of valuable lessons about teamwork and discipline as an athlete. Then I decided to do a U-turn and started another career helping people with learning disabilities and mental health issues.
That’s when I discovered meditation through group sessions. I was under a lot of stress and pressure at the time. I didn’t really understand my emotions but the practice had a huge impact on me: it changed my life. From the very first session, it had a profound effect and I knew I was on the way to becoming a more rounded person.
I started by helping athletes
I decided to live at the London Buddhist Centre for six years. I trained in mindfulness, specifically for depression, addiction and stress. At the end of that period, I set up my own company – Mindful Peak Performance – which involved returning to the world of elite sport.
I started by helping athletes, including the Harlequins rugby club and Team GB Olympians, to use mindfulness as a way of harnessing all that nervous energy that comes before you’re about to perform.
From there, I expanded to working with leaders in the corporate world and any group or individuals who are feeling overwhelmed, always using the same techniques to alleviate pre-performance pressure.
Meditation helps us connect with our bodies
If you’re struggling to get into meditation, my advice is to try pairing it with a cardio workout beforehand. My team is busy working on an award-winning programme, in partnership with Barnardos and the Department of Health and Social Care, to help young people with a combination of boxing and meditation.
The truth is, to sit and meditate when you’ve been in front of a screen for eight hours can be uncomfortable. Our nervous systems tend to be in overdrive. Emotions like fear, anger or frustration come to the surface.
A high-intensity activity, such as boxing, enables that physical release of pent-up energy, creating the groundwork for the stillness to come. The meditation then helps us connect with our bodies.
Mindfulness has such wide applications
Mindfulness is a way to train your mind to become more present – it goes hand-in-hand with an attitude of curiosity and self-compassion. It’s not about being calm or having an empty head. Instead, it’s about tuning into how you feel in your body and mind at any given moment – and accepting that.
Whatever comes up, mindfulness is a way of acknowledging sensations, thoughts or feelings in a non-judgemental way, as you might do with a friend who’s struggling.
It helps you equip your body for what’s ahead
It’s likely you’ll have some nerves or adrenaline around the uncertainty that lies ahead, whether that’s wondering what your group will be like or preparing yourself for a challenging hike, so it helps to harness that energy.
Like an athlete would for a competition or an event, think about your motive for taking a trip. What’s driving you? What do you want to get out of it? When you have a positive outcome in mind, then you can fully prepare.
Mindfulness helps you equip your body for what’s ahead and safely acknowledge the things that you’re scared about. It’s also about opening your mind to receive the experience more vibrantly.
It can pave the way to a more balanced travel experience
It’s helpful, too, for nurturing your mental health on the move. To manage any nerves or stresses around an adventure, prepare with mindfulness beforehand, but also give yourself space to reflect when you’re away. A 10-minute practice per day can help you get in touch with how you’re feeling and process your emotions a bit better.
When you visualise yourself doing something, you move away from that panicked chatter of your mind and come into your body, soothing the nervous system. More than just calming any jitteriness, though, mindfulness can really help pave the way to a more balanced, animated travel experience.
Mindfulness isn’t this fluffy-cloud thing
Whatever comes up when thinking about your adventure (ahead of time or when you’re there), I would encourage people to feel and connect to the change of energy that being mindful creates within your body. I think it’s easy for people to convince themselves intellectually that mindfulness is a good thing to do. Yet, the true power of it comes from within.
Also, I think it’s worth remembering that mindfulness isn’t this fluffy-cloud thing that’s going to make you feel good all the time. Above all, it’s about getting into your current state of mind – and that won’t always be pleasant.
To meet those feelings with an open mind means to deepen your practice. You’ll get the release that comes from the physical embodiment of mindfulness and you’ll also build resilience.
It has changed my life
Mindfulness is a lifelong skill. I still struggle with slowing down and being present but, if I’m honest, I don’t think I’d be alive without it. It has changed my life and given me the strength to not bottle things up. Instead, I now always stop and accept how my feelings are.
Luke Doherty is an ex-professional rugby player and founder of Mindful Peak Performance. He has devised bespoke mindfulness programmes for some of the UK’s leading athletes and forward-thinking executives.
Images: Courtesy of Luke Doherty & Flash Pack