Aoife McHugh is a freelance wellness writer and yoga teacher based in Abu Dhabi. Here she writes about the importance of prioritising presence over presents this Christmas.

There is nothing quite like the build-up to the festive season, that sense of awe you feel as you admire the bright Christmas lights. When you pause for a magical moment in time to watch the world through glittering eyes.

That is until someone accidentally rocks you out of your reverie, their arms weighed down with bags like the snow-laden branches of a fir tree.

The Octopus Shopper - many of us can say we have all been one and seen one. This festive phenomenon occurs when a person, so caught up in the panic of buying presents overestimates the capacity of their arms. They usually appear as Christmas draws near.

It is so easy to get tangled in the busyness of buying gifts that sometimes we forget how we can give more generously, genuinely, and truly uplift. It starts with paying attention in this moment, to this breath, right here, right now.

Christmas can be a difficult time for many people, so it is important to remember to check-in with ourselves and others. I am going to share some evidence-based practices that help to anchor us in the present. Each one will tie in with the festive theme, just for good measure.

In March 2021, the RCSI released a free course titled The Science of Health and Happiness. In one module, Dr. Trudy Meehan discusses the power of positive emotions and staying in the present moment.

Dr. Meehan cites a 2010 Harvard research study titled A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind which highlights the connection between happiness and the human thought process. In this study, researchers found that the human brain's unique capacity to plan and imagine the future is something to be marveled at but not necessarily mulled over (save that for the hot, spiced wine then).

We can easily get caught up in reflecting on the past or worrying about the future, but this will ultimately hinder our happiness. In the present, when we are feeling positive, we are open to life and learning new things. This is especially important during the festive season when we can be pulled in many different directions, which can lead to distress.

Even when we’re thinking about pleasant topics, mind-wandering makes us less happy. While the mind might have a tendency to wander when a person is unhappy, it is worth noting that, in this study, mind-wandering was generally the cause and not merely a consequence of unhappiness (I had to read that more than once too).

What people were thinking was a much better predictor of their happiness than what they were doing. Now imagine the power of doing something you love and truly attuning yourself to it.

Research indicates that the following activities make us happy and anchor us in the present moment.

Praying/Worshipping/Meditation
Whether you are a spiritual person or not, it is always beneficial to check in with yourself. Meditation is an effective way to set the tone for your day. If you find it hard to meditate, start with two minutes, twice daily. Create space to connect with your home base and free yourself from the incessant thought race.

Take a seat in your favorite, festive part of your home. Focus on where the breath enters and leaves and where you can feel it most strongly. When you get distracted, because you inevitably will, just say quietly to yourself 'there you are’, and return your focus within.

There are myriad free meditations online, to narrow your focus, search for themes that link to Christmas time.

Preparing Food
Christmas feasting has long been a feature of the festive season. It serves to comfort, nourish, and connect. While it is nice to get excited about the annual banquet, it is important to take stock of each step that precedes it. When we engage the senses and resist the urge to distract ourselves, this can be a very meaningful, mindful process.

For a truly immersive experience, a traditional Irish Christmas cake can take days to make. My mother usually has all her cakes made well in advance of Christmas day; a culinary art form sure to have you in a flow state.

Exercising
While yoga might be the most obvious choice of mindful exercise, there are several methods whereby one or more mind-body exercise characteristics can be integrated into a personal training session.

In research from La Forge 2016: "Self-focus may include specific internally directed attention to breathing and/or proprioception or muscle sense."

There is much research to support mindful exercise modalities as a significant means of improving a variety of health outcomes including blood pressure reduction and a decrease in anxiety and depressive symptoms.

3 Mini-Mindful Tips
Incorporate yogic breathing into warm-up and cool down exercises, pay attention to your surroundings

Integrate specific yoga poses into the strength and flexibility components of a program such as child’s pose which is an ideal way to stretch and rest between exercises. Remember to connect to the breath when enhancing exercise with yoga poses.

The popular tree pose can also be incorporated into a circuit of exercises to help stimulate and improve balance control (this is especially important for older adults).


Walking
Winter strolls are a sure-fire way to step up your present-moment game. Whether you are admiring buildings bedecked in Christmas lights, or vacuum-packing yourself in fleece material to avoid getting frostbite, walking is an ideal way to connect body and mind.

Gutberlet 2012 highlights the immense value of getting outdoors: "The feet are in contact with the ground. The body establishes a relation to the concrete. Geographically, socially organized space and to its history and that of the living beings in it."

At a time when human connection is once again being stretched and tested to its limits, these simple adjustments can bring a sense of joy that is deeply intrinsic.

That’s a wrap on how to prioritise presence this Christmas, it is now more important than ever to place your wellbeing at the top of your wish-list.