Mindfulness Group Therapy Exercises
Mindfulness can be a valuable tool in working with individuals and in groups. It’s a core piece of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and there are many Western psychologists adopting mindfulness-based practices for helping their clients rest in the present moment. There is a growing body of research to suggest mindfulness-based group therapy can benefit clients in a number of ways. Here are a few mindfulness exercises you can do with your groups that we’ve found helpful. To get clear step-by-step instructions, check out our guide above. To learn more about mindfulness meditation, you can read our post Mindfulness vs. Meditation.
General Mindfulness Exercises for Groups
These are some general practices to encourage investigation of mindfulness and meditation. We encourage you to talk with your students/clients about mindfulness before introducing these practices. By introducing mindfulness through engaging exercises, you may be able to reach people and help them understand mindfulness with more ease than if you simply led a guided meditation.
Sometimes called the raisin exercise, mindful eating is a great way to start. You can do this with any food, but we recommend picking something that is friendly to dietary-restrictions. Berries are a great way to go. Give each member of the group a single berry or piece of food, and make sure to ask them not to eat it yet!
This practice is one of mindful eating, incorporating the senses of seeing, tasting, smelling, and feeling physically. Ask your group to first start by looking at the berry. Although they may have seen these berries many times before in their lives, encourage them to look at it like they have never seen one before. They may notice color, the texture, irregularities, or anything that grabs their attention.
Next, ask them to notice how the item of food feels in their hands. You can suggest they notice texture, the temperature, and the shape. If the item smells, you can ask them to smell it. Encourage everyone to notice any emotions or thoughts arising, perhaps most notably the desire to eat the food!
As they do eat the berry or other item, ask them to notice what it’s like to eat it. I like to encourage my students to eat really slowly. Notice the chewing, the taste, the texture, and how it changes as we continue to chew it. Berries are great because they may be juicy, their taste may change as we chew, and the skin is often different than the interior.
You can do this with one item of food, or bring several different types of food to try this with. We like to bring blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries, just to offer some different tastes, textures, and shapes.
Out Loud Noting
Noting is the practice of simply noting what is happening in our experience, and lends itself well as one of our favorite mindfulness exercises. We may do this privately in formal meditation practice, but it also can be a great group mindfulness exercise. With a group, it may be helpful to suggest noting things we are thinking, seeing, hearing, or feeling in the body. Sit in a circle if you can, explaining that the activity is really simple: we’re noting out loud what we notice happening.
We can overcomplicate this practice, so try to keep it simple if you’re able. Perhaps you start yourself, noting one thing that you’re hearing, seeing, feeling in the body, or thinking. We like to phrase it as, “Right now I am noticing .” This prompt can help people stay on track and keep it relatively brief. Continue around in a circle, with each person noting out loud anything that comes to mind in their experience.
You can continue this practice as long as it feels right. As we note out loud what is happening, we are practicing mindfulness of our experience. As we listen to others, we may get ideas of new things to be mindful of, and we are practicing mindful listening.
Dyads are one of our favorite mindfulness exercises, and we do them quite frequently both in our own personal lives and in groups. This mindfulness exercise is done in pairs, or dyads. You can ask people to partner up or choose the partners as you see fit. We like to encourage members of our groups to choose someone they don’t know very well, as it can help foster community and connection.
You can point out that this is a practice in both mindful speaking and mindful listening. When somebody is speaking, they can be mindful of what they’re saying, if it is true, and how vulnerable they are being. When someone is listening, they can practice just listening and noticing how it is to hear someone answer the questions.
The partners will take turns asking and answering questions. You can ask them to pick a Partner A and Partner B, or offer something like, “the person with the longer hair will be Partner A.” Partner A will ask a question, and Partner B will answer it. Then, Partner A says, “Thank you,” and asks the question again. They will repeat the question until the timer runs out (60-90 seconds recommended to start), then switch roles. Make sure to be clear that one partner is asking repeatedly and the other is answering repeatedly; it is not a back-and-forth asking. When the timer runs out, the two partner can switch roles and Partner B can now ask the same question.
You can repeat this a few times, offering different questions. You may start with a simple question like, “What is something I may not know about you?” This can help them understand the practice with a relatively simple question. You then can dive into any topic you want. A few examples of questions we use are:
-What is something that brings you joy?
-What does happiness feel like?
-What brings you anxiety?
-What are your hopes?
-What’s a quality you like about yourself?
This practice is similar to the Out Loud Noting practice, with an extra piece thrown in. As with the noting practice, you’ll sit in a circle and note what is going on in your present moment experience. After noting what is going on, the person will then name one of the six sense-doors: seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, feeling, or thinking. If you want to simplify, you may remove smelling and tasting and just work with the four. For example, you may start by saying, “Right now I am noticing my breath… Hearing.” Then, the next person has to note something they are hearing.
By naming a sense-door and giving the next person a specific experience to pay attention to, it can keep people on their toes. When you don’t know what sense-door you’re going to have to look at, it’s harder to get stuck in your head planning what you’re going to say. Also, you may be prompted to be mindful of something you’re not usually mindful of!
Mindfulness Activities for Anxiety
These are a few practices we’ve found helpful both in our own lives and working with groups for addressing anxiety. Of course there are many treatments and ways to work with anxiety. We offer these mindfulness activities for anxiety as a supplement to other practices and treatments.
Body Scan Practice
Body scans are a great introduction to mindfulness practice. This is more of a formal meditation practice that many of the other activities and exercises on this page, but it can be quite engaging. A body scan is the practice of moving slowly through the body and looking at what is present in each place. We like to start from the crown of the head and move toward the feet.
You can encourage members of your group to notice things like movement, temperature of the air on the skin, tension, relaxation, and anything else present. If everyone is new to mindfulness, don’t spend too long looking at any one spot. One of the reasons body scans are useful is that the person gets to focus on different things, helping keep attention present. We have a guided meditation and body scan scripts available on our body scan meditation page.
When somebody is experiencing anxiety, a body scan can help them get out of the thinking mind and rest in the body. Although the body may feel rather unpleasant in moments of anxiety, it often helps us settle, slow the heart rate, and come back into the present-time experience. I like to encourage my students to allow the mind to “drop into the body” as a way of letting go of the thinking mind.
This practice comes from James Baraz, author of Awakening Joy and teacher with Spirit Rock and Insight Berkeley. Specifically meant for moments of difficulty or pain, you can offer this practice to your group for use in their own lives. We do it ourselves regularly, and have had great feedback from our students who use it.
This practice has a few simple steps. First, the person puts their hand on their own heart. This stimulates the vagus nerve, which helps the body to relax and regulate its heart beat. It also facilitates the release of oxytocin, especially if the hand is against bare skin. Next, the person offers themselves the simple phrase, “This is a moment of difficulty.” They can say it out loud, or in their heads. You can use whatever phrase you feel works. Other phrases people use include: “This doesn’t feel good,” “This is a moment of anxiety,” or “This hurts.” This is a mindfulness practice in simply recognizing our discomfort and not resisting it as we so often do instinctively.
Next, the person can offer themselves a few phrases of understanding and compassion. James Baraz recommends offering ourselves the two phrases, “Difficulty happens” and “I care about my difficulty.” Again, you can suggest phrases that may seem to fit your community better. Perhaps use the phrases, “Anxiety happens,” and “I care about my anxiety.” This really is a practice in cultivating self-compassion in addition to mindfulness, and can help us be present for our difficulties.
Finger breathing is one of Elizabeth’s favorite mindfulness exercises to offer, and a great way to focus on the present moment. We recently had a student of ours who works in a trauma unit at a hospital tell us that they use this practice during their chaotic work days. Like the self-compassion practice, this is one you can lead as a group, but people can also take home to use on their own time.
People can do this with eyes open or closed, and they may use one hand or both hands. Start with the thumb on the index finger. As you inhale, slide the the thumb toward the tip and squeeze. As you exhale, slide the thumb back down the index finger. With the next breath, move on to the middle finger. You can continue this practice to the pinky finger, then move back toward the index finger. This is a great way to engage with mindfulness, as we are breathing mindfully but using the additional experience of the finger-touching to help us concentrate.
Mindfulness for Young People
We were fortunate to be introduced to mindfulness practices in our early teen years. Through parents, reading, choir teachers, and therapists, mindfulness was brought to us at relatively young ages. Although it didn’t necessarily stick the first time, we are grateful that we were shown these practices as it planted a seed of awareness and patience. Here are a few mindfulness games, practices for teens, and ways to introduce mindfulness to younger children.
These mindfulness games are great for children, teenagers, and adults alike (after all, we all can embrace our inner child!). We use these to introduce mindfulness gently to groups, as formal meditations may be a turn-off or anxiety-producing.
You are likely familiar with Jenga, the game of a wooden block tower in which you pull blocks out and try to keep the tower from tumbling. It’s a fun game to begin with, but you can add it to your toolbox of mindfulness exercises pretty easily. Start by getting yourself a Jenga set, or perhaps a set of Giant Jenga. Next, you can take each wooden block and write a prompt on it with a marker.
These should be thoughts, questions, or instructions. When you go to play the game with your group or students, each person will have to practice or answer whatever is written on the block they pull out. Make sure you write the instruction on the long end of the block so you can’t see what it says until you pull it out! You can write what you see fit, but here are a few prompts we put on our set:
-What do you hear right now?
-What is a fear you have?
-What brings you joy?
-Take three deep breaths.
-How does it feel to smile?
We prefer to write questions down, encouraging the person to read it out loud and practice it so the whole group can investigate mindfulness together.
This practice was first introduced to Elizabeth in high school by a chorus teacher, and not necessarily as a mindfulness exercise. However, it’s a powerful way to encourage focusing on the present moment. It’s an engaging practice of listening, speaking (or singing), and sometimes laughter and joy. We’ve found that the bigger the group, the more fun this exercise is. It’s one of our favorite mindfulness games for groups, especially with those that are super new to mindfulness practice. Before starting, it can be helpful to encourage people to have fun with this practice and not be too rigid. We think of mindfulness sometimes as stern or serious, but we can have fun while do it!
In this practice, one person will make a noise and everybody will meet the person where they are. We don’t have to have wonderful singing voice to participate in this exercise! Start by making a sound or noise and sustaining it. We often start with a simple “Ommmmmmm….” noise. As the sound dies out, someone else can make a noise. It can be a hum, a whistle, an animal noise, or whatever! Again, everyone else meets the person and the group makes the noise together. When the noise dies out, someone else can make a noise.
This is a practice in really being present. We listen to the noise, mimic it, and tune into the experience. Although it often is awkward at first and filled with periods of silence, we’ve seen it turn into laughter and joy quite easily.
This is not a new idea. Monks in many traditions make art, perhaps most notably the sand mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism. You can buy a coloring book or print some pages from online resources. Coloring can be especially useful in working with children, but it’s a great way to encourage mindfulness.
Everyone can color their own drawing, or you can pass a drawing around and let one person color a block at a time. Encourage everyone to color in silence. Although coloring may be seen as just coloring, it can be a powerful meditation practice in which we are truly in the present-time experience. Encourage the group to be mindful of the colors they choose, what it feels like to color, and to notice the progression as they fill in their drawing!
Mindfulness Activities for Teenagers
These are a collection of some mindfulness activities for the classroom or groups of teenagers. Of course, you can also try these practices with younger people or adults as well!
Balancing can be a fun way to investigate mindfulness of the body. You can start by introducing mindfulness as being present with our experience. As you ask your students or group to balance on one foot, offer a few tips for being mindful. They can pay attention to the muscles working to keep them balanced, the way it feels to tip to one side, and the natural reaction to put the other foot down when we’re falling.
As the people are standing there balancing, you can guide them through these different things of which to be mindful. You can also ask them to do different things, such as raising a hand up, switching legs, or taking a deep breath. When we stand on one foot like this, we have to pay attention to what we’re doing in order to not fall! We can encourage the group to practice mindfulness and feel the sensations without talking too much about meditation or boring the kids.
Mindful walking is of course a great practice for people of any age, and one of my favorite ways to practice moving meditation. There are different mindfulness exercises around walking, but we’ll talk about one here and another below in the section on practices for younger children. For this practice, you will need enough space for everyone to walk without running into each other. We like to encourage people to walk back and forth, finding a space 15-30 feet to practice this. People can walk at whatever pace works for them, or you can offer some instructions on how fast or slow they should walk.
When we use this as an introductory exercise with teenagers, we like to guide them through the practice and change it up. As people walk, encourage them to notice different things occurring. You can prompt people to notice the feet (or a specific foot), the muscles in the legs working as we walk, the feeling of the body moving through space, the breath, or anything else. You can also prompt people to slow down, walk faster, skip, jog, or do anything else. Be kind with your prompts and don’t make anyone do anything too difficult!
This is one of our favorite mindfulness exercises to do with both teenagers and adults. We often use pennies, but you can practice mindfulness by using any coin or other item. We lead an introductory daylong retreat outdoors once a month in the beautiful redwood forests of Northern California, and use similar-looking sticks instead of coins. Give each member of your group one of the items, and offer them 60 seconds to really get to know it as well as they can.
Then, put all of the items in a bag, basket, or pile. One-by-one, let people look through the items and find the one that is theirs. When somebody finds their coin, stick, or whatever the item you’re using is, have them explain how they knew. This can be easy with things like dollar bills because people will try to remember the serial number. Coins can be a little more difficult as some may have the same year. Sticks of the same length are fun because each one may look the same at first glance, but people can usually find their stick with relative ease.
This is a practice in mindfully looking at our item and getting to know it. It’s an exercise in mindful seeing and knowing, and a lesson in how we can learn to see things more deeply and clearly than we often do if we only pay attention closely!
Mindfulness Exercises for Children
This section, although last on this page, was actually why we wrote this page! We’re asked quite often for mindfulness games for kids, fun mindfulness activities for people to practice with their children, and about teaching mindfulness in the classroom. These exercises and activities are meant to offer an introductory look at mindfulness, aimed specifically toward children not yet in their teens.
The Mindful Jar
We often reference this practice in our guided meditations. We call it the “settling snowglobe” sometimes. For this more creative mindfulness activity you’ll need jars, water, glitter, and perhaps something with which you can color the water (optional). Each child may make their own “mindful jar,” or you can all make one together! Fill the jar with water, and drop in glitter, little items, and whatever you see fit. This can be a fun activity for children. Make the point that everything you’re putting into the jar is like a thought or feeling.
When you’re done, seal the jar and shake it up. Then, instruct the children to watch the glitter and items settle. You may want to use something that settles more quickly than glitter if you’re working with young children. As the contents of the jar settle, you can relate it to mindfulness and the way we let our thoughts and feelings settle and calm down. What the children likely do not realize is that as they watch the contents settle, they are often settling themselves!
Mindful Nature Walk
This is another practice in mindful walking, and may be done with other groups than just children. We like to do this practice outdoors when possible, but you can adapt it to fit your situation! Instruct your group to notice what they see or hear and say it out loud. We often instruct the kids we work with to notice animals and nature, including noises, birds, the wind, flowers, and anything else. It can be useful to offer a few examples to show them what you mean.
As you walk together as a group, allow the children to say that they see a lizard, a bird, a squirrel or whatever wildlife. Maybe they see a pretty flower, hear the wind blowing, or smell a nature smell. When one student notices something out loud, encourage the other children to pay attention to it. You don’t need to get very far or walk very fast. Instead, focus on encouraging the students to be present and see what they experience!
Flower & Candle
This is a practice we heard of recently from a student of ours who works was a therapist with young children. This may work as a group activity or as a one-on-one activity, and is one of our favorite mindfulness exercises to utilize with younger participants. Take a piece of paper or a notecard, and draw a flower on one side and a candle or flame on the other.
Introduce the practice of mindfulness and breathing very gently. Show the child the picture of the flower and ask them to sniff the flower. Then, turn the card or paper over and ask them to blow the candle or flame out. Slowly, stop showing them the card and just offer auditory cues. Then, allow the kid to continue breathing like this on their own!
If you have any questions or want to talk about leading these exercises, don’t hesitate to email us at Info@OneMindDharma.com