Mindfulness and movement
One question I often get when I tell people that I am doing a PhD in mindfulness and movement is: What type of movement? Most of us tend to associate only certain types of movement with mindfulness, specifically yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, walking, and some types of dance. Personally, I practice belly dancing, and thanks to a wonderful teacher who focuses not only on the movement itself, but also on the mind, the body, and the philosophy behind the dance, I find it a very mindful practice indeed.
But are these activities always mindful? Take yoga for example. I am not an expert in yoga, nor am I able to write about all of the components that make up true yoga practice. But it is worth mentioning that actual movement makes up only one eighth of yoga. This movement is the practice of the yoga postures or Asanas. The other seven parts (or limbs of yoga) are moral discipline (Yama), spiritual observances (Niyama), breathing techniques (Pranayama), sensory transcendence (Pratyahara), focused concentration (Dharana), meditation (Dhyana), and enlightenment (Samadhi). There are also the four paths of yoga: Karma Yoga (know as the path of selfless service), Bhakti Yoga (known as the path of devotion), Raja Yoga (containing the eight limbs of yoga and known as the path of self-restraint), and Jnana Yoga (known as the path of wisdom). After this brief overview of yoga, can we really say that practice that only focuses on Asanas is truly yoga? Can we say that yoga classes that focus on the body, but not on the mind are truly mindful? Perhaps not.
This same argument can be said for all the different types of movement mentioned above. If you are training for a dance competition, and you are feeling stressed, anxious, and depressed every time you dance, are you dancing mindfully? If you are practicing Tai Chi but your mind is distracted elsewhere, are you practicing mindfully? If you are doing Pilates but you keep comparing yourself to other people in your class, are you training mindfully? If you are walking in a rush to get from one place to another, paying no attention to your surroundings, are you walking mindfully? If you are practicing yoga only to enhance your physical appearance, are you practicing mindfully?
Thus, some types of movement may naturally be perceived as closer related to mindfulness practice than others, but if they are not practiced in a mindful way, they are simply bodily movements like the rest. On the other hand, any bodily movement that is practiced in a mindful way can be considered mindful movement.
Some types of physical activity, such as cardio-based activities (e.g., running) or weightlifting are not mindful in nature. Several studies have shown that mindfulness and mindful eating is associated positively with certain types of movement (e.g., yoga), but negatively with others (e.g., cardio-based exercise). However, as I mentioned above, all movement can in theory be mindful, when it is practiced with the right attitude. Right attitude is achieved when we:
- Bring awareness to movement. This is perhaps the first step of moving mindfully. Bringing awareness to the body, the breath, and the thoughts and emotions that occur during exercise, is a vital aspect of mindful movement.
- Gaze inwards. Whether we are in a yoga class or lifting weights at the gym, do we compare ourselves to the people around us? Do we get distracted by people, music and sounds? Or do we stay present on our own mat, in our own body, and in the present moment?
- Are kind to ourselves. Are we critical of our bodies and our abilities? Do we wish we were better, stronger, or more flexible? Do we get discouraged when we can’t do something? It is important to remember that mindful movement, much like mindfulness practice, is non-reactive, non-judgemental, and kind.
- Set our intentions. This is a concept that comes up often when one talks about mindfulness. Whatever type of exercise we do, it is important to ask ourselves why we are doing it and for what purpose. When movement is done mindfully, it is done with love, kindness and acceptance of our bodies, our goals, and our abilities.
- Listen to our bodies. Practicing Asanas in yoga class when injured can be just as mindless as weightlifting in an attentive and intentional way can be mindful. The same is true for exercising when your mind just isn’t “in it”. We have to nourish the connection between the mind and the body in every movement that we do. Only when they work together in harmony can we acquire and practice mindful movement.
- Meditate. Formal meditation practice, while not directly related to physical activity, is nonetheless an important component of mindfulness practice and is therefore a crucial part of all daily life, including movement.
Additionally, it is worth mentioning that mindful movement practice extends beyond exercise to all movement that comprises our daily lives. When we brush our teeth, when we get out of bed, when we sit down or stand up, when we brush our hair, or even when we stretch upon waking or after a long day at work, we are, in fact, moving. Mindful practice can be brought into each and every one of these movements, as long as we bring awareness, attention and intention to each moment.
You can read my other Mindful Movement blog post about mindfulness and yoga here. Also, if you enjoyed this blog post, please leave a comment below and subscribe to my blog! 🙂