I am often told, “I know meditation is good for me, but I just can’t sit still!” Well, here is some good news for all of you twitchy would-be meditators: sitting still is not the only way to meditate. In fact, mindfulness meditation, which focuses greatly on the body, pairs extremely well with movement.
When we apply the three aspects of mindfulness identified by psychologist Shauna Shapiro—Intention, Attention, and Attitude—to physical activity, we are engaging in mindful practice. We can practice in the following way:
- Start a physical activity by setting the Intention to bring the full focus of our awareness to the activity. Engage in the activity while keeping ourselves in the present moment.
- Pay Attention to our breath and the bodily sensations that accompany the activity. Our mind will wander, and when it does, we can gently guide it back to the breath and the sensations.
- Approach the activity with an Attitude of openness and curiosity. Instead of pushing ourselves to reach a particular goal or comparing our performance to others’ or our past performances, we can ask ourselves, “What happens when I move in this way?” and monitor our breath and our bodily sensations to receive the answer.
Practicing “mindful movements” provides us with the opportunity to increase our awareness of our bodies, improve our focus and practice non-judgmental awareness. Here are six ways to practice.
As our bodies only exist and move in the present moment, when we engage in focused, mindful movements, we necessarily enter the present moment. When our minds wander, guiding our attention back to the body and its movements brings us back to the present.
Mindful movements take us out of the “autopilot” mode and allow us to appreciate how much our bodies do for us without our conscious awareness. If you are standing still and rock back onto your heels, you will notice that your body automatically bends at the waist and your upper body leans forward to create a counterbalance to ensure that you do not fall backward. It is amazing to realize that all of this occurs automatically, outside of our conscious awareness or control! We also realize how many parts of our bodies work together to make even the simplest motions possible. The basic action of rocking back on our heels engages nearly every part of our bodies!
Mindful movements practiced regularly provide excellent benchmarks that allow us to see where we are at on a particular day. One day we will be able to complete a particular movement without any difficulty and the next day the same movement will make us feel exhausted or make us realize that our balance is off. Realizing where we are at on a particular day can lead to better decision-making. For example, if we notice that we feel particularly off-balance one day, we may wish to reconsider taking on particularly stressful tasks that day.
Mindful movements can provide a good opportunity to play at the edges of our comfort zones. For example, mindfully rocking back onto our heels and forward onto our toes allows us to watch how our breathing changes and our minds react when we are faced with the uncomfortable sensation of being off balance. The more we become aware of how our bodies and minds react to stressful circumstances, the more skillful we can be in recognizing the symptoms of stress in the “real world” and, in turn, making good decisions regarding how to best manage this stress.
Practicing mindful movements allows us the opportunity to appreciate impermanence. If we hold a squat for a while, we may notice a burning sensation in our thighs and accompanying thoughts like, “I can’t hold this any longer. My thighs are killing me! I am literally dying here!” However, after coming out of the squat, we notice that not only have we survived but also that the sensation has passed within a few moments. Practicing mindful movements on different days makes us aware that our physical and mental states vary widely from day-to-day. This awareness allows us to appreciate that all things pass and change with time.
Mindful movements provide a good opportunity to practice non-judgmental awareness and self-compassion. As amazing as our bodies are, they have limits. Often when we hit a limit, we feel frustrated with ourselves. While this is a natural reaction, it is not usually logical or helpful. After all, tipping over in a balance pose is not a catastrophe and says absolutely nothing about our worth. Berating ourselves for tipping over is not likely to increase our balance! Practicing how to meet the small disappointments that often accompany physical activity with openness, curiosity and kindness will make us more adept at adopting this type of attitude and make it more likely that we will be able to do so in regard to life’s larger disappointments.
Whew! Who knew you could be practicing so much through the performance of some small, slow movements?!
While it is possible to apply Intention, Attention, and Attitude to a Zumba class or a run, it is usually easiest to start with a slower practice, like yoga, walking or gentle stretches and movements. Approach your practice with curiosity and see what arises!
Please watch for a future post in which I will set out instructions for a simple series of mindful movements.
Heather is a lawyer, yoga instructor, and a Trained Teacher in
Mindfulness-based Symptom Management
at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic