When you hear the word mindfulness, this is the image that might come to mind:
I don't know about you, but I don't feel super connected to this image – where exactly do I find this serene beach? And more importantly, where do I find the time (and patience) to sit blissfully in meditation for... wait, how long?
I've heard from countless clients that they just can't stand practicing mindfulness, that all that attention on the breath and sitting still makes them want to throw things.
I can relate.
As a 'mover' – someone who learns through doing, and loves the feeling of being in motion, especially dance – I've experienced sitting meditations where I am so antsy it feels like rage, and others where it simply made my back feel stiff. (Or maybe I was just more mindfully aware of my back pain!)
Rather than the idyllic image above, mindfulness practice often feels a lot more like this:
I've learned there are many paths to mindfulness, whether in Buddhist-informed seated meditation, or through a variety of other avenues. (Spoiler alert! One of these avenues is movement!)
It's worthwhile to find a type of mindfulness practice that works for you, since we only ever really live in the present moment – even if our minds are stuck in the past or worrying about the future – it's the only vantage point we actually have to work from, to grow or to change. As a bonus, it's also full of potential joy, peace, and depth... if we can be present enough to notice what's there in any given moment.
Movement is one path to the present moment, which might appeal to folks who have trouble with sitting still, or just want to try something different.
When we practice mindfulness (according to Jon-Kabat Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), we pay attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judgment. To practice mindful movement, we do just that – while moving.
Mindful movement can look a lot of different ways: tai chi, qigong, some forms of yoga, Authentic Movement, walking a labyrinth... and it can be less formal, too. It can look like walking, or slow stretching, or contemplative dancing that's focused on inner experience versus being seen. It can look whichever way fits for you.
Let's look at this approach to mindful movement a little more closely:
Pay attention, on purpose:
So often we move through our days on autopilot, unaware of how we get from place to place, what our food really tasted like, and what's actually going in in our bodies. Ever 'come to' from this autopilot-trance and realized you'd been sitting in an uncomfortable position for who-knows-how-long? Or suddenly noticed you were doing something kinda weird with your hands or face? That's the opposite of mindfulness, and for most of us, it happens all the time.
To pay attention on purpose, we intentionally shift (and re-shift, again and again) our attention to the present moment – especially as we move our bodies.
To the present moment:
In each moment, in addition to thoughts and emotions that may arise in our experience, there is a wealth of input from our bodies: sensations (temperature, pain/pleasure/neutrality, pressure, expansion/contraction, and more), movement as it happens (and the associated sensations in each body part), and movement impulses (urges to move in a certain way, to begin moving a body part, or to follow a movement sequence to its natural end).
As I sit and write this, when I'm focused on my words and thoughts, I am less aware of my body's movement in the present moment. But if I intentionally shift my attention (step 1!) to my body, there is a great deal happening in the present moment:
Sensations: I can feel the pressure of the computer keys under my fingers, and a slight clenching in my jaw (which I usually register as normal and don't notice). My legs are warm where my laptop rests, and my stomach is contentedly full and making small gurgling noises.
Movement currently happening: My skull pivots slightly on the vertebra at the top of my spine as my eyes track different parts of the screen and the keyboard. Two bony parts of my wrists rest on my laptop, and my wrists rotate off those points as my fingers move to reach keys across the keyboard.
Movement impulses: I have an impulse to breathe out deeply and I do, and notice a slight twitch in my ankles and feet as they rest on the coffee table. I have the urge to reach my arms above my head, and stretch my body long, and I follow it.
In this example, I'm moving very little – not as much as, say, if I were doing contemplative dance (a favorite pathway to mindfulness, for me). And yet, what I listed above is just the tip of the iceberg of what was happening in my body in that moment!
Without judgment: Aaannnd here's the kicker. Without judgment? Yes. Without judgment. Which means that all of your experience gets to be included in the present moment. No part is rejected as unacceptable, and no part (no matter how enjoyable) gets clung to at the exclusion of the rest of your experience.
In my experience described above, I might be tempted to exclude the parts that I don't find as pleasurable – to ignore my clenched jaw, or judge it as something I 'should' do something about or change. To make myself wrong about carrying my stress in my jaw.
I might also be tempted to just focus on the parts that I enjoy, like the sensations of warmth, or contented fullness, and ignore the rest of what's happening.
There is a witnessing quality to this kind of mindfulness, where you're aware of each sensation, movement, and impulse (alongside thoughts and emotions) that arise, touching lightly upon them, and letting them go as the next moment naturally arises.
In movement specifically, there is a whole extra layer of judgment that society has laid upon us, around performance and perfection and what our movement means about us, and our worth as people. It can get pretty rough in there, with self-judgment and the inhibition that comes from being told 'you can't dance' or 'you look dumb,' or whatever other harmful messages we've picked up and internalized along the way.
Mindful movement is an opportunity to let the judgments arise, notice them, and keep moving anyway. It is an opportunity to not judge your judging, which – when it happens – is just another part of your experience as you move, similar to an ache in your shoulder or an itch on your nose. It just happens to be a more painful, insidious part of your experience, and so all the better to recognize it for what it is – a judgment – rather than to believe it as a truth about who you are or what kind of movement you're 'allowed' to do.
Because the truth is, we are allowed to move however we like! And when we follow our natural impulses, it's a beautiful thing. No matter what it looks like.
So go ahead and try it. Keep it simple. Move in a way that suits you, for as long as it suits you. Pay attention to your sensations, movements, and impulses, as well as your thoughts and emotions that arise and slip away. Notice your judgments when they come up. And keep moving, in your own way.
I'd love to hear from you about your experiences with mindfulness in movement. What approaches have you taken? Did you try any new approaches? What did you find out?
And, if you'd like to explore mindful movement with the help of a trained guide, please feel free to contact me for a no-charge consultation. I would be honored to support you in this way!
Anna Mayer, MA, R-DMT, is a body-based counselor and dance/movement therapist based in Boulder, CO. She offers individual sessions, embodied couples therapy, and dance/movement DBT skills.