What is mindful movement (and how to do it)

What IS mindful movement? It’s yoga, right?

As a health professional who runs mindful movement classes from time to time, this is a question I get quite a lot.

And for sure, many yoga classes could fall into the category of mindful movement, if you’re practicing mindfully – but yoga classes may also have a different focus, depending on the class, the teacher, and your own frame of mind.

Mindful movement – the way I practice it – refers to moving your body while placing your attention and focus on really noticing and feeling what your body does throughout those movements. This is different to just noticing a pain point, such as feeling that your hamstring is being stretched during a forward bend (and then often being encouraged to push it a bit further to see how far it can go.)

In mindful movement we are practicing being aware of our whole body. So during that forward bend, seeing if we can move in concert with our breath – noticing both our breathing pace and the forward movement of our torso. Once in the position, noticing if the weight is towards our toes or our heels. How does the position of our torso change slightly as we breathe in and out. Standing back up, lifting our arms above our head and noticing – what muscles contract to do this movement? Can we lift our arms without also lifting our shoulders towards our ears? Does one arm feel lighter or heavier than the other? Often in a yoga class, we are instructed to move quickly enough that we don’t get time to ponder all these distinctions.

And as with other mindful practices, we aren’t bringing awareness to the body so we can fix it. This might be your focus in a yoga or tai chi class – to be aware of where your body is in space to be able to correct it and bring it into the right position to achieve a certain posture. In my version of mindful movement though, it’s about simply noticing. It’s actually really hard to notice where your body is and then not move it, if when you notice it you realise it’s actually uncomfortable. How much of the time are we in slight discomfort and don’t realise because our attention is elsewhere?

A little exercise I often do in a mindful movement class, and that you can easily try out at home, is just getting people to sit down on the floor, and then get back up again without thinking too much about it. Then we repeat the actions, only this time doing it slowly and really noticing the way your body instinctually moves with this one simple direction. Do you roll over towards your side, use one or two arms to push up, which foot do your preferentially place on the floor first? Theres so much movement we do throughout the day with out being aware of it. Sitting, standing, walking, bending, lifting.

Please don’t think I’m dismissing yoga as a non-mindful practice – by placing your awareness on your breath and your body as a whole, you can definitely get a mindful experience of a class. I personally really enjoy using yoga as a mindfulness practice. But it might be interesting to take note of when the class is triggering you to compare the shapes your body is making to other people’s, or when you get so distracted trying to keep up with the teachers instructions that you realise you are moving without awareness.

Mindful movement can be done in a class-type situation, as in yoga or other mindful movement practices like tai chi or martial arts – but it doesn’t have to be. Mindful movement can just be part of your usual daily activities – done with a touch more awareness. Next time you sit down or get up; brush your teeth; dry yourself with a towel after a shower – try and bring awareness to the movements and see if you experience them differently.

 

The major factors to consider when choosing the right yoga class for you

Often when I tell people that I work with peeps who want to use movement to help manage their mood, they respond with ‘Oh yeah, like yoga and stuff’.

There’s a reason that yoga is one of the first places peoples’ minds jump to when they think ‘movement’ and ‘mental health’ – several studies have shown results like decreased rumination (focusing on unpleasant thoughts), improved sleep, decreased severity of depression and improved quality of life. One study even found that a yoga intervention worked better for improving depression symptoms than pharmacotherapy (drugs)! So, there’s certainly validity in using yoga as part of a movement practice to improve mood. But, the difference it makes can depend on a few variables…

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Photo by Leo Prieto

The style

Of course, the style makes a huge difference, and there’s no ‘better or worse’ –it depends on your purpose. If you want to work your muscles, get warm, and sweat it out, and increase energy, power yoga or vinyasa might be good for you. If you want to chill, breathe, stretch and find some calm, perhaps yin yoga or restorative is a better bet. I recommend doing some research, taking some time to think about what you want to get out of your practice, and then make an educated choice about which style you choose. And why not try a few different styles to see what works for you!

 

The teacher

Having completed many yoga classes with both fantastic teachers and those that made me go ‘meh’, I can say from experience that having an experienced teacher who is in it for more than the fitness aspect is a totally different experience than a class run by someone who is mostly about building muscles and improving flexibility. My favourite classes are always those that have some greater meaning or message built into them, whether that be in the form of a theme for the class, or just a few words that the teacher offers during savasana. Traditionally yoga is much more a spiritual practice than just physical poses, and teachers who offer a little bit of something for the psyche on top of teaching the physical movements are always my faves.

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The time

I’ve done classes that go for 45-50 minutes, like group fitness classes in gyms, and I’ve always found they don’t really allow enough time to do a proper stillness practice. Some have written about savasana (the corpse pose) being the most important asana (pose) in yoga and it’s certainly important from my perspective. I love the practice of it in the studio, of taking a moment to let your body consolidate what you’ve just gone through in the last hour or so, and just focusing on breathing. I also love taking that concept into the rest of your life – allowing time for processing, resting, and taking a breath before moving on to the next thing. In shorter classes, there is usually only a couple of minutes of stillness, which I reckon isn’t enough. My fave classes go for 75 – 90 minutes.

 

The environment

I’ve done yoga in some pretty picturesque places. Like open, bamboo studios surrounded by papaya trees and jungle, or huge, converted warehouses with exposed wood beams and huge windows through which the afternoon sun streams in…And, while it’s not 100% a prerequisite for a good class, I reckon the additional calm and peace that comes from spending time inside a beautiful studio (as compared to a plain walled room with minimal natural light or air flow) is important.

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That’s what I reckon has the most impact on what makes a good class. The other stuff, like the mat or the clothes: less important from my perspective. Although having a good mat is a nice luxury – I’m currently using a really ratty old mat that sheds little pieces of rubber every time I use it. It’s kinda annoying. (Recommendations for good brands of mat welcome!)

 

Did I miss any important considerations for a good class? Where’s the most beautiful studio you’ve practiced in? Let me know in the comments…