The number of things we are “supposed” to do for our health can be overwhelming. Exercise, eating clean, spending time with our family, getting enough sleep, decreasing screen time, spending time in nature… For those of us barely finding the time to deal with exercise and diet, this can be daunting. The idea of sitting still for five minutes and breathing seems like a bit of a waste when there are only 45 minutes carved out in the day for health-related things. Many of us don’t feel like we have time to meditate once a week, let alone on a daily basis.
Can Movement Be Meditation?
It is no secret that meditation is beneficial. A 2014 research review concluded meditation leads to activation in the parts of the brain involved in processing, self-regulation, focused problem solving, adaptive behavior, and interoception.1 It’s almost as though meditation is the antidote to an over-stimulated, go-go-go mindset. Of course, the always on-the-go, over-stimulated people would much rather do an HIIT workout than remain still. A conundrum.
What if incorporating a mindful movement practice elicited similar responses in the brain as meditation? And what if moving mindfully improved performance?
Jon Kabat-Zimm, developer of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction technique (MBSR), defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience.”2 Paying attention to the task at hand and monitoring your relationship to the task instead of thinking about the next set, the music, or what your boss said to you at work is mindfulness. This can be done anytime, anywhere, and doesn’t require sitting on the floor.
Research also suggests basic meditation techniques may lead to improved motor control, an improved ability to detect subtle environmental changes, and better self-correction to successfully complete a motor task when these changes happen.3 These all sound like good things if our goal is improved physical performance, don’t they?
Increasingly, researchers are saying movement can cultivate mindfulness when attention is directed in a specific manner. This is good news for those of us struggling with the concept of meditation. “Yes! Let me move instead of sit still! And get the same benefits!”
Taking a few minutes to improve your mind’s connection to the body can enhance your performance. [Photo credit: J Perez Imagery]
It Doesn’t Have to Be Tai Chi
Don’t mistake mindful movement for easy movement. To maintain focused attention or to practice open monitoring (a meditation technique that simply means to observe what you are experiencing, without judgement) means reducing distractions and investigating the quality of the movement, rather using force. It becomes less about exercise and more about curiosity and open-mindedness.
Moving slowly and mindfully doesn’t exactly match the goal of a traditional workout. How can mindful movement be incorporated without sacrificing the overall goal of fitness?
The good news is fitness doesn’t have to be sacrificed; if anything, exploring these concepts will likely enhance fitness. The concept of mindful movement can be applied in any fitness setting by using sensing, feeling, and adjusting.
- Sensing refers to the idea of taking a moment before your workout to sense you. What is your physical state? What is your emotional state? What are you experiencing? Can you sense your breath? Can you sense the ground? Taking 2-3 minutes before the start of your workout to ask yourself these questions makes you present. It sets you up to be mentally engaged in the task at hand.
A great way to do this is during joint mobility work. If you actively move your joints through various ranges of motion before your session, use this as an opportunity to check in and see how you are feeling and moving. And if you don’t do joint prep work, adding five minutes of it might be a worthwhile endeavor.
- Feeling is the observation of how you are doing a movement. As you move through your warm-up, for instance, can you feel yourself using unnecessary force? Or maybe if you’re hypermobile, you don’t feel like you’re using enough control. What can you do to make the movement smoother, more fluid? Can the quality of the task be improved without sacrificing ease?
This can also be applied during the workout itself. If you are struggling with a specific skill, significantly decreasing load and moving through the exercise slowly is a way to connect with the movement. One theory behind how this works is through the effect this has on the central nervous system.3 The central nervous system is comprised of two branches: the sensory (afferent) nervous system and the motor (efferent) nervous system. Self-awareness comes from the information we receive from these two system.
- Adjusting means using the information you learn from sensing and feeling to make a skill more efficient. If, for instance, you are moving slowly through a light deadlift and you notice (sense) during the concentric phase of the movement you shift your weight slightly to the right to finish the lift, you can correct this by telling yourself to stay centered as you perform the next few. Your brain sends information to your motor (efferent) system via feedback you received from sensing your weight on the floor using your afferent system.
Obviously, how you do a specific skill or exercise is going to look different when you speed the exercise up to real time and load it enough to provide the appropriate stimulus for strength conditioning, but stepping back occasionally and slowly things down won’t decrease performance. It might even enhance it.
Don’t Discount Movement for Recovery
Another way to implement mindful movement into an exercise is to perform it on recovery days. There are many forms of moving that enhance awareness and encourage open monitoring. This is not to be confused with vinyasa flow or a level 2-3 power yoga class with HIIT thrown in. Rather, things like tai chi, restorative yoga, qigong, and Feldenkrais are all forms of restorative movement that can help you develop focused attention and mindfulness without interfering with recovery. They have the added benefit of being “novel,” or including movements that are likely outside your normal repertoire. Novelty requires focus, which means learning a martial art, parkour, MovNat, or other “fringe” exercise modalities breeds focus, though they definitely don’t fall into the restorative exercise category.
Focused attention has actually been shown to improve selective and executive attention, or the ability to focus on the task at hand.4 You know how sometimes you space out during your workouts and find yourself thinking about the meeting you have with your boss later? The better your executive attention, the less your mind will wander and the more present you will be, not just during your workouts, but in life.
“But wait,” you might be thinking. “I don’t have time to devote an entire extra hour on my rest days to slow, tedious modalities designed for old and sick people.” The good news is, with the internet, there are many options available to these forms of mindful movement that don’t require leaving the house. Many of the online options have classes that vary in length, from 10-60 minutes. Additionally, research suggests these types of practices enhance total body coordination.5 For those of us aiming to improve athleticism in any hobby or sport, this is probably beneficial.
Focus Inward While You Cool Down
So far, our options for incorporating mindful movement into our existing exercise program include during the warm-up, as part of skill work, and on rest days. The final way to incorporate mindful movement into your current routine is during the cool-down. Instead of taking yourself through a stretching routine, core work, or whatever your standard cool-down consists of, try making small, simple movements that coordinate with your breath. This could be a very easy yoga routine, a gentle flow that takes place on the floor, or (my personal favorite), a handful of somatic movements. Before jumping up to leave, spend 2-3 minutes focusing on your breath. Not trying to change it, just focusing on it. Feel where your inhale goes, feel what happens when you exhale. If your mind wanders, notice that and return to focusing on your breath.
It could probably be argued that every workout should be mindful, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. There will always be days we need an external stimulus to get going, whether it’s music, an intense workout, or mindless cardio. However, if every single workout lacks a component of focus and attention, you are doing yourself a disservice. Attention is like a muscle; it must be worked gradually over time for it to ever improve. And, like exercise, by practicing just a little bit of mindfulness in the beginning, over time, you will be able to practice it more and more until it permeates other areas of your life.
More on cultivating the mind to improve the body:
1. Boccia, M., Piccardi, L., & Guariglia, P., (2015). The meditative mind: a comprehensive meta-analysis of MRI studies. Biomedical Research Institue, doi: 10.1155/2015/419808.
2. Russell, T.A., & Arcuri, S.M., (2015). A neurophysiological and neuropsychological consideration of mindful movement: clinical and research implications. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00282.
3. Naranjo, J.R., & Schmidt, S., (2012). Is it me or not me? Modulation of perceptual- motor awareness and visuomotor performance by mindful meditation. BMC Neuroscience, 13(88).
4. Chiesa, A., Calati, R., Seretti, A., (2011). Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities? A systematic review of neuropsychological findings. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(3), 449-464.
5. Mattes, J., (2016). Attentional focus in motor learning, the Feldenkrais method, and mindful movement. Perceptual Motor Skills, 123(1), 258-276.