Mindfulness gained popularity in the past few decades as a secular way to experience the benefits of meditation. It’s become so common as to almost be cliched. Your employer is encouraging mindfulness as a means to reduce stress (and lower their own costs). Your favorite actors go on regular mindfulness retreats. And now the many folks in the fitness industry are suggesting that their version of mindful movement will be beneficial not just for your body but for your mind and soul.
let’s define mindfulness
Mindfulness is often defined as, “bringing awareness to the present moment in a non-judgmental way.” In mindfulness meditation ( simply become aware of things, as they are, without trying to change them. We let go of goals (even the seemingly harmless goal of trying to be more peaceful or relaxed) and allow things to be just as they are. The technique is quite simple, but the practice is not always easy.
Left to its own devices, our mind likes to dwell in what’s known as “default mode.” We ruminate on the past; fantasize about the future; commentate and color our current experience with narrative. Default mode is what’s operating when our mind is wandering or we’ve “tuned out.” It’s called “default mode” for a great reason— we spend most of our time in this state.
Mindfulness practice is a deliberate action of turning off default mode and training ourselves to be in a state of present-moment awareness. We can do this by deliberately bringing awareness to things like sensations, sounds, smells, sights, or even more interior experiences of breath, thought or emotion.
what makes movement “mindful?”
Movement becomes mindful when we direct our awareness to what our body is experiencing in the moment. That might be something as simple as feeling our feet planted on the ground, or the arm moving through the air. With greater awareness (and this can take more practice and skill), we can notice things like breath, muscular contractions or stretch sensations. We may also notice our more subtle interior physical reactions to the present moment experience , where we register embodied emotional reactions.
In addition to simply practicing awareness of our present-moment experience, mindful movement includes a second step that requires even more sensitivity and skill: we respond with wisdom to the experience as it unfolds in each moment. For example, if I’m training vigorously and notice that I’m no longer able to breathe through my nose, I recognize that it’s time for me to slow down (rather than pushing through). If I am almost done with a set of deadlifts and I develop a sharp knee pain, I stop the set rather than “just finish the set.” Or, if I see a text notification that I know might take me out of my practice (perhaps it might be stressful), then I can make a mindful choice not to read it just then.
Of course, we’re going to make mistakes in this kind of practice, but the really cool thing is that our mindfulness gives us immediate feedback. If I chose to read the text (and I’m paying attention to my response), I can recognize how it’s affecting me. I might make a different choice next time. Or, we may not get feedback right away (perhaps I pushed through that set with the knee pain), but when we do recognize the results of our decision (my knee hurts the next day), we can recall with greater clarity just what we did and why because we were paying deliberate attention.
so wait, it’s not just yoga?
When we think of mindful movement, we often think of slow, deliberate, contemplative practices like yoga, tai chi, or qigong. It’s true that these practices may have mindfulness already built into the structure, but we don’t need to limit ourselves to just this kind of movement. Mindful movement can be any kind of movement– running, kettlebells, dancing. It doesn’t need to be slow (although you may find it easier to pay attention with slower movements at first).
In fact, for people who live with the effects of trauma, anxiety or stress, a deliberately slow or introspective practice like yoga can feel overwhelming. The deliberate attention we’re directed to give to our internal experience can be really uncomfortable or even detrimental. If that sounds like you, then it might be better to explore activities that feel more deliberately physical or muscular, or that appeal to you for any reason.