peanut butter black bean brownie bites

This is another one of my favorite recipes– quick, easy (you don’t even need a bowl– just a food processor), and they’re packed with fiber and protein. For those of you who care, there’s no refined sugar and no flour. These are vegan; you can use gluten-free oats to make them GF.

You can watch me bake them here, or just scroll to the recipe below!

Ingredients:

these peanut butter black bean brownies are simple and delicious!
  • 1 can of black beans (or 1.5 cups of cooked black beans), drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup oats
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons of vanilla
  • 1/4 cup of peanut butter
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup of chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Add all ingredients to a food processor and let it rip. That is, blend until the beans are no longer distinguishable. We’re trying to eliminate as much of that bean-graininess as possible, so more time is better than less.

Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners, or spray with nonstick spray. I recommend spraying the liners if you use them, too– they tend to stick a bit, otherwise.

Mine typically take about 12 minutes. Check them at 10, if you like, and err on the side of underdone– overcooking these brownies results in a grainy, dry product.

These are best eaten within 5 days (they don’t usually last that long in my house).

charisma vs. trust

A few weeks ago, I was on my way to get a massage and reflecting on the fifteen years I have had with my massage therapist (if you’re in Martin County, Florida, Beverly is where it’s at). Not only is she experienced, professional, and intuitive, but I also feel such an incredible amount of trust and love in our relationship– it’s a rare and wonderful thing.

Throughout my career as a coach, yoga student, teacher, and studio owner, I’ve known a lot of wellness professionals. Many of them have been what I think of as super charismatic. Their personality is immediately attractive in some way– they speak the right jargon, they dress the right way, they have very white teeth– whatever it is, they’re appealing. In meeting them, you might think, “man, I want some of that.” Some of them have a gift for seeming to see into your soul, or to talk to your innermost desires.

Charisma– however undefinable it is– is an asset. I know that I (along with many other yoga teachers that I know) have a certain amount of charisma, and I’m grateful for that. Especially as a “new” yoga teacher, it was helpful to seem likable and friendly; it made my mistakes or lack of knowledge more forgivable.

But if charisma is all that we have– or if we’re using it to mask our own neuroses, or lack of skill, or to manipulate– then it’s a problem, especially if that person holds a position of power.

I’m remembering several teachers that I’ve known whose charisma shone like the gleam of their coconut-oiled skin. Part of the magic I felt in their presence was that they were so unshakeable in their assuredness. They knew they were right (about every topic you can imagine), and they could point out exactly where others were wrong. I was grateful to give my time, devotion, and money to them in order to buy myself a little bit of that magic.

Sometimes, in the yoga world, they call this kind of charisma “shakti,” which is a Sanskrit word that (in one sense, at least) means “power.” Teachers with this kind of power could not only mesmerize with their presence, but they could encourage students to move into poses they might never be able to do on their own. For an example of how very problematic this can be, we can look at two quite infamous examples (please know before you click on these links that they include graphic and disturbing accounts of sexual assault): Bikram Choudary and Patthabi Jois.

In my own experience, I found that the charisma that attracted me was an unsustainable facade– all shine, no substance– and I began to cultivate and appreciate relationships with teachers that were more wholesome and trustworthy.

The following graphics illustrate a few of the differences I’ve encountered between what I’m calling “the charismatic professional” and “the trustworthy professional.” I’m aware that I’m creating a binary here that does not always exist in the wild– but I’m hopeful that it might stimulate some thoughts or discussion.

The charismatic professional: 

Says their way is the right way. No proof required
 
Is always unconditionally"right."  No space for inquiry or other opinion


Always has an answer


Openly criticizes other viewpoints or models, sometimes for entertainment value/"likes" 

The trustworthy professional: 

Demonstrates "their way" through actions, not words 


No need to protect position; open to other viewpoints, thoughts, opinions. 


Willing to say, "I don't know."


Neutral/ open with regard to other viewpoints or models; values learning & growth
the charismatic professional:
Personality feels instantly attractive, interesting. "I want what they have!"  


Appearances  are important; they "look" the part
 

It is very clear what they are selling or representing


Relationship/sales move quickly (feel urgent)

the trustworthy professional:
Personality may feel a little boring, quiet or understated; not actively selling selves 


Appearance may not be the first thing that draws you in  


"Sales" happen organically;  demonstrate through action 


Relationship/sales develop slowly
the charismatic professional:
Feels exciting, urgent, clingy, desperate or chaotic 

You may feel jealousy/ competition with others; need to be "the most special" 
 

Need to prove loyalty or buy in to program to gain approval 


Fears loss of connection

 The trustworthy professional: 
Feels solid, dependable, consistent,  even boring.   
 

Client knows that all patients, clients or students are equally valued 



Relationships are valued for their own sake, unconditionally 

Trusts in growing connection

One more quick note: when I wrote this as an initial post for instagram, one of my friends commented that she’d been able to find a way to work with some folks who initially felt problematic due to their charisma. This got me thinking– without the power differential inherent in a teacher/student (or coach/client, doctor/patient) relationship, is the compensating charismatic figure as problematic? I can recall car salesmen, realtors, and other professionals whose initial charisma wasn’t backed with the substance I require to feel real trust– but I’m also aware that I may be biased due to my experiences! Feel free to leave a comment and share your own thoughts and experience– I always appreciate your input, and your support.

mindful anger

What’s your capacity to be embodied, present and engaged with anger?

Before we jump into this topic, it might be helpful to reflect for a moment on your relationship with anger:

  • When you read or hear the word “anger,” what do you notice in your body?
  • In your personal history, what has happened when you experience or display anger?
  • What do you feel or notice in yourself when someone around you is angry? Do you feel like you need to get away, or fix the the problem for them?
  • Do you feel like anger is related to violence or aggression?
  • How was anger treated in your spiritual or religious background, or in your current spiritual practice?
  • Does anger feel uncomfortable, scary, wrong, or like something that needs to be soothed or solved?
  • Are there potentially negative consequences when someone who looks like you (or who is part of a group that you identify with) displays anger?

While each of us will have a different response to these questions, I hope they’ve triggered some interesting inquiries for you. Anger is a complicated emotion, and it’s not an easy one. Many of us tend to think of anger as something that is negative, or an emotion that we want to stop as quickly as possible.

But anger is a powerful and motivational emotion. It arises to help us protect and defend:

  • when a boundary has been crossed
  • when something under our protection is threatened
  • when we perceive danger
  • when we feel that our values, dignity, body, soul,  wellbeing, or community are not respected.

Anger is not the same as violence or aggression. It is an emotion, not an action. It’s possible to be simultaneously angry, loving, and completely functional.

Many of us have not learned how to safely experience anger in our bodies. 

There are many reasons why this might be the case. For example, abuse or trauma may have taught us that any anger is dangerous. In this case, the experience of anger can feel literally unbearable. We will do anything to avoid anger– our own or others’. We might feel like we need to appease or engage in codependent behaviors. Or we will flee or shut down if anger arises. Our own anger can be numbed, suppressed, or bypassed.

It’s also possible that our culture or family values may have taught us that we should not express anger. What messages do you remember receiving about anger? Were you allowed or encouraged to express anger as a child, or were you taught (implicitly, if not explicitly) that anger was not acceptable?

a mindful movement practice can increase your capacity to be present with difficult emotions like anger.

For marginalized or minority groups, expressing anger can be dangerous or hold one back from social advantages (progressing in a career, etc). These folks will have learned that in order to survive or succeed in life, anger must be suppressed.

But all of us experience anger in some way, even if we are not allowed to express it overtly. It leaks into other areas of our life and cause serious issues— ranging from physical illness to painful mental states like depression.

Learning to embody anger helps to restore our sense of wholeness & dignity.

When anger arises, it’s possible to experience it as a generative emotion, rather than something to be avoided. Embodying anger– that is, experiencing it in our bodies in a way that does not overwhelm us– gives us the opportunity to use it wisely. We are better able to understand when a boundary is crossed, or when we need to defend ourselves or something we value. 

Learning to experience anger in this way gives us the opportunity to integrate the parts of ourselves that we have had to hide or deny. It can help us to recover our sense of our own value and worth. 

We can also increase our capacity to be present (and not flee or fix) when others are angry.

We can train our capacity for embodied anger.

There are many ways to improve our capacity to hold and experience anger in our bodies. Like any other training, it takes time and patience. It’s also crucial that we work with someone who is able to experience and be present with our emotions in a neutral way. 

I am not talking about those places where you go in with a hammer and break a bunch of stuff– that can be overwhelming, which does nothing to increase our capacity and can be more detrimental than beneficial.

Nor am I interested in a practice that encourages “letting go,” “releasing,” or otherwise soothing anger away. This bypasses our own potential for growth (and often reinforces harmful cultural ideas about anger).

My experience is that through embodiment and movement practices, folks learn that not only is their anger not inherently problematic– it is profoundly healing.

taking control of the narrative

sometimes our deeply held beliefs about ourselves don’t hold up to scrutiny.

For years, I’d been sure that I was not getting enough sleep. I would wake up in the morning feeling tired, often disturbed by the vivid dreams I experienced. If I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d anxiously count the hours that I could still earn if I fell asleep right then. How many hours short of the magical eight would I be? Would I be able to function?

Sometime during 2020, this all changed.

This is interesting, because I wouldn’t say I’m getting more sleep. My dreams are not less vivid, and I still wake up frequently. So, my sleep habits themselves aren’t different– but my experience of them is. So, how is this possible? I’ve taken control of the narrative. Let me explain.

How much sleep was I getting? My perception was wrong.

As a Buddhist practitioner, I’ve been taught to be skeptical of my own perceptions. Reality, after all, is completely subjective. I love cilantro, but to others it tastes like soap. You might think lizards are cute, while someone else finds them terrifying, etc. And perhaps you remember this 2019 phenomena in which we all debated the color of the shoe. But when it comes to certain experiences, we have our blind spots, and it can be very hard to even notice that our perception is simply a perception– and not factual reality.

One morning, as we were walking the dogs, and I was lamenting my sleep habits, my partner said, “Why don’t you wear your Apple watch to bed and use it to track your sleep? Maybe it’ll give you some good information.” I was initially skeptical (this should have been a sign– I’m often resistant to challenge things I really want to believe in!), but decided to give it a try.

What happens when we examine our reality?

I had an outdated and incorrect perception of myself as tossing and turning, when the reality was that I was sleeping for long undisturbed stretches of time.

After a week of tracking, I couldn’t deny that I was just plain wrong about my sleep. The results almost shocked me. The truth was that I was getting eight hours of sleep almost every night. When I woke up, it was for a short time, and then I fell right back asleep. I had an outdated and incorrect perception of myself as tossing and turning, when the reality was that I was sleeping for long undisturbed stretches of time.

Changed perception changes reality.

Once I saw that my perception was incorrect, my experience with my sleep changed almost immediately. I no longer had the middle-of-the-night-anxiety about getting back to sleep. On waking, I didn’t fret if I hadn’t gotten eight hours– the data showed me that I could do just fine on less. I no longer identified with myself as a sleep sufferer.

Studies show that optimists enjoy better health than those with a pessimistic outlook. (Of course, as a recovering pessimist, my initial reaction to those statistics was, “well, THAT’s great. I’m screwed!”). Thankfully, our brains can change, as can our thought patterns. That’s the magic of neuroplasticity. Even if you’ve always been a pessimist, it’s possible to become more optimistic– and to positively impact your health.

We can control our own narrative.

One of the incredible gifts of our giant human brain is that we have the power to control the narrative of our lives. While we may not be able to affect the events of our lives, we do have the power to change how we’re perceiving it.

Journaling can be one way to regain control of our narrative.

I recently heard journalist Suleika Jaouad recalling how she first began chronicling her battle with leukemia. “Something about the act of putting pen to paper, in the privacy of a notebook, gave me a sense of narrative control at a time when I’d had to cede so much control to others,” she said.

At the same time that I’d begun tracking my sleep, I also began keeping a morning journal. I’d wake up, write for 20-30 minutes, and then move on to meditation, dog walking, and breakfast. This has been a really powerful tool for me. Remember those vivid dreams? The journal’s a place where I can set them down (for later analysis, if I want) or leave them behind. It’s also a place where I can make conscious choices about my interpretation of the prior day’s events, or my feelings about the day to come. I’m not denying my reality– these are tough times, globally– but I’m able to remember that I control the narrative.

Our imaginations are incredibly powerful. Left unchecked, along with our unexamined beliefs, we can find ourselves living our lives as a character in a story we aren’t enjoying. Challenging our perceptions gives us a chance to explore new ways of being in our lives.

pyschosomatic doesn’t mean imaginary

Just because it doesn’t “make sense,” doesn’t mean it’s not real. 

Psychosomatic symptoms are caused by a complex constellation of factors, including mental, emotional or social conditions. They are as harmful or dangerous as any medically-diagnosed condition. 

When I was 13 years old, I had all of the symptoms of mononucleosis. After being tested by our family doctor, I was told that my symptoms were psychosomatic, so it wasn’t “real” and there wasn’t anything to be done about it. 

The truth was that I was struggling so hard with mental, social, and emotional issues that my body became sick– but it was treated as though it was imaginary.

This was the first time that I experienced the shame and the stigma of pyschosomatic illness, but it wasn’t the last. I recall the frustration in his voice as my OBGYN told me me, after my second surgery to remove endometriosis, that I “should be feeling better by now,” and “there isn’t anything else we can do.” The hot humiliation in my body hearing my supervisor say that I was out of sick time and in danger of losing my job.

Folks who are living with medically unexplained symptoms are often made to feel shame, like they’re a failure in some way for having these experiences. In my case, I felt that I was so morally weak or lazy that I couldn’t “tough out” difficult situations and I “made up” these illnesses to get out of them. The underlying message is, “but there’s nothing really wrong with you, is there?” 

We’ve come a long way toward validation and understanding mental illness, but somehow psychosomatic illness seems to fall between the cracks. It seems like there must be something physically wrong, but there’s not. We want to cure the physical problem with a physical solution– but we have a hard time seeing the link to other factors. Of course, this attitude of gaslighting and disbelief compounds the problem and causes more suffering. 

While we tend to think of this as a medical issue, it also shows up in the yoga classroom, at the gym with a personal trainer, and in our physical therapy treatment. Sometimes a movement will hurt when it “shouldn’t.” Or someone becomes inexplicably nauseous. Or they have intense tightness, or a feeling that their body just doesn’t want to do something. Maybe it’s a a sudden headache or need to go to the bathroom every time they start to do a particular exercise. 

Each of these reactions is displaying for a valid (and important) reason, even if they don’t make any logical sense. By treating all of our clients with unconditional belief, validation and respect, we honor their lived experience and make space for real growth and healing. Encouraging curiosity and kindness goes much further toward addressing the underlying issues than pushing through a “stop” signal or invalidating the experience. 

“can’t you just…”

Last week, one of my clients was telling me about her past experience with a yoga teacher. “She was young, thin, her body could do everything, and she was just trying to push my body into different positions, like, ‘can’t you just do this,’ and it wasn’t working at all…”

In that moment, not only was my client unable to do what her teacher was asking, she was also being treated as though she should easily be able to do it– leaving her feeling as though there was something wrong with her body.

Many (not all, but many) folks become personal trainers, yoga teachers, or fitness instructors because they have a natural facility for what they’re teaching. They find that moving their bodies is easy and fun– there’s little struggle for them. This means that when confronted with a client or student who can’t move their bodies easily, they often just don’t know what to do. Anytime you hear the words “can’t you just,” you can be sure that there’s a lack of empathy, understanding or experience at play. If the person “could just,” they already would be doing it.

Anytime you hear the words, “can’t you just,” you can be sure that there’s a lack of empathy, understanding, or experience in play.

On the one hand, I can relate to those able-bodied yoga teachers and movement professionals because of privilege in my own body. I have a certain amount of natural mobility and strength, and I found that yoga especially came really naturally to me. In my earliest days as a teacher, I learned quickly that lots of folks “couldn’t just” do what I could– and I sought out solutions and training to better understand how to help them.

I’ve also had the helpful experience of occasionally feeling like a bit of an outsider. There are certain things my body just doesn’t do well, and my proportions aren’t ideal for certain poses (which has caused at least one yoga teacher to “can’t you just” me). When it comes to other physical activities, I can be a slow learner. New patterns take me more time than some other folks. This has given me a lot of empathy and understanding for folks who need extra time, or a different explanation or demonstration.

If you find yourself working with a coach, teacher or other professional who asks “can’t you just,” remember this: it’s not you, it’s them. Each of us has a unique body, nervous system, and learning needs, among other variables– and this person may not be able to understand yours.

My recommendation in this situation? If at all possible, see if you can find someone else to work with who is able to explore different possibilities with you. If this is someone you must work with, you can kindly but unapologetically let them know that this isn’t something you’re “just” able to do– and that you’ll need some different options.

they handed me a french horn: (it’s not too late to be who you wish you had been)

“There is an inner wholeness that presses its still unfilled claims upon us.”

Emma Jung

My one and only childhood encounter with musical instruction happened at the age of 9. My classmates and I were filed into a small room where a visibly irritated and tired teacher handed each of us a musical instrument.

When they handed me the French horn, I felt a sense of deflation in my body. It was bulky, large, unglamorous. I had no interest in or connection to a French horn. I didn’t even know what it might sound like (and I could never make it sound like anything other than a strained cow myself). I couldn’t imagine a less appealing instrument. I never warmed to it and abandoned my musical career as quickly as I was allowed.

I remembered this today as I was driving home from the studio, listening to a neo-classical violin song, and having the kind of lovely full-body listening experience where I really felt the music in my body. I wondered if I would have been drawn to the violin as a child if I’d heard how haunting and evocative it can be; if I’d been given the opportunity to explore what I was really drawn to. What creative impulses die before they can ever be really born, simply for lack of opportunity? What happens to those parts of ourselves that we aren’t allowed to nurture?

While I wasn’t truly passionate about any instrument, my younger self did have an unfulfilled creative longing to participate in gymnastics. I watched my friends in their leotards showing off their athletic feats with envy ( I envied the leotards as much as the athleticism, I’m sure– even then, I appreciated how the right outfit created a sense of specialness, belonging, of “I wear this to do this.” ). It wasn’t a financial possibility for our family, so I didn’t even ask– I put it aside as something that wasn’t meant for me.

I’d forgotten all about those years until I started practicing yoga. Prior to that, I’d been sedentary for over a decade and would have told you I had no interest in anything athletic whatsoever. But the part of me who longed to move with grace and strength hadn’t died– she was simply waiting for the chance to be reborn. Once I had the chance, I easily learned to arm balance, handstand, and do all kinds of things that young Laura hadn’t had a chance to do. The physical practice of yoga helped me to become a more whole and complete self.

Did life hand you a French horn, when you really longed for a fiddle? If you look back, what can you recall that you always wanted to do, but weren’t able to? Those parts of ourselves are waiting inside, unfulfilled. What parts of you have been denied or suppressed? Who have you always wanted to be? Are you waiting to take up the paintbrush, or travel to Uzbekistan, or tell someone you love them? One of my clients took up ballroom dancing in her 60s. Another is 70, and learning to play songs he’s written himself on the guitar. Yet another inspirational client took up voice lessons in his 80s– when he sang his opera solo in my studio, the room vibrated and I was moved to tears.

So, what is it that calls to you? It might even be something that feels impossible, or terrifying– but that makes your body zing with excitement or possibility. That’s often a sign there’s something there to explore. “If we want to know the next step along the path toward what we are ‘meant to be,'” says Edward C Whitmont, “we can look for the thing that attracts and frightens at the same time.”

This is the deepest kind of self-care– excavating, acknowledging and finding ways to meet our unresolved desires. It’s not frivolous, but life-affirming in a way that you almost have to experience to know. Each of us deserves to become who we really long to be.

It’s Not Exercise, It’s Not a Workout, It’s Training (here’s why):

When I talk about the kind of work that I do, or how I move my body, you might notice that I never refer to my “workouts” or “exercise.” This is a deliberate choice that speaks to the kind of work that I do and the ways in which we can disrupt what Decolonizing Fitness calls “toxic fitness culture.” Let’s take a look.

Etymology of “Workout:”

First, it might be helpful to look at the origin of these terms. The term “workout” was first seen in 1909, where it was used to refer to a “boxing bout for training,” from work (v.) + out(adv.). By 1922, there’s a general sense of  “workout” meaning a “spell of strenuous physical exercise.”

maybe this is what you think of when you hear “workout”– but there are other ways to train, too.

Strenuous physical exercise is only one kind of training, & it’s naturally exclusive. When we think “workout,” most of us imagine a specific type of training. I think of sweat, and movement, and being tired afterward. This is great, for some bodies, some of the time.  Not every body is capable of this type of strenuous physical activity.

Additionally, all bodies need a variety of training. Strength and conditioning are important, but we also need to train mobility, dexterity, speed and agility. Our brains need training, too, as do our nervous systems. We may need to train our ability to rest or recover (yes, that’s really a thing).

The terms “exercise” and “workout” are concepts from the fitness industrial complex.

Our “wellness” culture is a reflection of our larger society. It promotes certain body types (younger, smaller, healthy, strong, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual) as more worthy. It also denies access to services for those who are less worthy, either explicitly (such as health care disparity) or implicitly (via marketing, etc).

We’ve come to associate “exercise” and “working out” with the idea of changing our bodies to be more culturally acceptable: healthier, thinner/smaller, stronger.

  • Healthier bodies are not morally superior to less healthy bodies.
  • Thinner bodies are not inherently better than fatter bodies.
  • Strong bodies are not more worthy than weaker bodies.

But these are commonly held beliefs.

There are many reasons to move your body that have nothing to do with weight loss or shape change.

  • Movement is fun & can feel good.
  • It supports mental health.
  • Maybe you want to feel stronger, more coordinated, or learn a new skill.
  • Some people like to share time with friends & family doing movement (waterskiing, going for a walk, dancing).

As you can imagine, this concept is especially important for folks who are recovering from eating disorders.

We can call “workouts” and “exercise” something else because it can be something else.

an example of a different kind of training

If I told you I was going to exercise or work out today, there’s a cultural implication about morality (exercise is something we “should do”),  weight loss, calorie burn, along with ideas about what that might look like: running, weights, the gym.

“I’m going to train today” has less cultural weight and can mean that I’m training all kinds of things: my body, my mind, my ability to stand on my head or to lift my big toe by itself.

“I’m going to move today” can include all kinds of things, from gardening to painting to a long, contemplative walk.

“Training” and “Movement” are available to everybody.

While not all bodies have equal access to the commonly held concept of “workout” or “exercise,” all bodies are capable of training and moving in their own ways.

For those who struggle with the idea of “exercise” or “working out,”  finding your own ways to move or train can be really liberating.

Words are important, but choice is important too.

I have many clients, friends and mentors who use the terms “workout” and “exercise.” Each of us can mean something different by these terms. If it feels important to you to use these words, then I am 100% in support of that. For my personal practice and my work, this is just one way that I have chosen to un-settle myself (as the descendant of white settlers, I “unsettle” rather than “decolonize”) and to work on my own inherent bias.

6 ways that movement helps support mental health

(There are definitely more, but 6 is a nice number to start with!)

  1. Endorphins. Movement releases “feel-good” hormones like seratonin, endorphins, dopamine & norepinephrine (adrenaline). You really can get a natural high. If you’re moving in synchronicity with other people, socializing, or outdoors, you may get an additional dose of these!
  2. Improves the mind-body connection. Our body has all kinds of wisdom to share with us, but we’re not always able to hear it, or we may have learned to ignore it. Mindful movement teaches us to pay attention to the information our body is sending us so that we can make better choices to support our safety and well-being.
  3. Decoupling activation from stress. It’s not uncommon for folks to have negative associations to the feeling of activation in their body. A faster pulse, shallow breath, elevated body temp can all feel like stress– but they’re also things that happen naturally we practice movement! Learning that feeling “activated” doesn’t have to be negative gives us a greater capacity to handle these feelings in our body when they do arise.
  4. Becoming more comfortable with difficult feelings. Movement– even gentle  yoga– can teach us that it’s possible to experience a difficult emotion (such as frustration with a new movement) or a challenging sensation (think intense stretch or a fatigued muscle on that last set) without needing to immediately numb out, medicate, or flee from a situation.  We get better at working with tough situations.
  5. Work with our body’s natural rhythms. Our nervous system is designed to oscillate naturally between cycles of stress and cycles of ease. Movement allows us to use the energy of our stress response to move naturally into more settled states. It also helps us to get out of the “stuck” energy of old stress/traumatic events so that we can move forward in our lives. In this way, we learn to ride the ups and downs of life with greater ease and confidence– we improve our stress tolerance.
  6. Increased self-confidence. Movement is a natural self-teacher. Through repetition, we improve our ability to practice skills like walking, lifting  weights, catching a ball, and using our bodies in different ways. Becoming a stronger, faster, more coordinated and efficient mover translates directly to a natural sense of self-confidence. We trust our bodies (and ourselves) more.

What other ways have you found that mindful movement supports your own mental health?

why mindful movement matters

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.