This blog post was written by Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH.
Isn’t it refreshing, in those rare moments, to slow down and savor the sensations in life that usually fly by. The sound of a bird’s song, the feeling of the wind blowing through your hair, the fragrance from your herb garden, or even just tuning in to a full cycle of breath. Soaking in these sacred gifts is what the health-promoting practice of mindfulness is all about. At least for a brief respite, mindfulness says forget about yesterday and don’t worry about tomorrow. Instead, be fully present now.
Mastering the art of clearing away mental clutter is also the foundation of successful meditation practice. There’s enough research on the benefits of mindful meditation to fill up a bookshelf … or 10. Here’s a small sampling of the advantages consistent meditators enjoy: reduced blood pressure, improved recovery from stress, improved immune system functioning, slower age-related brain atrophy, mitigated symptoms of depression and anxiety, improved workplace productivity, and improved behavior and grades in school children.1
Yet even in the face of compelling evidence, many people don’t meditate regularly. Why? There are probably several reasons, but here’s a big one… many assume meditation is not for them because their mind wanders. They get still and random thoughts come floating in… a grocery list, an upcoming presentation at work, an argument with a friend, where to go for lunch. All these things and more vie for attention, which is frustrating, distracting, and eventually many just give up. If this sounds all too familiar, welcome to the club! These mental “interruptions” are part of the meditation process. It’s only with practice (lots of practice!) that we learn to acknowledge these wayward thoughts and send them on their way. It’s important to remember that the goal of meditation is not to clear your mind, but rather, to focus it, explains Dan Harris, author of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.1 Whenever you get distracted, just start again. Think of the process as exercising your focus “muscle,” that, like any other, gets stronger with use.
For some people, though, focusing comes much easier and restlessness dissipates more readily when there’s more to focus on than a singular feeling like breath. Which is what makes movement meditation such a beautiful alternative – it provides a way to channel our thoughts and energies through mindful movement. “There is a different sense of mindfulness in moving versus seated or lying meditation,” explains Carol Rubino, certified holistic health life coach, certified yoga instructor, and licensed massage therapist. “Not only are you focused on calming the mind, body, and spirit in moving meditation, but you’re also focused on the movement activity itself, which helps to tame the ‘mind monkeys’ that tend to interfere with our efforts to relax and recharge.” With moving meditation, your mind must be alert to the movements to coordinate them with your breath, which, for many, is a welcome distraction from our normal mental chatter.
Movement Meditation Versus the Seated Variety
“Each person has a different way of accessing inner peace and calm, and the choice of standing, sitting, lying down or moving meditation is influenced by both personality type and physicality,” says Daisy Lee, international Qigong teacher and creator of Radiant Lotus Women’s Qigong. “For example, some people who find it challenging to sit still because they’re the classic Type A personality may be happier with a moving meditation like Qigong, whereas for those who find it easier to focus their mind, sitting or lying styles work well.” Lee adds that if mobility is an issue, then the stationary styles of meditation are usually a better choice.
Erika Lillie, RN, RYT-200 registered yoga teacher, MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) certified leader and owner/co-creator of Opti-Life Health & Fitness Center in Wichita, Kansas offers another perspective: “I encourage people to listen inward for what their spirit desires in that particular moment. This is not about checking off a box and saying, ‘yes I got that done,’ because if you approach meditation that way, you’re missing out on the whole experience.” Maybe it simply feels right to move that day, or maybe your mind is on such overdrive that sitting is not an option in that moment, Lillie continues. In other words, evaluate your inner environment and choose accordingly rather than being influenced by external sources. Maybe it’s as simple as wanting to change things up from your regular seated routine. Lille reminds us that, “… the main thing is to figure out what style of meditation you enjoy and do it consistently. That’s what’s most important.”
Whichever style you choose, get ready for a big health boost. Both styles offer the well-known benefits of stress relief, improved mood, reduced anxiety, better sleep, and enhanced mental clarity, but Lee says, “… with moving meditation you also alleviate blockages or stagnation in joints, muscles and connective tissue.” Gentle stretching movements like those in Qigong or Tai Chi are a perfect antidote for muscle or joint stiffness, and Lee adds that increased lung capacity, as well as a revitalized immune system, are icing on the cake.
Forget the Idea That You Have to Be Still
Movement practices that bring you into body and breath awareness – such as Tai Chi, Qigong, or dance – work well for a moving meditation practice, says Lee. But artisanal activities that require mind focus, like pottery making, painting, sculpture, weaving, or basket weaving, can also be a form of movement meditation. “The key is finding that state of being ‘one’ with something,” Lee explains. “It’s a way of being that transcends time and space.”
All three experts agree that even the simple act of walking can be elevated to a movement meditation practice with the right approach. Become aware of your breath, the sounds around you, the way your feet feel when they connect with the earth – in other words, be mindful. “Typically we pull on our shoes and then the body takes over, putting one foot in front of the other. Meanwhile, our mind is busy thinking about what we just did or what we need to do,” says Lille.
A much better approach, suggests Rubino, is to take off your thinking hat and tune into yourself and the environment. Then, without judgment, become an observer of your surroundings. You might just be surprised at how restorative a simple walk can be.
Walk This Way
If you’re familiar with practices like Qigong or Tai Chi, chances are you already know about their meditative benefits. But if you aren’t experienced in these disciplines or if you want an easy way to take movement meditation for a test drive, here’s a brief walking meditation courtesy of Carol Rubino to help get you started:
For at least a little while, put aside your to-do lists and just start walking. No daydreaming or drifting, but with sustained awareness focus on your pace and the feeling of your feet touching the ground. Let your arms do whatever is comfortable – hang at your sides, hands in your pockets, whatever you prefer. Listen to the difference in the sound of your footsteps on different terrain - cement, gravel, dirt, or grass. Is your stride long or short? Are your steps light or heavy, quick or slow? Can you hear and feel the rhythm of your pace? Spend as much time here as you wish.
Then when you’re ready, expand your awareness by listening to the sounds around you. Indeed the symphony of all that surrounds you - insects, bird songs, frogs, dogs barking, traffic, crosswalk beeps, children playing, people chatting, the sound of your breath, the sound of your heartbeat. No need to label them. Simply spend some time here enjoying the sounds of life.
Now for the rest of your journey, focus on one or two of those sounds and find the rhythm. Can you match the rhythm of the sound to your walking pace? Can you create and enjoy your own walking symphony?
If you become distracted by your thoughts just return to the sound of your footsteps. Feel your feet connect to the earth and expand your awareness again.
Once you’re finished with your walking meditation, notice how you feel. Are you calmer, clearer in your thinking, ready for the rest of your day, or ready to rest if it’s evening? Now, consider how you can carry this peace and awareness with you everywhere.
Remember, this is a practice that becomes richer and easier the more often you do it. With time, you may even notice subtle shifts in your mind, body, or spirit that add up to bigger changes in your life.
About the Author:
1. Harris, D., Warren, J. and Adler, C. (2017). Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. Spiegel & Grau: New York, NY.
Learn more about the movement meditation experts in this article:
Carol Rubino, certified holistic health life coach, certified yoga instructor, and licensed massage therapist: www.salinamassagetherapy.com
Erika Lillie, , RN, RYT-200 registered yoga teacher, MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) certified leader and owner/co-creator of Opti-Life Health & Fitness Center: www.Opti-life.com
Daisy Lee, international Qigong teacher and creator of Radiant Lotus Women’s Qigong: www.RadiantLotusQigong.com, www.facebook.com/groups/108092162544270