Photo by June Liu
As Beth described in her essay last month, still sitting meditation is a powerful practice that invites us to take a break from what we’re doing so that we can study our minds, bodies, and hearts. We stop moving our bodies, stop reacting and responding to what’s happening within us and around us. It’s a powerful way to support the mind in settling down. And can provide many insights into our patterns in life.
But sitting still can also be quite difficult. Hard to access. Many of us experience a lot of physical and emotional pain when we try to sit still. It’s very common. It’d be easy to conclude, “I can’t meditate,” after 20 minutes of painful back and shoulders combined with agitated thoughts and worries.
Fortunately, mindfulness practice isn’t just sitting still. At Mindfulness Northwest we also practice three different types of mindful movement which are just as ‘mindful’ as still sitting: walking, gentle yoga, and qi gong.
Photo by Cole Allen
Mindful movement is deliberate, careful, even precise. It’s in a body that’s inherently right here, right now. Movements are radically simplified to help us bring our full attention to the body: how it feels, how it moves. We work gently and steadily with attention to maintain awareness of our present moment experience as we move through time and space.
And in the midst of it all, we consider the core idea of how to practice and strengthen mindfulness: paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, with acceptance. This can all happen in motion, too, if we choose to pay attention to our movement.
So if you do find still sitting challenging or if you’re looking for a way to help “bridge the gap” between still sitting and frantic, reactive activity, below are three great mindful movement practices and a few resources to get you started.
Photo by Lucie Hosova
Those of us fortunate enough to be able to walk around do so all the time. We start walking from the moment we roll out of bed until we return there at the end of the day. We walk between rooms, we walk outside, we walk to get places, we walk for exercise or as a pleasant way to be with a friend.
And amazingly, we can walk without thinking about it. We just point our attention towards a destination and the body starts moving: legs move, arms swing, balance shifts back and forth. We take one step and then another. As toddlers, it took months to master this intricate set of steps and shifts of balance. But now, for the most part, we hardly notice that we’re walking.
Mindful walking is slowing this process down and paying attention to it. We tune back into the experience of walking itself. We feel the feet pressing down on the ground and lifting up again. We feel the swing of legs, hips, arms. We may be surprised by the shifts of balance. There’s a moment in each stride when you lose your balance for a second, falling through space until you catch yourself again! When we fully tune into walking, it’s kind of amazing.
There are a range of options for mindful walking.
At one end of the spectrum is a very slow and ‘formal’ mindful walking. We move slowly back and forth in our room or on a small stretch of ground. This is a great way to train in mindful walking. It also provides opportunity to deeply investigate our habitual patterns around walking. It can also feel awkward at first to walk so slowly!
And at the other end of the spectrum: we fold more awareness into our ‘ordinary’ gait. Walking down the street, you can drop out of your head and feel the feeling of walking. You can open the senses, feeling the breeze on your face. It helps to slow down a little bit: a small shift in pace sends a signal to your brain that you’re doing something a little differently now. But to outside observers you aren’t doing anything unusual; you’re just walking.
Here are some resources for exploring mindful walking:
- Beth Glosten also wrote a detailed two-part series on mindful walking: Part 1, Part 2
- These instructions from renowned meditation teacher Jack Kornfield are quoted in our mindfulness manuals.
- We have time to do extensive mindful walking practice at our retreats (one day, and especially the multi-day options).
- Mindful walking is explored in our Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction classes.
Photo by Ginny Rose Stewart
MINDFUL MOVEMENT WITH GENTLE YOGA
What we generally call “mindful movement” in our programs is based on a gentle form of Hatha Yoga. In the modern mindfulness we share, we’ve done our best to pick very accessible movements and poses that most bodies can do safely. The practice can be done sitting or standing. And we include options to modify the suggestions we make, encouraging ways to bring the intention of each movement forward for every body.
If you feel like your body could never “do yoga”, we invite you to investigate this form of mindful movement. Bring lots of curiosity and a willingness to experiment. There may be more that can be done than you quite realized. This can feel vulnerable, even challenging. Sometimes the body seems an unforgiving place and this practice invites us to wade gently into those waters. Many people in our programs are surprised with the end result of a mindful movement practice. Even though it may include discomfort or even some pain, there can be a deep feeling of relaxation and ease. And most central to all of these movement practices, a renewed connection to the body – perhaps even a feeling of befriending the body again – can emerge.
If you are an avid yoga practitioner, or an athlete, the slow and gentle movements of our mindful movement may seem boring, not challenging enough, or even a little silly. In this case we also encourage curiosity. What happens when you slow it down, ease up, and tune into the body more fully during movement or when holding different poses and positions? What happens when you sustain that over a 20 or 30 minute period of practice? How can you work with your mind to remain present and aware of sensations in the body? This can be as big of a challenge as any athletic feat!
We live in our bodies with a mix of ease and discomfort, ability and limitation. Mindful movement based on gentle yoga is a great way to feel our bodies, be in our bodies, and invite our bodies to open, soften, and stretch a bit.
Resources for mindful movement:
- Our standard sequence of movements can be explored here, including with printable diagrams which include suggestions on how to approach this practice.
- We also offer a chair-based sequence for those who find this helpful.
- Several other sequences guided in the differing styles of our teachers are available.
- At your local yoga studio, and online, look for classes described as “gentle” or “mindful” and try “yin yoga” if that’s offered.
Photo by Mark Hang Fung
We also offer mindful movement from the Chinese tradition of Qi Gong (Tai Chi is similar). Qi Gong practice is a series of flowing movements that are timed with the breathing. This rhythmic, flowing, breath-centered way of moving can be soothing and energizing. And since the movements are often repeated many times, Qi Gong provides a wonderful opportunity to practice steady mindful attention. Even as I lift my arms for the 20th time in the “Ocean Qi Breathing” movement, can I stay aware of the feelings in my shoulders, arms, wrists? Can I feel the flow of the breathing? Can I drop fully into the experience of being a body, standing right here on the earth, right now, moving in this way?
Qi Gong is very accessible for most bodies. While it’s usually done standing, the series of movements can all be done while seated in a chair (sitting forward on the chair’s seat for more range of movement, if possible).
One note: “Qi” here means “life energy” and the Qi Gong sequences are rooted in a theory of the movement, flow, and storage of this internal energy. Most Asian cultures have similar theories on internal energy, going by many different names, but modern science doesn’t yet have a way to measure or understand this way of looking at the body. This may prove a conceptual challenge to some of us.
Happily, Qi Gong is helpful whether you find the idea of qi interesting, true, or a dubious borrowing from another culture. Synchronized movement and breathing has been shown to have many benefits in helping to re-regulate ourselves at all levels. And like all of our mindful movement practices, the invitation is to show up with a curious, open mind and see for yourself how it is.
Resources for Qi Gong – the accessible sequence we like is called The Five Treasures:
- Here is a video shared by the National Qi Gong Association on how to do it.
- This is another video I created that includes my version of the instructions.
- This is a video you can practice to once you’re familiar with this practice!
I hope you appreciate mindful movement at least a few times this month. It’s a very helpful aspect of our mindfulness practice. Some people even choose to make it their main practice rather than sitting. Give it a try and see what you think.
Wishing you some mindful movement as soon as you finish reading this piece!
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