I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks thinking about what to write next, and every time I sit down with my laptop I can’t help but think about the connection between Mindful Strength and body confidence. I think strength training goes much further than just lifting weights in a gym, losing weight, leaning out, or even being fit. In addition to all those things, strength training can help us regain confidence in our bodies. There are so many reasons why we might lose body confidence—injuries, illness, trauma, aging, lack of mobility—and strength training at any age or proficiency level will always be valuable in developing the confidence to overcome these difficulties.
I think confidence in our physical abilities and our bodies is such a profound part of our lives. This type of confidence comes in so many forms, and it operates in so many subtle ways, that most of the time it feels like we don’t even have the words to express it. Movement is so personal, and the ways we move affect us so strongly, that when we temporarily lose control, and do something like trip on the sidewalk, our first instinct is usually to look around to make sure no one saw it happen.
The Canadian charity Rethink Breast Cancer states that “After surgery, it is so easy and very common to feel a lack a trust in your body and your body awareness, second-guessing the impact of even the simplest exercises or movements.” Moving well looks very different for each individual, but when we feel we’re not moving well, or that we’re unable to move in a way that feels empowering, it’s hard to imagine how that need doesn’t extend throughout our entire beings. Clearly, strength affects us in a way that’s much deeper than our skin and bones.
There are many ways to view confidence, and I think it’s important to view this concept from different perspectives. I’m not talking about having the confidence to be an extraordinary athlete. I’m talking about the confidence we need in our day-to-day lives, that reminds us we’ll be able to get up from the couch, or to climb to the top of the playground, or to do any other movements that our daily lives require. I’m talking about the type of confidence that our bodies know even before our minds—the feeling of unconscious competence.
Last year I began teaching a seniors class in my small studio in Cornwall Ontario, and on the first day I asked the four women why they had signed up for the class. One of them mentioned her fear of falling in a parking lot and being unable to get back up, and the others quickly agreed that was at the top of their lists. Yes, they needed to gain a bit of strength, but more importantly, they needed the confidence boost that a few weeks of strength training could provide. At the end of four weeks we were all lying on the floor together.
In a study examining older adults in a strength training program, “results suggested that older adults’ desire for muscular strength is an important determinant of changes in self-efficacy for strength”—in other words, their belief in their own capability to do what they need to do. And the people who showed the greatest changes in self-efficacy were the people who had the strongest desire for change, and who experienced the greatest changes in their strength. This should be a source of hope for those of us who want to be stronger, but don’t feel we have a genetic gift for gaining strength.
Jane Clapp is a Toronto-based instructor that focuses on Movement For Trauma, and each week she shares some brilliant information about how we can use movement to re-regulate our nervous systems after traumatic events. This week, in a post that touched on the idea of body confidence, she paired this paragraph with a photo of someone pushing away through the arms:
Traumatic experiences can often involve physical, emotional or psychic boundary violations where people enter into our peri-personal space against our will either once or repeatedly. Researchers have found that certain brain cells become active as objects approach the space around the body within arm’s length. We might learn to ignore these signals if our space has been repeatedly violated and if allowing boundary violations kept us safer. To reclaim our human right to control who enters this space and to reinforce our ability to hold this space, we can do a simple daily exercise of feeling into this space, sitting with dignity and pushing outwards. Feeling the strength in our arms and shoulders and feeling as big as possible. This can shift our mirror neurons and eventually become a preventive tool so people can unconsciously sense into our ability to hold this space. You deserve to keep people out of your space if you don’t feel comfortable. Use your body to start believing it.
To me, this suggests that we can actually change our nervous systems, and the way our experiences affect us, by using movement as a form of physical preparation. It suggests that when we believe we are strong, we have to believe it with our bodies. For some people it might be easy to feel physically strong, but people with less mobility can achieve the same empowerment by training in whatever way they find accessible; simple muscle contractions, or even visualizations of strength, can help us adapt. Just thinking about a movement can be the first step in training our nervous systems into a more confident state of being.
Strength training doesn’t have to be only about pushing our limits and dripping with sweat. It can be practiced in more subtle and mindful ways that enhance our experiences of ourselves. For the teachers reading this, it might be helpful to ask the question, “Is my teaching building my students up, or attempting to break them down?” The idea that we must always suffer in order to grow should be re-evaluated.
When we are considering what type of movement to try next, it’s important to keep in mind that Mindful Strength has benefits that reach further than the physical body; it’s about more than doing movements that just look impressive, like a great handstand. The feeling of having strength in different positions and situations can make us feel much stronger in everything we do.