What is mindfulness and what is mindful movement? Before I started researching mindfulness and taking courses in meditation I assumed that any type of practice that was slow and blissful was mindful. I equated meditation with sitting in a peaceful setting and thinking relaxing thoughts. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last year, and the more education I receive the more I’m prompted to really challenge the way I experience meditation, movement, and being present.
There have been many studies on mindfulness, but two in particular have really caught my eye. The first piece of research that has really made me think about my own mindful movement practice comes from Dr. Creswell at Carnegie Mellon University. In this study thirty-five men and women were split into two groups, to participate in a three day study on mindfulness. Half of the group received authentic mindfulness coaching, techniques involved gentle movements while paying attention to sensations within the body. The other half of the group were brought through similar movements, but in a distracted setting where participants were instructed to think relaxing thoughts and were entertained by the teacher cracking jokes. At the end of the three days Dr. Creswell found that only the group who had participated in the mindfulness practice showed improved brain scans. The other group, ironically called the “relaxation group” did not show any improvements in their brain scans. What strikes me the most about this is how much the environment for learning really dictates the results. How the same movements with altered awareness can mean the difference between making changes in, not only our bodies, but our minds.
The second piece of research comes from Dr. Brandon Alderman at Rutgers University. For most of us, reading this is not going to be life changing, if you are reading my blog it’s likely because you already believe in the body-mind connection. This study aimed to measure how a combination of mindfulness practice and running could have potential benefits for people suffering from clinically diagnosed depression. Fify-two participants were split into two groups. One group included twenty-two people who had already been diagnosed with depression, the other group were members of the general population. For eight weeks both groups participated in bi-weekly sessions which included twenty minutes of sitting mediation, ten minutes of walking meditation and thirty minutes of moderate treadmill or stationary bike exercise. At the end of eight weeks, after only sixteen sessions the group with depression showed a forty percent improvement in the way they felt, which was measured by a computerized focus test. The other group reported feeling better and happier than they had before.
What is fascinating to me is that science is becoming interested with the body-mind connection, and that these studies actually exist. The way I teach these days is a reflection of what I’m experimenting with in my own practice. My classes no longer consist of flowing yoga poses, for the most part I’m interested in well sequenced corrective exercises and functional movements. While I’ve let go of ninety percent of the yoga poses I used to teach, I’ve added somatic awareness exercises to allow space for students to have a more embodied experience, if they are willing and curious. What has surprised me the most is how students feel after the classes. I would have never guessed that an hour of strength work and corrective exercises could illicit such profound final relaxation. I’m intrigued by the idea that in some cases, the actual movements taught might not matter as much as the mindset does.
I’m also very much aware of how some days my practice is more mindful, while other days it’s about having fun and friendly camaraderie. I think its great to have a mix, I still enjoy going to the gym and listening to pop music while I workout and talk to my friends. Although I don’t have studies to prove it, I think there is just as much to be gained from this type of practice, but the benefits are different. I think there has to also be time in the week for a more mindful movement practice, which could include somatic awareness, sitting meditation and physical exercises.
To me this is a really interesting conversation, especially as green washing persists and symbols of meditation are used to sell products like cereal. This is a unique time in history where our information base is so rich and ever evolving, yet the mainstream culture continues to feel watered down. These are great questions to self-reflect on. What feels like mindful movement to you?