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Mindful Movement

Updated: May 8

If 'yoga' means to unite, how can we use awareness in our movement practice to come closer to the state of yoga?

woman standing on a yoga mat in yoga leggings and top looking thoughtfully down at her foot as she moves into warrior pose
Is my foot really where I think it is?

Have you ever found yourself enthusiastically hurtling headlong through your yoga class or practice, only to get to savasana and realise that you don't really know how you moved, felt or held yourself during the session? If so, you're not alone.

Often in life we practice doing things to get them over with, tick them off a list or get to an achievement. Grit your teeth, get through this workout. Just keep studying so you can get through the exam. Grind to level up, push through the boss fight.

In fact, it's so usual to do this kind of thing that it spills over into areas of life where it's not strictly necessary, useful or helpful. Things can start to feel hollow, like going through the motions, we get disconnected from ourselves and our feelings and maybe we're not even sure why we're doing what we're doing any more.

Good news, yoga doesn't need to be like that. Because yoga is not a linear thing that you end up with when you've worked hard/long/smart enough. Yoga, union of all the parts of us, happens during the process of seeking and exploration which we can do both on and off a yoga mat. Mindful movement can be key.

What is a mindful movement?

Mindfulness is the practice of bringing awareness as fully as possible into the present moment. With mindful movement, we try to keep our awareness with each part of the movement and each sensation which arises and falls throughout the course of the movement, including any sensations that remain once the movement has ended.

In practice, this can be experienced differently by each of us, but it might include some of the following:

  • Being aware of when and where a movement starts. Our bodies and minds have the ability to move without it being necessary to know exactly how (I mean can you imagine how complicated life would get if that was necessary 😅), so we are often unaware of this;

  • Being aware of each part of a movement. Everything we do is really made of infinitely smaller parts, the smallest parts we can find being at the finest level to which we have capacity to notice;

  • Awareness of where sensation(s) arise in a movement. You might know 'my wrist clicks when I do this', but exactly where and when is that?

  • Awareness of the body in space during a movement. How far does your arm reach back in Warrior II pose? How does each part of your back engage as you rise up to Tadasana? At what angle is your upper arm in Extended Side Angle pose?

  • where, exactly, does the movement end?

A mindful movement is one where our whole attention is focused on the movement and the body as we move.

What are the benefits of mindful movement?

Mindful movement has all of the benefits of mindfulness itself but may be more accessible as a practice in comparison to seated meditation or trying to "be mindful" or in the moment during everyday activities.

It's often easier to focus with movement rather than trying to sit still for 30 minutes a day!

When we move mindfully we draw our mind, body and energy into the present. It allows us to practice dharana, or concentration, and also develop our capacity for dhyana or absorption (which are the 6th and 7th of the 8 limbs of yoga according to Patanjali's sutras). We practice our focus, put down the mental chatter for a while and clear our heads.

Mindful movement has an inherent stress-busting ability. It draws us back to ourselves, away from racing thoughts, plans or worries about the past.

Mindful movement lets us reconnect with our bodies. It improves our mind-body connection, which is known to reduce stress, improve sleep and help regulate emotions. In a world where we're often absorbed by things outside of the body for long periods of time (think about working at a computer, watching TV or playing computer games) this can be really important for balancing our relationship with ourselves, as, after all, we are physical beings.

Mindful movement also gives us insight into ourselves and is a form of self-enquiry. The more we pay attention to how we move, the more we develop self-awareness. My body does this, but it prefers to move like that. My left leg is stronger in this position than my right leg would be. If I make this circular movement really slow, the sensation just here is really intriguing. We might learn about how we habitually move in certain areas of the body, and what knock-on effects it has. We might learn about where we're more harsh, soft, energetic, lazy, comfortable, tight or confident. We can use this knowledge by accepting the status quo and practicing self-acceptance, or choosing to change or adapt our harmful patterns. It can inform other things we go on to do (or not do) on and off the yoga mat.

How do we practice mindful movement in yoga?

In theory, yoga asana is mindful movement as we have dedicated time to focus on our movement practice.

In reality though, it's hard to be fully mindful. Aside from the usual thoughts and worries that come in from off the mat, in class we might be distracted by thoughts like "am I doing this right?" or feeling self-conscious about a pose or worrying about not being strong or flexible enough for the practice.

There are a few things that we can do to make yoga movement into more of a mindful practice:

  • Take a slower yoga practice. This could be slower by style (e.g. hatha vs vinyasa) or simply committing to take your time through a familiar practice. Taking a really slow cat and cow or having a leisurely pace to your sun salutation.

  • Match your movements to your breath. This is super helpful in keeping the mind focused on the movement. Use an inhale for upward or expansive movements, and an exhale for downward or contracting movements.

  • Whilst in a yoga pose, do a bit of a physical 'stock take'. Take your attention around each part of your body and see what's coming up there. Even the parts that you don't immediately think of in the pose.

  • Where you feel safe/comfortable to do so, close your eyes during a movement. This might be cat and cow to start off with, or rolling up from forward fold towards Tadasana. Eventually you could try it in other poses or transitions, as a way of focusing your attention inwards during yoga practice.

  • Remember, yoga practice isn't something you get to be 'good' or 'bad' at or 'level up'. It's perfectly normal for it to feel different from one session to the next and for things to change in your body, mind and energy that alter your practice experience. Focusing on the movement and sensation itself with a sense of curiosity will be more insightful and stress-busting.

Mindful movement, whilst always on the radar, will be the Liquid Yoga theme for May 2024. If it sounds like something you'd like to try, book a class in North Leeds or try an online 1-1.

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