As I sit here writing at the end of a long day, I am literally aching to move. For the past few days I've had constant cramps, both when lying still and when moving: my physiotherapist has discovered a muscle spasm in my lower back, which – because it's pinching a nerve running down to my left thigh – has put an abrupt end to my favourite activities.
I feel tense and tight, but moreover, lack of sleep has sent my motivation plummeting to new depths of the sofa. Tossing and turning in bed, sitting cross-legged and propped up, this pain and the subsequent stress I feel isn't showing signs of letting up soon.
But it has got me thinking about mindful movement.
Alchemise Those Aches
Pain, whether physical or emotional, can benefit greatly from movement and mindfulness. Bring those things together and you can alchemise aches into something more manageable – even meaningful (1). You see, it doesn't have to be about exercise as such; it's simply bringing curiosity and non-judgement to motion.
It's usually our tendency to want to push harder and go faster, to work up a sweat and flop on the floor afterwards. It's somewhat reminiscent of how most of us live our day-to-day lives. And there's nothing wrong with that, of course. But over-stimulated bodies and minds could do with the meditative quality of mindful movement: strenuous exercise can exacerbate injury, leading us to want to forgo exercise and movement altogether, whereas bringing mindfulness to your movement and syncing up the breath can really make shifts in both body and mind. Movement not only helps general health and keeps you active, but it reduces stress, improves mood and sleep, and tells your brain to turn the volume down on your 'pain button'. This is a vital step in rehabilitation from injury and easing physical pain. One recent study even showed that exercise had a greater benefit than the greatest benefit in paracetamol for those with hip and knee osteoarthritis (1).
Be Present with the Body
It was Vinyasa Yoga that introduced me to mindful movement – I started practising a couple of years ago. During that time I've also branched into other forms of mindful movement, tasting the peaceful presence of Qigong and Tai Chi, but also the dizzy heights of Ecstatic Dance and delicious liberation of a Shakti workshop: running, dancing, shouting and stomping like a lunatic comes highly, highly recommended.
Be it gentle or wild, being present with the body is the point.
I'd always enjoyed walking, and even the occasional run, mixed in with a good ol' dance with friends on a night out. But when walking I was usually ruminating, when running I was trying to escape the aches I felt in my legs and lungs, and when dancing – well, I was usually making my way to the disco a few drinks in.
So when I first started any sort of mindful movement, I found myself quite uncomfortable. It was a little embarrassing, somewhat strange, and more than a little irritating to have intrusive thoughts crop up in my mind as I moved. But sticking with it, I found a new level of awareness of myself – both inside and out.
Motion and Emotion
You see, the roots of the words 'motion' and 'emotion' are the same: the Latin 'Movere' means to move, and 'Emovere' means to move out. Emotion is, in a sense, energy in motion – it doesn't want to sit still and stagnate inside us, but instead to move through and out of us. Movement can help with this, if we are focusing our attention on the body and breath. Simply let the motion do its job of shifting emotion through us, while simultaneously bringing the physical benefits and pain relief exercise can bring. It's a win-win.
But what to do to? There are many options depending on your level of ability, desired state of mind and body, interests and finances. I find it's often good to mix up invigorating practices with restorative ones, public classes and home practice, so you're gently pushing and pulling at polarities, depending on what you need.
Hatha Yoga is possibly the most practiced form of mindful movement in the UK, with various adapted forms on offer. The most well-known and energising include: Ashtanga (rapid sequences of set poses, linking up with inhalation and exhalation; Bikram (a series of basic yoga postures done in a sauna-hot room); Kundalini (invigorating poses which seek to release untapped kundalini energy, thought to rest at the base of the spine); and Vinyasa (an athletic, fast-paced style of yoga adapted from Ashtanga but without set sequences).
Bringing the Body into Balance
It's important to restore balance by practising more gentle movement, too. Restorative Yoga (which, as the name implies, is a series of poses intended to restore) and Yin (a series of passive, long poses that encourage you to get quiet and meditative) are both great options when you feel the need to rejuvenate.
Qigong and Tai Chi, meanwhile, seek to improve the flow of 'qi' or life force: the former utilises slow and deliberate movement (raising your arms from your hip towards your chest, for example), visualisation and breathwork to restore internal harmony; the latter uses more Yin and Yang opposites, like strength and softness, calm and action, backwards and forwards to create complex sequences not unlike martial arts.
While it may be desirable to try the latest class, however, you can just as easily practise mindful movement at home: to unwind, try walking meditation by putting one foot in front of the other, focusing on the feelings that arise from contact with the ground. To energise, stick on your favourite playlist and let the music move your body whichever way it wants to move (whether you shut the curtains is optional!). There's nothing fancy about letting anger or joy flow through your body – and it can be a surprising and enlightening experience.
Midway through this article I figured I should practise what I preach. And so with ruddy cheeks after an hour of freeform dance, I am a sweatier, smilier, happier woman – with a lot less pain in my body, mind and soul.
*The information in this article is based on the author's experience, and it is understood that some pain may not benefit from movement, or indeed that movement may be impossible or ill-advised. If you are ever in any doubt about how to manage pain, you should consult a qualified medical practitioner, such as your own GP.
- Uthman OA, van der Windt DA, Jordan JL, et al. Exercise for lower limb osteoarthritis: systematic review incorporating trial sequential analysis and network meta-analysis. BMJ 2013; 347: f5555. [PubMed]