Healing with Mindful Movement

When you are stressed, angry, sad, afraid, lonely or confused, how often do you find yourself sitting around feeling bad, listening to the thoughts spinning out in your head, opening up Facebook, engaging in online shopping, or heading to the kitchen for something to eat? While there is a time and place for sitting with your feelings, you can also employ the enormously helpful strategy of moving your body. Physical movement can provide tremendous emotional relief as well as important physical benefits. I am not suggesting physical activity as a way of avoiding your feelings, but as an adjunct to other approaches you might use when difficult emotions arise.

Many people have become disconnected from their bodies from the neck down, choosing instead to reside only in the top floor—namely their heads. This situation is problematic on many levels. Problems are rarely solved and emotions are rarely quelled through dwelling in the unrelenting thoughts that torture you. However, by dropping down into the rest of your body and placing your attention on the sensations below the neck, you reduce the attentional capacity available to focus on the thoughts that are creating the despair.

 If you are not used to doing much physical activity, don’t worry. I’m not suggesting that you train for a marathon. But, you can train to become embodied in a gentle and easy manner to facilitate the flow of energy in the body. Emotions have energy and they get stored in the body. Moving the body can help those emotions begin to release. While it might feel a little awkward at first, the next time you’re experiencing a difficult emotion, spend a few moments breathing and checking in with your body for how it might like to move. Maybe you want to stretch out on the floor, stretch in a chair, or stand and move. Maybe your body would appreciate a walk. Be open to the possibility of what you might discover. Trying new things, in itself, can transform our emotions because we are stretching our minds and our hearts at the same time as we are stretching our bodies. 

The most important aspect of this practice is the kindness and curiosity you bring to it. It is not about looking good or knowing a bunch of yoga moves. This is about simple movement that helps you discover your body and learn the language of the body so that the two of you can become better friends. The body is asking for your attention all of the time and we often ignore it. Now is the time to learn the wisdom of the body and the wisdom of movement.

It is important to think of physical movement as both a preventative strategy as well as a prescription for when you are feeling down. If you can start making physical activity a part of your daily life then, when you really need a boost, you are more likely to remember how good you feel when you move. Whether you like to put down the yoga mat, put on running shoes, jump on a bike, jump in the pool, or the many other ways to get your body moving, physical activity has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress as well as increase your motivation and energy.  In fact, physical activity has been shown to be as effective as medication and psychotherapy in some instances. And, just minutes after engaging physical activity, people report feeling more positive (Berger & Motl, 2000; Reed & Ones, 2006) and less negative (e.g. less fatigue and anxiety) (Johansson, Hassmen & Jouper, 2011; Youngstedt, 2010).

Henry found my online yoga videos while taking a mindfulness class. He said when he saw that yoga was a part of the course, he wished he could skip that part. “Boy am I glad I stuck with it,” he wrote. He said that the yoga practice was a big part of the change in his relationship with food and beverages, specifically because he was able to use movement as a way of handling his emotions more skillfully. The need to fix whatever was going on by eating was not necessary any longer. Yoga helped calm his body and heart.

If you’re a little unsure of what to do, that’s okay. The more you pay attention, the more you will understand how to support your body with movement. When you do, the most important thing to remember is to be present with kindness. Let it be a time when you are communing with yourself without judgment and without living in the stories in your head.

Of course, I believe that yoga practice is one of the most healing activities that you can do. If you’re in Columbia, join me weekly at alleyCat yoga for classes at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 4:30 p.m. on Fridays. If you don’t live in Columbia or you’re a little hesitant to go to a class yet, try my yoga videos #1 or #2. Or, if you’d like to do a private session before jumping into a class, contact me through my website. Yoga is one of the best ways to create a positive, loving relationship to your body. Remember, it’s the only body you have. Treat it well!