A few years ago, a student enrolled in my tai chi class with the intention of learning tai chi to remedy her stress-induced insomnia. “Jennifer” was a high-powered businesswoman who was very attached to achieving her goals.
Her hard-charging style worked well for her in the business world, although with some cost to her health and wellness.
She asked me many pointed questions about how tai chi could help her overcome her chronic sleep problem. She was understandably very focused on the distress associated with her sleeplessness.
My response to her urgent situation was to gently direct her back to practicing the slow, repetitive movements of tai chi with focused awareness, and without striving to reach her desired outcome.
In time, she mastered the art of slowing down, which had a positive impact on her sleep.
Jennifer’s story reflects the situation of many people who are swept up into the fast pace of modern society: We live in a hyper-aroused culture that prides itself on speed, with an emphasis on rapid results and achieving goals as fast as possible.
Of course, there are clear benefits to being goal-oriented.
The question is: Are your goals driving you toward greater health and wellness, or are your goals driving you into stress, distraction and other impediments to your health and wellness?
Dysregulation—physical and emotional instability—can occur when your ability to create a sense of stability becomes disrupted. During such times, you may notice a variety of signs from your mind and body that tell you where you’re going.
When those signs frequently flash upon potentially hazardous conditions such as stress, pain, worry, anxiety, distraction, insomnia or tension, it is time to pay attention to the one sign that many individuals are not used to heeding: STOP.
The ancient Chinese practices of tai chi and qi gong provide a vehicle for slowing down and ultimately stopping the habitual patterns that take you for a ride that can be out of balance or even out of control.
Have you ever been in the presence of someone who was rude or insulting?
To this type of person, a dysregulated reaction might look like anger expressed in the form of “Now let me tell you a thing or two!” Such a reaction is likely to result in an escalation of stress that leads to more dysregulation.
The practice of mindful movement can train you to respond to stressful situations with intention and without reactivity, which is a sign of self-regulation.
Although tai chi can be formally classified as a martial art and qi gong as a method of Traditional Chinese Medicine to balance energy, both practices can also be regarded as forms of mindful movement.
Mindful, or meditative, movement is a form of exercise incorporating slow, repetitive movements, as well as a focus on the body and breath, with the intention of deep relaxation. (This definition comes from “Meditative movement as a category of exercise: Implications for research,” published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health in 2009.)
Present-centered awareness is what makes movement mindful. While it’s normal for the mind to wander away from the present, mindful movement is a method of training your mind to come back to the present while enjoying the benefits of exercise.
The practice of mindful movement attunes you to the state of your mind and body in everyday situations.
For example, this practice can train you to easily sense the tension in your shoulders as you wait in a long line to purchase your groceries.
That can be an opportunity to move and breathe slowly, relax and pay attention to the present moment without getting caught up in your stories and judgments about the present moment.
The health benefits of mindful movement include increased cardiopulmonary fitness, reduction of anxiety and depression, lowered blood pressure, improved bone health and balance, decreased cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and enhanced immune system functioning, according to R. Jahnke, et al., in “A Comprehensive Review of Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi,” published in the American Journal of Health Promotion in 2010.
Over time, the practice of mindful movement trains the mind and body to respond to challenging people and situations with equanimity by being relaxed, aware and stable, despite the nature of the external conditions you’re faced with.
One classic teaching from tai chi is “soft overcomes hard.” Being soft is not about being weak or passive.
If you harden in the face of stress, you will create additional stress, which can actually weaken your resilience to handle the common stressors of everyday life.
The ability to relax your body, be present, and flexibly adapt to challenging situations are characteristics of self-regulation.
As every massage therapist knows, slowing down and relaxing are necessary for healing to occur.
You can support the healing process of your clients by slowing down, relaxing, paying attention to the body and breath, and staying aware of what’s happening in the present moment.
When the therapist is relaxed, centered, calm and present, the client is more likely to resonantly feel the same.
By being mindful, your therapeutic presence is enhanced. As the practice of massage therapy involves movement, massage therapy can be regarded as a form of mindful movement when the practitioner is fully present.
Mindful movement trains you to deeply relax, move and breathe slowly, calm your mind, and fully attend to the present moment.
More than an isolated technique of stress management, it’s a powerful self-care skill that can become integrated into everyday life to support your health, wellness and professional development.
Mindful movement is a way of cultivating peacefulness, joy, and presence in relation to self, others and the world.
About the Author:
Larry Cammarata, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and instructor of qi gong and tai chi. Through his company, Mindfulness Travels, he provides continuing education training to massage therapists and psychotherapists. His work on mindfulness and mindful movement has been presented at international conferences and retreats. He also wrote “This Mindfulness Practice Will Improve Your Communication.”