One of my favorite books — The Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley — opens the book with a character’s depiction of her mindful movement practice:
“The sky lightens as I stretch in the driveway. My brother complains about my lengthy warm-up routine whenever he runs with me. I keep telling Levi that my longer, bigger, and therefore vastly superior muscles require more intensive preparation for peak performance. The real reason, which he would think is dorky, is that I recite the correct anatomical name for each muscle as I stretch. Not just the superficial muscles, but the deep ones too. I want an edge over the other college freshmen in my Human Anatomy class this fall,” (Boulley, 2021, p. 5).
This character is taking the time to be aware of her surroundings (the sky) and of her body (naming muscles) during the stretching process. This is a great way to practice mindful movement.
We have already established through several articles (related: Mindfulness for Anxiety and Simple Techniques for Reducing Anxiety) that both physical activity and mindfulness practice each individually are great for promoting mental health. We've also briefly touched on the additive benefits of combining these two practices in this mindful walk guided meditation — but let's explore that idea further.
This article is all about mindful movement, the benefits of cultivating mindfulness during physical activity, and the various ways you can practice mindful movement.
What is mindful movement?
Mindful movement is essentially bringing the practice of mindfulness to acts of physical activity and/or movement. Mindfulness is the practice of being nonjudgmentally aware of what is going on in the present moment (in one’s body, mind, surroundings, etc.). It is most common and easiest to practice mindfulness during slower, more deliberate movements (like the stretching described in the quote above), but with the right amount of focused attention can be utilized in conjunction with any type of physical activity. Think of this like the curiosity you have when reading a recipe; you’re just trying to figure out all the components and steps it takes to complete the recipe.
Mindful movement helps people approach their body, thoughts, and behaviors with a sense of curiosity (“Ask your body a question,” as Kelli puts it). Mindfulness practices that incorporate movement provide more variety in terms of the feedback we receive regarding the ways we hold and move our bodies. This gives the mind something to pay attention to in the moment that is different from traditional mindfulness practices (Russell, 2011). The resulting increase in awareness of the body heightens our sensitivity to changes in bodily reactions during times we tend to be emotionally reactive, which helps us to be more reflective in the moment (Russell, 2011). We are able to then ask ourselves “what am I thinking/feeling right now?” and this helps us more quickly adapt to meeting our needs at that time.
Health benefits of mindful movement
Again, we know that movement alone has many benefits for our physical and mental health and that mindfulness practices bring us all sorts of cognitive, physical, and emotional benefits. However, researchers believe that the combination of the two practices into one have some synergistic effects that produce unique and powerful outcomes. The following are just a few of those benefits:
- Emotional: Research shows that mindful movement is particularly helpful in the overall reduction of one’s level of negative emotions. One study found that participants in an 8 week mindful movement program experienced up to a 33% reduction in stress levels (Russell, 2011). College students who were instructed to practice mindful movement daily for two weeks reported significantly lower levels of negative emotions than when they were stationary and being less mindful (Yang & Conroy, 2018). Even amongst women undergoing gynecological surgery, engagement in regular mindful movement reduced both overall perceived levels of pain, but also the distress that they felt as a result of the pain (Sohl et al., 2019). This tells us that mindful movement has an immediate effect on our emotions and could be a great way to reduce negative emotions in the moment.
- Academic: There is even evidence that mindful movement can have benefits for childrens’ academic achievement. This study compared the academic achievement levels amongst kindergarteners who did 145 days of either mindful movement intervention, movement alone intervention, or just a normal classroom. They found that compared to the other two groups, kids who performed mindful movement experienced significant improvements in both verbal and non-verbal intelligence levels (Rosenstreich et al., 2022). This tells us that the combination of mindfulness and movement provides a certain degree of cognitive benefits.
- Overwhelming minds: Some researchers argue that mindful movement is particularly helpful for people who experience busy or overwhelming thought processes. This is most common amongst folks experiencing psychosis (hallucinations/delusions), but can be true of many other mental health concerns like anxiety or bipolar disorder and even for folks who have experienced trauma or simply have rapid cognitive processes. The research shows that people with psychosis who participated in an 8 week mindful movement program experienced significant decreases in their levels of stress (Russell, 2011). Whereas traditional mindfulness practices require people to sit still and maintain attention for long periods, it is thought that the movement component gives people who typically experience unwanted, distracting thoughts something else to focus on other than those thoughts. This allows them to practice mindfulness in a safe way.
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Children with ADHD who engage in regular mindful movement (two 60 minute sessions per week for 8 weeks) showed significant improvement in their motor control abilities, attentional capabilities, and even defiant and oppositional behaviors (Clark et al., 2020). This tells us that mindful movement specifically targets attentional capabilities in a unique way. While this was conducted with children, it is possible that these attentional benefits could be experienced by people of all ages.
5 ways to practice mindful movement
Mindful movement is not limited to certain types of physical activity; rather, mindfulness can be brought to any bodily movement. That being said, there are some movement styles that many people find to be easier or more beneficial to cultivate a sense of mindfulness. Below are a list of several ways you may consider bringing mindfulness into your activity:
- Walking/running: Walking and running are great times to practice mindful movement. The repetitive action means we often allow our minds to wander and tune out the action itself. While this is great to do sometimes, it is also great to sometimes practice mindfulness throughout this movement. As you are walking or running, pay attention to your breath, the sensations in your body, and/or the environment around you. I find that I enjoy the walk more and feel more mentally refreshed when I walk or run mindfully than when I distract myself with music or thoughts. If you want more guidance on how to do this, start with this 10 minute mindful walk.
- Yoga: There are a wide variety of yogic practices, but yoga is fully intended to be a practice in mindful movement. The goal of the practice, regardless of tradition, is to connect the mind and body in a mindful way. Therefore, if you’re looking to use yoga as a mindful movement practice, we encourage you to try out one of Marina's yoga flows.
- Tai Chi: This ancient Chinese practice is often referred to as meditation in movement, because that is the primary purpose of this form of movement. In tai chi, people engage in several slow, focused stretches while breathing deeply. It is self-paced and a gentle practice in which each movement flows directly into the next so you are constantly moving and adjusting based on your mindfulness practice.
- Stretching: Another way people tend to practice mindful movements is through stretching. You are able to stretch the muscles while intentionally paying attention to how your body feels in the moment and only moving in ways that feel good for you and your body. This not only stretches out the muscles, but also allows us to practice the non-judgmental present-moment awareness central to mindfulness. Try out one of Fitness Blender’s many stretching workouts, like this 30-minute Relaxing Total Body Stretch with Kelli or Daniel’s Mindful Stretching Routine where he guides you through mindful movement with periodic body check-ins.
- Bring mindfulness principles to any movement: Most of the research on the benefits of mindful movement examines slower-paced and more intentional movement practices like walking or yoga. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t bring mindfulness principles to other forms of movement like weightlifting or HIIT routines. When you are doing a certain movement, bring a sense of curiosity and nonjudgmental awareness to the movement. For example, as you are doing a weighted squat, rather than tuning out and gritting your teeth to get through the lift, notice how the squat feels throughout your entire body. No matter how it feels (easy, hard, neutral), suspend your judgment and honor that feeling for what it is today. Not only will this teach you mindfulness skills, but it will also likely help you realize when to push and when to back off, as you will be more tuned into your body’s cues.
I highly suggest trying to turn everyday moments of movement into mindful movement practices. Most of us regularly have moments where we are walking for a few minutes or more each day (from the car into a building, for example) in which we could implement this practice. The potential synergistic effects of the movement combined with mindfulness will have long-lasting benefits.
How do you go about mindful movement? We would love to hear your experiences and ideas in the comments below!
Clark, D., Seymour, K. E., Findling, R. L., & Mostofsky, S. H. (2020). Subtle motor signs as a biomarker for mindful movement intervention in children with ADHD. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 41(5), 349-358.
Rosenstreich, E., Shoval, E., & Sharir, T. (2022). The effect of mindful movement intervention on academic and cognitive abilities among kindergarten children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 50, 249-258.
Russell, T. (2011). Body in mind training: Mindful movement for severe and enduring mental illness. British Journal of Wellbeing, 2(4), 13-16.
Sohl, S. J., Tooze, J. A., Wheeler, A., Zeidan, F., Wagner, L. I., Evans, S., Kelly, M., Shalowitz, D., Green, M., Levine, B., & Danhauer, S. C. (2019). Iterative adaptation process for eHealth mindful movement and breathing to improve gynecologic cancer surgery outcomes. Psychooncology, 28(8), 1774-1777.
Yang, C., & Conroy, D. E. (2018). Momentary negative affect is lower during mindful movement than while sitting: An experience sampling study. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 37, 109-116.