The Quiet Power of Mindful Movement – By Mark Austin, PT
Take a quiet moment for yourself. Check in with your body. Are you sitting or standing tall, awake and in high spirits? Or are you slouched, hunched forward, groggy and distracted? How is your breathing? Do you feel your diaphragm in your belly as it moves to contract and expand your lungs? Or are your breaths short and shallow, and confined to the top of your chest? Is your jaw clenched? Are you smiling or frowning? Where are your feet resting? How might all this feel if your stress levels were higher? What about if you were relaxed and at ease?
There is power in taking time to be aware of our bodies. This power can improve how we think, feel, and move. It can alleviate pain and suffering, whether it be physical or mental in nature. It can be the difference between being disabled versus able-bodied. Mindful movement, taking the time to move with presence, care, a sense of security, and optimism opens pathways to recovery, and there is a growing body of scientific research telling us so.
There is power in taking time to be aware of our bodies. This power can improve how we think, feel, and move.
For better or worse, your thoughts influence every cell in your body. Imagine how thinking a certain way can make your stomach turn, your shoulders tense, or your skin sweat. Sometimes our thoughts can help us overcome obstacles, while at other times our thoughts can hold us back from taking part. Science tells us that our thoughts also influence pain and disability. In cases where pain persists for more than several months, research shows that symptoms may be less to do with the state of your muscles and joints and more so the result of adaptations in your nervous system. This includes the nerves that run through our arms our legs, our spinal cord, and our brains. These components of your nervous system work together to determine how you move and how you feel. They determine whether your pain feels mild or severe. A very simple example of processing in the nervous system is the difference between you not noticing a splinter in your shoe on a busy, cheerful day– versus getting caught up in stinging pain and having to take off your footwear on a lonely, rainy day.
Chronic pain– pain that extends beyond normal healing times, is more often due to nervous system adaptations than tissue wear and tear. Think of it as a software problem rather than a hardware problem. Once pain has persisted for several months, it is actually not strongly related to the amount of tissue damage or degenerative change that you have—it is more so determined by your perceptions of your body, how you tend to cope with pain, and with your overall physical and mental health. Fortunately, this is something that we can all change and improve. Recent research tells us that mindfulness practice, including various forms of mindful movement, such as yoga and tai chi, may be an extremely helpful tool in overcoming chronic pain.
Luckily, our minds and bodies have the capacity for neuroplastic change; our nervous system can change and adapt in response to what we think, feel, and do. For example, if you spend all day thinking negative or anxious thoughts, then negative thinking will become automatic for you. However, if you catch yourself doing this and try to focus on the positive, with time and consistency your nervous system will re-wire to that pattern of thinking instead. This applies to many cases of pain as well, whether it is a minor kink in your back that has annoyed you for years or long term back pain that is so bad you hardly get through an average day. This is a good time to check in with yourself. What are your perceptions of your pain?
In rehabilitation, how you perceive your situation often matters more than the severity of the injury itself. Is that old injury an irreconcilable flaw that you will always hold you back, or just another dent in a well-driven car? Is that tension in your neck relentless and aggravating, or just a reminder that its time to take a break, to breathe, and relax? Mindful movement allows us to cultivate a positive relationship with our bodies. It focuses on our abilities over our disabilities.
Beyond helping to re-wire our nervous system and challenging our perceptions, mindful movement also helps the rest of our physical bodies to heal. Bodies that do not move become stiff and restricted, whereas many mindful movement practices open things up. They improve our awareness of better body mechanics. Mindful movement may allow you to access levels of physical awareness that you may not have experienced in years, or even in your entire life prior. We often take ‘gross’ movements like walking, bending, and twisting for granted. As we master these gross movements, we start to get in tune with the smaller, ‘fine’ movements. This allows joints and muscles to function to the best of their ability, with minimal stress.
For example, many people lack an awareness of where their head is positioned when they sit or stand, or how to recruit all the muscles that stabilize their shoulders when they lift something heavy over their head. Yet these same people work at desks or lift objects overhead all day. Many people also lack the ability to control how our muscles relax or engage— are your shoulders feeling tense right now? Do you know how to let them fully relax? This is a big culprit in stress-related neck and shoulder pain. Practicing awareness of your body helps us gain control of our muscles and joints. Importantly, it can re-wire our brains to re-define what normal looks and feels like. If you feel that you already have a great awareness and control of your body and all its intricate mechanics, but are still hindered by pain in your day to day life, mindful movement can still help. It can assist your brain to re-learn what feels good and what feels bad. You can gradually re-load and train your body in a safe and secure way, so it can tolerate greater forces and becomes more resilient to future stress. Maybe you will learn that there were some overlooked aspects of your body’s mechanics, after all. Maybe your hip could benefit from getting a little stronger, or maybe that shoulder really does need a little bit more flexibility, now that you have spent some time tuning into it. Maybe other parts of you will begin to heal as well.
So, move, and focus on all movements big and small. This could be done through yoga, tai chi, Qigong, pilates, or by just being present while you sit at your desk: Imagine your head sitting directly over your shoulders, your neck and shoulders relaxed. Feel your ribs expand and contract fully as you breathe in and out. Look over your shoulder to the left, noticing the sensations of muscles gently stretching and contracting on each side, whether you erect or allow your shoulders to round as your turn. Now look over your shoulder to the right.
Or you could get mindful on your feet. Stand up and sway your hips. Rotate your pelvis forwards and backward and shift your weight around on your feet. Go for a quiet walk. With each step, notice how your heel strikes the ground, how you roll across your mid-foot and push off from your big toe. Notice how the muscles along the bottom of your feet activate as you do so, and how they relax your foot moves through the air.
Stretch. Strengthen. You don’t need to be a seasoned yogi or athletic superstar. Put your phone away when you exercise and pay attention to how your entire body feels. Try new movements. Know that in most cases of pain and injury that mild discomfort is okay. Unless you have been specifically told otherwise by a health professional who is formally trained in managing pain and injury, you are safe to move.
Although we often think we need to focus specifically on the painful joint or muscle to get it better, through exercise or manual therapy techniques like massage and cracking joints, science is beginning to tell us that in chronic cases it might be the time to let that idea go. Rather than targeting an isolated area of pain, focus on your whole body. Pay attention to all the muscles, joints, and limbs that move together to perform a movement, rather than just a single sore spot in the chain. Healing happens when we look at the bigger picture.
If all of this is too challenging for where you are now, or you just do not ‘feel’ it happening, that’s okay too. Close your eyes and start with just imagining the movement that you want to do. Nerves and synapses will grow, and the connection will eventually form. Breathe. When you feel ready to move more, move more. Of course, if you are not sure whether this information applies specifically to you, consult with a health professional with experience in chronic pain.
Most importantly, pay attention to what feels good. Focus on your strengths and abilities. Be patient and kind to yourself. Your body is strong and resilient. It grows, expands, contracts,bends, twists, and shapes itself in response to its experiences. Pain and movement can be an opportunity for self-discovery.
Now that you have finished reading, take another quiet moment. Take a deep breath in, take a deep breath out. Now move.