Mindful Movement for Self-Regulation, Health, and Wellness

by Larry Cammarata, Ph.D.

Somewhere on the path of being a clinical psychologist who is also a Tai Chi instructor, these two seemingly disconnected roles intersected. I began to see the limitations of purely cognitive and mindfulness-based interventions that did not directly integrate the wisdom and resourcefulness of the body into treatment. And this was a two-way street; without an awareness of my body (e.g., posture, eye contact, vocal tone) in the consultation room, my presence, empathy, and effectiveness would be diminished.

Relating to self, others, and the world from only “the head” can be alienating. Mindfully connecting the head to the heart and entire body can inspire the clinician as well as the patient, leading to surprising insights and dormant abilities yearning for expression.

The Application of Mindful Movement

Mindful movement and body-awareness practices have been used in my clinical practice and classes in a variety of ways, including:

  • Assisting a long-term married couple to integrate playfulness into their habituated relationship by engaging in a modified Tai Chi practice of “push hands”, which can train an individual to embody stability, softness, sensitivity, and awareness, connecting in a dancelike way to their partner with joy, and without competition, passivity, or aggression.
  • Cultivating enhanced stability and physical balance with a 78-year-old former judo competitor who incurred several significant physical injuries during his martial arts career. To support his goals, he learned to use slow mindful walking in a way that could be easily integrated into his daily routine.
  • Reinforcing the strength and confidence of a shy seven-year-old boy suffering from social anxiety by having him embody the movements of a friendly tiger, a practice that was adapted from the Chinese martial and healing arts of Kung Fu and Qigong.
  • Teaching an 82-year-old woman to pay greater attention to her posture, balance, and bodily tension by learning a standardized Tai Chi form consisting of complex movements, directional changes, and balancing poses.
  • Facilitating the mourning process of a mother who lost her young daughter to leukemia—connecting with her grief by cradling her heart with both hands, breathing mindfully, and generating compassion towards herself and ultimately all who have ever experienced the intense pain over the loss of a child.

What is Mindfulness?

Originating from ancient Eastern traditions, the practice of mindfulness has grown tremendously in popularity over the past several decades. One definition of mindfulness that I often use when introducing the practice to my students and patients is, “…awareness…of present experience…with acceptance” (Germer, 2005, p. 7). This definition can be applied to formal meditation practices as well as mindfulness in everyday life, essentially any activity that involves thinking, speaking, and acting in relation to self and others.

Mind and Heart

The term mindfulness clearly has a “mind” component, which is reflected by present-centered awareness. It also has a “heart” aspect, as referenced by the primary attitude of acceptance, along with other attitudes such as gentleness, curiosity, compassion, openness, and nonattachment to an outcome.

Mindfulness-based treatments have been successfully applied to anxiety, depression, insomnia, personality disorders, psychotic symptoms, stress symptoms, chronic pain, and substance abuse (Shapiro & Carlson, 2009).

Mindfulness of the Body

In as much as mindfulness involves the heart and mind, it also involves the body (Kerr, Sacchet, Lazar, Moore, & Jones, 2013). In the Buddhist tradition, one classic teaching involves mindfulness of the body, including body parts, positions (sitting, standing, walking, lying down), and the elements of earth, air, water, and fire as they relate to bodily experiences. Mindfulness can be integrated into any activity involving movement, from walking and running to practices as diverse as yoga, Pilates, the Feldenkrais Method, tai chi, qigong, dance, and musical performance. In fact, movement is always occurring with each breath you take.

What is Mindful Movement?

Mindful Movement and Mind-Body Regulation

The formal practice of mindful movement involves the following components: (1) postural alignment, with emphasis upon an upright spinal column that provides a connection from the earth beneath the feet to the sky above the head; (2) muscular relaxation (3) a focus on breath awareness, often with instruction for diaphragmatic breathing that is long, slow, deep, and calm; (4) repetitive standardized movements or postures that can be synchronized with the breath; and (5) mindfulness, which prompts the practitioner to return awareness to the breath and body throughout the practice, without judgment or striving.

The components of mindful movement listed above correspond to what I have termed as, “The 5 Rs of mind-body regulation”, which are: (1) Rooting; (2) Relaxation; (3) Respiration; (4) Rhythm; and (5) Remembering.

Why Mindful Movement?

Self-Regulation: Stability and Adaptability

Self-regulation has been defined as, “…the process whereby systems maintain stability of functioning and adaptability to change” (Shapiro, Carlton, Astin, &

Freedman, 2006, p. 380).

Mindful movement practices such as tai chi and qigong teach the practitioner to experience a physical sense of stability primarily through the legs and feet. Stability is facilitated by the ongoing awareness of the connection between the practitioner and their environment (e.g., the floor or ground). Stability, however, is not enough for mind-body regulation. This is where adaptability comes into play. For example, a tai chi practitioner often relies upon mindfulness to make slight physical adjustments to their posture in order to maintain stable balance in one-legged postures. This form of adaptability requires a level of body awareness that can be cultivated over time with proper practice. Whether physically or metaphorically, we are always moving in and out of balance, which is a static condition. I have grown to appreciate “balancing” as an ongoing dynamic process that supports the equilibrium of life in general and mindful movement in particular.

Treatment of the Whole Person: An Integrative Approach

Mindful movement:

  • Trains the body, mind, and emotions in support of self-regulation, integration, non-reactivity, and deep relaxation. These skills have wide applicability to health, healing, and wellness on individual and interpersonal levels.
  • Cultivates a sense of mastery and competency, leading to an increased appreciation for self-care through physical exercise and an enhanced sense of wellbeing.
  • Teaches the practitioner to experience the body as a resource for emotional stability, mental focus, and physical ease. Some practices also involve the body and breath as vehicles for spiritual development.
  • Complements seated mindfulness meditation practice, and may be an appropriate form of meditation for those who are challenged by or not motivated to engage in traditional meditation practices based upon stillness.
  • Can be framed and experienced as play, which is an alternative to the work, pain, struggle, challenge, and fight frames associated with various psychological and medical treatments. Play, without aggression or competition, can be healing, facilitative of creativity, and joyful.

Research Findings

A research review byJahnke, Larkey, Rogers, Etnier, and Lin (2010) reported the following health benefits associated with the mindful movement practices of tai chi and qigong:

  • Enhanced cardiopulmonary fitness
  • Enhanced quality of life
  • Reduction of anxiety, depression, and blood pressure
  • Improved bone health, balance, and fall prevention
  • Decreased cortisol (stress hormone) levels
  • Enhanced immune system functioning

Extrapolating and applying animal research findings to mindful movement also suggests that repetitive movements can increase serotonergic activity (Fornal, Metzler, Marrosu, Ribiero-do-Valle, & Jacobs, 1996). This might explain why these practices can create a significant calming effect upon the human nervous system.

A Simple Mindful Movement Practice: Regulating the Mind, Body, and Breath

The practice of mindful movement is not something that can be fully understood by reading about it. With this in mind—and body—I invite you to explore the following simple practice:

Remembering to focus your awareness upon your body and breath throughout this practice, softening your belly and relaxing your entire body during the entire sequence:

  • Stand upright with feet shoulder-width apart and pointing straightforward,

with slightly rounded arms at your side.

  • As you slowly inhale, lift your arms upward on each side of your

body with palms facing downward, maintaining the same pace as your breath.

  • Continuing your inhalation, when your arms reach the level of your heart,

turn your palms upward

  • With rounded arms lifting upward as if you were gathering the sky, when

your fingers reach above your head, begin circling your arms downward in front of your body, palms face down and your head maintaining an upright position with eyes looking forward throughout the entire movement sequence. When your palms pass in front of your forehead, begin to exhale slowly as you lower your arms back to your side.

  • Repeat this pattern slowly and mindfully for five to ten times.
  • Conclude the practice by returning arms to your side and taking three slow

mindful breaths.

Embodying the practice of mindful movement in everyday life

While mindful movement can be practiced formally, it can also extend to how you engage the world with your body in everyday life. Applying mindful awareness to your posture, eye contact, vocal tone, volume, and pace, mannerisms, relaxation level, and breathing can support your work, personal relationships, health, and wellness. Every waking moment provides an opportunity for practice, which of course can be framed as a form of play, albeit authentic play that supports the joy and ease on the path of your life.

Remembering the Body

As a psychologist, I appreciate how mindful movement can facilitate and enliven the treatment process. Mindful movement and body-awareness practices can experientially access the somatic resourcefulness that resides within every individual, and applies to the client/patient as well as the clinician. For the clinician, mindful movement and body-awareness practices inform the embodiment of therapeutic factors such as empathy, acceptance, and warmth, factors that—in the mental health field—can be more therapeutically powerful than the use of specific clinical interventions and modalities. In other healthcare fields, including conventional medicine, the clinician’s embodiment of therapeutic personal qualities can strengthen the patient-clinician alliance, resulting in adherence to treatment recommendations and increased patient satisfaction.

Mindful movement—moving with awareness of the body and breath—unites body and mind. I invite you to move into this awareness by remembering the body.

Fornal, C.A., Metzler, C.W., Marrosu F., Ribiero-do-Valle L.E., & Jacobs B.L.

A subgroup of dorsal raphe serotonergic neurons in the cat is strongly activated during oral-buccal movements.(1996) Brain Research, 716 (1-2) , pp. 123-133.

Germer, C.K. 2005. Mindfulness. In C.K. Germer, R.D. Siegel, & P.R. Fulton (Eds.), Mindfulness and psychotherapy(pp. 3-27). New York: Guilford Press.

Jahnke R., Larkey L, Rogers C, Etnier J, Lin F. (2010). A comprehensive review

of health benefits of qigong and tai chi. The American Journal of Health

Promotion, 24(6), e1-e25. doi: 10.4278/ajhp.081013-LIT-248

Kerr, C. E., Sacchet, M.D., Lazar, S.W., Moore, C.I., & Jones, S.R. (2013).Mindfulness starts with the body: somatosensory attention and top-down modulation of cortical alpha rhythms in mindfulness meditation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7:12. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00012

Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., Astin, John A., & Freedman, B. (2006).

Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(3), 373-386.

Shapiro, L. & Carlson, L. E. (2009). The art and science of mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness into psychology and the helping professions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

© 2018 Larry Cammarata, Ph.D.

Larry Cammarata, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist specializing in mindfulness-based psychotherapy and mind-body medicine in Asheville, North Carolina. He is also an instructor of tai chi and qigong who has received advanced training in the US and China. His work on mindful movement was presented at the 11th Annual International Scientific Conference of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine. Larry is the cofounder of Mindfulness Travels, an educational organization that provides training in mindfulness and mindful movement in beautiful, inspiring settings around the world. For more information: www.MindfulnessTravels.com

[email protected]

[email protected] www.rickyfishman.com

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