Movement as Meditation
Tai Chi integrates the connections between mind, body, and spirit in a quest for the highest form of harmony in life through the combination of exercise and meditation.
Examining the benefits of meditation has been a significant focus of recent empirical research. The Merriam-Webster dictionary has multiple definitions for meditation, such as “engaging in contemplation or reflection, engaging in mental exercise with the purpose of reaching heightened spiritual awareness,” and “to focus one’s thoughts” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meditate). The last definition is the one that intrigues me most as a physical therapist. I believe (and practitioners from many different movement practices do as well) that we can utilize movement as a mode of meditation.
Physical therapists receive a unique education, in that we are trained as experts in motor control and motor learning. Motor control is defined as the ability to regulate or direct the mechanisms essential to movement (Shumway-Cook, 2007). These “mechanisms essential to movement” are all the structures, such as muscles and joints that are responsible for moving us through this reality. Ultimately, the nervous system is the boss of these structures and must coordinate the whole system like an orchestra maestro. In a healthy individual, the complexity of mundane movements is usually taken for granted (Unless you’re a PT. Then nothing’s mundane about movement 😊). For example, when was the last time you picked up an egg and appreciated the fact that you saw the egg with your eyes, your eyes transmitted the image to your brain, which was then able to perceive the egg as something to eat? Your brain was then able to tell your arm and hand to reach at the perfect angles through the shoulder and elbow joints and tell the hand to open and close with just the right amount of force to not crush the egg, all the while your postural muscles are keeping you from falling over from your center of gravity being thrown off by your reaching hand. Grabbing an egg is no small task!
The Feldenkrais Method develops new movement patterns by expanding participants' perceptions and awareness of habits and tensions.
Motor learning is “a set of processes associated with practice or experience leading to relatively permanent changes in the capability for producing skilled action” (Shumway-Cook, 2007). These mechanisms involve areas of the brain responsible for memory, such as the hippocampus. Your brain needs to create a set of memories for you to repeat movements in a productive manner. Therefore, practice is important and the way you practice may be even more paramount. Rehabbing after an injury is productive for reversing inefficient movement patterns, such as a limp, that may have been learned as an adaptive reaction protect the injury and reduce pain. Athletes, musicians, and anyone who utilizes their body for work have to practice many hours to become proficient in their areas of expertise.
Pilates movement puts emphasis on breathing, alignment, core control and coordination to make a participant become an efficient mover.
What does motor control and motor learning have to do with meditation? Perhaps you think meditation is sitting cross legged and clearing your mind of all thoughts. While sitting quietly and allowing your brain to recharge is valuable, focused movement can be meditative as well. Participating in a movement practice, such as Pilates, or learning a new skill, such a new sport, dancing, or even knitting; can be utilized to focus the nervous system and create a mind-body connection. Practicing a new skill and achieving it will produce a myriad of neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine for concentration, endorphins for pain relief, serotonin for mood balancing, and dopamine for alertness. In sum, the next time you’re practicing a movement, remember to focus in on what’s happening within your body.
For more information about movement practices that put emphasis on the mind-body connection, check out Complementary Therapies in Rehabilitation by Carol M Davis.