by Beth Glosten
Although people often associate mindfulness practice with mental awareness, in my experience, awareness of the body offers opportunities to practice mindfulness: that is to say, paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment without judgement.
In the late 1990’s, I was a very busy academic anesthesiologist, and an avid dressage (horseback) rider, successful in the show ring. I was intense about my work and intense about my sport. My body was a tool to get both done. Then my back broke down. It was quite a shock to have my body failing me. After surgery, physical therapy, psychological therapy, and a lot of deep reflection, I knew I needed to make changes in my life. I knew I needed to take care of mind, body, and spirit. The body was the most pressing need, especially if I wanted to keep horseback riding!
A new way of moving
I put on my academic hat, did research, and came to explore the pilates system of exercise. This system guided me to really pay attention to what I was doing during movement; to turn my focus inward and feel my body. No one used the word “mindfulness” at the time. But that is what I was learning: paying careful attention to my body and how it moved, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement.
I was amazed at what this “inside out” approach to movement and the body could do. No longer did I mindlessly repeat an exercise 10 times, but I actively felt what was happening during each movement of the exercise. I learned that my right and left sides were very different. I could feel curious about these differences, rather than irritated and frustrated. I was more aware of where my body was in space, and gained skills to support it in a way that it needed as it healed from the back problems.
Moving mindfully was empowering. With the injury, moving carefully and mindfully connected me back to my body and helped it heal. This did not happen overnight, and there were times of intense frustration. My persistence (stubbornness?) served me well here – I just kept on. Moving mindfully helped me work past the fear of pain, and enter a more respectful relationship with my body. I became more discerning about what was appropriate for my body on a given day –sometimes that involved some mental cheerleading: “come on, let’s do this,” but on other days it clearly made sense to back off. My mind and body started working as a team. Body awareness and mindful movement continue to serve me over 20 years later.
Today, mindfulness of the body and body awareness are offered as tools in the MBSR classes both through the body scan meditation and mindful movement with gentle yoga. The practices introduce the body as a portal to our well-being. Body sensations, tension, aches and pains might be something we tend to push away from and try to ignore. But what if these sensations and pains are a warning that our life is out of balance? Just like mindfulness of thoughts and emotions, mindfulness of the body brings awareness to our current condition. The practices offer a way to cultivate a more connected relationship between mind and body; a way to transform what might be an adversarial relationship when there is pain in the body, to one of cooperation. That the mind and body can become friends and partners and “help each other out.”
Mindfulness of the body and body awareness can be brought to any moment of your day, and to any movement practice – walking, running, yoga, the gym, or to your sport. For me, mindful movement combined with discernment and an ongoing fitness program, has allowed me to carry on with an active life and continue my study of dressage.