Posted in , , | September 9, 2013 |
By Anastasiya Goers
“I’m a little nervous. I’ve never done anything like this before.”
“No problem. It’s not scary (*smile*). I’ll guide you through and you will feel amazing at the end.”
“Okay (*timid smile*).”
An hour later.
“Wow! I had that tightness in my neck and shoulders when I came in. Now it’s gone! I feel so relaxed and energized at the same time. I didn’t even know I could experience something like that!”
3 months later.
“I can’t believe it’s been 3 months since we started! I come to you every week for my “tranquility fix” (*peaceful smile*). And I just love how trim my tummy looks and how much you distress me! I get two for the price of one, really! I can fly in here all wound up, with my mind all over the place but at the end of the session I feel like a new person. Grounded, peaceful, balanced. I am a Pilates junkie (*big smile*). Who would have thought?!”
L.C. is just one of the people who discovered the transforming power of mindful movement.
When we think about finding inner peace or tranquility we rarely imagine any form of exercise as a way to go. We might consider meditation, affirmations, positive attitude, simplifying life but we don’t think that adding any type of movement to our lifestyle can affect our emotions and inner balance.
A long time ago I thought that exercise was only a way to lose weight and stay in shape. And I hated physical activity back then!
Most of the students who come to me think of exercise as a way to trim their tummies, gain more flexibility or alleviate back and joint pain. And yes, a structured workout program can do all that. But why settle on just our physical wellbeing if our movement practice can affect all areas of our lives?
Think about it for a second.
You had a stressful day at work. Or maybe somebody just cut you off at a stoplight. What do you feel? Your heart is jumping, your teeth are grinding, and your shoulders are all the way up to your ears. You feel tense and maybe even get a pounding headache. Your emotional state immediately affects your body.
Since body and mind are connected whatever affects one will also influence the other.
We don’t always have control over situations around us (a rude colleague at work, a child throwing a tantrum in the middle of a grocery store, a car slamming on breaks in front of you) but we have control over our bodies (at least, we should.)
1. Mindful movement improves your memory and makes you smarter.
Beginning in our late 20s most of us start losing about 1% of the volume of our hippocampus, a portion of the brain responsible for memory and cognitive function. Our brains are literally shrinking.
For a long time scientists thought that we were born with a certain number of brain cells but recently they discovered that our brains could create new cells thus slowing down or reversing brain shrinkage. What will it mean to you? It means better memory, lower risks of Alzheimer’s disease, better learning and problem solving, a higher IQ and more.
Several recent studies have proved that exercise improves neurogenesis – creation of new brain cells – as well as protects existing cells by prompting in increase in B.D.N.F. production – a nerve protecting compound that some scientists call “Miracle-Gro” for the brain. The changes are mostly noticeable in the hippocampus, the region responsible for memories and learning.
Another group of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reported in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health that people have significantly superior brain function after a bout of yoga exercise compared to aerobic exercise.
2. Mindful Movement trains your brain.
Here is where it gets even more interesting. Learning new activities has proven to train the brain. Heidi Johansen Berg and her colleagues from the University of Oxford have discovered that learning new activities increases the density of white matter in the brain (the fibers that let neurons communicate.) If the neurons are formed but they don’t connect then eventually they die without any benefit to brain health so this white matter is extremely important.
Learning a new activity is an important part of brain fitness. But most of us don’t have an extra several hours a week to learn how to juggle (that is what Heidi Johansen Berg used in her research) or take on a new hobby.
An exercise program however can be just the right way to multitask – benefit our body and our mind at the same time. If you start to automatize your workout (like running on a treadmill while watching TV, doing reps at the gym without focusing on your form or flying through the same Yoga sequence every week) you cut the benefit of your workout in half (not even mentioning that you double the risk of an injury.)
3. Deeper muscle activation means better function of the nervous system.
Every time we move we use several specific areas of our brain. The brain then sends an impulse through the spinal cord to muscle fibers (the process is more complicated than that and requires a bunch or words that my spell checker doesn’t even know.)
When you learn to voluntary engage certain muscles (like deep core activation in Pilates) you fire a movement chain that might have been asleep for a long time. Did you know that your core consists of 29 muscles and not just a six-pack? Learning to use them is a cleansing rinse for your nervous system.
A healthy nervous system means better communication between your brain and other parts of your body as well as the release of stress-fighting and mood-boosting hormones.
4. Calm mind and emotions with mindful fitness.
You have probably heard a lot about the benefits of mindfulness meditation for your mind and body. To sum them up, meditation:
When most of us think about meditation we imagine a Buddhist monk or a New Age person chanting in solitude. But perhaps we are wrong as we envision only one way that mindfulness can enter our lifestyle.
According to Ellen Langer, one of the pioneer researchers of mindfulness,
Mindful fitness lets you concentrate your attention on one thing – your body. Whether you want it or not, you have to clear your mind of any distractions if you are holding a “double-pretzel” Yoga pose, or are performing Pilates coordination work on the Reformer.
Mindful fitness lets you reap all the benefits of meditation without actually sitting still and feeling like you are wasting your time.
You can gain mindfulness benefits only if you are comfortable with what you are doing. Some enjoy the peacefulness of a traditional meditation while others get better results from a mindful movement that cleanses the mind while exercising the body.
5. Mindful fitness relieves stress tension in our body.
You have probably heard about the famous “fight-or-flight” response to stressful situations. When confronted with a stressful situation (real, like almost getting in a car wreck or imaginative, like fear of public speaking) our body releases a wave of stress hormones to prime our body to fight or flee.
In a stressful situation our body is ready to move at its peak performance but in most modern-day scenarios we can’t run away when stuck in a traffic jam and can’t pick a fight with our boss. Physical activity is supposed to metabolize the buildup of stress hormones but instead we try to keep everything inside and work our way through it.
The result? Stress hormones settle in our body causing hypertension, muscle spasms and pain.
Pilates and other Mind/Body movement therapies relieve tension built up in the muscles through gentle stretching and gradual conditioning. When you get stress out of your body, you also get it out of your mind.
6. Mindful movement tames your stress.
While it’s important to drive stress out of your body, it’s even more important to prevent stress from entering your mind. If you don’t address the cause of stress (the way you perceive situations and respond to them) you won’t be able to have lasting stress relief.
Several recent studies have found the positive effects of regular Yoga practice on stress reduction and improved wellbeing.
Yoga and Pilates poses embody steadiness and ease, they teach you to find opposition inside your body and use it to gain greater control of the body.
Another group of studies published in Yoga Journal showed the stress-reducing benefits of regular and even a one-time Yoga session. According to the authors, the physical challenge of a pose becomes the equivalent of a stressor. When physical demands are met with steady breathing and mindfulness the nervous system responds by maintaining activation while keeping an underlying sense of calm. This response lets us face our day-to-day stress with clarity and respond to it without getting overwhelmed.
Surprisingly, regular aerobic activity doesn’t have the same effect because it doesn’t have the mindfulness component and can trigger a negative response in the body if you are already on edge.
7. Mindful movement makes you happier.
Anyone can find a mindful movement practice that they enjoy. Whether you want to practice it early in the morning to get charged up or in the evening to let go of daily stress, you will always feel better after it.
When our body is positively stressed, like when you go through a favorite workout, endorphins are released into the body that make us feel good. If you enjoy your workout and stay focused on it instead of letting your mind wander somewhere else you will feel happy and calm at the end.
8. Mindful movement makes you more creative.
A creative and open mind lets us experience life fully and come up with inventive ways to deal with life’s challenges.
Exercise and mindfulness meditation each have proven to improve creativity. When you combine the two you get even better results for your mind and your body.
9. Mindful movement lets you control your emotions.
Our emotions and breathing are closely connected. A recent study by Pierre Phillipot (as cited by Psychology Today ) showed that different emotional states are associated with distinct breathing patterns. Think of how your breathing changes when you face something frightening as opposed to something pleasant. There is no major breakthrough in this finding, just common sense.
However, the interesting part of the study was that different breathing patterns evoke certain emotions. You can basically breathe yourself into calmness or anxiety.
All mindful movement modalities are centered on breathing practices. Deep relaxing breathing is taught in every mind/body practice and this technique is associated with the feeling of happiness and tranquility.
10. Mindful Movement helps release emotional tension.
Any mind/body professional can tell a lot about your personality by simply looking at your posture and observing your movement. Over time we store our emotions and anxieties in our body. We clench our jaws when we want to yell, slouch when we feel inferior or shy, and tighten our hips to suppress emotions of sadness and fear.
Many people have experienced emotional release marked with a flood of tears after a Yoga or Pilates session. When you release muscles that hold your emotional tension you also let go of the emotional baggage that you’ve been carrying around for who knows how long.
11. Mindful movement teaches you to be yourself.
The modern world puts us under a lot of stress because we constantly feel the need to conform to certain standards. We constantly have to push our boundaries to meet a deadline, be a better parent or look an act according to modern-day standards.
Mindful movement teaches us to respect our body and be content with it. Interesting enough, once we become confident in what we are doing we find strength and motivation to move to the next level. However, our progress is not propelled by comparing ourselves to someone else but rather by setting our personal standards and priorities that are meaningful to us.
When we learn to respect our bodies this way we also learn to do the same with everything else in our lives. We start living according to our priorities and desires, instead of keeping up with the Joneses.
12. Become more confident.
In her TED Talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy discusses how the “power” posture boosts confidence levels. I hope you listened to your Mama when she told you to sit up straight and straighten up because it is the exact posture that makes us more confident.
Yoga and Pilates in particular focus on good posture to balance your body, but you will also gain the confidence benefit from these practices.
There are many mind/body modalities that you can benefit from: Yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates (of course!) And you will get the biggest benefit if you choose what works for you. I fell in love with Pilates about 7 years ago and never looked back. It keeps me grounded, balanced and connected to my body. My students feel the same and that is why they keep coming back week after week, month after month, and year after year.
Today I challenge you to try a mindful workout to finally connect your body and your mind. Research different options and see what interests you the most.
While Yoga is definitely the most known mind/body practice I want to introduce you to the world of Pilates. It has so many benefits for your body and mind that I wrote an entire article about it .
My personal quest for life balance has led me to discover Pilates and today I am completely shifting my gears into that direction. I have created Pilates Bridge – a website devoted to educating people about Pilates as well as sharing FREE articles and videos that can help anyone explore the Pilates lifestyle.
Pilates Bridge is where I will be hanging out the most from now on. If you have trusted Balance In Me to take you on the life balance journey I invite you to take the next step and try the Pilates life with me. It’s more than just a fad workout, it’s the way to balance your mind and body.
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