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How Meditative Movement Makes You Healthier

The benefits of breath focus, meditative connection and flowing motion
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The connection between your mind and your body is now well documented. While seemingly isolated and often in opposition to each other, the impact of one plays a huge role on the function of the other.

Never before has it been more clear that our bodies are an integrated composite of complex physical, mental and emotional subsystems. It’s widely understood, for example, that our digestive systems can influence our mental health; our hormones can impact our skin; and our nervous systems can influence our immunity against disease.

This understanding of the benefits of fusion has led to an amplification of the importance of physical activity. Finally, the modern fitness industry is sharing the message that its more traditional and holistic counterparts have been touting for decades, if not centuries: we are integrated beings that need to merge the elements of physical and psychological fitness in order to improve our overall well-being.

“Movement is the freedom of the body; stillness, of the mind.”
– Marty Rubin

The link between mind and body in motion

By the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, scientists interested in the link between mind and body identified a new category of physical activity: Meditative Movement, or ‘MM’. They outlined four ingredients that must be present in order to define a style of exercise as MM. These include “(a) some form of movement or body positioning, (b) a focus on breathing, (c) a cleared or calm state of mind with a goal of (d) deep states of relaxation.”

A few years later, a group of researchers refined this to three meaningful elements:

Of the three elements, breath focus and meditative connection were determined to be the most important factors when classifying exercise as MM. All three are intrinsic elements of Animal Flow, as demonstrated in this Flow from Regional Leader, Fede Orion, below.

Holistic Movement Practices

While the emergence of Meditative Movement slowly began to grow as a field of study from 2010, more recent years have led to evolution. Now known as Holistic Movement Practices, or ‘HMPs’, these styles include a focus on mental, social and/or spiritual components, in addition to physical activity.

HMPs are steeped in multi-faceted approaches to well-being. They’re also non-competitive and not focused on performance: you can’t ‘win’ and you can’t be judged on your execution. Animal Flow is an excellent example of this philosophy. It’s a solo pursuit, practised in the company of others who are also on their individual AF journey. You’ll also never see an Animal Flow competition–it’s never been a part of our ethos and it likely never will be.

Additionally, HMPs place importance on any combination of body awareness, mindfulness and personal growth.

It’s an area of human movement science that is yet to be fully explored despite being widely available in the form of yoga, Tai Chi, qigong, Feldenkrais, Pilates, conscious dance–and, now, Animal Flow.

MM and mental health

Those practices coming from established Eastern philosophies (such as yoga and Tai Chi) have a robust body of evidence behind them. For newer, Western-oriented HMPs such as Animal Flow, Eurythmy and 5Rhythms, evidence is promising and growing.

A meta-analytical study conducted in 2020 looked at the impact of mindful exercise (namely yoga, Tai Chi and qigong) and non-mindful exercise (such as walking, aerobic exercise, and stretching) on anxiety. Findings showed that mindful exercise, particularly yoga, had a significant impact on the reduction of anxiety for as long as one month after the intervention.

Several theories exist as to the reason for this: better oxygen saturation, reduction in HPA activity (which relates to better stress management), increased self-control, improved ability to manage distressing emotions, and even cultural compatibility.

Long story short: researchers aren’t sure exactly how these benefits occur and there’s plenty of opportunity for further research in this area. What we do know is that MM and HMPs can be incredibly valuable alternatives to traditional treatments for a range of chronic conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Mindful movement is medicine

HMPs can improve a host of expected physical abilities, or ‘biomotor abilities’, such as range of motion, strength, balance, and cardiovascular fitness. In addition, improvements in everything from falls prevention to chronic pain management, mental health, COPD (a chronic inflammatory lung disease) and neurological rehabilitation can be achieved through movement therapy.

Meditative Movement has been shown to be an effective chronic pain management strategy.

Even our resilience to chronic stress can be manipulated, on a genetic level, through mindful movement. Evidence demonstrates that meditation and deep-breathing practices that are found in movement therapies offer substantial protection against cell injury as a result of prolonged stress. Managing our stress through mindful movement can manage our body’s longevity over time.

Incorporating mindfulness with your Animal Flow practice

Animal Flow has an inherent degree of mindfulness built into the program. The focus on solving ‘movement puzzles’ requires coordination, connection and communication, all of which make it near impossible to perform without a high level of presence. Below are five steps for bringing even more mindfulness to your Animal Flow practice.

1. Focus on your breath. Set Beast.

Close your eyes and bring attention to each inhale and exhale. How does your chest move? Can you feel your ribcage expand? Does your body feel energized or calm?

2. Bring awareness to your hands and feet.

Perform the Beast Activation sequence. Moving from the lifting and lowering of each foot, then each hand, and then opposite hand and foot on each side. How does the texture of the ground surface feel under your hands and feet? Is it rough or smooth? Do your limbs sink into the ground, do they grip, do they slide? How does your weight distribution change with each change of limb?

3. Move through the detailed set-up for Crab, focusing on your body awareness.

As you complete each action, check in with your position in space. Spread your feet wide, ground down through all toes, your heels, and the inner and outer edges of your feet. What can you feel? Grip the ground with your fingertips and corkscrew your hands down into the floor from your shoulders. How does that change your posture and the sensation through your arms, back and chest?

4. Pick a simple 3-4 movement Flow.

Perform the movements slowly. Take note of the changing sensations you experience as your body moves through different angles and actions. Where do you experience activation or tension?  What about lengthening and decompression? At which point is it easiest to breathe, or hardest? Where are you restricted?

5. At the end of your session, return to Beast.

Close your eyes and bring attention back to your breath. What, if anything, feels different now?

Animal Flow can help improve your mobility, strength, coordination, and many more physical abilities. Through its integrated focus on breath, connection and fluidity, it may also be a therapeutic linchpin in a wellness-oriented lifestyle.

For a simple way to put some Meditative Movement into your day, try this simple three move Flow from Master Instructor, Fréyja Spence. Jump right in with Fréyja as she guides you through or get started by watching each of the corresponding tutorials.