You don’t have to stay stationary to reap the benefits of meditation. Learn how a moving practice can pair perfectly with Pilates.
by Sharon Liao
Kristin McGee has a busy schedule. As a mom and New York City–based Pilates and yoga instructor, she’s often on the go all day. But she still manages to fit in a daily meditation practice. “I have to walk across Central Park for my first client, so I’ll turn that into a moving meditation,” McGee says. She puts away her cell phone and walks at a slower pace than usual while focusing on her breath and the moment. “It’s my oasis in this crazy city, and it helps me stay centered throughout the day,” she says.
Surprised? Most people think of meditation as sitting still and serene in a quiet room, with eyes closed and hands in the lap, not strolling across bustling Manhattan. “It’s a common misconception that meditation can only be done in a specific position for a set amount of time,” McGee says. “It’s really about calming and quieting the mind.” This means that you can meditate while walking, gardening—and even practicing Pilates.
As with a traditional seated practice, moving meditation trains your mind to focus on the present, which can cultivate calm and help you handle life’s stresses. That’s helpful for anyone, but it’s especially beneficial for people who do Pilates. “After I started meditating, I noticed how much more mindful I became in my Pilates practice,” says Bobette Kellner, a meditation teacher and Pilates practitioner in Santa Barbara, CA. “I found I was better able to stay in tune with my body and its movements.”
On the Move
When it comes to meditation, a seated approach is traditional. But moving meditations also have centuries of history: Practices that feature flowing movements, such as tai chi, qigong and yoga, all fall into this realm. “Any activity where you can personally access a meditative state of awareness becomes a moving meditation,” explains Trista Thorp, the lead meditation expert at Sonima Wellness Center in Encinitas, CA. Many people turn activities like swimming or walking into a Zen experience. You may have practiced without even knowing it—say, after a relaxing stroll where you completely zoned out.
While many experts, such as Thorp, say a seated meditation is the best way to still the mind and transcend the body, a moving method is often an excellent entry point into the practice. It may also be a better method for a certain type of person: For instance, anyone who has a tough time sitting still may discover that seated meditation is extremely challenging. “I’ve found that some people have a difficult time, so their breathing becomes shallow,” says Kellner. For this group, moving can help them relax, let go of their thoughts and breathe more deeply. “Meditation isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition,” she says. “You have to find the right style for you.”
The Many Benefits of Meditation
One reason Pilates practitioners take up this ancient practice is because of its long list of health benefits. A rapidly growing body of scientific research shows that meditation has a profound effect on your well-being: Not only does it help relieve stress and improve the attention span, but it can also fend off disease. A 2012 study published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcome showed that people who practiced meditation every day were 48 percent less likely to have a heart attack, stroke or die of any cause during a five-year follow-up than those who didn’t have a daily meditation practice. Meanwhile, recent brain-scan research from the University of California at Los Angeles reveals that meditation can prevent the normal decline that occurs with aging, an effect that may protect against senior moments and dementia alike.
While moving meditation hasn’t been studied as in depth as its seated counterpart (specifically, a style called transcendental meditation), experts believe that these benefits translate. One review of research showed that the practice boosted memory, reduced anxiety and improved heart rate variability, a marker of heart health.
What’s more, moving meditation encourages you to appreciate the world around you and cultivate all of your senses. “Closing your eyes allows you to look inward,” explains Kellner. “But keeping them open, as you have to during a walk, allows you to appreciate a beautiful flower.” Walking meditation is one of the easiest forms of the practice—all you have to do is start stepping—and it helps you disconnect with technology and plug into your environment. (That means putting your phone away.)
“For a walking meditation, I recommend hitting a trail, heading to the beach or going to a park,” says Thorp. This allows you to get out of the house, disconnect from your daily experience and tune in to your senses. “You can feel the warmth of the sun or the breeze on your skin; smell the air; and connect to nature with a sensory experience,” she says. To clear your mind as you stroll, Thorp recommends mentally saying, “I am here now in this,” inhaling or exhaling on each word (i.e., inhale on “I” and exhale on “am,” etc.). (For instructions on how to do your own walking meditation, see the sidebar, “Steps to a Walking Meditation,” on p. 78.) The result: You’ll feel refreshed and energized after even a short meditative stroll.
A More Mindful Method
Along with moving meditation’s mind-body benefits, experts agree it can also have a positive impact on a Pilates practice. Its gentle flow can help round out intense sessions that are heavy on concentration. “Meditation can offer the yin to strenuous exercise’s yang,” says Thorp. “It helps you achieve balance in your life.”
Learning to stay present in the moment can also enhance your time on the Reformer or mat, adds McGee. “Meditation trains your mind to stay focused, which gives you more control of your Pilates,” she says. Instead of thinking about everything else you have to do for the rest of the day (sound familiar?), you’re able to concentrate on your movements during a session. It helps you practice some of the six principles of Pilates, including concentration, centering and breathing. “This allows you to get the full benefit from your practice,” says McGee.
In a perfect world, experts suggest meditating daily, and doing a mix of moving and seated meditations. “I recommend mediating at about the same time each day,” says Thorp. This helps the practice become part of your daily routine, similar to brushing your teeth. If you’re new to meditation, start with 10 to 15 minutes and gradually increase the time.
Pilates as Meditation
It’s also possible to turn your Pilates session itself into a moving meditation. “This can occur after a student is beyond learning the fundamentals,” says meditation teacher and Pilates instructor Celeste Corey-Zopich, director of the Center for Transformational Wellness and Pilates Staten Island. During flow-like sequences, you can clear your mind and reach a meditative state.
“A meditative Pilates practice happens when your breath and energy are synchronized in a way that facilitates ease in the body,” says Corey-Zopich. Instead of thinking about what comes next, or going through the motions on autopilot, you flow easily from one movement to the next. “The best result is when you are completely relaxed after class,” she says. “It sometimes feels like you’ve just gotten a massage.”
Walking Into a Peaceful Place
After learning more about moving mediation, I’m excited to try it. Confession: I’ve attempted a seated meditation practice a handful of times, but have always found sitting still difficult. I usually feel antsy, or get up to sweep away a dust bunny lingering at my feet, even though I know that part of a practice is teaching my mind to overcome such distractions.
Because I live in busy Brooklyn, my local park is filled with flying soccer balls, whizzing scooters and blasting music. Although the teachers tell me it’s possible to meditate under any circumstances, I decide it’s more conducive to take my easily distracted mind to a more serene park nearby. I find a large grassy patch and set off on a loop, using Thorp’s approach to synchronize my breath with the mantra, “I am here now in this.” Instead of turning my thoughts inward to my breath, I concentrate on the external. As I begin to relax, I focus on the sensations in my body: the softness of the earth as it gives way to my weight; the chirping of the birds; and the pretty fuchsia blooms on the surrounding trees. It’s lovely.
But then I spot someone stretched out on a blanket, studying a textbook, and think, “I really need to work on some deadlines after this. And then I should pick up some groceries for dinner.” As I notice my thoughts speeding down my to-do list, I remember something McKee said: “If your mind wanders, don’t get frustrated. Acknowledge those thoughts and then imagine them as clouds floating away, or picture putting them in taxicabs and sending them on their way.” As a New Yorker, the latter seems appropriate. I return to my mantra and continue walking, basking in the beautiful day.
I don’t keep track of time, but wind up strolling for about 20 minutes. (If you tend to watch the clock or if you’re on a schedule, you can set a timer or an alarm with a soothing sound.) This is monumental for me; in the past, I typically wander off from my seated meditation at around the eight-minute mark. Staying in motion helps keep my mind on track. Best of all, I feel noticeably more calm and relaxed, and the feeling continues throughout the day.
It also carries over to my Pilates session a few days later. During a mat class, I feel more centered: I’m able to let go of my hectic day and focus on my movements. I’m so absorbed that the hour-long workout seems to fly by, even though my tired muscles tell me otherwise.
Original Article by Sharon Liao on Pilates Style