What is Meditative Movement?

According to the March 2009 article published in the Journal of Physical Activity called, “Meditative Movement As A Category Of Exercise: Implications For Research,” Meditative Movement displays four characteristics.

1. Some specific style of movement or way of positioning the body 

2. The use of breath as a primary focus

3. States of mental calm and clarity during the activity

4. The objective of the movement is to create deep states of relaxation.

Alternative forms of exercise, specifically those belonging to the mind-body category meet this criterion: Tai Chi (pronounced Tai Chee), Qigong (pronounced Chee Gung), and yoga are three of the better-known forms of Meditative Movement. 

Each of these activities offers the physical benefits of traditional exercise and the benefits associated with meditation.

Meditative Movement is not necessarily limited to activities commonly described as exercise. Based on the definition provided, it can include activities more clearly associated with spiritual pursuits, including prayer, ecstatic dancing, and ritual observances in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions.

The popularity of Meditative Movement has grown rapidly during the last decade. The mind-body fitness sector is expected to experience continued growth as people seek complementary and alternative treatments to manage and prevent a variety of conditions. The rising costs of healthcare and side effects of pharmacological solutions are two of the main motivations for this interest. 

The number of people around the world practicing yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong is phenomenal. 

  • Over 250 million people around the world practice Tai Chi. 
  • There are 3.47 million people practicing Tai Chi in the United States according to a 2012 survey.
  • Data from the 2012 “Yoga in America” study indicates 20.4 million Americans practice yoga in some capacity and 59.6% of people surveyed practiced yoga for stress reduction. 
  • The Chinese Health Qigong Association lists over 50 organizations in 29 countries as part of its network. In China alone, more than 80 million people practice Qigong. 

Types of Meditative Movement

When discussing Meditative Movement, yoga, Tai Chi and Qigong, are the most prominent forms pursued by the general public. Each of these practices comes from the East. 

Tai Chi and Qigong originated in China within the philosophical practice of Taoism. Yoga belongs to several schools of ancient Indian philosophy. Other activities usually designated as religious practices may fall under the umbrella of Meditative Movement when the topic is given broad consideration.

1| Yoga

Historical records of yoga being practiced in India date back as far as 5,000 years ago. The practice focuses on creating mastery of the body and mind in order to facilitate meditation. The tradition of hatha yoga, the physical practice of poses or postures linked to the breath, is practiced around the world. In the West, especially in Europe, the United States and Canada participants pursue yoga for fitness and to alleviate stress. 

While the focus of participants tends to be on the benefits of physical fitness and stress relief provided by a yoga practice, yoga offers much more to people willing to study its history and philosophical background. 

Aspects of yogic philosophy share historical context with and inform other Eastern traditions, specifically Buddhism. 

Many Western yoga teachers reference Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as a primary source for instruction. 

The sutras or threads outline eight pursuits for the yogi:

  • Yoga Practitioner
  • The Yamas (Ethical Observances)
  • Niyamas (Moral Observances)
  • Asana (Postures)
  • Pranayama (Breathing Exercises)
  • Pratyahara (Sensory Withdrawal)
  • Dharana (Concentration)
  • Dhyana (Meditation)
  • Samadhi (Divine Union; Enlightenment) 

Yoga is not a religion. It is a philosophy, and a science developed to teach people how to live in health and harmony in order to achieve true meditation. In the meditative state, practitioners may fully observe and connect with the divine and knowing the oneness of all things. Yoga is also a physical exercise that offers significant benefits of traditional workouts, and benefits for physical and mental health.

2| Ritual Prayer

When viewed narrowly according to the definition provided, the Abrahamic traditions, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, do not appear to have a tradition of Meditative Movement. However, a broadening of the definition along with a closer look at the rituals observed during holy days and special rites show a different picture. 

  • An immediately identifiable example of Meditative Movement in the Christian tradition is the Roman Catholic Mass and praying to the rosary. 
  • The Muslim tradition of turning to the east to recite prayers five times a day serves as another example along with the annual pilgrimage, hajj, to Mecca to circle the Kaaba, a holy object in the Muslim tradition. 
  • Jews also perform ritual prayers and gestures during Sabbath services. 

3| Ecstatic Dance

Ecstatic dance is found in many religious and tribal observances. People dance to show adoration of and to attain union with God. The whirling dervishes of the Sufi tradition, the Shakers, a Christian sect that originated in 18th century England and the Hasidic Jews all have a tradition of ecstatic dance. 

Some might argue that these activities, ritual prayer and ecstatic dance, do not qualify as Meditative Movement, because they include the quality and intention of worship. The purpose of the activity is to show submission towards, obedience and adoration of the divine. The objective is not to induce states of deep relaxation as in Meditative Movement. It should be noted, the joy and emotional release some people experience because of these activities does achieve the same effect of deep relaxation. 

4| Qigong

Qigong can be described as the parent of Tai Chi. It preceded Tai Chi and informs many of its key components. Qigong practice consists of slow, broad movements made while standing firmly grounded on both feet or shifting weight from one foot to the other. Its purpose is to cultivate and direct qi (chee) within the body for health and healing. 

While Tai Chi and Qigong are both Meditative Movement practices, they are also energy practices. Qigong focuses on building chi or life force from stores within the body. 

Tai Chi uses its artful movements and breath to generate chi for use during the practice and retention at the end of the practice. 

5| Tai Chi

Tai Chi Chuan more commonly referred to as Tai Chi originated in China approximately 2, 500 years ago. Tai Chi Chuan means “The Ultimate Fist” or the “Supreme Ultimate Boxing.” It combines breath work, free flowing movements of Qigong and a Taoist philosophy based form of martial arts. Tai Chi practitioners use slow subtle movements and the breath to cultivate qi or chi (pronounced “chee”) and direct it in a manner, which heals the body and calms the mind. 

The variety of Tai Chi styles along with the slow low-impact mode of movement it employs allows practitioners to choose how they wish to practice for the best results. 

As a part of the canon of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Tai Chi forms treat the whole patient with a holistic approach that targets mind, body, and spirit. 

Ideally, practitioners take on the form most beneficial to their physical and energetic needs. 

The five main styles of Tai Chi are named for the families responsible for developing and teaching that style. The knowledge of how to perform the family’s particular Tai Chi form passed from family member to family member. The practitioners of the family style did not usually share it with outsiders. References to family styles of Tai Chi usually indicate a classical or traditional form of the practice as done by the originating families. 

The styles are named according to their family lineage:

  • Chen style
  • Wu Hao style of Wu yu-hsiang
  • Yang style
  • Sun style
  • Wu style of Wu Ch’uan-yu and Wu Chien-ch’uan

The most common styles practiced in the West are the Yang and Chen styles. The styles of Tai Chi vary in their pacing, which may be slow, a mixture of slow and fast or steady and rhythmic. They also vary in the primary stance maintained during the practice: knees moderately or deeply bent with legs spread wide, legs slightly closer than wide legged or a narrow stance. 

The desired level of energetic movements varies as well. Some forms include powerful and quick movements along with stamping and more frequent shifting of weight in the legs. 

Tai Chi is a form of Meditative Movement that is slow, fluid, and very gentle on the body. While it does benefit physical fitness in various ways, this is not its primary goal; rather the ultimate goal is to strengthen the connection between the mind, body, and spirit. 

The physical acumens include improved flexibility, coordination, and balance. Reduction in stress, and improvement in how one deals with stress along with a decrease in depression, anxiety, pain and a boost to overall wellness are just some of its benefits for health.

Forms

Tai Chi is taught in forms. Practitioners and teachers refer to the long forms and short forms of their chosen Tai Chi practices. A short form practice may have approximately 20 to 40 movements and a long form practice can have 100 or more. 

Tai Chi forms continue to evolve. A style may be adapted based on the needs of practitioners– changing it enough to develop it into a new style, which meets a special need. Longtime practitioners may also integrate their knowledge and insights to develop additional styles of Tai Chi. 

Meditative Movement For Health And Wellness

People who participate in Meditative Movement practices experience some common benefits. The benefits are both physical and mental. Unique to meditative movement as opposed to traditional forms of exercise is its ability to bring balance to mind, body, and soul. These benefits also tend to increase in quality and quantity with consistent and prolonged practice. 

Physical Benefits

  • Improved strength
  • Improved flexibility
  • Muscular endurance
  • Improved bone density
  • Joint maintenance and improved range of motion
  • Improved balance and body awareness
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Balanced insulin levels
  • Appropriate weight maintenance
  • Improved circulation
  • Improved metabolic function 

While there are clear physical health benefits to practicing Meditative Movement, primarily functional fitness, one of the main mental benefits of Meditative Movement is stress reduction and relief. 

Chronic stress causes physical as well as mental health problems. Symptoms of chronic stress include headaches, sleep disturbances (ex. insomnia and broken sleeping patterns), gastrointestinal distress, overeating (which contributes to obesity and diabetes), depression and anxiety, high blood pressure, skin conditions  and lowered immune function to name a few. 

Each of these symptoms often precedes or accompanies other health issues. Using Meditative Movement to control and relieve stress can save an individual long-term health costs in terms of money as well as quality of life. 

Mental Benefits

  • Improved mental focus
  • Calm mind
  • Stress reduction
  • Improved memory
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Improved confidence
  • Positive outlook
  • Alleviates depression and it’s symptoms
  • Alleviates anxiety and associated anger, irritability and mental imbalance
  • Alleviates somatic symptoms caused by mental distress
  • Cultivates a general sense of well-being
  • Builds emotional balance
  • Builds brain connections that support quick decision making
  • Improves learning capacity

Some of the benefits derived from these types of activities are specific to the mode of Meditative Movement. The benefits differ in quality more than type and how quickly they manifest for practitioners. 

This variance in the quality of the benefits derived from the practice may be related to the practices overall approach to wellness or to the intention of the practice. The differences also seem more apparent in the physical rather than the mental category of benefits. 

Research and studies conducted by the University of South Florida, Fudan University in China, the University Of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of Wisconsin regarding the effects of Tai Chi on the brain discerned several physical changes Tai Chi creates in the brain, which support brain function and mental health. 

Analysis of the studies showed: 

  • Instead of losing grey matter as they age, Tai Chi practitioners gain grey matter by up to 40%. Grey matter sends electrical signals, thoughts, and commands, from one part of the brain to another. 
  • Cortical wall density increases for Tai Chi practitioners. As people age their decision, making capacity slows and degrades. Thicker cortical walls seem to keep this from happening. 
  • Tai Chi improves the brains neuroplasticity. The connections made by processing daily input, which improve a person’s ability to respond to new situations, occur more effectively for people who practice Tai Chi. 
  • People who practice Tai Chi let things go so that everyday stressors do not affect their health. They are better able to make decisions and choices without being caught in a mental loop of worry regarding the past, present or future. 

In Yoga

There are many styles of yoga. Some yoga styles are slow and gentle such as Restorative yoga and Yin yoga. Other styles of yoga incorporate more forceful approaches to obtaining postures and pursue a faster pace, like Power Yoga and Vinyasa yoga. 

Clearly, these different approaches offer similar health benefits, which will vary in quality… 

  • Hatha yoga, the more traditional form of physical yoga, requires practitioners to hold poses for five to seven breaths (a breath equals an inhale and an exhale) or longer; the transitions may be smooth and dance like as in Vinyasa yoga or not. 
  • Vinyasa builds strength and flexibility as well as offering an additional cardiovascular benefit due to the pacing of the practice. 
  • Power Yoga builds strength and flexibility; however, the style’s outcomes will tend to offer more strength, endurance, and powerful movement due to the athletic nature of the practice.

In Qigong

Qigong focuses primarily on making energetic changes in the body with movement. The qi or life force is harnessed, balanced, expanded, and conserved through the Qigong series of exercises. The same movements and visualization are used to direct the energy as desired for physical and mental healing and general wellness. 

Qigong postures and gestures are typically performed with both feet on the ground. Unlike in Tai Chi, the feet do not completely leave the earth at any point. 

Balancing gestures are performed with the heel or toe remaining in contact with the earth as the practitioner shifts their weight from one side to the other. Holding the Sun in One Hand and Flying Like an Eagle are examples of Qigong postures. 

Qigong is explicitly a moving meditation practice.

The benefits of meditation come readily to the fore for practitioners of Qigong. The mind is the primary tool of this practice and the body reaps the physical benefits mentioned previously as associated with Meditative Movement. 

In Tai Chi

Tai Chi also uses the body’s chi or life force for health or healing. However, instead of drawing mainly on the participant’s personal energy, the movements generate chi. Qigong works from the inside out and Tai Chi from the outside in.  

The postures or gestures used during Tai Chi typically derive their forms and names from nature. Examples of this are White Crane Spreads it Wings and Embrace the Tiger and Return to Mountain in the Yang style. 

In other instances, the name describes the movement precisely as it is, as with the pose named Walk Obliquely, or denotes the martial arts background associated with the practice, as with the pose Turn Body, Cover Hand, and Punch from the Chen style. The names of various poses can differ between styles of Tai Chi.

The low impact nature of Tai Chi makes it especially beneficial for the elderly and people dealing with injuries. They see gains on par with those who are younger as well as those who practice more challenging forms of Meditative Movement. 

The physical and mental benefits are the same and the mental benefits seem to manifest more quickly for Tai Chi (and Qigong) practitioners. This may be related to Tai Chi’s intentional development as a moving meditation.

Breath Work In Meditative Movement

 Meditation Movement utilizes the breath in a variety of ways. The breath serves as the central focus for a Meditative Movement practice. It calms the body and mind; it guides and supports movement; and it energizes the practitioner during and following their practice. 

The purpose of the breath and the way the practitioner uses it, is determined by the chosen form of Meditative Movement.

Yoga Breathing Styles

The yogic breath used during asana posture practice is deep and resonant. The yogic breath occurs in three parts. Practitioners inhale and exhale through the nose allowing the abdomen to expand, the lungs to fill and the chest to rise. A complete exhalation follows, and the abdomen draws inward at the end of the exhale. The inhalation energizes and generates heat; the exhalation and its accompanying firming of the abdominal region provide support when moving into postures. Each move has an accompanying inhalation or exhalation.

Pranayama, breath control, is one of the non-postural practices associated with yoga, i.e. see Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Pranayma exercises take a variety of forms. During pranayama, a yogi purposefully applies different breathing patterns to gain specific results. For example, alternate nostril breathing is calming and balances the two hemispheres of the brain.

Prana is the yogic equivalent of chi, during pranayama yogis learn to control and direct the life force. Pranayama exercises activate and balance internal energies and calm the mind in preparation for seated meditation.

While it is possible to achieve a Moving Meditation experience during a physical (hatha) yoga practice, it usually occurs after consistent practice and progress beyond the beginning postures. In addition, it bears noting that Moving Meditation is not the intent of hatha yoga; hatha yoga works to strengthen and still the body so the mind can become strong and still as well. 

Qigong Breathing Styles

In general, Qigong utilizes a soft, deep, and natural breathing pattern. The purpose of the breath is to calm the body and the mind. The continuous flow of the breath and the fluid hypnotic style of movement draw the practitioner’s full attention, thereby creating meditation in motion.

Tai Chi Breathing Styles

Tai Chi’s martial arts components require the breath to be modified during some movements. There are two forms of breath utilized during Tai Chi practice. The first is the “along breath,” which employs a soft abdomen and is isometric in character. The second breath is called the “against breath,” and employs a firm abdomen and is “trans figurative” in character.

The “along” breathing method is used during the static and gentle stepping portion of a Tai Chi practice. A strong and efficient breathing method, the along breath, calls for the tip of the tongue to connect with the palate. The inhale comes through the nostrils as the diaphragm falls and the abdomen expands. At the end of the exhale, also through the nostrils, the mouth opens slightly, the tongue disconnects from the palate as the abdomen draws inward. The practitioner visualizes the inhaled air coalescing in the low abdomen with each breath. While concentration is required to maintain the breath, the objective is to perform the breathing and the movements as naturally as possible.

The “against” or trans figurative breathing method employs the nose and mouth to breathe. As in the along breathing method, the end of the tongue connects with the palate. The whole body is relaxed and the more active martial arts based movements of the practice guide the breath. Unlike the along breathing method the low abdomen pulls inward on the inhale; the diaphragm is held level while the lungs fill with air. 

On the exhale, the diaphragm falls as the lungs lengthen downward. Releasing the tip of the tongue from the palate and imagining the air flowing in and out of low abdomen with each breath. The quality of the breath should be slow, even, light, deep, and quiet. The against breath is coordinated with the forceful movements found in the Tai Chi practice. The exhale aligns with the forceful exertions; the air pooled in the abdomen powers the movements.

Making Meditative Movement A Part Of Your Life

The health challenges faced by the general public and the rising costs of medical care causes individuals to look toward alternative healthcare practices to prevent and treat illnesses. People are living longer and want to enjoy quality of life and good health as they age. 

Access to alternative forms of self-managed healthcare and treatments take on additional importance when the rapid growth occurring in the populations of older and elderly adults, ages 50 to 84 years old and older is considered. 

The U. S. Census projects the elderly population will nearly double to 80 million by the year 2050. 

Meditative Movement offers a broad and varied approach to personal healthcare with an equally broad and varied range of benefits. 

The fact that Meditative Movement alleviates physical and mental health concerns makes it especially valuable given the many modern maladies that correlate with the outcomes of chronic stress.

In the past, resources to learn Meditative Movement were difficult to access. Now, anyone interested in learning Qigong, Tai Chi or yoga may do so more easily. The practices have become more mainstream so teachers for live classes are more widely available. 

Many community centers, YMCAs, and fitness centers offer yoga and Tai Chi classes. Qigong may be more difficult to find as a standalone practice, but as mentioned earlier, it is often included in a Tai Chi session. Books, videos and audio recordings which teach Meditative Movement may be found at local libraries, holistic centers and online.

As with any new pursuit, time to learn and apply the knowledge acquired must be set aside. Instead of simply stating the desire to learn Meditative Movement, aspiring practitioners need to schedule a time at least two to three times a week to practice. 

When first learning Meditative Movement, a class setting with a qualified instructor is ideal. Learning this way initially prevents the new student from teaching themselves incorrectly due to misunderstanding or picking up unhelpful habits as they practice. 

Here are a few suggestions to get started:

1. Do some research. Visit your local library or visit a few websites to learn more about Tai Chi.

2. Visit a class or several to find a program you enjoy. This is key to ensure your continued participation. 

3. Talk to the instructor. Get to know them and learn a bit more about their qualifications to teach Tai Chi.

4. Practice well and often in class and at home.

Final Thoughts

The long history of Tai Chi and various forms of Meditative Movement illustrate the anecdotal efficacy of the practices and now modern studies are providing data to support the same. 

The physical and mental benefits are equal and in many ways greatly exceed the benefits of traditional exercise. 

Meditative Movement provides physical exercise and meditation practices suitable for all ages; it is also highly adaptive. 

Based on the information presented here, it seems reasonable to suggest people consider making Meditative Movement a standard part of their regular fitness regimen and overall healthy lifestyle.