Definition – What does Moving Meditation mean?
Moving meditation is a meditative state – a shift of consciousness – while doing simple movements. It is a way of calming the mind and creating awareness. Meditation is typically associated with stillness, lying or sitting in a comfortable posture with the focus on the breath. Yet, movement can also provide a path to contemplation.
While flowing movement from one yoga asana to another can be moving meditation, the practice of qigong, tai chi and aikido also involve moving meditation, as does walking a labyrinth and Sufi whirling. Even dance movements can form the foundation for moving meditation.
Many forms of the physical practice of yoga are, in fact, moving meditation. The simple Sun Salutation vinyasa with the mind and breath synchronized creates a meditative state with movement.
Moving meditation can also be an extension of traditional meditation, something called a slow hands moving meditation. Beginning in a comfortable seated asana, such as lotus or easy pose, with the hands resting on the thighs, the yogi brings awareness to the breath and to the hands. As the meditation deepens, the yogi feels energy flowing into the hands. Gradually, the hands are lifted and moved ever so slightly, while each sensation is observed. Eventually, the palms are turned toward each other and the yogi observes and feels the energy between them.
How 31 Days of Moving Meditation Helped One Yogi Slow Down
I was lingering over a pasta dinner in Rome over the holidays this year, sitting back in my chair with one hand on my full belly and the other holding my glass of red wine when it hit me: I have to do this more often. Not the trips to Rome or even the pasta—although more of both would be nice. What I found myself craving in that moment was more of that kind of slowing down—giving myself space in everyday, non-vacation life to really experience and even savor what I’m doing.
Slowing down is a serious challenge for me. I’m a self-proclaimed productivity fiend: The more I can get done in a day, the better. My job, writing and editing for Yoga Journal.com, stokes this natural instinct in me. In digital media, praise comes flying at you when you work quickly. I’m also a born-and-raised New Yorker, which means my go-to pace is almost always a little (OK, a lot) faster than those outside the big Apple.
So, when I returned home from Italy to Boulder, Colo., and was asked to practice moving meditation every day for 31 days, it seemed like a logical fit. I’d been sporadic with my usual, mantra-based meditation practice, solidly in a new habit of making a beeline for my computer—not my meditation cushion—after brushing my teeth each morning. Would moving meditation help me slow my roll, and infuse my life with more mindfulness? I wanted to find out.ADVERTISEMENT
When practicing moving meditation, you must focus your attention on the sensation of your foot touching the ground with each step that you take.
What is Moving Meditation?
Last year, I was lucky enough to attend a day-long retreat in beautiful Red Feather Lakes here in Colorado with yoga and Tibetan Buddhism teacher, Cyndi Lee. The retreat was held at the Shambhala Mountain Center, high in the Colorado Rockies and home to the Great Sputa of Dharmakaya. My first experience practicing moving meditation was there, with Lee guiding me and the rest of the 20-some-odd group, on a walk to the Stu pa.
Lee explained that just as in a sitting meditation, where your attention might be on your breath or repeating a mantra, in a moving meditation, you place your attention on the sensation of your foot touching the ground with each step. How does your foot feel in your shoe, or on the earth? What does it feel like as your heel strikes the ground before rolling onto the ball mound of your foot and then your toes? You get the drift. When you first start out, it’s recommended that you walk a little slower than usual, so you can really feel your feet with every step.
As we practiced this walking meditation on retreat that day, I felt awkward at first. With every step, a thought popped into my head: There’s my heel; What would an outsider looking in think of us walking in a line so freaking’ slowly?! Ooh, so that’s what my foot’s arch feels like when my weight rolls from the back of my heel toward the front; Ugh, how long is this going to take us?!
Luckily, Lee normalized this common monkey-mind activity. “The idea is not that you’re going to have absolutely no thoughts,” she says. “What you’re doing is cultivating your ability to recognize that you don’t have to buy into everything that comes up. Part of the experience is recognizing that your mind will stray, so when it does, you bring it very gently with precision back to the feeling of your foot on earth. Step, step, step.
The Challenge: 5 Minutes of Moving Meditation Every Day
While I can’t say my first experience of moving meditation was profound, I was intrigued enough by its potential to help me slow down and be more mindful in all areas of my life that I committed to at least 5 minutes of moving meditation every day for the month of January. Before I got started, I asked Lee if I should continue my already-established (if sporadic) mantra-based practice.
“Will repeating my mantra while practicing moving meditation help me focus?” I asked Lee.
“No,” she replied. “When trying a new meditation practice, it’s best to stick to just one rather than dabble in many,” she told me.
I started out simple: From the Yoga Journal office, I took solo walks to the coffee shop around the corner and didn’t ask a co-worker to join, like usual. The typically 5-minute stroll took about 8 minutes at moving-meditation speed, and while my mind did wander—mostly to my long list of to-dos—I didn’t beat myself up about that fact. Instead, I kept coming back to the feeling of each step. I found myself noticing things I hadn’t before: the subtle feeling of my foot on a crack in the sidewalk; the sound of the wooden heel of my favorite pair of booties on a day-old snow-ice mix; the feeling of one part of my foot on pavement and another on grass.
After each of my walking meditations during my first and second weeks of this challenge, I had to try hard not to brush off the seemingly insignificant sensations I was having. How would it serve me to know exactly what it feels like to simultaneously have my heel on pavement and the ball of my foot on grass? I stuck to the practice on my walks to the coffee shop and abandoned them en route back to my desk.
A simple 5-minute stroll can help you practice moving meditation. If your mind starts to wander, focus on the steps that you are taking.
The Ah-Ha Moment: When I Knew Moving Meditation Was Working
The third week in to my moving meditation experiment, I had a game-changing therapy appointment which, it turns out, would alter the way I thought about my new, mindful walks.
I was talking to Leah, my therapist, about my near-frenetic pace and its impacts on my life. It was making me more gruff and less compassionate. It was inspiring me to race through my writing and editing, which meant I was more careless with my words. It was making me less present with my boyfriend, friends, and worst of all, myself.
“So, what’s the antidote?” I pleaded, practically begging her for an assignment I could add to my to-dos. “If I can’t move to Tuscany, how can I finally slow the heck down?”
Leah shot me a knowing smile.
“You don’t need another to-do,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you to meditate for 20 minutes every morning in order to get more present. You can show up more fully, and in better alignment with who you are and how you want to be in the world, by doing what I call ‘one eye in, one eye out.’”
Think of this concept as the epitome of taking your practices off your meditation cushion and yoga mat and into the world, Leah continued. When the practices are working, the world is your mat. One eye in helps you stay in alignment with your central channel—the place from which you move with your heart, not a head full of fear. One eye out helps you interact with others and field all of the things that will inevitably come flying at you, many of which will be completely out of your control.
“The secret to experience this kind of embodied presence is noticing your physical sensations,” Leah told me. “Try it now. Feel your feet on the ground. Feel your thighs on the couch. Feel your back supported by the cushion behind you. Now, can you do all of that and simultaneously talk to me?”
Of course, I thought to myself, smiling at how messages often show up a few times for them to finally sink in. This is what moving meditation is also about. One eye in to feel the sensation of my feet on the ground; one eye out to help me get where I’m going, only more mindfully.
During my final week of this moving meditation challenge, I started looking forward to my daily walks—which became longer than 8 minutes—and found myself tuning in to how I take up space in my body and in the world. Sometimes, this meant that even my 15-second walk to the office printer became an opportunity to clue in to the physical sensation of my feet on the carpet and my hip floors and thigh bones initiating the movement of each leg. Other times, it meant simply taking a few seconds to feel my finger pads on my keyboard before I started typing.
Best of all, little hits of my newfound sense of embodiment started happening even when work and this moving meditation challenge were the last things on my mind. One night, I sat down to dinner with my boyfriend, Brian, at home. Before I dug in to the grilled salmon and roasted broccoli I’d raced to Whole Foods to buy and then cook for us after a busy day, I consciously felt my feet on the ground, my thighs and back supported by the dining room chair, and I and connected to my heart space—all of which happened in what felt like milliseconds.
And it felt even more satisfying than that belly full of ravioli and glass of Chianti in Tuscany over the holidays.
Moving Meditation Practices
Moving meditation can be a powerful practice to incorporate into our lives. We so often meditate while sitting still, as is the tradition in many lineages. However, the Buddha himself recommended practicing meditation in other postures and while moving. In his discourse on mindfulness, it is specifically suggested that we should practice while in different postures and while moving.
We don’t sit all day in formal meditation. We’re up and on the go, moving and doing things. We can bring our practice to these activities by beginning to dedicate time and energy toward investigating meditating while moving.
We can of course meditate and practice mindfulness during our days and any activity we are doing, but here are a few ways to begin investigating some meditation practices that incorporate movement.
Moving Meditation Techniques
Yoga may not seem like meditation always on the surface. There are some yoga classes that are more workout based, while many traditional practices are grounded firmly in meditation. Yoga and meditation have a long history together, and predate Buddhist meditation.
This form of moving and stretching meditation can be a beautiful practice. I’m not the most flexible person in the world, but consider myself a decent yogi. Yoga isn’t about looking beautiful while falling into a complex pose. It’s a practice in connecting the mind and body together.
Just as we practice mindfulness of the body in sitting meditation with something like a body scan, we can practice in a similar way while moving in yoga. To get started, you can find a local yoga studio, practice from home with videos on YouTube, or take an online course.
There are some great online courses that aren’t too expensive and offer a great way to get started, like the Yoga for Healing and Yoga and Love online courses. We also love the YouTube videos from Yoga with Adrienne, as she offers a pretty introductory and mellow practice. However, it may be best to have a teacher to be present and guide you in person!
2. Walking Meditation
Walking meditation is practiced by many people in different traditions around the world. In different types of Buddhism, there are different practices. I personally love walking meditation, and incorporate it into my regular practice.
One reason that I love this form of moving meditation is that we can really do it any time. Yoga may require a little bit of time set aside, but we can meditate while walking any time during our days. Whether we deliberately set aside a minute or two to walk, or we’re walking to the bust stop, we can practice.
With walking meditation we can practice mindfulness of the body, mindful breathing, open awareness, metta, or almost anything else. It’s just another posture of the body, but we can bring our practice just the same! Gil Frontal offers great walking meditation instructions you can try!
Like yoga, qigong has a long history. Coming from China over 4,000 years ago, this is an ancient practice that has been incorporated into Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and other philosophies. I was introduced to Qigong at Deer Park Monastery some years ago, and have continued to investigate the practices over the years on retreats and local classes.
This practice relates to meditation, martial arts, and ancient Chinese medicine. With a strong emphasis on balancing qi (or chi), it really offers a unique way to investigate meditation while moving. The slow and fluid movements, practices in deep breathing, and focus on balancing the energy make it one of my favorite forms of moving meditation.
There are many ways to get started with qigong. Unlike yoga, there are not studios on every corner to practice. You can look for a local class or teacher, find YouTube videos, or try an online course. Conscious Lifestyle Magazine offers some great introductory classes, or you can check out an online qigong course to give it a shot.
We’ve talked about this practice many times before, like in our post on 17 Ways to Be More Mindful in Daily Life. We were originally introduced to this practice via This Nhat Hanh’s book the Miracle of Mindfulness. Since then, I have incorporated this practice into my own life, into my teachings, and while working one-on-one with students.
There are all things we do regularly, often on autopilot. We can use these moments as opportunities to practice some moving meditation. Some examples we often use and investigate ourselves include:
There are of course many ways we can practice this, and we can find what works well for us. Personally, I’ve found it beneficial to pick one activity for the day or week, and really set a clear intention. Every time you go to cook food or drink some water, really tune into your present-time experience. This can be a beautiful way to bring our practice to our daily life.
This may be a bit of a shocker. First, don’t close your eyes and fall into a samatha practice while driving! Be safe, be aware, and don’t try too hard to be in any specific state of mind.
Driving while meditating can be a really interesting experience. If you haven’t investigated this practice, I recommend trying it while walking on the sidewalk first or just sitting in your car. As you move, notice the sounds around you, the movement, and the people. This is just a practice in open awareness.
To drive safely, we need to be aware of what is going on around us, and not focusing on the radio, our phones, or anything else. So, make this a practice. As you drive, really notice what is going on. If somebody cuts you off, notice the reaction. Just tune into your own experience of driving along.
You can also try the stealth metta practice. If you’re sitting a stop light, offer some phrases of metta, or loving-kindness, to the people in cars around you. Often, we forget that the other cars have people in them, just like us! Try to connect with the humanity of these other people and wish well for them today.
There are lots of specific health benefits to meditation, and while plenty of people still picture meditation happening as you sit cross-legged and bathe in your own silence, you don’t actually have to do any of that for it to work.
Brendan Leonard discovered exactly that in a recent essay for Outside. He found it massively challenging to fully embrace meditating while sitting still. He accidentally fell asleep during one of his Headspace sessions, and a flood of thoughts distracted him during another.
But he eventually realized that his runs, which “are sometimes an hour, two hours, four hours, or even eight hours,” also function as a kind of meditation.
“I don’t have headphones in my ears. I don’t talk to anyone besides the occasional ‘hello’ to fellow trail users, I don’t listen to music to make the time pass more quickly, and I don’t listen to podcasts,” Leonard writes. “I just run, in relative silence, and my thoughts go wherever they need to go.” These runs have also spark great ideas, which he then writes down.
Take a walk in the park
Research in the Journal of Behavioral Health shows that a mindful walk in nature can provide a mental health boost, positively impacting “cognition and affect, anxiety reduction, tension, sadness, and fatigue.” Plus, engaging in mindfulness during a walk can also result in “a deeper connection with exercise,” the study authors say.
Strike a yoga pose
Yoga is a form of meditative movement that has been found to ease chronic pain. Plus, research in the International Journal of Yoga states that there’s “an indisputable connection between a person’s overall physical and mental health, and the inner peace and well-being yoga is designed to achieve. Yoga suspends the fluctuations of the mind, and by acting consciously, we live better and suffer less.”
Try Tai chi
A study in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that engaging in Tai chi as a form of moving meditation should create “functional balance internally for healing, stress neutralization, longevity, and personal tranquility.”
Interested in learning Tai chi for yourself? “Many places are teaching students one movement, like ‘cloud hands,’ which is a signature. Learn half a dozen or a dozen movements and do them repetitively,” suggests Shin Lin, Ph.D., the founding director of the Laboratory for Mind-Body Signaling & Energy Research, and Professor of cell biology and faculty of the Susan Samuel i Integrative Health Institute at the University of California Irvine. Even just this shortened version of a practice can help you feel meditative and more balanced.