Mindful Movement and Mental Health Part 1

Many people ask how and why do I incorporate mindful movement into my mental health practice and what is it?  Great questions!  To me mindful movement is a mixture of yoga, mindfulness meditations, breathing, and guided relaxation exercises.  I was first introduced to yoga in 2010 when I went to a Yoga Calm ® training for ideas as a School Counselor.  I was working in a difficult and wonderful middle school in SE Portland OR and was in my 7th year.  I was feeling stagnant and stuck in providing the support and relief I saw the middle schoolers needed.  They were a fierce group of kids with stories longer than mine.  These young people were facing violence, poverty, neglect, and racism.  They were fighters both physically and mentally and many were stuck in that fight, flight, freeze space out of a survival need.  They often needed to be on guard and aware of their surroundings to stay safe.  So, how could I help them respectfully drop those defenses in school so they could open up to learning and healthy relationships?  I say respectfully because as a Middle-Class White woman who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, I had no first hand understanding of what it was like to be in their shoes.  I learned through them and honestly I wanted them on guard out in the community and for some in their homes.  I however, wanted them to learn that they could choose to be vigilant or choose to relax and receive.  Receive support, care, kindness, and an education.

This is where mindfulness and yoga came in.  I started with my small groups and expanded to teaching yoga in the health classes every Friday.  Some students were resistant and that was okay.  I made sure they knew they were in charge of their bodies and the choices they made in the yoga space.  I just asked that they didn’t take away from others experiences out of their nervousness, embarrassment, or understandable awkwardness in trying something new.  We talked about how normal it is to act out or shut down when we feel these emotions.  And what did those emotions feel like in their bodies; butterflies, tightness, hot?  We used the breath or movement to slow down their critical minds to be able to tune into their bodies and make a choice on how to respond.   I was also mindful that there is no one size fits all model, so what is calming for me may not be for them, so I had them explore what was regulating and calming for them; was it moving, sitting, laying, observing, drumming?  I gave lots of options, which is what yoga is all about.  Yoga calm taught the language of saying “I’m not ready for that or I have not learned that yet.” versus “I can’t”.  I loved this because I wanted the students to have a sense of agency in that space, something they did not have in other areas of their life. “The guiding principle of recovery (from trauma) is restoring a sense of power and control to the survivor.” – Judith Herman.  Together as a class and community, we created a routine and mixed music, drumming, games, challenges, and guided relaxations into the classes. 

I further worked to make the classes relevant and to connect the lessons on the yoga mat to their worlds outside of that space, the “big yoga” as we called it.  For example, naming and understanding emotions and making choices on how to respond to them in yoga and in life.  A common one was when we did a balance pose.  We talked about what knocks us off balance in here and in life?  Our inner voice, our friends, worries, fears, these things all distract us and knock us off balance from focusing on the present moment.   We talked a lot about sadness and anger two strong emotions these kids felt.  How do we learn to work with these emotions in a way that is safe and healthy and serves us?  They are intelligent emotions and uncomfortable emotions.  These topics and more came up, I believe because the students felt settled and calm after movement or play in yoga.  This allowed them to dig deep, open up, and tolerate these deeper conversations, their minds and bodies were grounded and safe to have them.   This is when transformation happened, and students learned they could drop their guards and defenses.  They learned to trust themselves to tune in to their environment and the signals their bodies were getting and ask is this a safe place? They didn’t have to be stuck in a space of always feeling unsafe and distrustful, which isolated them.   Most students grew to love that hour each week, as did I.  It was an invitation and opportunity to show up to safe space and relax and receive the support, care, challenge, and kindness from myself and their classmates. 

I am so grateful for this introduction to the powers of yoga and mindfulness that I continue to study it and work to incorporate it in my my private practice with families, individuals, and hopefully someday couples.  Yoga and mindfulness are tools to help us overcome trauma, regulate anxiety and stress, and be present in our lives to experience joy, happiness, and love.  If you want to learn more about the science and biology of these interventions (stay tuned to part 2 of this blog) or check out Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, The Body Keeps Score; Brain, Mind, and Body Healing of Trauma  by Bessel Van Der Kolk, or any of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books who created Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

In eternal gratitude to the amazing middle school students in Portland OR, who taught me hope, resilience, and strength….Namaste.

Be well,

Danelle

More on Mindful Movement in Counseling: https://www.danellechapman.com/what-is-mindful-movement