“Are you supposed to be completely still when you practice mindfulness?”
This exact question was asked earlier this week during the student mindfulness group I co-facilitate at Cal Poly Pomona University. It is one that resonates with many, including myself when I first embarked on my mindfulness journey. It’s a question that invites us to explore the essence of mindfulness itself.
What does it mean to be mindful, and how did the idea of stillness become so intertwined with the practice?
The student who asked this initial question, shared how challenging it was for them to remain still, at times even painful, when they sat to practice mindfulness meditation. It was leading to a lot of frustration as they struggled with the idea that they couldn’t get their body and mind to conform to what they thought it should be doing. They were quickly becoming discouraged that mindfulness was just another example of something they weren’t good at. This frustration is a common experience for many people setting out on the path toward living more mindfully.
My co-facilitator, a psychologist at Cal Poly who helped create this student mindfulness group with me, and I had the same initial response to this student’s question: “Well what does it really mean to be mindful?”
Mindfulness, in the simplest terms, is about observing the present moment. We do this with intention, and without passing judgment on what is occurring in the present. Nowhere within this definition is the requirement for stillness, slowing down maybe, but not necessarily halting to a stop. Yet somewhere along the way, we imposed the expectation that stillness is a prerequisite for this observation of the here and now.
I think a lot gets entangled between the practice of meditation, a tool for accessing a state of mindfulness, and the experience of mindfulness itself. Depending on your teacher and the type of meditation you are practicing, there may be the expectation of remaining still, resisting the urge to scratch every itch, but this is only the case for just one way of practicing mindfulness.
The truth is, just as it’s the nature of the mind to think, it’s the nature of the body to move. In our fast-paced lives, we are constantly in motion—mentally and physically. This continuous motion builds up inertia, making it difficult to sit still. My co-facilitator likened this to being on a treadmill: you can’t just stop, it’s not going to end well. When we sit down to practice mindfulness meditation, we come face to face with how much our body is accustomed to this movement, even craving it. This craving can often make sitting still a very uncomfortable endeavor. I think this is especially true for us as fitness professionals because we’ve built our lives around movement.
If you find yourself struggling to sit still, it’s important to remember that this experience is neither right nor wrong. It’s a completely natural and normal part of a mindfulness practice. In those moments when the urge to move is driven by discomfort, it’s perfectly acceptable to make adjustments. You can try shifting to a different posture, supporting yourself with pillows or a chair, lying down, or even standing. You might gently sway or slowly pace if that’s what your body needs.
Throughout this process, remember that the primary goal of mindfulness is observation, and this includes noticing when you are passing judgment on yourself for not being able to “just sit still.” Be compassionate with yourself, and acknowledge the urge to move without frustration.
Another valuable question to ponder is: What is the underlying intention of your mindfulness practice? Is it to reconnect with yourself? To pause?
Your intention for your practice may vary each time you try to be more mindful. Sometimes your intention may be to move with each breath, other times it’s to slow down and explore the element of stillness, and still other times it’s about finding the balance between movement and stillness in each passing moment. If your intention is to experience a moment of pause, recognize that it takes time to settle into stillness, and remind yourself that there is no external expectation for you to be completely still all of the times you practice.
Just as there is no right or wrong way to breathe mindfully, there is no right or wrong way to pause or to notice stillness. In fact, from a trauma-sensitive perspective, the rigid and unbending expectation that we must sit in silence or stillness can be very triggering for some. My fellow yoga instructors may recognize how telling students that closing their eyes or laying down is the only option in Savasana can be a very limiting and restrictive (read: scary) experience for some, one that might lead to disassociation and a freeze response. Similarly, the expectation we place on ourselves, or our students, to remain completely still can lead to similar states of fear, potentially sending our nervous systems into flight, hence that unbearable urge to move. At all opportunities we should aim to provide our students, and ourselves, with options and the autonomy to choose which of those options feels best in the moment. If you are unfamiliar with the many ways mindfulness can be impacted by experiences of trauma, I encourage you to read the book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness by David Treleaven*.
As you embark on your mindfulness journey, remember that your experience is personal and unique. It’s not about fitting into a specific mold or adhering to strict guidelines. It’s about finding what works best for you and listening to what your body and mind need in each moment. Taking the time to slow down and practice mindfulness can reveal the body’s needs that you may have been overlooking or unaware of.
Mindfulness is not limited to seated meditation. Walking your dog, brushing your teeth, driving, strolling along the sand at the beach, washing dishes, really any movement can be an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Yoga, jogging, barre, roller skating, and weight lifting are all movement practices that are equally valid ways to cultivate mindfulness. It’s helpful to remember this if the idea of being completely still feels uncomfortable or unattainable for you. We all begin our mindfulness journey at different points in our lives, and if exploring these alternative forms of mindfulness provide a more comfortable path to your practice, go for it.
In conclusion, there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to remaining still or moving to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a deeply personal journey, and it’s about embracing and understanding your own unique experience. So, whether you choose to be still, move, or find a delicate balance between the two, approach your mindfulness practice with an open heart and a curious mind. Embrace movement as a natural part of your mindfulness journey and remember that the path to stillness is one that can be explored with patience and self-compassion.
*FTC Disclaimer: Some of the links included here are affiliate links. I do earn a small commission when your purchase using these links or affiliate codes at checkout. This helps me improve my blog, podcast, and the overall content I provide.