As mindfulness in the West is picking up and taking off as a popular movement, I’m getting the feeling that many people are being introduced to it as a purely intellectual and mental practice. After all, the word “mind” is in mindfulness.
However, there are different ways to achieve a state of mindfulness that can be accessed beyond your mind. The key is also moving and training your body.
Education here in the U.S. is obviously very focused on training the mind. In my experience from kindergarten through high school, almost all the teachings were about training your mind in some way. There was one period of Physical Education a day, and it was taught separately from everything else rather than integrated into other courses.
Our energy and focus were all put into training our minds and learning things intellectually. Even feelings of assertiveness and confidence were trained to revolve around the mind.
Intellectual competence can certainly result in positive bodily effects like feeling relaxed. There’s definitely some truth to the assumption or belief that the body will follow the mind. When you focus your attention and energy on training your mind, the bodily effects will follow.
That was by and large how I learned: You focused on your mind, but exercise and training your body were completely different disciplines.
A Different Perspective
However, I’ve learned through martial arts that the mind can also follow the body. I’ve studied a few different martial arts and remember one lesson in particular during which one of my teachers was taking us through an exercise. He started to become frustrated with us because we weren’t conveying or expressing an assertive attitude. He felt like we were holding back or not really putting 100 percent of our energy and intention into each attack.
At one point, he said, “If you’re having trouble getting that assertive intention and 100 percent focus on the attack — that mental aspect of it — before you start, bend your front knee forward.”
Normally, as you start to move forward, you would bend that front knee to shift your weight forward as if you’re almost leaning forward to prepare yourself for an attack. Priming your body in that position will help induce the mental state of assertiveness needed to carry out the attack.
Then the teacher said, “The mind follows the body.”
I remember being confused for a while. What does bending your knee have to do with feeling mentally assertive? I spent a lot of time just stewing on it. I think it’s something I’m still trying to integrate myself, but I have come to basically understand that the mind can follow the body just as the body can follow the mind.
Striking the Right Balance
In our culture, our body is often ignored and looked down upon. There’s a very strong overemphasis on the mental and intellectual to the detriment of the body.
Martial arts differ from this tack by taking an outside-to-inside approach with the body and mind. The instructor teaches you to train your body and learn the physical techniques, and as you start to become more proficient, you advance through the ranks. The teacher then shows you how to bring your mind into the practice. At first, very little attention is paid to the mind or even understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing. Focus on the physical, and then turn your attention inward.
When I regularly practiced meditation, I found that a sitting meditation involved the inverse order.
To me, both perspectives feel very valuable. I train both the body and mind. I’m concerned that people are learning one way and not even considering how the body relates to it all. Balance is crucial: The mind can follow the body too.