It’s funny how when people get older their muscles seems to disappear. So when you hug them, you can feel their bones through their flesh, and the flesh is softer than it was before. Like their bodies have given up on muscle and started concentrating on other things. And their skin has gotten soft, soft like thin, perfectly kneaded out dough.
But when you’re just new, when you’re a baby, you don’t have muscle either. You’re just flesh and new. And then you learn how to use your muscles, and suddenly you’re learning how to sit up or to roll over. Things that are really complicated and take months to learn how to do if you’ve had an accident or been injured. But when you’re a baby, and your muscles and body are just new, you learn how to do these things, each new thing, every week. Just by doing.
When you’re in the middle of your life, or later on, it’s difficult to learn new ways of using your muscles. Especially if you’ve never used them in a mindful way. That means that you really only use the muscles in your arms or your legs or your body to carry yourself around. You don’t stop and think about how you lift yourself up onto your feet, or how you bend to pick something up from the floor. When you use your muscles mindfully – when you understand how to lift your arm up over your head in the most economical way, not also lifting your shoulder or dropping your opposite hip – you are more in your body. You’re not thinking your way through the movement, you are in the movement, with each muscle group as it engages and releases.
When I am caught up in being anxious, I can’t stop thinking. I can’t stop and make myself be right there in whatever it is I’m doing. I eventually end up trying to slow my brain down with repetitive, mindless movement. I do mindless things, repetitive things, over and over and over. Pegging out laundry. Folding sheets.
Sometimes I try to haul myself out of the rushing thoughts – all that anxiety – by doing something with just a little complexity. Crocheting the same basic stitches, around and around in a pattern that requires just enough thinking to keep me interested, but doesn’t let me get caught up in worry-thoughts. Or I sew. I make garments that are just complicated enough to make me concentrate. And the process requires careful planning – find the fabric, preshrink the fabric, cut out the pattern, mark the notches, pin it, stitch it, press it, stitch it, alter it. I listen to the radio with talking to take up any spare thinking. Each step slows me down, makes me pay attention, concentrate on what’s happening right then.
But nothing really helps me stop all that worrying like really pushing my body, physically, to the point where I’m too tired or adrenaline charged to think. And I have to really be there instead, making my legs lift and pound down, or my arms pull through the water. After that, I’m so tired I can’t worry. And after a few days of this, I’m calmed down again, and I’m not worrying. I’m really in my body again, and not cut off, rushed off in anxiety. I feel calmer, and happier, and I can enjoy the running or swimming or training in a more present way, that makes it easier for me to engage with the people and things around me.
Sometimes I worry that this obsessive exercising is unhealthy. But then, I think, other people have used simple, repetitive exercise – mindful movement for centuries, forever as a way of being calm. Of being present. It’s not really a surprise that repetitive movements, strengthening muscles and breathe, gaining understanding of how our bodies work is a key part of spiritual and religious experience as well as martial arts.
It’s not at all spiritual for me. These sorts of things are talked about in yoga, and I find it uncomfortably hippy or mystical. But the same discipline – being present – is central to learning to dance or performing an exercise prescribed by a physiotherapist. You cannot make a dance step really work until you have tried it a hundred different ways, both right and wrong. And understood the difference. Strengthening an injured muscle requires constant, repetitive and yet also mindfully correct and aware repetition.
Being in your body – being present and moving mindfully – is about paying attention. It’s about stopping up all the runaway thoughts about what you’ll be doing later or what you think you should be worrying about. When you move mindfully, or more importantly, when you prepare to move, you are right there in your body at that moment. You are drawing your attention to the muscles you need for the task at hand. And you’re letting the others rest or lie ready for the next task.
Following is about always being read to move, moving mindfully and always being in your body, in the movement, with the rest of your brain at rest, not thinking or worrying or rushing ahead. Following is about turning off muscles, letting them sink back to waiting or readiness, without tightening and working too soon or in the wrong way. Both following and leading are about turning off thinking, and about sinking into your body in a conscious, aware way. It’s not mindless exercise; it’s mindful movement.
This makes me wonder how it is when people do get older. And they’ve spent their life in mindful movement. When the muscles slowly shift from being active and present, to something else or not there at all. What is it like to try to engage them? Does making the movement become completely absorbing? I have heard that if you spend time working your muscles when you’re younger, you maintain better muscle tone when you’re older. This makes sense to me. And the idea of gradually losing that sense of embodied self is a little too frightening.