On Presence

Sometimes I think that the word ‘mindfulness’ is a little unhelpful. It conjures up an image of sitting quietly for hours everyday, silencing your thoughts and listening to your breath. Apart from the fact that this is not a realistic target for most people, I think it can give a very ‘brain centred’ image of the practice.

When I first came across the word in yoga 15 or so years ago, it seemed to me to be the opposite of mindlessness. Rather than moving without attention and awareness, moving mindfully is about consciously engaging in the movement, being present in the movement, ie: not switching off and thinking about your Tesco’s shop whilst doing a downward dog. The practice of mindfulness has been abstracted from this into a practice on its own. The goal is to be fully present as opposed to absently allowing the mind to drift into the past or future. It suggests a way of achieving the ‘Zen’ without the acrobatics, making it more accessible. But in a way this approach just propagates the dualistic mind-body split that we seem to be addicted to in our culture.

To be fair on the mindfulness practice, they do often use the body and breathing as an anchor to meditative practice. But I just find the static nature of the task to be quite painful. Don’t we spend enough time sitting?!

When I first started teaching I struggled with how much to expect clients to listen and follow my directions. I guess that, because Pilates involves lying on your back for a while (or at least to begin with), it can seem like an opportunity to switch off. Sometimes people show up for a class and spend most of it trying to sleep. (Of course I don’t mind that: if they are really that tired then they absolutely should sleep.) Then there are people who just want their bodies to be taught whilst their minds drift off. Funny ha? But surprisingly common too. They treat their bodies a bit like they treat their cars: they’ve no idea how they work, they just need them to function. When they don’t work, they rock up at the mechanic and ask for it to be fixed. This split of mind and body is a deeply ingrained attitude that the fitness industry has tended to reinforce. I’m sorry to break it to you, but there is no dream set of exercises that will fix your knee pain, give you back that flat stomach or make you lose that weight. The reason for this is that we are genetically pre-disposed to economise, to cut corners, to cheat. Mindless movement is just giving license to all your bad habits which are usually the reason for your pain in the first place. The only way to achieve pain free movement and a healthy weight is to wake up and be present in your movement, which is why concentration is one of the principles of Pilates.

Now I also know some people who use exercise as an opportunity to switch off and genuinely believe that this “dream time” does them good. Well, there is a reason that mindfulness has become so popular and that’s because the evidence suggests that being ‘present’ is key to our general sense of happiness. I recently came across this article by Maria Popova where she quotes Alan Watts writing in 1951! I don’t think I’ve heard the argument for presence articulated so well:

What keeps us from happiness… is our inability to fully inhabit the present… our primary mode of relinquishing presence is by leaving the body and retreating into the mind — that ever-calculating, self-evaluating, seething cauldron of thoughts, predictions, anxieties, judgments, and incessant meta-experiences about experience itself.

I speak here simply from the point of view of a movement teacher, from my own experience of different exercise forms, and from my own battles with silencing the endless chatter in my head. This is what I think: if you are mindfully engaged in your movement practice, not only do you move better and achieve more, but you will also be happier.

Here are a few suggestions for being more present in your movement:

  1. Join a class – Being in a class gives you some kind of anchor (the teacher’s instruction, verbal cues and hands on correction) that keeps you mindfully engaged in what you are doing. In this state you are more likely to work effectively because you cannot switch off and slip into the easier habits that you have unconsciously learned in order to minimise effort. The good news is that by listening in, staying in tune as it were, you are not only going to gain more physically, you will also be practicing mindfulness.
  2. Choose classes and teachers who will support your mindful practice – So this one is a bit of a tricky one because there are a few teachers who, to my mind, have forgotten the point of the practice. I’ve experienced and witnessed many teachers taking clients through a practice whilst chatting away nineteen to the dozen about their kids schools, what they did on the weekend and the state of their garden, intermingled with “now sink your belly and wrap the backs of the legs together…”. I know I sometimes joke about how I take my Pilates very seriously, but I’m sorry there is a balance and too often it’s being tipped away from mindfulness. By it’s very nature, the equipment studio and private sessions are a more relaxed, informal environment than the matwork class, so it’s natural (and right) that teachers develop a relationship with clients. My philosophy on this is to allow the client to lead this. It may be that they really need to get something off their chest, or they’re lonely and I’m the first person they’ve spoken to that day. But after giving some space for this, I try to gently encourage them back to the practice. Luckily for me, this is what I’m good at, teaching. I’m terrible at small talk. But if you have a teacher who keeps drifting into chatter, I suggest closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing. You could also ask a question about what you’re doing. It takes some discipline, but if you stop engaging with the conversation, they’ll soon get the message. It’s your class after all!
  3. Change something – If you always go to the same class, run the same route, do the same sequence of swimming strokes, then mix it up. Not only is this better for your body, but it requires a different attention.
  4. Practice Awareness through Movement – So you know how much I constantly go on about Feldenkrais? Trust me it is pure genius. The deepest way to learn about your own movement is by listening to your body. Yes Pilates is good for you, but Feldenkrais is like the abc of moving. You could join a class (check out the Feldenkrais Guild Website) or, for the time poor, you can access free classes online. The Feldenkrais Guild website has a number of short audio classes on their resource page. If you do a short session before you go off for your run or swim, you’ll tap into something different.

Let me know what you think and how you get on!



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