Asking For A Friend: Do you have to stay still to get the benefits of meditation?

Mirella Veras, a Nova Scotia-based physiotherapist and tai chi instructor, says finding peace and calm has less to do with what your body is doing and more about where your mind is focused.

Karen Hawthorne 5 minute read June 3, 2022
surreal moment of a woman traveler with her head covered by a cloud

No matter where you are, you can bring your focus to the here and now, and reap the benefits of meditation. GETTY

Dear Asking For a Friend,

I don’t like to sit still unless I’m zoned into watching a movie. But I’d really like to try meditation for all the apparent health benefits. Tell me, how important is it to be seated and still for meditation to be effective?  

Signed, Need Some Active Zen

Dear Need Some Zen,

Meditation can be an almost euphoric experience, filling you with that sense of peace and calm.

Even better than a movie for relaxation, it helps you focus your attention on the now and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that can crowd your mind and cause stress. (Just like taking deep breaths for a few minutes to still a racing heart when you’re in a stressful situation.)

Public interest in mindfulness meditation has soared in recent decades, paralleling the rising scientific exploration. Many studies have shown meditation can be helpful for a number of conditions, both physical and mental, such as high blood pressure, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, depression and anxiety.

Harvard Medical School researchers were among the first to reveal that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain. The findings, published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, documented increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory, and in brain structures that are linked to compassion and self-awareness.

‘Everyone has a monkey mind, going in every direction’

The consensus is that meditation can be a powerful complementary therapy. But do you have to be comfortably still to participate and reap the benefits?

“Not at all,” says Mirella Veras, a physiotherapist and tai chi instructor in Windsor, N.S. who is a huge proponent of keeping your body moving and nimble. She has a PhD in rehabilitation sciences and is the author of Evidence-Based Tai Chi for Rehabilitation and Wellness: A System of Balance for Clinical Practice.

Whether you’re walking in your neighbourhood, out for a run on a forest trail or doing chores around the house, you can bring your focus to the here and now.

“Meditation is basically mindfulness to be present in the moment,” Veras says. “Everyone has a monkey mind, going in every direction. I can be talking to you and thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner or what I’m planning for my vacation. How can we bring the mind back to the moment? You can use the breath as an anchor.”

Her choice for moving meditation is tai chi, rooted in the Chinese tradition of creating mind-body harmony. Tai chi combines a graceful series of gentle movements with a focus on breathing.

Yes, you can meditate while moving

Veras, like many people, has a hard time sitting still for conventional quiet meditation where you’re visualizing mountain meadows and healing white light. She started doing tai chi about 10 years ago and has made it part of her personal and professional life, helping people of all ages and abilities to develop physical and emotional strength and balance.

“When I discovered tai chi, everything changed in my life because I realized that tai chi is meditation in movement,” she explains of the practice that flows through movements with intention. Some sequences start by taking a step forward, while others start by taking a step backward, for example, for a different approach.

“I started applying all the principles of tai chi to my life, so when I react to a situation, I step forward. But then I stop and think about whether it’s the right direction. So we can use tai chi not only as a mind-body exercise but as a way to live.”

Creating self-awareness, instead of going through the motions of life on autopilot, can be challenging, she says. For her tai chi students, a typical first class will include a homework assignment to clean your teeth holding the toothbrush in your opposite hand and then try to complete the task while standing on one leg.

“I keep adding some challenge just to bring people’s attention to what they are doing,” she says.

The three main principles of getting the most from your tai chi practice are breathing, concentration and flow. These work together to help move energy through your body to stimulate healing and overall well-being.

“All this works to improve circulation, reduce fatigue and for someone who has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), it can be very effective for mental health,” she says.

Another beauty of tai chi, compared to other forms of exercise like yoga, is that strict adherence to form and transitioning of the movements isn’t required and won’t put someone at risk of injury. It’s a gentle, accessible practice that anyone can try, whether they’re frail and seated in a chair or highly mobile and athletic.

Veras has seen the results of tai chi for her patients with Parkinson’s disease and stroke who have difficulty with balance and walking make significant improvements in their sense of balance and confidence. “When you work out at the gym, you do all these exercises, but you usually don’t work on balance,” she says, adding that most injuries happen when people lose their balance, in sports and in daily activities.

She also credits tai chi with its soft approach where knees aren’t locked and the body isn’t stiff. Even standing with this kind of softness helps to build bone density, something that becomes increasingly important with aging, and for women after their 40s who also start to lose bone density over time.

“As long as you are moving and breathing in tai chi,” she says, “you get the benefits.”

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Karen Hawthorne is a Toronto-based writer.

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