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The Origins of Mindfulness in Body-Based Awareness


Wed Oct 11 2017

The Origins of Mindfulness in Body-Based Awareness-a4ee8d6f3788c645d4a500aba7805b5387f50ba2d36bcc9be478b81dd229a253

Mindfulness has developed a mistaken reputation as a sitting practice. Yes, sitting in contemplation or meditation is a required skill to develop. But did you know that the founder of the practice of mindfulness-based stress reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn, made it a requirement of his training to study yoga or qigong as mindful movement practices? “If you wish to be happy and calm, keep the mind in the body” is a common adage among mindfulness practitioners.

Ronnie is a 50-year-old machinist who has seen his career slowly degrade due to the excessive standing his job requires. A few simple mindful movements, including learning how to stand in a dynamically relaxed manner, helped him rejuvenate his body and work life.


Megan had been a nurse for more than 20 years when she noticed chronic tension that she could not simply wish away. She considered drug interventions but was wary of the long-term effects. She found a notice of my qigong classes at the local healthcare center and joined. She told me, “At first I was skeptical of the notion that we have subtle forms of energy that are accessible through mindful movement, but I could not argue with the deep sense of relaxation that comes after a 30-minute practice session.”

Benefits of Mindfulness in Body Awareness

Keeping the mind in the body means maintaining a constant state of awareness of the body in its sensations, breath, coming and going of feelings, or of specific movements in training as qigong.

With the mind in the body, we can:

  • Regulate our responses to events, people, and situations.

  • Set up an early warning process to detect fight, flight, and freeze while making better, more conscious choices.

  • Notice muscular tension and release it within minutes.

  • Observe which areas of the body are habitually tight, tense, and need extra relaxation effort.

  • Be more aware of signs of tension or perceived danger in others and adjust our responses skillfully.

Nora recently had back surgery to correct a bulging disk. She is an out-of-the-box thinker and had been trying yoga, Pilates, and other psychophysical training in hope of ameliorating the impact of surgery and speed recovery. An amazingly simple suggestion has had positive lasting effects: I proposed that she press her big toes into the ground when standing or doing her routine of mindful movements. She reports that it has been one of the most significant and easy-to-implement ideas that have helped her after surgery.

A saying frequently heard at twelve-step programs is, “One can act their way into right thinking faster than one can think their way into right acting.”


Action affects the mind. If we sit in a dejected posture for any length of time, the mind assumes the mental aspect of that posture: depression, low energy, negative feelings. When we sit for too long, our body tenses up, affecting our feelings and moods. When we are moving with body awareness, we can train the mind to respond quickly and effectively and become positive and happy.

Five Simple Body-Mindfulness Practices

Here are five mindful movement practices that come directly from the art of qigong, a 6,500-year-old discipline from China.

  • Stand like a mountain: feet shoulder-width apart, arms loosely relaxed at your side, tailbone relaxing toward the ground, and head and neck lightly lifting toward the sky. Elongate the spine, feel each vertebra as you stretch gently upward. Breathe into the abdomen (two fingers below the navel). On the in breath, feel the abdomen expand, and exhaling, feel it contract or be drawn inward toward the spine.

  • Sit like a noble person, regally feeling yourself wholly present in the chair or on the floor with your awareness on your breath and the muscles on the sides of the spine relaxed. Be quiet for one minute, just breathing and sitting like a king or queen.

  • Stretch upward using both arms, elongating the spine and stretching the muscles along the rib cage.

  • Build stamina in your body by learning how to breathe properly. The best form of breathing is to picture or feel the abdomen. Breathe deeply (it is recommended to inhale and exhale to the count of six) and visualize that the abdomen, torso, and chest expanding on the inhalation and contracting on the out breath.

  • Learn how to do the Benson Relaxation Response at http://relaxationresponse.org/steps.

The Bias Against Holistically Viewing People

When I first started my career in mindfulness-based stress management, I would hear often from HR people, “We expect employees to leave their bodies at the door and bring their mind to work.”

That bias against seeing people as whole systems fully integrated in mind, body, and emotions is detrimental to organizational health. Training classes for all staff in mindful movement, whether it is yoga, qigong, or other forms that are equally effective in integrating the body with the mind, can make a significant difference to staff and their results.

And who can argue with the idea that our moods affect performance, or that our physical state of wellness or disease influences how we interact with colleagues? It just makes good common sense to become intentional and careful about our bodies with skills like mindful movement.


Want to learn more? Join me November 7-8 for ATD’s TalentNext: Building an Engaged Workforce, where I’ll discuss mindful movement in the workplace.

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