How to Practice Intuitive Movement
When I signed up for a Half Marathon I bought a running watch to track my distances and times. At first I only wore it while I was actually running, then I found myself intrigued by my step count and kept it on for other parts of the day too, curious about how many steps I took on the school run and various dog walks.
For a week or so I had the watch on all the time: sitting at my desk to write; crashed out on the sofa reading my book; doing a puzzle with my son. And it was at times like these that the watch started giving me orders. “Get Moving!” it would say to me. Or “Time to stretch!” or “Relax Reminder! Try a breathing exercise!” (this last one came when I was on a tight work deadline whilst simultaneously trying to reply to what felt like 95 Whatsapp messages).
I know the watch manufacturers devised these alerts to encourage healthy habits. Moving and stretching when we have been sedentary for a long time, and becoming aware of stressful moments when we might benefit from relaxation practices, are definitely good ideas. But actually these alerts made me feel annoyed – angry even.
I’ve been reflecting on why this was and have come to realise it’s because they gave me an uncomfortable feeling of disconnection from myself – it was as if I couldn’t be trusted to look after myself. The idea that I need to be reminded to move and breathe by a machine made me feel like a robot. Surely I can work this stuff out for myself?
Noticing how we are feeling and responding accordingly is a necessary skill not just for humans, but for all animals. It’s really quite basic. We are hungry, so we eat. We are tired, so we slow down or sleep. We are injured, so we rest. But in this modern world it seems we humans are so busy and distracted, and so surrounded by easily accessible unhealthy options, that turning inward to listen to our bodies’ needs is becoming increasingly difficult.
Many of us particularly struggle to tune into our bodies when it comes to exercise. Part of the problem is that unlike our ancestors, who spent their time hunting, gathering and tending to their homes and families, many of us do jobs that don’t require movement. This should have been the ultimate gift: movement could be all about what makes us feel good physically and mentally. But instead our messed-up culture linked it to aesthetics.
Growing up in the 70s, 80s or 90s exercise for women was mainly about making sure our bodies looked “good”. Years of diet culture and unrealistic body ideals mean many of us have long had rigid exercise routines based on what we think we “should” be doing. We feel guilty if we don’t stick to them and make no allowances for what’s going on with us that day – like how much sleep we had the night before, where we are in our menstrual cycle, or how stressed we are.
If any of this rings true for you then learning about Intuitive Movement could be beneficial. Intuitive Movement is the practice of connecting into our bodies to work out what kind of movement it needs in any given moment, so that rather than blindly following the commands of a watch, or an intense YouTube workout session because that’s what you do on a Tuesday evening, or going for a 5km run at the weekend because that’s how you stay fit, you take some time to ask yourself – ‘What kind of movement will serve me today?’
Intuitive Movement has a grounding in interoception – a lesser-known sense that is all about understanding what’s going on inside of our bodies. While the better-known senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste – can all be associated with how we interpret external stimuli, interoception is about interpreting the internal state of the body. It involves the perception of all sensations from inside the body, including signals to the brain from the viscera. Much of this takes place below our conscious awareness – we aren’t aware of the automatic feedback between our brain and body that helps to keep our blood pressure level or that stabilises our blood sugar levels. But many sensations – such as how our breath is flowing, muscle tension and changes to heart rate – are available to our conscious mind. It’s learning to tune into these things that gives us clues about what we need to be doing to keep us healthy and well.
Practicing Intuitive Movement means choosing a nature walk instead of weight training when we have period pain. It means choosing to get our hearts pumping at a spin class when we are feeling low and sluggish. It means choosing swimming or cycling over running when we feel tenderness in our feet or ankles. It means dancing wildly to our favourite songs at home when we need to raise our spirits but can’t face the world. More than anything Intuitive Movement is exercise from a place of self-inquiry, self-love and self-compassion.
A question you might have is: how do I know when to challenge myself and when to rest? And there is no easy answer to this, except this practice is all about knowing yourself and trusting that you have your own best interests at heart. If it feels like a struggle to motivate yourself to go for a run, tune into your body to hear what it is saying in that moment and then weigh that up against past experiences you’ve had of running – of how you’ve felt, before, during and after. It’s likely that a little voice inside will tell you whether to push on through, or whether to choose a gentle walk instead. It’s a lifelong learning process – and very personal to each of us.
Three tips for practising Intuitive Movement
Do a body scan: A quick scan of the body is a brilliant way to begin tuning into your interoception and will give you a good idea of your body’s physical and emotional state. Start at your toes and work your way all the way up to your head. Notice if your muscles are tight or soft, whether your breath is short, ragged or smooth, and whether your heart is racing, heavy or at ease.
Notice how different forms of movement make you feel: During and after different forms of exercise, make a mental note of how they make you feel. Are you left feeling energised or exhausted? Do you feel heavier or lighter emotionally? Were you smiling, frowning or grimacing? Or were your facial muscles soft and relaxed? Store this up as valuable information for the next time you are trying to discern what form of exercise to do.
Find a few different types of movement that spark your joy, and pick and mix them according to how you are each day, like a child at a sweets counter. Don’t get stuck in a rut thinking exercise has to be weights and cardio in the gym. Try out different classes like Zumba, kickboxing or Tai Chi, alongside outdoor activities and sports like cycling, climbing and hiking.