A Guide to Intentional Movement with Helen Phelan

Founder of a virtual studio designed to empower others to turn to intentional movement, Helen Phelan knows what it takes to release negative exercise practices and beliefs. A pilates, movement, and eating practitioner as well as a prenatal/postpartum corrective exercise specialist, Helen believes exercise should strengthen both the mental and the physical and that diet culture has no place in joyful movement. We asked Helen to talk to us about intentional movement and how to create an empowering practice.

A Guide to Mindfulness

When we stop exercising to make our bodies look like someone else’s we can start to enjoy moving to feel better in ours. Intentional movement or exercise means emphasizing the self-care aspect of a regular movement practice, whether that's pilates, running, or yoga, and it’s possible with a simple mindset shift. When you prioritize moving with the idea of taking care of yourself, rather than punishing your body, exercise is not only more enjoyable, but calms the nervous system, improves your intuition, and can help heal negative body image.

First and foremost, syncing your movement with breath, and learning how to breathe deeply while recruiting different muscles helps take the nervous system out of fight or flight mode and into rest and digest, quite literally, the healing state. We live in a high stress society, and high functioning, overachieving New Yorkers especially operate in the sympathetic nervous system zone. Too often, traditional fat-burning focused workouts only increase the cortisol and stress in the body, contributing to feelings of burnout and exhaustion while communicating to the body that there is a threat. Intentional movement does just the opposite and works to relieve tension in the mind and body by encouraging us to explore the parasympathetic nervous system.  

Practicing mindfulness through movement also helps strengthen the mind-body connection and increase proprioception- or somatic awareness. 

Having a strong sense of bodily intuition not only improves the efficacy of whatever exercise modality you’ve chosen, but it helps build self-trust. Paying attention to where movement is initiating from or diving into the physical experience and sensations of an exercise allows you to increase your understanding of your body and heal the disconnection and disembodiment so many of us feel living stuck in our heads or on our screens.

Mindfulness and fitness can feel overwhelming as discrete concepts -- add them together and I totally get how intimidating it can be! To get started, simply start to become aware of your breath, and try to deepen and elongate your breaths. You don’t have to do a full on 20 minute sitting meditation to get the benefits of breathwork. Try inhaling through your nostrils and exhaling through your mouth, taking twice as long to let the breath go. Count to 10 by inhaling 1, exhaling 2 and so on, and once you reach 10, start back at the beginning as many times as you like. I find that having this little bit of structure keeps me in the moment and doesn’t stress me out when my mind inevitably wanders. Eventually, integrating breathwork with movement will feel more natural and you’ll find you get a deeper core control as a bonus result. 

“Try inhaling through your nostrils and exhaling through your mouth, taking twice as long to let the breath go. Count to 10 by inhaling 1, exhaling 2 and so on, and once you reach 10, start back at the beginning as many times as you like.”

Body scans are another super simple way to check in and see what your body needs in the moment and can give us a ton of useful information about what type of care you need. From standing, starting from the soles of your feet, bring your attention to each body segment piece by piece until you’ve made your way all the way to your scalp. If you notice gripping or tension, you can allow it to relax naturally. By listening to your body and acting accordingly to stretch or relax what needs relaxing, you are establishing trust which will encourage your intuitive abilities to build, and eventually you won’t feel so disconnected from your body -- or at the very least, you’ll have the tools to come back to when you need to. This might look like a gentle stretch session, or it could be that you tune into the realization that you’re feeling restless and need to work through that feeling with some higher intensity exercise. 

The truth is, movement can do so much more than sculpt the body, and this is always true even when diet culture, patriarchy, and white supremacy have trained us to believe worth is correlated to our size and that only some people are worthy. Moving in appreciation of your body, not in punishment, conditions your brain to feel loving and affectionate of your body and yourself. As you build strength, you teach your brain that you as a whole are strong and capable, resilient and powerful.