Mind • Body • Spirit: A Mindful Approach to Fitness Aims to Unite Soul and Body

What makes a successful workout? Perhaps you’re results-driven, tracking your way through personal bests and maximum reps or measuring progress in muscle tone and endurance. For a growing number of people, however, movement has become the key to accessing a sense of inner calm. Teachers and studios across Maine have the knowledge and expertise to guide students toward a higher level of connection, acting as a conduit to spiritual as well as physical well-being.   

The art of Aikido, meaning “the way of joining together” is one practice that combines those elements. Aikido was developed by revered teacher Morihei Ueshiba as recently as the mid-20th century, though it draws on centuries of Japanese martial arts and philosophy.

Aikido of Maine offers a schedule of classes of all levels at its dojo in Portland. Students train in the discipline of mindfulness, compassion, and focus to develop their skill. Photo courtesy Aikido of Maine.

“There’s an intensity to our practice,” said Gary Smalls, co-founder of Aikido of Maine in Portland.  “You have to remain present in martial arts, especially when a staff or sword is coming toward you!” Founded in 2001 by Smalls and his wife, Ania Smalls, the dojo trains students in the spiritual and physical elements of the art. Or, according to Gary Smalls, to put it in pop culture terms: “‘How do you make harmony out of chaos?’”

The physical practice instructs students on how to use movements that diffuse an opponent’s attack through throwing, locking, and pinning. “It’s a union of physical and spiritual energy,” said Gary Smalls. “How can you blend and join your opponent’s energy?”   

Aikido of Maine offers all-level classes in hand-to-hand combat (called “body art”) and even two weekly weapons classes using swords and staffs. To neutralize without injury requires immense mental effort, not just physical strength. Aikido of Maine students train in the discipline of mindfulness, compassion, and focus to develop their skills. To quote Sensei Ueshiba: “To injure an opponent is to injure oneself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.”

Heading eastward to Brunswick and Bangor, two studios offer an alternative practice also anchored in ancient wisdom to their local communities – the art of QiGong. A tenet of Chinese culture, QiGong is a technique of movements, breathing, and what we’d now call mindfulness practices that aim to cultivate and channel the body’s vital energy, known as “chi” or “qi.” Classes feature flowing movements, breathwork, and focused intention.

At Coastal QiGong in Brunswick, Diane Dorion offers chair-based therapeutic QiGoing, so that students with mobility issues can benefit from “balancing one’s energy, strengthening tendons, and improving bone strength while focusing on the breath and calming the mind,” said Dorion. In addition, Healing Arts in Bangor offers individual QiGong sessions for beginners and experienced students as well as reiki and massage. The philosophy behind Healing Arts’s Qigong classes according to its website is that “you must be willing to make changes inside, instead of insisting change happens on the outside.”

Like the spectrum of martial arts, there exists a huge variety of yoga practices and studios in the U.S. Across Maine, yoga teachers lead students through Vinyasa flows and Yin poses to cultivate those elusive moments of peace among busy modern schedules.

Photo courtesy Steamy Buddha

In Ellsworth, Steamy Buddha Cafe & Yoga Studio offers yoga, dance, workshops, and alternative wellness practices that cultivate “a safe space to discover your true self,” according to founder Nastaha Sidhu. Born in Malaysia, Sidhu spent years as a corporate high-flyer in Singapore. Despite her success, the lifestyle and work began “eating her up inside,” she said. An introduction to Bikram Yoga began a slow journey of self-discovery that led her to open Steamy Buddha. Leaving behind corporate life, Sidhu has taught yoga across Asia and the U.S. and became devoted to exploring other modalities, from dance to breathwork, to compose an array of practices that can help her students access a higher sense of being. “My practice now brings in Ayurveda, Soma Therapy, Qi Gong and Qi work, yoga and counseling,” she said.

Photo courtesy Steamy Buddha

Drawing students from as far as Gardiner to Belfast, Steamy Buddha hosts a consistent schedule of classes, including Bikram, Ashtanga Bikram, Vinyasa Deep Flow, Deep Yin, and Pilates.  “All classes are heated to different degrees, which gives a deeper experience of connection into the body and to stilling the mind,” said Sidhu. In addition, there are regular “Ecstatic Dance” workshops, a form of dance therapy that seeks to cultivate a primal connection with the body and self through uninhibited movement. Sidhu is used to seeing people treat their bodies as machines — and admits to once doing the same herself.

Photo courtesy Steamy Buddha

The studio’s mission is informed by Aryuervedic practice, which recognizes the unique physical and spiritual makeup of every individual. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” modality at Steamy Buddha; each student is on an individual journey toward self-discovery. In Sidhu’s words: “It’s like peeling the onion skins of layers down to who you truly are.”     

While mindful movement is at the philosophical core of ancient disciplines like yoga and martial arts, any sport or physical activity that helps you to shake off stress and foster a sense of calm and focus can have a powerful impact on the mind-body connection.

Story by Saisie Moore. Saisie is a writer and editor based in Portland, Maine. When not tapping a keyboard, you can find her outdoors cultivating her ecological gardening business, Pollen.

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