Read time: 6 minutes
Imagine you’re a child. Your face is warm from the sun, arms are lifted to the sky, laughter erupts from your belly. You’ve just run and danced and skipped around the playground for no reason other than it felt good. You’re connected to your vital energy, filled with pure joy, and in touch with what makes you, you.
If it’s been a while since you’ve felt this way, it’s not your fault.
Modern culture tells us that moving our body is serious business. It’s no coincidence that another word for “exercise” is “workout.” We live in a no-pain-no-gain world where movement is a means to an end and very rarely the end in itself.
“Exercise is dominated by our cultural obsession with working out to get something that you don’t have,” says Andrew Belcher, LCSW and 500-hour certified yoga teacher. “We’re told that the better body you build, the better life you’ll have. This can create a negative relationship with our body that focuses on the outcome, not the process. This mindset robs us of the joy and beauty of our body just as it is now and can leave us feeling ‘less than.’”
This way of approaching exercise isn’t working for us. Only one in four Americans gets the CDC recommended amount of physical activity and more than 25% of Americans are almost totally physically inactive, meaning they don’t do any physical activity outside of their regular job. It’s well documented that lack of physical activity can lead to chronic conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
How do we get off this exercise-as-suffering treadmill and return to that childlike state of wonder? For a growing number of people, the answer is joyful movement.
What is Joyful Movement?
Joyful movement is a way of moving your body that’s pleasurable and playful. It can be purely improvisational or incorporated into any type of sport or exercise you already love. More of an attitude and philosophy than a prescribed exercise routine, joyful movement unleashes childlike happiness and connects you to your body.
“Moving joyfully helps you let go of future desires and past regrets, so you can move with your body as it is in the present,” explains Belcher. “Joyful movement is a reframe, a shift in perspective that places the focus, and importantly our awareness, on the present joy of being and moving.”
By intentionally letting go of results and focusing on the pure act of movement, we enter into the realm of play. According to Dr. Stuart Brown on the National Institute for Play’s website, “Play is a state of mind that one has when absorbed in an activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of sense of time. And play is self-motivated, so you want to do it again and again.”
It turns out that play is as important to our health as we’re aging as when we’re growing. A recent research study found that “Creative, social and vigorous play is critical for our development as children and adolescents, and being similarly active throughout adulthood is a key attribute of those who age successfully.” Playfulness is associated with greater well-being and life satisfaction as well.
Getting Started with Joyful Movement
The number one most important thing to do before getting started with joyful movement is this: get into a nonjudgmental mindset. Do whatever you need to do to prepare yourself for entering a state of play. If this means closing your bedroom door, turning down the lights, covering your mirrors, and putting on your comfiest clothes, then by all means, do it. This is your time and your joy.
Repeat compassionate affirmations
An affirmation is a positive first-person statement that can help you let go of self-consciousness and embrace your childlike self. Try repeating one or all of these out loud or to yourself or give yourself a pep talk before getting started with joyful movement.
- I am allowed to look silly.
- I deserve to feel pure joy.
- I love feeling my body move.
- My body is strong and powerful.
Center yourself with a simple breathing technique
Before you get started, take a moment to focus on your breath and bring your attention to your body. You can do this with one of the following breathing techniques:
- Try a round of box breathing. This technique is used by U.S. Navy SEALs to stay calm in high-stress situations. Breathe in for four beats. Hold for four beats. Exhale for four beats. Hold for four beats. Repeat as many times as you need until you feel centered.
- Smell the flowers, blow out the candle. Visualize a bouquet of your favorite flowers sitting next to a candle. Take a deep breath to smell the fragrance of the flowers. Hold the breath for a beat. Blow out the candle in three short puffs.
Let yourself move!
There’s no right or wrong way to practice joyful movement, but here are a few ideas to get you warmed up. Feel free to jump around from idea to idea or abandon them altogether if inspiration strikes. If any of these movements feels uncomfortable or not attainable, move on to the next one.
- Warm up your body by swinging your arms around your waist.
- Try a move from tai chi to enter into a mindful state and get your blood circulating.
- Loosen up your facial muscles by pretending you’re chewing a huge piece of bubble gum.
- Tap your foot to the beat of the music. Gradually, move other parts of your body.
- Imitate an animal—like a lion, monkey, fish—with big, exaggerated movements.
- Imagine you’re a marionette. Let the puppetmaster pull the strings until you feel warmed up. Then, cut them off and be free.
Keep a smile on your face
Our bodies don’t always do what we want them to do. That’s OK. Instead of getting frustrated when you reach a physical limit, put a big smile on your face. The sheer act of smiling triggers the release of feel-good hormones like dopamine that can boost your mood and keep you moving. Not only that, smiling disarms us and signals that we’re open to new experiences. By giving yourself a smile, you’re telling your body and yourself that what you’re doing is safe and fun.
Add playful touches to exercise you already love
If you already have physical activities you love, that’s great! Belcher suggests adding playful elements to them in order to cultivate a feeling of joy and freedom as you move:
- Skip on your run or walk
- Roll on the ground during yoga
- Splash around in between laps in the pool
- Take a dance break on your exercise bike
- Tell yourself a joke as you lift weights
Try out a free-form dance class
Looking for a little more structure or want to experience joyful movement with others? Consider trying a free-form dance event such as ecstatic dance or Dance Church. These are inclusive spaces—both virtual and in person—where everyone is welcome to move their body in a way that feels good to them and experience pure joy through movement.
The Bottom Line
With joyful movement, there is very little risk and potentially so much reward. Bringing more joy and playfulness into your life often comes with physical and emotional benefits such as greater well-being and life satisfaction. “Dare to enjoy your body as it is now and find joy in the so-called ‘flaws and shortcomings,’” urges Belcher. “With joyful movement, exercise can become a practice of building a loving relationship with your own self.”
This article has been clinically reviewed by Alexa Stelzer, RDN, LD, CDCES, clinical health coach at One Drop.