We were thrilled to interview Katy Bowman, the founder of Nutritious Movement and the author of Movement Matters and Move Your DNA. She has long been an inspiration to us and it was hard to narrow down exactly which questions to ask—we had so many! In this interview, find out how the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped the way Katy views movement, what inspires her to move each day, and how her teaching has evolved through the years and into the digital space. Keep reading to learn more about Katy’s work and life, and why our movement MATTERS.
How has the pandemic affected your movement?
I definitely went through a phase of moving less. I had worked for a decade to put movement into my daily activities, so when the bulk of daily life was closed, I had a period where it felt like my avenue for movement was gone too. I now find it’s easier to fit in shorter movement sessions, five to fifteen minutes, peppered throughout the day around schooling kids and getting my work done. The amount I walk hasn’t changed, although I am not able to use it as transportation as much as there’s not as many places to go!
How has your teaching of movement translated into an online space?
I’ve been teaching online since 2011 and I already had an online virtual studio full of classes. Our response to the pandemic closures was to reduce the subscription cost of our online virtual studio from $30 to $9 for five months. It was our way of subsidizing movement for people without any extra income. We’ve decided to keep the price at 50% for an additional full year, so folks don’t have to choose between movement and other necessities.
What is your elevator pitch answer to the question: What is movement?
Movement is, quite simply, any change in the state of the body, which includes its shape.
What tools have you found most effective for teaching people how to “become their own authority”?
I love teaching movement teachers and helping those who love movement become movement teachers, but a few years ago I decided to close my full and wait-listed training program and stop offering new certificates of study because I felt the approach was problematic for me in the long run. The instructors we did certify over more than a decade are amazing and I still love going deep with them, but going forward, I didn’t want to further promote the idea that the reason to study movement was for the purpose of moving others. I wanted to make it more clear that learning movement isn’t only for movement teachers—anyone can become their own movement authority and it has nothing to do with being a professional, i.e. related to having to do it as a job or for money.
The content provided by many training programs is great, and so is being a movement teacher, but the idea that one can only learn deeply about movement if you’re becoming a professional—I just think we’ll realize, someday, how this presentation of movement education relates to why so many people feel like they have to turn to an authority or be inside of dedicated spaces in order to move more.
Becoming your own authority requires taking the time to learn, but if the reason for learning is always marketed as a professional certification, then it’s by nature always framed as something you’re learning for either money or for the sake of others. It’s not “learn your body and movement well,” it’s “learn how to deal with the body and movement of others.”
Humans have always provided movement instruction through modeling and mentorship and we definitely need avenues folks can take to learn how to provide movement opportunities, but I’ve chosen to center the idea that everyone can understand and utilize the thorough, in-depth, technical, and time-consuming learning we call “professional level.” Being a professional doesn’t have to have anything to do with the pursuit of knowledge. We can remove the implied hierarchy.
As for tools I pick up often, moving together in a live group is always my favorite tool for helping people really understand what their bodies are doing. I do not instruct a “follow me/follow along” style, but rather a “here’s how to evaluate a variety of parts in this move and here’s what to look for in this move.” I’m holding class not to move you, but to teach you how to move yourself. If you ask me “will you come look to see if I’m doing this right?” I’m going to ask you to tell me which body parts you’re unsure of and where you were looking before you asked. Just like a teacher of any other subject, I’m not here to provide answers, I’m here to help you learn to figure out how to answer your own questions.
I’m mostly on video these days, but my approach is the same. Watch this, not only for exercise, but to learn how to move yourself once it’s over. Movement is such a great subject to study, though, because you end up getting to move while you learn to move so it’s always a win-win.
In one of your courses for yoga and movement professionals looking to integrate biomechanics into their teachings, you list the feet and knees as the first body parts we can look at. Movements involved with the feet and knees can feel like ‘nothing’ to people used to moving bigger parts of their bodies. Do you have ideas on how movement professionals can make students see the interest in feet—or a way to make them ‘attractive’/relevant to practitioners?
I use a straight-up numbers argument: 25% of your bones and muscles—that’s a very large percentage of discrete, moveable parts—reside from the ankles down. You want to leave a quarter of your body parts under-moved? And then you want to stack 100% of the remaining parts on the least-moved part of your body? It’s not a sustainable approach to continuing to move well.
When the numbers don’t do the trick, I’ll often throw out a few simple foot movements so folks can see if their feet are moving as well as they think—lifting and lowering each toe separately, or walking barefoot on novel texture, for example. Even very athletic people will quickly see how undermoved their feet and ankles are when asked to use them in a novel way.
There are many reasons to switch to barefoot shoes (i.e. shoes with a wide toe box and a zero-drop sole that allow for greater movement of the foot). What would you tell someone who knows nothing about this to make them curious to do the switch?
I’d say what I wrote above and then add that one of the reasons our feet are so weak is not only because we don’t exercise them, but we also actively prevent them from moving.
What’s your definition of mindfulness and what does it look like in your life?
My concept of mindfulness centers on the word itself: mindfulness. Your mind is full. What is it full of? The way I practice mindfulness is constantly fact-checking myself, including digging into the beliefs and biases I hold and how they affect my behavior and the lives of those around me. It’s challenging to see what your beliefs and biases are if you don’t constantly question, “Does what I just said/typed make sense? Is it logically consistent? Does it represent my values? Where do those values come from? What is the history of those values?”
In graduate school, we had classes where we were assigned our fellow students’ papers to grade. I was much more critical of another’s paper than I was during the process of writing my own. It only took a few times of doing this before I learned that noticing this was the point. The more I pay attention to what my mind is full of, the slower my output becomes, from the content of a book to a comment on social media to how I speak to my children and fellow citizens.
How does movement help you be more mindful?
Thomas Merton said, “The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.”
For me, my movement is the natural metabolizer of what is brought up, assembled, and disassembled on my inner journey, and my inner journey occurs at the greatest pace when I’m moving. They are always in lockstep. Perhaps movement is not necessary to this process, but for me, it offers an opportunity to constantly observe if my insides and outsides match: Thoughts and behavior, beliefs and action. More simply, I pay close attention to how I am moving (or not) all of the time. I strive to watch my non-movement outputs with the same keen eye on “good form.”
In yoga, we talk a lot about the mind-body connection and how the two act in unison to keep us healthy. Any ideas of moves or habits that keep our brains alive and well and cultivate our brain-body connection?
Not only because I tend toward the literal, I believe the mind and body are always connected. We do have a regular practice of not recognizing/acknowledging the copious amount of time our brains dwell in bodies that get very little movement, in a society that continues to make an individual’s movement irrelevant.
If it’s physiological brain health one is after, I would look simply to adding in more robust movement. If it’s mental health/well-being we’re looking for, I would again look to movement but not necessarily in the exercise sense. Movement has always been the physical connection between an individual and nature, between an individual and their friends, family and greater community. Movement has always been the connection between an individual and their food, their play, and their celebration. When we got rid of the movement we got rid of many other invisible elements humans need to thrive. Look for more than exercise; look to sourcing the many inputs humans require using movement as the connector.
In yoga, we practice all sorts of breathing techniques (e.g. rapid-fire, alternate nostrils breathing, ujjayi where you constrict the back of the throat). From a movement standpoint, what kind of breathing would you recommend we add to our yoga practice?
I sort breath into shapes rather than techniques. Each rate and depth of breath is a different shape, and the different motions of the parts in your head, throat, ribcage, and diaphragm that make a breath create many different breath shapes. But breathing techniques often leave the rest of the body still. My focus is natural movement, so I’m always looking for a “breathing practice” that involves natural coordination with other body parts, like the limbs and torso.
Each time you move your body and engage in more vigorous movements that involve an increase in work or movement of your limbs in new ways, you’re creating a different exercise in breathing, i.e. breathing motions specific to those exact circumstances. I don’t just mean a rhythmic activity like jogging, but carrying something heavy over a short distance (elevated heart and breath rate with major arm contraction will move your lungs and other breathing parts differently than sitting breathing hard and fast do), hauling your body uphill, or hanging and bringing your legs up to where you hang.
I’m not certain of the role breathing plays in yoga, only the role breathing plays in our physiology, so perhaps this wouldn’t fit into a yoga practice, but into a movement practice of which yoga plays a part. I recommend exploring breath work that comes as the natural response to challenging your body’s capacity for movement throughout the day.
What’s your favorite “breathing movement snack”? Can you guide us through it now?
My favorite breathing snack is to do something vigorous with my entire body that requires my breath to change shape naturally. This is how: For three minutes, move harder than you usually do. Walk up and down a flight of stairs or steps the entire time, or get up and down off the ground ten to twenty times in a row. Now that you’re moving your limbs, your lungs and related breathing parts will start moving more as a natural response.
Then, observe. What is the difference, in your experience, between moving differently for different breaths vs. cycling through different breathing patterns while sitting still?
Veganism, vegetarianism, pescetarianism… What’s your thinking behind diet choices when it comes to seeing it through the lens of movement and a sedentary culture? How do you pick the food you and your family eat (pick… ha…)?
The food system is the largest human-created system at this point. It’s become massive in terms of fuel consumption and packaging and the physical labor of so many people not often included or represented in these discussions. I see this food system as created by a culture that, over a period of time, became quite accustomed to outsourcing almost 100% of their dietary labor to others, people in other areas and often unseen. I believe there are many people beginning to see more clearly the state of our fellow humans, non-human animals, and non-organic earthmates and because of this, I’m trying to connect the dots between this and the lack of our individual nature knowledge and movement skills when it comes to being able to feed ourselves, and our deep unawareness of the preference/or societal set-ups we have when it comes to letting others do our labor-movement. There is a theme here that needs to be recognized: our movement matters.
Our approach to eating well is to constantly work on restoring our food moves. There are many ways to do this: Buy less food that’s been processed by other people or machines (think pre-shredded veggies) and do your own kitchen labor, cook for yourself, learn how to make things you’ve been buying, walk to the grocery store or farmers’ markets, start growing in an allotment in a community garden, start a community garden, support the food sovereignty work being done by Black and Indigenous communities, find your closest farms (and ask if they’d like volunteer help), or simply make a list of the groceries in your pantry and where they come from. (There are many nuts, for example, that are almost all entirely processed by hand, and this is done by child and forced labor. Nuts are healthy foods, but the relationship between your and another’s movement for your nuts—the movement ecology of a nutrient-dense food—might not be so healthy.)
I think we have significantly underestimated the importance of our personal movement, as well as the difference between moving for exercise and moving closer to our capacity for movement, which varies between individuals.
I don’t think there’s a word for this approach to building a diet based on effort, but the food we eat we’re working for, so it winds up being mostly local (so, locavore), most of it plants, with some calories from animals (wild meat or nearby, regeneratively raised domestic). Most days come with a large portion of food-based activities. But rather than approach our diet looking at the end point of calories, we’re looking at the earthlings we eat before they become our food, and starting with ourselves—are we knowledgeable, skillful, and willing to do the labor it takes for us to be here?
To deal with our cravings, which is also important to us treading more lightly, we use Kitchari diets over an extended period of time, where we eat the same simple food for multiple days: oatmeal, rice, yellow mung beans, veggies. We’re entirely nourished, but our minds want something else! The “preference” muscle is very powerful, but so is seeing it clearly in action. The mung beans we eat on the regular come from China, so we’re not dogmatic about the way we eat—we’re just doing the best we can in the ways we can imagine at this time. No judgment.
What book or film has transformed your way of thinking?
Most books transform me, even if it’s only a little bit, but most recently was The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann. It really helped me clarify why people can come to such opposite ways of solving a problem they agree upon. This book argues we either believe that humans, like everything else on earth, are governed by nature’s laws, or we believe that humans are unique in that they’re sort of “above” these laws and can move beyond them, individually or at a group level, through continuous developments and technology.
There’s no certainty in either direction (each path was outlined by a different scientist at the time when humans started realizing that the more people you add to the planet, the greater the need for everything else that exists on the earth), so we’re all taking a faith-based approach whether we go “Camp Wizard” or “Camp Prophet.” We’re just adjusting our behavior towards the philosophy we believe in more.
What are some of the choices you’ve consciously made in your life that have transformed the way you live and experience the world?
As a family, we’ve decided to exchange, more and more, our personal movements for the things we consume, which is to say we’ve decided to not outsource so many of our individual movements. The planet has a lot of people, but a bigger problem is that the planet has a large population of hyper-consumers. There are many cultures with multiple children per family that consume much less than the average North American family with two kids.
So, we almost never buy new things, avoid disposables, work to gather or grow a portion of our own food, and transport a lot on foot. And we also constantly check in with our personal preferences. We do not believe we’re owed/have the right to items we crave, so we do a lot of work on those cravings and what’s beneath them. Our family has worked on developing a robust relationship with nature and the non-human elements of our world. In short, we’ve decided to tread more lightly—on other people, on non-people animals, and on the earth…paradoxically, by actually treading.
Katy is publishing a new book, Grow Wild: The Whole-child, Whole-family, Nature-rich Guide to Moving More May 3rd 2021, an essential guide to kids’ movement for everyone who cares for kids: parents, relatives, teachers, health professionals, and more. You can pre-order it here.
Move with Katy here, or hop down her rabbit hole of a blog here, or take her teachings on your walks by listening to her podcast. Happy moving!