SU&Y Book Club: Movement Matters by Katy Bowman

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Katy Bowman’s Movement Matters: Essays on Movement Science, Movement Ecology, and the Nature of Movement is a gem for the modern yoga teacher. Having read Bowman’s work before, I knew I’d be in for a treat when I picked up this book. I was familiar with her work on postural alignment and was curious to learn more about movement science as I prepared to dive in. I did not expect to get a philosophy lesson.

This book is for thinkers.

If you love thinking about anything in new ways, you’ll love how Bowman’s mind works as she naturally weaves movement into the fabric of our daily existence (and provides evolutionary proof to back up her assertions). The beauty of the structure of any collection of essays is that you can easily pick one to read when you only have a little time and still feel like you’ve learned something. This is especially true with Bowman’s essays, although you might need to have a journal or another human nearby to process what you read in real-time.

Move your body, mind, and soul

I personally loved how Bowman easily combined hard science with the wisdom of personal experience. Is this not what yoga is? I found it interesting to contemplate how physical movement has overtaken the Western understanding of yoga practice.

Many yoga teachers these days—upon learning more about anatomy and biomechanics—reach that existential moment when they ask themselves if they’re still a yoga teacher.

It seems to be the trend du jour to be a movement educator and it’s exciting to consider all the natural ways we can move our bodies, as the author teaches in her work. Yet, as a yoga teacher, I also think about how movement is but a single component of the overall practice I’m teaching. This is why I appreciated Bowman’s attempt to expand the definition of movement beyond the physical body. Our thoughts and emotions move, our minds move, our beliefs move, and we sometimes move locations. Our movements affect others and there are entire movements born of ideas and convictions. Movement is not just about the physical body just like yoga is not just about the physical body.

“…that “we are unmoving” is the unacknowledged assumption underlying some of the most prevalent problems we are dealing with in areas of public health and safety, environmental science, and social issues.”

Think outside the box and honor your experience

In this collection of essays, Bowman profiles a model for thinking outside the box of her own training and in turn inspires innovation because of her willingness to peer out from under the veil of institutional bias. We would do well to do the same in the yoga world. She also poignantly invites us to think about movement as bigger than ourselves. In doing so, she forces us to face uncomfortable truths:

“To avoid the simplest movements, you have—without realizing it—required other humans somewhere else in the world to labor endlessly, destroy ecosystems, and wage war… for your convenience.”

Movement Matters is divided into four sections. The first section, Science Moves, offers commentary on what is supposed to be inherent in the scientific process: That it is constantly evolving. I found this section particularly relevant to my experience in yoga—we are constantly turning to science to help validate wisdom that has been passed down to us for thousands of years because scientific evidence has become the gold standard for truth. And in yoga spaces, in particular, there is little trust of the “wisdom holders” anymore, considering the ubiquitous guru scandals that keep popping up in all the major lineage traditions. That we question wisdom from our elders because it can’t be proven by science is a potential downfall in our understanding of useful practice. According to Bowman:

“We have no idea how to move, and so we’re turning to science to show us. (P.S That’s not science’s role at all, but when you have an elder-free society, you have to turn to somewhere, and scientific data is where many of us are turning.)”

The yoga philosophy really starts to shine through when Bowman states:

“When striving for an evidence-based life, consider that your most relevant evidence is your body.”

Your personal experience trumps all knowledge from teachers, texts, techniques, and double-blind scientific research papers whether you’re moving or living.

Environmental movement

In the Nature Moves section, Bowman examines how movement and the environment interrelate. She presents an environmental perspective, arguing that movement and nature are irreconcilably linked and invites us to think critically about our own movements in partnership with nature.

“The nature destroyed daily for our comfortable, sedentary lifestyle is staggering. At every turn, our comfort and lack of movement are the issues that, if we each choose to address them alongside better stewardship, can bring about radical improvement for nature and all its animals, including humans.”

In response, I chose to ride my bike to pick up take-out one day instead of driving. Not quite the full-on embrace of moving in and with nature to feed myself, but baby steps.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski via Unsplash

In Food Moves, Bowman considers how we are both primed to move for food and by food—in our most natural environments we must move to procure the nourishment we need to fuel more movement. Once again, movement centers all of human experience. I particularly enjoyed considering how I might incorporate more natural movements into a practice on my mat. Whereas yoga asana movements can get repetitive and some movements in asana are arguably non-functional (there is no functional reason why you would ever need to, say, assume a wide-legged splits position in order to survive and live well in your daily life), Bowman proposes we incorporate more natural, and therefore functional, movements into our everyday life experience. These movements are largely absent from our sedentary lifestyle these days because we’ve opted for convenience overwork.

What would it look like to get on the mat and play with “mashing, banging, rubbing, beating, tearing, pounding, soaking, spreading, turning, and hanging”? My initial thought is it would look a lot like a dance. These are the movements one would need to nourish your body in a natural environment (your kitchen pantry filled with packaged, processed food is, alas, not what Bowman means by “natural environment”). Inspired by such movements while reading, I lugged out my mortar and pestle and hand-ground full cardamom pods to sprinkle on my morning oatmeal.

A movement philosophy

Finally, in the last section, Bowman encourages you to “Just Move.” It is in this section where yoga philosophy shines through most acutely. When talking about natural movements, Bowman says this:

“Yes, these movements were sort of archaic in the modern world, but they were of great design—definitely superior to any exercise I could craft on the gym floor. Archaic, but efficient.”

In the yoga classroom, we grapple with the very same dilemma. How do we take a philosophy, a practice, and original texts, and translate it all into the modern world without culturally appropriating the great design, without losing the essence of its function and purpose, but still make it all relevant to the student who shows up to take your class?

For me, these essays re-ignited questioning around what it means to be a yoga teacher. What are we teaching, how are we teaching it, where does it come from, and why are we doing it? I think it’s important that we always consider these questions and never lose sight of a willingness to evolve in our thinking.

Bowman couldn’t have said it better:

“In the end I remembered science does not tell you what to do with the facts its process has revealed—the integration and application of facts comes from within, passing through our personal perceptions of how the world works.”

Whether you’re working directly with movement or considering the implications of meditation, pranayama, or the Yamas and Niyamas, you can’t substitute scientific data for your own personal experience. The question is, do you trust your experience enough to live it as your own truth?

If that is all too much for you to think about right now, Bowman also offers up this simple intention in Movement Matters that you can easily adopt as your new daily affirmation right now and its implications will be just as profound: “Move More.”

This review is part of our SU&Y Book Club hosted by Ashley Zuberi.

Edited by Jordan Reed

Illustration by Katya Uspenskaya

You can buy Movement Matters by Katy Bowman at your local bookstore, on Amazon & review it on Goodreads.

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