Most people who exercise do so in distraction…forcing, jamming, and striving their way to a higher state of health and well-being. Kind of an oxymoron, right? It’s clear that this approach doesn’t work or the statistics around exercise adherence would be much gym wouldn’t be empty after the first three months of purchasing a membership.
It’s time for a more enlightened way of working out, a way in which the benefits expand beyond the physical. I believe we move towards higher ground with exercise by incorporating mindfulness into the experience.
Mindfulness is simply about paying attention. We’ve all learned to exercise in distraction. We listen to music, read, watch TV, and talk our way to the finish line. Basically, we do whatever it takes to get through the workout rather than be present for it.
Mindfulness is about tuning in and noticing what’s happening within the body. We pay attention to the muscles being used, to the increase in heart rate and respiration, to the increase in body temperature, and to perspiration. We also pay attention to what thoughts are going through the mind and what feelings are present.
As we pay attention to what’s happening within the body we can prevent injuries. When we notice pain, we can determine if the pain is coming from a burning muscle or from a joint. We should experience tension in the muscle only. If a joint hurts then the body is telling us the exercise needs to be modified or stopped. Mindfulness helps us to experience a more effective workout.
Mindfulness helps us to pay attention, focus on good form, and move slowly. If we put our full attention into an exercise, let’s say a bench press, it will be a much more concentrated experience so we don’t need to do as many reps.
There’s a huge difference between ‘tuning in’ during a workout and ‘getting through’ a workout. ‘Tuning in’ nourishes us on a completely different level. This is where we transcend the physical benefits of exercise. Focusing our attention on the muscles and the breath rather than on solving a problem creates a more relaxing workout.
Paying attention to what the body can do helps us cultivate gratitude rather than take the body for granted. Noticing what the body cannot do helps us to practice self-acceptance and let go of self-judgment. This makes exercise a more spiritual experience. Each time we pay attention to one breath moving in and out of the body we unite the body and mind. There is a physiological relaxation response.
Mindfulness of the breath during movement leaves us feeling grounded, relaxed, and replenished after a workout as opposed to ‘pumped up’ or exhausted.
Changing the way we think about exercise as well as our exercise behaviors takes time. Here are some tips for incorporating mindfulness into your workout:
1. Try a mindful workout once per week or practice mindfulness during some portion of your workouts regularly.
2. When your mind gets busy, notice whatever the thought is, let it go, and then bring your attention back to the breath and the muscles being used.
3. When you notice a strong feeling (anger, sadness, frustration) acknowledge it, be with it for a few breaths and then bring your attention back to the movement.
4. Honor the capabilities of the body as they are in the present moment. If you’re tired or not well, go easy on the body. When you have the energy, go for it.
5. Rather than judging your body, appreciate it.
6. Avoid striving. Progress with your workouts slowly and respectfully.
7. Work towards a higher level of fitness with patience.
8. Accept the state of your body as it is now. It’s impermanent.
Mindful exercise doesn’t need to be the ‘vanilla’ but I can guarantee that if you start to tune in, you will learn a lot about yourself and your body. And whatever you learn in the gym will transfer into your life, changing it in ways that will surprise and delight you!