“Mindful exercise – are you kidding? I just want to get in and out of the gym and get dinner on the table.”
Exactly. Often we are not where we are – we’re already someplace else in our minds. In today’s busy world, full of responsibilities and distractions from every direction, it is hard enough to stay “present” to our much-too-big to-do-list, and in a way, we sleepwalk through our days and nights and they pass by in a blur.
What if I told you that you are working too hard…for too little payback? No, don’t kill the messenger; it’s true. If we would do our same workouts “mindfully,” they could be more effective.
Now when I say the word “mindful,” I’ll bet you think of sitting still in lotus position with your eyes closed. That is one form of meditation, but far from the only one. Mindful doesn’t actually mean being still. It means being fully present doing what you’re doing, without judgment (good/bad, right/wrong), whether you are taking out the garbage or receiving an academy award (well, why NOT you?) or rocking your baby to sleep.
“It’s about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine.
Even once we have made a commitment to our body to exercise it, for the most part we do it with music running through our ear buds or watching the evening news while we slog out the time on the treadmill.
Exercising mindfully means being “fully present” in and to your body, feeling the sensations of your body moving, feeling the breath and the stretch or the burn, just allowing it, enjoying it.
Recently I was drawn to an article which promised, “Meditation during exercise can make the experience more satisfying and may even lead to performance breakthroughs.”
In the article we are reminded that meditation is not about getting OUT of your body, rather it’s about relating to what we experience through the five senses OF the body. I remembered then that the ancient meditative health practices of Qigong and Tai Chi were all about moving energy or “chi“ through all parts of the body with full concentration.
You pay full attention to the quality of your moves, to how you are placing your feet as you run or how your arms and legs are moving the water as your swim, to how it feels when you touch the air or the ground or the water, to how different parts of your body are working together, to how and when to breathe to best support your work.
Myself, I’m a swimmer. I have always loved the water and I am never happier than when I am immersed in it. I don’t know, it may be easier to be mindful in the water. I love the feel of the softness or the coolness of the water moving around me and that it supports me. I enjoy feeling how my arms and legs use the water’s resistance to propel me, the regularity of my breath. It’s all very meditative and refreshing. I have a son who is a cross-country runner and he talks about similar feelings when he is out away from the city and just completely in the moment of the fresh air in his lungs, the ground under his feet and so on, during his run.
There’s an interview in the September 26, 2014 edition New York Times with Kobe Bryant. Yes, the basketball star. Can’t get much fitter than that! Kobe shared that NBA coach Phil Jackson introduced him and the whole teams (Bulls and Lakers) to meditation. The Bulls had humored the coach, but the Lakers really bought into it and used it wholeheartedly.
“Suddenly, meditation became performance enhancement,“ he said. As I recall neither the Bulls nor the Lakers were doing too badly under Coach Jackson – who has won 11 NBSA championships as a coach.
Mindfully concentrating on how he used every part of his body for each shot led Kobe to noticing how a cheetah uses is tail for balance when making cutting a sharp angle as he was watching Discovery channel – and he figured out how to extend his leg for the same purpose when performing his difficult fadeaway jumpshot.
Here’s a few quick tips to start you off.
It’s probably a good idea to clear your mind with 10 or so deep regular breaths as you start your stretches.
As you fill your lungs, try feeling them expand and as you empty them into your movement, imagine sending oxygen to the parts you are working. This practice may actually make you feel stronger and more flexible.
Try to stay aware of your lungs expanding and contracting as the air moves through, and notice what muscles you are moving. Then notice, how is your core involved, how are other parts of your body supporting that stretch? Can you keep your face and neck relaxed, perhaps even put on a gentle smile? That smile alone can transform your focus and bring you “home. ” It’s my favorite secret practice.
Then gradually try bringing that practice into the rest of your routine. As you feel each part of your body work – and work together – you may find yourself actually adjusting how you run or swim or lift or dance…and enjoying your workout much more for no extra time.
A PRACTICE NOTE – Staying present is difficult; it goes against a lifetime of experience. You can practice this body awareness during the day to build your “mindfulness muscle.” Lots of times you need to focus on something else – like work or driving. My first meditation teacher recommended that we use every (annoying-no-longer) traffic light we stop at as a call for mindfulness. Or we can choose routine everyday chores like washing dishes (hey, I love the water) to spend time mindfully in tune with our body.
Just try it – you may like it!