chi running · meditation · running

Om…Fitness Practice as Meditation

jordand_patch-meditationThe first philosophical problem I ever encountered was the mind-body problem. The question: what is the relationship between mind and body? How do they interact with each other when the body is physical and the mind is mental? I returned to this problem many times as a philosophy
student, both in my undergraduate studies and graduate studies.

But it wasn’t until I started to practice meditation that the mind-body connection became meaningful to me as more than just a philosophical puzzle. A meditative approach to my physical activities has had a transformational affect on my experience of them and my performance at them.

I learned to meditate as a graduate student. I picked up a book called The Joy Within: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation (by Joan Goldstein and Manuela Soares). I wanted to find a way to settle my spinning mind.

At the beginning, two minutes of sitting in silence with my eyesclosed (I wouldn’t yet call it “meditating”) seemed like an eternity. But using the exercises in the book, I eventually developed the capacity to sit for 20-30 minutes. For many years, practicing the techniques outlined in that book, I sat in meditation for 20-30 minutes every day.

Without me trying, the stillness and focus I achieved in meditation started to spill over into other areas of my life. If I was stuck in traffic, for example, it no longer bothered me. Waiting in line for the bank machine became an opportunity to rest instead of an occasion to get irritated. In general, I found myself to be in less of a hurry.

One day, while working out with weights in the gym, I found myself in what can only be described as a “heightened state of consciousness.” I picked up each weight with a sense of quiet, focused purpose. If I was doing bicep curls, I focused my attention on form, on the feeling of the muscle in my upper arm working, on my breathing, in pace with my movements. I felt totally present, as if the world had shrunk down to include only me and the weights I had in my hands. In short, that day (and from then on), approached my weight training with the mind of meditation.

By the end of the workout, I felt completely serene and at peace, much as I did whenever I meditated.

There are many forms of meditation, some associated with religious or spiritual traditions, some not. The most effective meditation course I’ve encountered is on mindfulness meditation. It was developed specifically for Westerners and isolates the practice of meditation from any spiritual or religious context. You learn simply to be present and in silence for extended periods of time (from about 15-20 minutes and longer).

A few years ago, I took such a course — Mindfulness Meditation for Stress Reduction — with Dr. Kate Partridge (London, Ontario). One of the first techniques we learned was the body scan. This is a guided meditation where the guide (either in person or recorded) talks you through a body scan, focusing attention on specific body parts one at a time. In class, Kate always had us engage in mindful movement (yoga lite) before we lay down for the body scan. This physical activity prior to the meditation brought our awareness to the feelings in our bodies.

By the middle of the eight-week course, the body scan exercise became my favorite. It’s the one I think is most useful for athletes. The reason is that it seriously heightened my ability to direct my awareness to very specific parts of my body (e.g. the big toe on my left foot). Doing the body scan brought me back to that experience I had in the gym that day and for many days afterwards. Having gotten away from weight training for some years, I’d forgotten that sense of focus that careful attention to the body can bring. At the end of a complete body scan sequence, I feel completely relaxed and at peace.

Having worked with meditation for so many years, I have taken it into my fitness practice in many different ways. Apart from the experience with the weights — something that I cannot capture when working out with a trainer or a partner, as I am doing these days — I have used swimming, walking, running, and yoga as meditation practices. The capacity to focus on the body that I learned in the mindfulness class is one way of bringing meditation into these activities.

Another common meditation technique is to focus on the breath. This too brings wonderful awareness to physical activity. When I am swimming or running, the combination of focusing on my breath and the rhythm of my stroke or footfalls takes me into a meditative, almost thought-free state where I lose all track of time.

Since I’ve started to practice the technique of chi-running, I have used the body scan to check my form. Keeping my awareness on form in that way also has a meditation affect, bringing the awareness of body into sharp focus in the mind. Approaching running or yoga or swimming or weight training (or anything physically demanding) from the perspective of meditation has the added bonus of making it easier to endure the hard parts (I even use it when I’m undergoing a root canal at the dentist, or getting a new tattoo). One of the gifts of meditation is that it teaches us to stay with difficult feelings instead of fleeing from them. Much like changing my experience of being stuck in traffic or caught in a long line-up, meditation changes my experience of my training when I choose to use it.

I do not always choose to use it. For example, lately I have been experimenting with music while running. It too helps me endure the hard bits, but in a totally different way.

Meditation focuses attention and draws me strongly into the experience, almost as an observer or a witness; in contrast to that, music is more like a distraction. I similarly distract myself when I choose to read on the cross-trainer. No such distraction presents itself when I do laps in the pool. Or when I turn off the music while I’m running (which, for at least part of every run, I do).

Note that, for me, it doesn’t take the place of periods devoted solely to sitting in silent meditation.

For all my experience of the mind-body connection through meditation and physical movement, I have not come any closer to solving the philosophical mind-body problem. But I do know that, for those who are engaged in athletic pursuits, getting the mind focused through meditation can be wonderfully transformational.

Right now I’m enjoying an excellent book, Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham. And I’m just about ready to turn off that music while I’m running!

[Image credit: JordanD]

8 thoughts on “Om…Fitness Practice as Meditation

  1. It most certainly sounds like adopting many of these practices has been almost transformational for you. I am admittedly both intrigued and skeptical at the same time. I understand completely the need to concentrate on form, as almost the most important thing of all, and I also experience something almost “spiritual” by exercising. But I’m not sure where concepts like “focused aggression” fit into the account you’ve provided. I know that for me the experience does not take me out of my body, as you say, like an out-of-body experience, perhaps because I purposefully use and focus aggression, perhaps even rage sometimes (always controlled and focused), to push myself, as you almost have to do in any contact sport. I most certainly use the mirror on occasion as a helpful tool to help ensure that my form is correct when weightlifting, but I am very connected to my body and my focused emotions. I have no idea why, but on some level, my version or experience of the “spiritual” is not quite as out-of-body or distilled from strong emotion as is your experience of it. Very interesting though, Tracy, and thank you for this post!

  2. I think it’s so hard to explain that I must have said something misleading. It’s not an out of body experience. Especially with the body scan, it’s a really IN-body experience. It’s almost using attention to the body as you would use attention to the breath — to focus the mind. But I’m also intrigued by your use of focused aggression. I have mixed feelings about mirrors. I go to two different yoga studios. In the Iyengar studio, mirrors are unthinkable. This is the first kind of yoga I started with and it really teaches you to be present with your body. At moksha, they frequently use the mirror as a teaching tool to check your alignment etc. It’s useful, but I have found that the mirror takes me out of my body and into my reflection. It’s a very different experience to do yoga with a mirror than to do it without. Hard to articulate. Anyway, this whole mind-body connection is fascinating and I think there is a lot of phenomenology around it in sport practice that yields interesting, if different, information than the philosophical discussions do. Eastern religions and spiritual traditions have an interesting take on it that doesn’t often make its way into the analytic philosophical discussions of the issues. Thanks for your input!

    1. I think I’ve only ever had this sort of sensation with running.and aikido. Cycling takes far too much concentration on roads, traffic, and other bikes with which I’m usually riding in very close proximity. Swimming too takes lots of concentration, for me. The breathing never came naturally. One of the things I loved about running, pre injuries, was that I could just lose myself in thought. What does happen with me in competition, in games or races, is that I lose track of time and all other concerns, and I can focus intently on the activity, whether that’s a bike race, a soccer game when I’m on the field, or even Crossfit timed workouts. Aikido has a very deliberate meditative element. Meditation through motion, they say. Just think about breathing and staying in your center through the movement. That works for me in a way that still meditation doesn’t seem to. Lots to think about here!

  3. I believe I know what you mean, Tracy. This is one of the reasons I generally prefer cycling alone, on quiet roads. Without the need to attend to riders around me, I can attend to my form and my breathing in a way that becomes, not out-of-body, but (I would say) mindfully embodied.

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