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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]

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