I have two anchors for my soul and sanity each day, and they are meditation and exercise. Every morning before I go to work I turn down the noise in my head on the meditation cushion and tune up my body at the gym. Until recently, I never thought much about the relationship between these two practices, but now that’s changing.
Mindfulness Techniques: What is Mindful Exercise?
As mindfulness enters the mainstream, there are new approaches to meditation coming online. One popular method is called moving meditation or mindful exercise. That is, the notion that you can bring meditative awareness to your active life—mindfully walking, running, and even hitting the treadmill.
Of course, mindful exercise isn’t new. Martial artists and Indian yogis have been using their bodies to bridge the physical and the metaphysical for millennia. Some might argue that most professional athletes and Olympians are, by definition, experts at mindfulness. No doubt, they need to harness mind and body at levels of harmony and cooperation most of us can’t imagine.
But despite its growing popularity, the idea of combining meditation and exercise never really made much sense to me. After all, isn’t meditation all about stillness? How can you cultivate silence and solitude when you’re simultaneously engaged with the world of form and action?
What is Real meditation anyways?
As a hardcore meditator (read spiritual snob!), I always felt like people who talked about moving meditation must not be serious about real meditation.
Upon further investigation, it turns out that I’m wrong. I recently learned that I can access some of the same states of consciousness I experience in meditation through mindful exercise.
Let me explain.
As a disciplined meditator, I have always felt that what happens on the cushion during meditation is unique. And that makes sense to me. During sitting meditation, the idea is to be as still as possible, both inwardly and outwardly. And for me, this form of meditation has yielded extraordinary results in the form of spiritual breakthroughs, self-knowledge, lightness of being, clarity, bliss, and more.
I Can Fly!
But I have also been an athlete my entire life. When I was younger, I played team sports through high school, and then I took up running, mountain biking, and yoga in my twenties.
Looking back, it’s obvious to me now that sports and exercise were my primary outlet for blowing off steam before I learned how to meditate. Exercise was my channel for processing challenging emotions, contemplating deep questions, and generally letting go.
Through brute exertion and pushing myself physically, I found refuge from the relentless momentum of my own restive mind. And before meditation, exercise was the one place where I felt—just like Peter Pan—that I could fly.
5 Reasons Why You Should Try Mindful Exercise
Now, many years later, and after a good deal of training, I am finding that there is a fluid and fruitful relationship between my meditation practice and mindful exercise. Maybe you can relate?
Here are my top five observations on why meditation and working out, among many mindfulness techniques, are such a good combination.
- Breaking Inertia Is An Inner & Outer Matter
- Creating Inner Space on the Cushion & The Treadmill
- The Mind-Body Connection is Profound
- Measuring Inner & Outer Progress
- Building Intention, Focus, and Self Confidence
Breaking Inertia Is An Inner & Outer Matter
For most of us it’s hard to get up in the morning and exercise. I don’t really have that experience. For me, exercising is like taking a shower, but from the inside out. Every time I exercise, I feel refreshed, energized, and filled with positivity and potential.
Pushing through physical inertia activates and liberates inner resources—tenacity, intention, drive, focus, and will power. We need to build this inner capital to keep going when we feel challenged. Breaking through that physical inertia through exercise can help open your mind and awareness in ways that will surprise you.
Meditating before the workout gives me an advantage, since I have already generated inner focus and resolve, and the workout builds upon and enhances those qualities.
Creating Inner Space on the Cushion & the Treadmill
When I’m on the elliptical or the treadmill, I close my eyes and I let go. Often I have headphones on and that helps me tune out the noise in the gym. As my body heats up and falls into rhythm with the music, an inner space begins to opens up.
That space is fluid, creative, and free. Sometimes, it feels like flying. Often, I have my most creative insights of the day on the exercise machines. Questions or problems that I have been focused on for days or weeks will melt and the answer becomes clear in that space of focus and surrender.
I used to exercise to look better, develop my body, and improve physical performance. Now, working out has also become a zone of contemplative awareness.
The Mind-Body Connection Is Profound
I have been practicing yoga for a long time. For me, it’s a bridge between the mind and body. And here’s the thing about yoga. When you approach your workout with a sense of reverence and inner quietude, you can bring your attention deeply into your body.
During yoga, I’m not trying to quiet my mind. I’m bringing my attention into my core through deep breathing, and then I move that awareness through my body as I perform the poses. Sometimes that results in a quiet mind and sometimes it doesn’t, but that isn’t really the point. If you are focused, you connect with your body in a way that is empowering, regenerative, and deeply healthy.
I know that sounds kind of weird, since we are connected to our bodies, but it’s amazing how few of us truly inhabit our physicality. Your body and your senses are your vehicle for experiencing life, so it makes sense to explore what’s possible, and to keep your vehicle optimized and in pristine condition. It takes focus, but anyone can do it with practice, and you don’t have to be a yogi or an expert. All you need is intention, focus, and practice.
Measuring Inner & Outer Progress
When you start to experience these deeper dimensions in your daily workout, I’ve noticed that I don’t measure my workouts in the same way. It used to be that I’d measure my success based on the quantitative metrics of calories burned, distance climbed, and how high my heart rate peaked. Those things are still important to me, but now my mind is also trained on something else.
These days, I’m often more aware of the qualitative and contemplative aspects of the workout. How well did I maintain focus and how mindful was I? Did I let go deeply during the cardio? Did new insights and creative ideas emerge?
A year ago I wasn’t asking myself these questions after a workout, but now I do. And I have noticed, when my morning prayer or meditation practice is strong, that effects the quality and depth of my workout.
Building Intention, Focus, and Self Confidence
Just like during meditation, your mind can wander in your workout. That happens all the time. But also, similar to when I’m meditating, I’ve found that the most important thing when I’m at the gym is to bring my attention back to the workout and let go.
The more I harness my attention, merging my mind with the rhythm of my body and the music, the deeper I go and the more this inner space opens up. Likewise, when I am disciplined with my attention in yoga, and I follow my breath inward, the results are powerful.
The energy and intention that I marshal in these exercises are rewarding and empowering.
It used to be that I could shift my attitude or the quality of my inner experience through the brute force of pushing myself through a physical wall. But now it’s different. I find the deeper rewards and enriching experiences come through the more subtle art of paying attention. This is true of meditation, but I appreciate that this is also what mindful exercise is really all about.
In the end, it’s hard to draw a hard line around these two practices. The joy, contentment, and grounding that comes from different mindfulness techniques can’t be limited to meditation and exercise. Mindfulness is a position that enriches every aspect of life. Nevertheless, I encourage you to explore mindful exercise for yourself and see if you experience similar results.
greg cartin says
It has been a while. I love his post. I use a lot of mindfulness techniques in my work with athletes. I’m a believer in the connection between mindfulness and optimal performance. Hope all is well
Morgan Dix says
Greg, so great to see you online here and thanks so much for your feedback. That means a lot coming from an authority like yourself. I think it was Kent who recently told me about your work and it sounds impressive. I’m in Boston now. If you are nearby, give me a shout on FB and let’s meet up. Best, Morgan