Recently I was working with a client who has health challenges. He had heard about mindfulness and decided to learn more to support him manage the stress that comes with unexpected health challenges. I knew that he was committed to his physical health and exercised regularly. Like most people, this client didn’t have (or didn’t believe he had) time to incorporate long periods of formal meditation into his day. So, I was looking for ways for him to cultivate mindfulness through his daily activities (in addition to shorter mindfulness meditation). He showed me some of the exercises he currently does. Then I suggested that we do them together and this time I would guide him in such a way that would support him do exactly the same exercise – but this time mindfully. It was great to hear his reflections after we did this. He found it quite a different experience to how he normally does his exercise. He normally is rushing through his routine to get to the next thing on his list of things to do. He was quite surprised to find that exercising mindfully was much more pleasurable than his usual exercising on automatic pilot thinking about what was next.
Exercise is good not only for physical health but also for mental health. You might have started exercising for the physical health benefits and later noticed how it supports you to be calm and balanced during stressful periods of life. The evidence continues to accumulate, establishing how regular exercise plays a strong role in maintaining mental and emotional well-being. You may also have heard about the role of mindfulness in keeping your stress levels down. It makes sense then to to bring exercise and mindfulness together. That way, the time you invest in exercising can deliver a double benefit – the benefits from the physical activity as well as from cultivating mindfulness. Why wouldn’t you?
Interesting recent research showed that people with higher levels of mindfulness are generally more inclined to exercise. Fortunately, mindfulness like any other trait can be cultivated. Mindful exercise is one way to do it. Mindfulness meditation is another important way.
Let’s drill down a little into what mindful exercising looks like. We can do any activity with our attention on what we’re doing. We can also do any activity with our attention caught up in thinking about something else – the past, the future or simply drifting into fantasy. I spent many years doing yoga on automatic pilot – thinking about my studies, my work, my relationships, comparing my yoga poses to the person in front of me, longing for the class finish etc… You know how it goes. I’m not the only one who’s had this experience.
When we intentionally choose to rest our attention on what it is that we are doing (the embodied experience complete with sights, smells, sensations, sounds etc), rather than let it stay caught up in thinking, this is an informal method of cultivating mindfulness. Because we are so used to living our life through our thoughts, it may not be immediately obvious what it means to bring our attention on to what we are doing. As you reading this, pause for a moment and allow your attention to feel the weight of your body in a chair. Pause from reading and notice the different sensations of contact of your body on the chair, the contact of clothing touching your skin and the subtle touch of air on any exposed skin. You have just done a very brief informal mindfulness practice – tuning in to the present moment through the body. Mindful exercising simply asks you to be aware of the body’s posture, sensations, movements and the breath as you exercise. I used the word “simply,” but the reality is that although mindfulness is simple and straightforward, it is actually not that easy. Our minds are so accustomed to wandering from one thought to the next, to the next, rather than staying focused on present moment experience. It takes repeated practice to develop mindful awareness. We can think we are focusing on our experience of exercising and instead be analysing, comparing or judging ourselves. Those mental activities are different to being aware of the experience of exercising. A second important aspect of mindful exercising is the attitude that we bring as we pay attention to the body exercising. Mindfulness asks us to bring a curious, open, caring, non-judging attitude to our experience. If you find yourself with a harsh, judgemental or fighting approach, this will create more tension and act as an obstacle to the development of inner calm and balance.
You might find that through bringing mindfulness to your exercise routine, not only is it more enjoyable, but that you train more effectively – you don’t give in so easily to any thoughts encouraging you to finish early or not give it your best shot. Mindfulness helps us balance discipline with care for the body. If you are paying attention to the bodily experience of exercising, you also decrease your chances of injury.
Mindfulness practices teach us to anchor our attention on something real that is occurring right now. The neuroscientists have found that the activity in the brain when we do this is very different to the activity in the brain when we are lost in thought, mind wandering, ruminating, or catastrophising. You may have noticed that not all of your thinking is supportive of your mental health! To be able to choose to let go of thinking and to bring the attention on to something that is actually happening in the present moment is a useful skill to cultivate.
For the moment, the take-home message is that mindful exercising supports a healthy relationship with your body and your thoughts. Give it a go next time you are in the gym, jogging, swimming or going for a walk. And yes, it does require that you disconnect from technology while you do it.
Dr Kathryn Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.