Scene: Gym. After work. Cardio machines are packed with folks trying to squeeze in some calorie burn before heading home for dinner. They all have earphones plugged in their ears and they all have magazines stationed on their machine, which they read when they’re not glancing up at the 6 o’ clock news on the TVs on the walls.
What’s wrong with this picture? A complete disconnect between mind and body.
Now, I’m not saying that iPods are detrimental to your workout, but if you find yourself in a rut or bored with your routine, as my wise yoga teacher says, “You’re probably not paying enough attention.” So what can we do? Thus begins a new series in which I’ll explore the mental side of working out.
The mind is notorious for having trouble staying focused on any one thing. The Buddhists don’t call it “monkey mind” for nothing. These days, we are over-scheduled, over-stimulated, over-worked, and under-rested. So do yourself a favor and carve out some time for yourself. Put away the magazines, turn off the music, and try to look away from Brian Williams’s handsome face on the news. Show up for yourself. Even if you devote just one workout a week to a more mindful pursuit, I guarantee you’ll feel a difference and with enough practice, that difference might start pouring over into other areas of your life. Ready for some butt-kicking Zen?
This installment looks at something we take for granted—our breath.
How to Start
- Connect your movements with breath. When walking, hiking, running, cycling, swimming, ellipticaling, or otherwise cardioing, breathe in and out for a set number of breaths that are coordinated with your activity and exertion level. For example, when I’m running slowly, I breathe in for 4 steps and out for 4 steps. When I’m going a bit harder and need some recovery, it’s in 3 out 2. For swimming, I go as many strokes as possible between breaths, usually settling in at around one breath every 4 strokes. When you get good at it, it’s basically meditation in motion. And for weight-lifting, that old adage about exerting on the exhale is true. Up/exhale, down/inhale…repeat. This has the added benefit of slowing you down and forcing you to give each movement your undivided attention.
- Really breathe. Quit faking it. We do it everyday and rarely think about it. Practice right now with this exercise: Close your eyes and sit comfortably. Start by noticing your breath as it is. Then begin to breathe deeper. Where is the breath going? If we think of the interior of our body as an empty vessel, explore filling it with breath. Can you breathe into your back-body, feel the backs of your ribs expanding? Can you bring it up into your chest, your collar bones, your throat? How much of your body can you fill with air? And be sure to exhale completely, get all that stale air out of there. If you find yourself throughout your day feeling stressed or yawning a lot, give yourself 30 seconds with this exercise to break the habit.
- Breath signals the body. If you’re breathing quick and shallow, your body will get the message that you are trying to escape from a saber-toothed tiger and it will flood your body with stress hormones that will erase many of the benefits you’re trying to give your body with exercise. Tell your body that everything is cool by keeping control over your breath. This is why Primal fitness suggests only occasional sprinting. Small doses of stress are good, but constant marinating is bad. There’s all this oxygen out there for the taking, just waiting for you. Use it.