Mindful Fitness 3

(Part 3 of a series. See 1, 2, 4, & 5)

In previous installments, we talked about connecting movement with breath and keeping our head in the game. Now it’s time to ask: Where are you holding unnecessarily?

Think back to the sprint races at the Olympics. You know how during the slow-mo finishes the racers’ faces are flapping all over the place? It’s because they are relaxed. What?! Yes, you heard me. Relaxed. They’re probably wearing Depends under their track shorts, they’re so relaxed.

See, they isolate the muscles they need for that activity and don’t waste any energy flexing or clenching anything else like us mere mortals. Oh no. In comparison, when we sprint, chances are we look like we’ve contracted tetanus.

My wise teacher talks about will and surrender. We need both to do something—indeed, just to make it in this world—and wisdom comes from understanding when and where. Contractions are a message sent to our body, which is then sent to our brains: You are in danger of something and you need protection. In this big and noisy world, we get used to shutting things out in an effort to not be as vulnerable as we truly are. But when we’re exercising, we need to open up to possibility, otherwise, how will we ever make progress?

Below are some common areas that tighten up when we least need them to.

  • You can't tell from here, but Roberta (2nd from left) is clenching her butt.

    The face. We are expressive little mammals, and what we experience often enacts itself across our poor faces. Don’t believe me? Look at your wrinkles. You probably have no idea what you look like as you exert yourself, but let’s hope you look better than John Mayer when he sings. As you’re going for that deadlift, bring some attention to your brow, your mouth, your tongue, your jaw. There’s a lot of clench potential there. You may find that even though you just reminded your jaw to unlock 13 seconds ago, it’s already back again, wreaking dental havoc. Keep reminding it, over and over, and in time the habit will break.

  • The eyes. What is the quality of your gaze? Under high intensity, we have a tendency to focus too much into tunnel vision. You know who else this happens to? Prey. Be the predator. Keep your focus, but relax around it and maintain your peripheral vision.
  • Neck and shoulders. I admit it. After swimming, my neck is a wreck. My subconscious brain is afraid I won’t see the wall, so as a defensive maneuver, my neck cranes forward. Bad move. In most things we do, the neck should be elongated in the back as an extension of our spine. The jutting chin should be brought in and slightly down. If you have trouble in this area, try doing your workout in front of a mirror. You might be surprised just how off you look.
  • Breath. Yeah, yeah, I know I already talked about this. So why are you still holding your breath?!
  • Hands and feet. Making fists? Unless you’re sparring, let it go, man! Gripping the earth for dear life with your feet? Gravity’s got you, don’t worry.
  • The mind. If any of your body parts are sending the wrong message, your brain is unfortunately listening. This can manifest in unproductive and destructive thoughts: “Oh, I’ll never be able to do yoga splits,” “That really ripped guy is here, he’s going to make me look bad,” “Why haven’t I come close to my personal best race time?”. And vice versa. If you identify the thoughts first (kudos!), then see where in your body you can begin the process of relaxing.

Fail.

In general, think about your movements. For example, I discovered a few years ago that in order to run faster, it didn’t involve pounding the pavement harder, but rather a simple attention on my hips and groin for faster footfall turnover. In one simple shift, I saved my legs and arms from unnecessary effort and my stride became more efficient.

So keep a look out for any weirdly sore parts or fatigue that doesn’t fit the workout. You may find you have several of these going on all at once. But now, you know what to do. Let. It. Go. And then, Let ‘er rip.

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