Mind-ful-ness (noun): a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations; The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
How can mindfulness improve physical activity? If you are easily distracted or find your mind wandering during physical exercise, if you are easily overwhelmed by discomfort during your workouts, or if you want to bring more meaning to the time you spend intentionally moving your body, then making an effort to bring a mindfulness practice into your workout routine may interest you.
Here are five steps that will help you incorporate mindfulness into any physical exercise routine you currently have.
1. Set An Intention
Before you do anything with your physical body, take 30 seconds to set an intention for your workout. Why did you bring yourself to the gym, the park, the studio today? Your intention may be as simple as craving a boost in energy or needing a distraction from a current stress. You may be fulfilling a commitment to yourself or perhaps you have an external motivation, such as a dress that are hoping to wear. Whatever your reason for being where you are, take a moment to acknowledge your intention, remind yourself of how deserving you are of the opportunity to live out your intentions. Allow yourself to carry this positive feeling through your workout.
2. Scan Your Body
Begin your workout by mentally scanning your body. From top to bottom or bottom to top, take a few minutes to lay on your mat, towel, gym floor, grass, etc. and check in with each body part. Notice how your toes feel, give them your full attention. Try to bring your mind down into your toes. Are there any aches and pains? Move to the base of your feet, your ankles, calves, knees, all the way up your body until you have reached the top of your head. This may sound time consuming, and it can be if you fixate on whether or not you are “doing it right.” Let that thought go and simply recognize each part of your body for a few seconds before moving on. Once you become comfortable doing this, bringing your mind into that space fully will come with greater ease. Once you have completed a mental body scan, you are ready to begin your workout.
3. Engage Your Core
Your core may be the single most important muscle group to maintain awareness of throughout your workout. Being mindful of its contraction, and the support this brings to the rest of your body during various exercises will improve your performance throughout the workout. It will also increase the efficiency of your workout, as you will continuously exert your abdominal muscles. Performance and efficiency are wonderful benefits. But, in the context of practicing mindfulness, the effort to maintain core contraction throughout a workout is even more useful for the mind/muscle connection it forces into your routine. Maintaining awareness of a single muscle group while utilizing various other muscle groups can be difficult. You will falter through this, and that is okay. Whenever you notice that you have let your core muscles relax, bring your mind back to the contraction. Try to notice how doing so allows your body to accomplish other boot camp style movements (balance exercises, boxing circuits, running, etc.) with greater ease and strength. Of course, there are some movements and/or exercises when this might not be appropriate. Please use your judgment and resources (trainers) to determine when core contraction should not be attempted.
4. Keep Breathing
When in doubt, breath in, breath out. Our breath is the single strongest connection we have to our minds. There are two easy ways to begin using the power of breath during your workout. The first is the very simple concept of remembering to breathe! So often when working through a difficult movement or contracting a large muscle group, we unconsciously hold our breath. Do your best to remain aware of this misstep. Whether it’s a set of boot camp burpees or a lap around a track, make every attempt to follow your breath in and out as you perform. Not only will this aid your body, it may also serve as a method of distraction. You can also use your breath to bring more power to your workout by breathing intentionally into a muscle while you are exerting it. When you feel a muscle beginning to cramp or a soreness beginning to creep in, take deep breaths and, while doing so, imagine the flow of the breath going directly to that muscle. Often it is a lack of oxygen that creates the discomfort and you will quite literally breathe the discomfort away. If not, the quick break from focusing on the exercise at hand to focusing on the drawing in of breath may be what is needed to restore a bit of energy. Remember that taking a break from an exercise in order to maintain proper form and function is always ideal. Taking a “breath break” to draw in full, deep, intentional breaths may be a useful tool during strenuous workouts.
5. Reflect On Your Intention
Finally, when your workout is complete take 30 to 60 seconds to come back to the intention that you recognized in the beginning of your workout. Whether it was a personal record-breaking workout or one that you struggled through with each breath, thank yourself for every second spent strengthening your mind and body. Take this brief moment to experience positive thoughts about your workout and to pat yourself on the back for living out your intention. Doing so will make it all the more likely that you will return to this space (both mentally and physically) in the future.
These steps are meant to provide a guide to beginning this practice. You may find the patience for only one or two of them at first, so start there. The most important thing to remember when making an effort to practice mindfulness in any setting, but even more so in the setting of physical exercise, is that there is no “right” way to do it. The effort alone is enough. You may find that some days you excel at being patient and turning your attention inward. Other days may present more of a struggle. All of these days are successful. Breathe deeply and smile, because you win by trying.