Exercise can sometimes feel like a chore. Okay, for lots of us, exercise always feels like a chore. We’re motivated for a few days, but...
Exercise can sometimes feel like a chore. Okay, for lots of us, exercise always feels like a chore. We’re motivated for a few days, but eventually the treadmill gets tedious, the cozy bed trumps the early morning walk and the pool is no longer inviting. We summon our willpower but come up wanting. But maybe willpower isn’t the problem. Maybe we just need a different perspective on exercise. That’s where mindfulness comes in. Rooted in Buddhism, this concept of being in the moment and engaging all five senses is becoming a fitness byword. “Mindfulness means paying attention with intent, interest and even fascination,” says Arnie Kozak, Ph.D., a mindfulness-based psychologist and author of Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness, “and doing so without judgment.” In other words, you aren’t thinking, “I hate this,” “This is too hard,” or, “Is this going to help me lose weight?” “That type of thinking,” Kozak says, “eats up energy and is distracting.” Advocates say mindfulness can help you perform better, get better results and enjoy exercise more.
For the lucky ones among us, exercise naturally induces a mindful state. The activity is so enjoyable and captivating that it cancels out...
For the lucky ones among us, exercise naturally induces a mindful state. The activity is so enjoyable and captivating that it cancels out negative or distracting thoughts. Kozak calls this state sportsamadhi (samadhi being the Sanskrit term for “meditative concentration”). For the rest of us, we’re going to achieve mindfulness by practicing it. “Training for mindfulness is akin to training the body for fitness,” says Kozak. The idea is to practice pushing out unrelated thoughts as they arise, and learning to focus on sensations and whatever you’re doing until it becomes second nature. You’ll not only improve your performance (“If you’re giving your full attention to what you’re doing, you’re bound to do it better,” says Kozak), but also reap the plentiful payoffs of meditation. Studies show it can lower blood pressure, ease chronic pain, improve psoriasis, relieve stress and more. Next time you’re at the gym, tune out CNN and leave your iPod at home. Instead, concentrate on the sound of your sneakers, the cadence of your breath and the rhythmic movement of your arms while nudging your to-do list out of your mind. When you finish, you’ll have logged both a physical workout and a mental one.
Even the very best swimmers can get bored following a little black line back and forth in a pool, stroke after stroke. For beginners, swimming...
Even the very best swimmers can get bored following a little black line back and forth in a pool, stroke after stroke. For beginners, swimming can be terrifying (“Am I drowning?”) or baffling (“I’m moving as hard as I can and I’m going backward!”). Enter Terry Laughlin, a swim instructor who developed Total Immersion swimming in 1989 to address both the boredom and the fear expressed by the adults he was teaching to swim. “They were terribly uncomfortable in the water, afraid of sinking and choking, and so distracted by their discomfort that they couldn’t concentrate on a technique or execute it correctly,” says Laughlin. “It became clear that I had to get them to think about swimming differently.” Instead of focusing on forward motion, Laughlin coached his students to think about balance and streamlining. To increase their comfort in the water, Laughlin taught his students to float effortlessly, and encouraged them to explore how to create and reduce resistance (what happens to your hips when you lift your head above the waterline?). Laughlin invites his students to be curious and constantly examine their relationship to the water. “We’re teaching swimming as an art,” says Laughlin. “It’s graceful, fluid and relaxed
Before you get into the pool, think of your swim as a practice, in the spirit of yoga and tai chi, rather than a workout. The first step is to...
Before you get into the pool, think of your swim as a practice, in the spirit of yoga and tai chi, rather than a workout. The first step is to let go of the usual goal of getting to the other end. Your new goal is to be aware of every stroke. It works best when you target a single, highly specific element in your stroke. The foundation skill of effortless swimming is balance, or feeling “weightless” in the water. Concentrate on these focal points to improve balance in the crawl stroke:
1. Establish your baseline. Before homing in on the three focal points, swim a few lengths as you usually do. Count your strokes and rate your effort from one (effortless) to five (exhausting). Repeat this exercise after practicing each focal point to see how it affects your ease and efficiency.
2. Hang your head. release your head until it feels weightless. Neither hold it up nor press it down; just let it go. When you release it, imagine that the water is cushioning your head. Finally, notice if you feel a new relaxation -- and maybe freedom of movement -- in your neck and shoulders.
3. Float your arm forward... slowly. Focus intently on the extending arm while ignoring the one pushing back. Feel the same “cushion” supporting your arm as you extend. Watch for -- and eliminate -- bubbles in your stroke (looking down, not forward). Finally, explore how slowly you can float your arm forward, and try to extend slightly farther than usual.
4. Calm your legs. Your weightless upper body should help your lower body feel lighter than usual. Take advantage by “calming” and relaxing your legs. Instead of kicking them, let them “draft behind” your upper body. Strive for the easiest, quietest and most streamlined movement possible.
5. Practice. To integrate each focal point, swim a series of short (4 to 6 strokes, or 10 yards or less) repeats. Push off the wall, swim a short distance and then catch your breath and return to where you started. These repeats help you break the habit of feeling obliged to complete every length you start, and they help you form a new habit of keen and undistracted attention. Do at least four of these, but continue as long as you feel yourself discovering new sensations or nuances.
6. Imprint your muscle memory. Once you feel familiar with the new intention and sensation, swim farther -- perhaps one, but not more than two, pool lengths. Rest and take three to five cleansing breaths after each length. Continue visualizing your modified stroke as you breathe. Continue swimming the longer repeats as long as they feel as good or better than the shorter ones. If they don’t feel as good, resume shorter repeats to better imprint the new habit. Before progressing to the next focal point, count strokes and rate your effort. How do they compare to your former way of swimming?
If it doesn’t come naturally, running can be boring! And hard on your body. But that runner’s high does sound appealing. If only we could hang...
If it doesn’t come naturally, running can be boring! And hard on your body. But that runner’s high does sound appealing. If only we could hang in there long enough to achieve it. Turns out, it’s more a matter of meditating than “hanging in.” That’s the philosophy behind Chi Running, which is based on the same mindfulness principles as yoga, Pilates and tai chi. “A main tenet of Chi Running is the principle of body sensing, truly listening to the body’s signals -- pain, tension, sensitivity, fatigue -- and responding accordingly. Chi Running teaches you how to examine your technique and make the adjustments necessary to resolve these symptoms,” explains Casey Colohan, of ChiLiving. Body sensing deepens the mind-body connection, which makes running easier and more enjoyable. It also transforms running into a meditative practice. “As you become more in tune with your body and technique, your mind grows clearer and your focus improves, and you can learn patience, consistency and how to listen -- qualities that can be applied to all aspects of life,” says Colohan. “Running can be strictly a fitness activity, but approaching it as a practice elevates it to a much higher level of importance and fulfillment. It can be a combination of a best friend, a mentor, a teacher and a spiritual guide.” Wow!
Use these tips from Chi Running to reinvigorate (or heck, to just start) your running program. At the heart of Chi Running is the process of...
Use these tips from Chi Running to reinvigorate (or heck, to just start) your running program. At the heart of Chi Running is the process of discovery. It doesn’t matter how fast or far anyone else can run. What matters is the quality of your experience and the sustainability of your well-being, says Colohan.
1. Be consistent. Plan a weekly workout schedule and stick to it.
2. Focus on a certain aspect of your running form (for example, upper- and lower-body coordination, body sensing, cadence) during each run. This will teach you planning and mindfulness, and improve your mind-body connection.
3. Practice relaxing your muscles. This helps relieve tension and trains you to relax.
4. End your run with two-minute review. How well did you keep your focus? How did your body feel during the run? What did you learn that would help with your next run? In this way, you’ll build a healthy, growing and sustainable running practice.
If you aren’t familiar with tai chi, it looks mysterious: groups of people moving slowly, fluidly and gracefully in unison in parks or other...
If you aren’t familiar with tai chi, it looks mysterious: groups of people moving slowly, fluidly and gracefully in unison in parks or other public spaces, blissfully unaware that they’re being watched. This ancient mind-body discipline began in China as a martial art and form of self-defense. It focuses on the circulation and development of chi, or internal energy, according to Craig Barnes, a tai chi teacher in New York City and protégé of tai chi master Bruce Frantzis. “The movements follow a specific sequence designed to activate all the energy channels in the body,” he adds. “They can also be applied to help balance the energy in the body in order to improve health.” In fact, there’s a fair amount of ongoing research looking at the potential benefits of tai chi for a variety of serious conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis.
There are different styles of tai chi, but all involve slow, nonstop movement: One position flows into the next, like “a river flowing without end,” says Barnes, and each is coordinated with breathing to help create a sense of inner calm. Tai chi also emphasizes relaxation and awareness, and, of course, mindfulness. To practice tai chi fully and reap its benefits, it’s important to put aside distressing or distracting thoughts and focus on what your body is doing and feeling. “Doing tai chi without being mindful limits your mind’s ability to direct the chi, and also limits your ability to maintain proper alignment,” says Barnes.
Mindfulness is an integral part of tai chi, but it still requires practice. Barnes recommends an exercise called the commencement. “The circular...
Mindfulness is an integral part of tai chi, but it still requires practice. Barnes recommends an exercise called the commencement. “The circular nature of the move makes it ideal for practicing mindfulness. First, practice keeping the movements smooth and fluid, then focus on one part of the body and try to maintain this focus continually. Eventually you’ll be able to extend this continual awareness to several parts of the body at once.”
1. Stand with your feel firmly on the ground, body relaxed, arms at your sides, palms facing behind you, elbows soft. Direct your breathing to the area slightly below your belly button. Notice a sensation in the center of your palms, as if they were being pushed forward and you were resisting that. When you feel this sensation, you are ready to begin.
2. Inhale, and allow your arms to rise to chest level in front of you, as if your wrists were being pulled up by a string. Keep your hands and shoulders relaxed, and your elbows pointing downward. Concentrate on your wrists.
3. Let your elbows start to sink, as if there were weights attached to them, keeping them in front of your body. As this happens, your hands will fill and your fingers will extend with energy. Your hands will end up parallel to the ground. Concentrate on your elbows sinking.
4. Allow your hands to press down as if you were trying to push a log under water. When your hands are level with your lower belly, squat down until your knees are even with your toes. Keep your spine straight, and concentrate on the base of the spine pushing down and the top of the head pushing up.
5. While still in a squat position, allow your palms to return to the starting position (arms at your sides, palms facing backward, elbows soft). You are now stable on the bottom and light on the top, ready to practice the move again or transition into another movement.
At first glance, yoga seems to require superhuman flexibility -- perfect for dancers and gymnasts. But yoga is really about self-discovery, and...
At first glance, yoga seems to require superhuman flexibility -- perfect for dancers and gymnasts. But yoga is really about self-discovery, and mindfulness is crucial to that journey. “When you consciously place your attention on your sensations, you’ll feel integrated, gathered together,” says Cyndi Lee, founder of Om Yoga in New York City, where she teaches a combination of vinyasa yoga, precise alignment and the Buddhist meditation methods of mindfulness and compassion. “You start to recognize where your mind tends to go when it’s not placed on your breath or your sensations. When you begin to recognize your habitual mental patterns, you can begin to work with them in a gentle way,” she adds. Mindfulness also is essential to safety. If you’re not paying attention, you risk hurting those tight muscles, and you won’t enjoy the experience. A good way to cultivate a mindful state is to “set an intention for your yoga practice,” suggests Jennifer Kohl, owner of Lotus Yoga, in Montclair, N.J., “or to dedicate it to someone you love or someone who needs your help.”
Downward-Facing Dog is a terrific way to get a taste of yoga, suggests Lee. Once you achieve the pose, stay in it for three to five minutes. You...
Downward-Facing Dog is a terrific way to get a taste of yoga, suggests Lee. Once you achieve the pose, stay in it for three to five minutes. You will notice many thoughts and emotions coming up. When you realize that you’re thinking about things other than the pose, refocus on what you’re feeling as you hold it. “You aren’t trying to get rid of thoughts,” says Lee. “You’re just corralling your mind back to the present again and again. This is how you get to know yourself and strengthen your mind muscle.”
1. Start on your hands and knees, with your knees directly below your hips and your hands slightly ahead of your shoulders. Spread your palms, keeping your index fingers parallel or slightly turned out, and turn your toes under.
2. Exhale and lift your knees away from the floor. At first, keep your knees slightly bent and your heels lifted away from the floor. Lengthen your tailbone away from the back of your pelvis, and, against this resistance, lift your sitting bones toward the ceiling. Inhale.
3. Exhale, pushing the tops of your thighs back and stretching your heels onto or toward the floor. Straighten your knees, but don’t lock them. Firm the outer thighs and roll them inward slightly.
4. Firm your outer arms and press the base of each index finger into the floor. From these two points, lift along your inner arms from the wrists to the tops of the shoulders. Firm your shoulder blades against your back, then widen them and draw them toward the tailbone. Keep your head between your upper arms -- don’t let it hang -- and hold.
A Pilates session can give your abdomen such a workout that you may never want to take another class again. All that core concentration can be...
A Pilates session can give your abdomen such a workout that you may never want to take another class again. All that core concentration can be overwhelming. That’s where mindfulness can help. When you’re fighting negative thoughts like, “Please don’t make me hold this position one second longer,” you can learn to direct your attention to your breath, your alignment and the muscles being activated as a way to process the discomfort. With steady practice, you’ll no longer dread working your core, and you’ll have more compassion for yourself when negative emotions arise. “When you incorporate mindfulness, you’re developing and nourishing present-moment awareness, and you learn to modify an exercise to meet your body’s needs at that time. In that way, you can let go of the grip of self-judgment,” says Wendy LeBlanc-Arbuckle, director of the Pilates Center of Austin, Texas. Elise Watts, a Pilates and yoga instructor based in Melbourne, Australia, and author of Pilates For Weight Loss, uses mindfulness to help her students achieve that nonjudgmental state. “I teach my clients to have compassion for their body and their unique movement of expression, because that’s more important than doing something ‘right.’”
Exercises like Pilates, tai chi and yoga (and even swimming) that demand body awareness can help you improve your body mechanics in everyday...
Exercises like Pilates, tai chi and yoga (and even swimming) that demand body awareness can help you improve your body mechanics in everyday life. Take the Swan, for instance. This chest-opening movement will encourage better posture when sitting at your desk, driving or doing any other activity that may cause your shoulders to hunch forward. To do the Swan:
1. Lie face down on a mat, and bend your elbows to bring your hands under your shoulders. Keep your arms close to your body and your legs together.
2. Engage your abdominal muscles by pulling your belly button in toward your spine. Keep your abs lifted this way throughout the exercise.
3. Inhale and straighten your arms, pushing your hands down into the mat. Keep your head in line with your spine and your hips pressed into the mat.
4. Exhale, keeping your belly button pulled in as you slowly return your torso to the mat, starting with your lower belly, your mid-belly, your lower ribs and so on. Repeat three to five times, breathing slowly and evenly.