Bringing Mindfulness to Exercise: Five Tips for Feeling Fully Alive While in Movement      by Ben Gaibel  


Exercise can often feel like another chore to cross off the list, and it is normal to want to get it over with while trying to distract oneself, as not to have to feel the potential discomfort or boredom that can arise.  Take a typical health club for an example.  It is normal to see the majority of people who are on an aerobic machine to have headphones on while staring at a built-in flat screen television placed directly in front of each person’s face.  In Peter Levine’s book, In an Unspoken Voice, he sums it up best by saying, “It’s as though these individuals had temporarily parked their bodies, only to pick them up like the dry cleaning, after they had been exercised by the machines.”  It is normal and understandable to want to dissociate and be “out” of one’s body during physical exertion by finding various modes of entertaining distractions, or simply by spacing out and daydreaming.  However, another option is to lean in towards the activity with full attention, using movement as an opportunity to be awake and alive in one’s life.  Even if it is for just one workout/exercise session per week, I encourage the experimentation of taking off the headphones, and seeing what is like to be fully present in the body while in movement.

The practice of bringing mindfulness to exercise can be applied to a wide range of activities, such as walking, running, hiking, swimming, weightlifting, dancing, and bicycling, just to name a few.  Mindful exercise can be an excellent opportunity to connect the mind and body, and maximize one’s physical and mental health.  The practice can also reduce the risk of injury due to the careful attention involved.  Here are five tips to consider practicing the next time you head out for some exercise:

  1. While in movement, begin to notice the ongoing sensation of contact the body is making with whatever it is pushing or pulling in order to move. With running, it can involve noticing the sensation of the feet making contact with the ground. For swimming, notice the sensation of the body making contact with the water, perhaps with particular attention to the hands and feet where sensations are most often felt the strongest.
  2. Notice the sensation of the body as a whole moving through space. Practice being fully “in” the body, aware of what this amazing living instrument is doing to move.   It might be useful to bring attention to your overall form, and notice your posture.  Are you moving in a safe and efficient way?  Bringing extra attention to form can be especially useful for minimizing risk of injury, and maximizing performance.  It might be useful to consider any feeling of gratitude and curiosity for having a body that can move in such a way.
  3. Bring attention to the sensation of breathing. Notice the full duration of each inbreath and each outbreath.  Notice the constant changing qualities of the breath, making note if it is shallow or deep, long or short, and notice the changes along with the exercise.  You might want to bring attention to the sensation of air coming in and out of the nostrils or mouth, the feeling of the lungs filling and emptying of air, or the feeling deep down in the belly as the abdominal wall moves with each round of breath.  There is no need to try control the breath, but rather, allowing the wisdom of the body to breathe itself while gathering your attention with the feeling of the breath.
  4. Expand the attention outward to other senses, such as sight, sound, or smell. Obviously, this might be more pleasant if the exercise is done outdoors.  Take in any of your surroundings such as the sky, trees, and other aspects of nature as if seeing it for the very first time.  Notice sounds coming and going such as the sound of your feet making contact with the ground, birds chirping, wind, or the sound of your breath.  Become aware of any pleasant smells present within nature, such as the smell of trees.
  5. Notice whenever you find yourself lost in thought with worrying about the future, ruminating over the past, or having negative thoughts regarding the exercise. Without giving yourself a hard time, simply acknowledge thoughts as just thoughts, and bring the attention back to any of the sensations or senses mentioned above.  Allow thoughts to come and go without getting lost in them, while continually bringing the attention back to the present experience of exercising, over and over and over again.

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