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How to Make Any Exercise More Mindful

Amanda McKenzie, an avid yogi and freelance graphic designer in Eugene, Oregon, explains the appeal. “Mind-body exercise is grounding,” observes McKenzie. “It’s a safe place where I can turn inward and connect with my body and the Divine.” She also enjoys other types of workouts like kickboxing, with its intri- cate high-energy choreography. Yet she always returns to yoga. “Through yoga,” she says, “I’ve discovered new possibili- ties for my life. It promotes a deep sense of well-being and peace.” We know that mind-body synergy is a good thing. Yet in order to mine the real gold from this fitness trend, we must first understand the fundamental nature of bodymind exercise—what it is and how it differs from a conventional approach. Natural Awakenings turned to experts in the industry for insight.

Inside the Mind-Body Connection

Many of the world’s religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, rec- ognize mindfulness, or being aware of the present moment without judgment, as a starting point for spiritual awakening and growth. A simple Buddhist phrase aptly captures the essence of mindful- ness: Chop wood, carry water.

“In other words, if you’re chopping wood, do that. If you’re carrying water, do that. Focus your mind to be fully present and attuned to whatever you’re doing,” notes Cyndi Lee, founder of OM Yoga in New York City and author of Yoga Body, Buddha Mind.

Lee points to meditation as an age- old method for facilitating this mind- body harmony. “During meditation you learn to clear your mind of chatter, release all judgment of thoughts and feelings, and bring your attention home to sensation,” she counsels. “Master that ability and it leaks into all your life, whether you’re exercising, dealing with a screaming child or making dinner.” Mindfulness proponents have long known that what we focus on matters.

For to a large extent, our minds create our physical reality. In a golden chain, mindfulness leads to serenity, which in turn leads to clarity of consciousness. Clarity provides fertile ground for mak- ing informed choices toward manifest- ing health. It is this serene, clear space that resides in mind-body exercise, providing a place for our best qualities to flower.

Bodymind in Exercise Cameron Shayne, founder of Budokon, a mind-body system of move- ment integrating martial arts, yoga and meditation, explains that America’s fitness and sports industries typically focus on mastering movements and controlling body weight rather than holistically exploring the movement experience, emotions and all. “Interest in mind-body fitness,” he avers, “is the result of people in the United States learning to embrace self- reflection and self-observation. When the bodymind is fully engaged, practi- tioners watch themselves move through time and space, becoming aware of how they are moving and what they are feeling in the process.”

In contrast, more conventional

exercisers often speak of “zoning out” during workouts. They may don a head- set and focus on music or watch TV from a treadmill. That’s not mind-body exercise, says Lee. During bodymind movements we tune in rather than out. Furthermore, an integrated body-

mind moves organically, not mechani- cally. Movements that stem from a mind-body conversation are fluid not rigid, compassionate not judgmental. They fulfill the participant’s evolving personal needs instead of conforming tightly to some predetermined protocol. Lee gives an example: A mindless approach to exercise would be to say, “I must lose fat, so I’m going to keep running on this treadmill for 30 minutes regardless of what I’m feeling.” Run- ning may not be the best move for you, says Lee, but meanwhile the “shoulds”

James Gavin, Ph.D., a clini- cal and sports psychologist from Concor- dia Univer-

sity in Montreal, Canada, is one of today’s scientists who believes that although some disci- plines, such as yoga, martial arts and T’ai chi, focus overtly on mind- body integration, any type of exercise can be mindful.

Think of weightlifting, for example, which requires that we clear our heads of chatter to focus on breathing and move- ment form. “The hallmark of mind-body or conscious exercise,” explains Gavin, “is when your whole being achieves single-pointedness. There’s a clear and present connection between mental and physical activity. That can happen during any exercise.”

The difference may reside not so much in the type of movement itself, but rather in the state of mind participants bring to and develop from the experi- ence. For instance, a weight training ses- sion could be more mindful than a yoga asana if the yogi came preoccupied with a deadline at work while the weightlifter arrived focused and centered.

Simple suggestions for a

more mindful workout: • Watch yourself move. Focus intently on what you’re doing and pay attention to what you’re feeling as a result. Exist fully in the moment. Enjoy the paradox- ical experience of being a participant- observer. • Perform a body scan. Check in with all areas of your body during a work- out. When sensations arise, explore them, don’t ignore them. • Free yourself of judgment and at- tachment to results. Instead of focusing on a future flatter stomach or tighter tush, view the workout as an opportu- nity to be awake in your life today.

natural awakenings November 2013 19

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