Turning A Simple Workout Into A Meditative Experience.
We've all heard the benefits of sitting meditation at least once. Maybe your cousin watched a podcast and they've been talking incessantly about Keto and Meditation. It seems like everyone nowadays has at least tried meditating once in their life. Maybe hoping they'll be able to get a piece of happiness from the practice.
Unfortunately, most people aren't initially suited to seated breath meditation. They sit down ready to be in silence, alone with their own thoughts. And their mind wanders in circles, they forcefully try to cage their mind, and they end up turning a mentally peaceful experience into a war over their own mind. This is why I'm a big proponent of turning life itself into a meditative experience first. No, I don't mean turning your brain off and not thinking or reacting to the world around you like a zombie. But by making every action in your life as single-pointedly focused as possible you can really settle into every moment without struggling to go somewhere else mentally. The goal is to settle not in the past, present, and future but as you are. This leads us to also turn our simple daily workout into a moment of equanimity and relaxation.
Before I begin, just a bit of context on movement-related meditation (beyond yoga of course):
There are a thousand different kinds of meditative practices that involved movement as a meditational practice that is often ignored. For example Tummo, a Tibetan yogic practice involved lots of jumping, breath control, and other very active movements to complete the practice. Or Tai Chi, a very common slow-moving martial arts practice that wouldn't be possible without meditative concentration. Or even just walking meditation, where you focus on each muscle contraction as you move, the sighs and sounds around you. and the sensation of the ground that you walk on.
So what can we learn from these practices? It's simple, these practices require three things generally.
The first that we'll go over is Breath control.
Breath control is super important for working out for many reasons. By controlling our breath we can utilize it to lift more weight, run farther, and pump out more reps. Every exercise in the gym will have a different breathing pattern that you'll have to get used to. But by focusing on the exhalation and inhalation of the body through the diaphragm, you'll find a very consistent object to single-pointedly focus on.
The next is Noting.
Noting involves taking note of the surrounding sensations around you and labeling them with simple words without elaboration. This can involve feeling the sensation of the Knurling on the barbell, so thinking 'rough' when you touch the barbell. Or it can involve labeling the movement of the exercise that you're doing, saying "up, down, up, down" during the eccentric and concentric portions of a bench press. This is a similar concept behind counting during meditation.
The last is Muscular Focus.
Muscular focus involves a single-pointed focus on the muscular contractions in your body. This practice is very effective at avoiding injuries and it gets you in tune with your body during your workouts. The process is simple. Focus on a primary mover in the exercise that you're doing. So for bench press, I would do my chest, for a squat, I would focus on my quads. You want to start off simple with one muscle, and as you get a greater handle on the practice you can expand your focus to other movers. You want to feel the movements of the muscle, noticing it stretch and contract throughout the movement. Notice the squeezing sensations that you might have at the top and bottom of a movement. With this method, you'll be more inclined to take exercises in a slower more methodical manner, yielding greater muscular results as well due to an increased time under tension.
Now ideally you should be able to combine all three at once. You're noting the movements that you're doing, that the bar is heavy and rough, you're controlling your inhalations and exhalations at certain parts of the reps, and you're legs are contracting and relaxing throughout the movement of the squat. All three of these exercises serve the purpose of grounding your mind in the present moment. You're not thinking about what your new protein powder will taste like, you're not thinking about how you need to rush through this set to get to the cable machine before everyone else does, you're focused entirely on the movement that you're doing in all aspects that your mind can handle.
Turn off the music - Music can help elevate a workout a lot, but adding music into a mindfulness practice can be a big hindrance. I also find that when I'm listening to heavy metal during a max, I'm less focused on my body as a whole and I'm at a greater risk for injury compared to if I was focused entirely on the rep.
Carry this practice around the gym - As you start to get used to these three practices consider employing them in between sets, when you walk to the next machine, and to and from the gym, and beyond the gym.
Take one practice at a time and start small. Take your time and don't rush through these practices. Consider getting used to noting and then add breath control and muscular focus when you feel ready.