Making a physical exercise a meditative experience
An ancient Indian sage, named Patanjali, expounded the practical science of yoga in eights steps, called Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. By following these steps meticulously, an individual can achieve Samadhi or state of super-consciousness. Though the practice of each of eight steps is independent, they should, in fact, be merged with each other so as to strive to achieve the state of super-consciousness. However, they have to be followed strictly to reach this state. Out of these eight steps, yoga asana occupy third step. Yoga as taught in most of today’s yoga classes, does not cover the entire range of yogic experience. They concentrate more on asana and pranayama - controlled yogic breathing techniques - without understanding that these are only a part of the entire system of Yoga philosophy.
Yoga asana are specific postures of the body, which the practitioner has to perform regularly to attain health benefits. In addition, they bestow spiritual benefits upon the practitioners. Most of the people think that benefits of performance of yoga asana are only physical but, as a matter of fact, their performance can be a mindfulness meditative practice too.
Beside yoga asana, the practice of any type of physical exercise can become a meditative experience for the performer.
Mindfullness implies seeing things as they are. It requires us to be unconditionally present in the present moment. It simply helps us be present with whatever is happening no matter what it is. In other words, it implies paying precise, nonjudgmental attention to the details of our experience as it arises and subsides. Instead of struggling to get away from experiences we find difficult, we practice being able to be with them.
Physical exercise can be a meditative experience – The following elucidation will help us understand the meditative experience of physical exercise:
- Any kind of physical exercise involves an activity requiring repetitive movements of a part or parts of the body in a systematic and synchronized manner for a specific time period. Different types of exercises such as walking, running, weight training, Pilates, yoga asana etc. all involve repetitive movements of a part or parts of our body.
- An exercise activity also necessitates that the individual maintains strictly a proper body form while executing a particular exercise. While maintaining a strict form, it is also necessary that one should keep its execution as smooth as one can or else it is likely to cause injury or undue strain to the part that is being exercised.
- For the performance of an exercise in its proper form needs total awareness of its movements by performing it with absolute concentration. At the same time, it also needs awareness of peripheral activity going on nearby. Total awareness of an exercise with intense concentration keeps the individual mindful in the present moment, whereas simultaneous awareness of peripheral activity expands one’s mindfulness. Thus, proper performance of any physical activity increases and expands the mindfulness of the performer, thereby making the activity a meditative experience.
- Mindfulness also requires letting go of distractions and unrelated thoughts. It also requires one to focus one’s attention on sensations, breath and movements of the body. The basic premise is to be mindfully aware throughout of one’s full workout, which will keep the individual well grounded in the present from moment to moment. In fact, the meditative experience of an exercise activity not only lasts during a workout but continues to last beyond the completion of the workout.
By being mindful of exercise, one can derive the following benefits:
- One develops a healthy and loving relationship with one’s body.
- One increases overall effectiveness of the workout.
- One can enhance the enjoyment of the workout.
- One can decrease the risk of injury.
- One can keep one’s motivation high so as to make the exercise workout as a lifestyle.
- One gets a meditative experience as long as and beyond the duration of workout.
- One gets a real high after performing an exercise with mindfulness.
How to turn exercise into a meditation –
If we create oneness of mind and body during an exercise activity, it will be an altogether different experience for us because mostly our mind is elsewhere than the particular activity. Our mind is caught in the past or in the future in most of our day-to-day activities.
- To create oneness between mind and body during exercise, one should pay mindful attention to the breathing and ensure that air is moving in and out of nostrils smoothly and, at the same time, being aware of its difficulty if any. If breathing becomes difficult or labored, it indicates that one has to slow down the intensity of exercise or stop.
- Next is to be mindfully aware of movements of body parts in an exercise. One has to ensure that each exercise movement has to be executed smoothly in proper form for a pre-determined period. For instance, during walking if one is mindfully aware of movement of each step and one’s correct posture, one will be fully present in the movement of walking. Thus, it will produce a meditative experience since one’s mind is deeply absorbed in the activity without being caught in the issues of past and future. This is applicable to all types of exercise activities such as weight training, jogging, running, playing games, Yoga asana etc. In addition, undivided attention to the movements of an exercise, along with peripheral awareness of activities going on nearby, enhances the effectiveness and proficiency of a particular activity.
- One has to be further aware of the intensity of movements of an exercise; only by being mindful, we can control its intensity, which will determine our progress in a particular exercise, thereby reaping its health benefits.
- Furthermore, one has also to be mindful of the duration of a workout so that one can vary its duration in order to enhance the benefits of the workout.
- In the same vein, one has to be mindful of warm-up and cool-down before starting and finishing an exercise workout.
As a matter of fact, by being mindfully aware of the all the components of exercise workout: breathing, movements of body parts, intensity, duration of exercise and warm-up and cool-down, we can create a meditative experience out of it. If an activity is prolonged and continuous like walking running, jogging etc., the mindfulness is likely to be disrupted sometimes during the activity, but one can easily bring it back to it. On the other hand, if the activity is intense but short like weight lifting or a set of an exercise of weight training, the disruption of mindfulness during it may disturb the proper form and intensity, resulting in an injury to the body. The same is likely to happen while playing games, which also need intense mindful concentration.
The bottom line –
According to Patanjali yoga philosophy, a regimen of workout of yoga asana done regularly can be turned into meditation if performed mindfully with intense concentration. This can make us evolve spiritually. Likewise, as a matter of fact, any physical exercise can be turned into a meditative experience by means of mindfulness and good concentration. A gymnast knows how much mindfulness and intense concentration goes into making a regimen of gymnastics successful. Similarly, an expert dancer can testify how much intense concentration is required to make an act of dance successful. Both these are examples of physical activities turned into meditative experiences. Only the performer can vouch for how much satisfaction and happiness is provided by the successful performance of these activities.
Thus, we can turn a workout of physical exercise into a meditative experience by way of being mindfully present in it with intense concentration. This will also result in a strong feeling of post-exercise high, which will continue to last beyond the duration of workout, keeping us in good spirits for most part of the day.