Strength Training and Meditation
Are Strength Training and Meditation Compatible?
Yoga is known for it's meditative qualities. As a discipline, the primary purpose of yoga is to do inner work, to become at one with the universe and other such spiritual goals. Strength training, on the other hand, is associated with working on brute force and our primal animalistic tendencies. Strength training is considered to be the furthest practice from spiritual work. Nobody has asked the question, can strength training be used as a meditative practice? And if so, how would it work?
When I started working out, my main goal simply was to get buff. I also wanted to be healthy and fit my whole life, for I saw what happened to my aunts and uncles as they got older. None of them exercised and ate right and had a whole host of health problems. They were in their 40's and they acted as if they were in their 60's. I wanted none of that. I wanted to be healthy, fit, and energetic for as long as I could. Thus I embarked on my fitness journey at the age of 17, and I haven't looked back.
When I was 37 years old I started having emotional problems. I owned a business with my wife (ex wife now) and had 2 young kids. Everything looked fine on the surface, but my wife and I started having marital problems. At first it looked like we just needed to talk through things and move on. No such luck. The more we tried to work on our issues, the worse it seemed to get. This was the catalyst that drove me to do psycho/spiritual work. I worked with 3 different spiritual coaches and a therapist as well.
Going through my divorce opened the door to a lot of emotional pain. I was always depressed, sad and hurt. I felt like I was in another world and that my feet were not firmly planted on the ground. I did not know who I was. I saw parts of my personality that I did not even know existed. As a matter of fact, I seemed to have many different personalities that wanted to take center stage in behavior to the outside world. Who were these "people"? Why did they not show up before? What am I to do? I was beginning to think I was a schizophrenic. These were the questions I had to answer. When I worked with the therapist, we did some work on the personalities and my relationships with my parents when I was younger, but I felt it would not be enough. Not only did I feel it in my head, but I felt it my body. I needed some deep work. I needed spiritual work.
In my search, I found three different spiritual coaches with their unique approach to inner work. To this day I use a collage of their different approaches when I deal with challenging situations. For brevity, I will describe one of the most powerful, life changing and memorable processes during my journey.
"I am a Coward"
One weekend during this period in my life I went to a spiritual men's retreat. All day long, every day for 3 days we went through various processes and talk sessions to learn about ourselves, our hidden issues that hold us back from living life to the fullest, and tools to help overcome them. One process is what I like to describe is "being called to the carpet". A carpet is placed in the center and the men are gathered around it. The facilitator calls one man to the center. He then asks the man a question along the line (I don't remember exactly, but this is close), as a man among men, do you live you life in integrity? So in front of a group of men, you being in the center, you have to answer that question. Believe me, that is a ego shattering event. None of the men that day answered that they do live in integrity. I was no exception. I answered no. He did the follow up question, a simple why not? Without thinking about it (that's why it works so well, the ego has no chance to censor the truth in this situation. It has no time), I started crying and going down to my knees. I said "because I am a coward". I was surprised by my answer. I have been a personal trainer for 10 years by this point. I was very strong physically, and I thought I was also of strong character. Apparently I was not. While I was on my knees crying, he asked another question. Why are you a coward? Again, my answer shocked me. "Because my dad said I was".
That is when I remembered an incident when I was very young. I just signed up for wrestling earlier that day and was very excited about it. I took a bath, had my pajamas on and I was running around barefoot. I stepped on a nail and started to bleed. Needless to say I cried to my mom. While she was comforting me, my dad came and said in a very angry voice (he was always angry), " you signed up for wrestling and you can't handle a little nail"? "You are a coward". There were other such incidences when I was young, but that one I remember. That is what came up. It was then that I realized that unconsciously I saw myself as afraid...a coward. I was afraid of getting into fights. I was always non confrontational. I thought it was because I just didn't want to fight, but through this process I realized it was because I was terrified of a fight, both physically and even in a protecting my boundaries kind of way. This was a startling revelation.
Upon revealing this, the facilitator set up a physical process to get rid of the belief system. He had me choose one of the guys as my "real" father, another one as a "loving" father, and then he had six other guys in a three deep row holding each others arms. Kind of like a sreies of closed gates. At the end of the gate was my "real" father and behind him my "loving" father. He had the guys holding arms saying the messages I heard as a child, such as you are a coward, you are a loser, you are a wimp, etc..Then the facilitator told me I had to break through these messages, throw my "real" dad out of the way to get to my "loving" dad. The guys were instructed to hold the barriers as hard as they can. No slacking. I had to work with all my might to break through. When I went through the process, I was exhausted. I felt an emotional release not only in my mind, but clear down to the muscular, cellular level. It was out. Those feelings and beliefs were gone!
The Strength Training/Meditation Connection
So what does this have to do with strength training? Everything. By going through this process, I learned that when we hold emotions such as stress, anxiety, fear, and sadness, it is not all in the mind. It is also in the body. Deep in the body. You can do all the calm relaxing meditation in the world, but if you don't get it out of your pyhsical body, the job is not complete. It's still there. It can remanifest itself again...and grow again. You have to purge it. Focused, intense muscular contractions do exactly that.
Knowing what I know about strength training, and now knowing what I know about meditation, I combined the two to create a meditative process that gets deep, both physically and mentally. How do I know it works? I use it just about every workout myself. My wife does it too when she is anxious and it resets her mind and body. I even used it on a couple of clients when they had a particularly stressful point in their lives. We all have felt better, and stayed more centered.
Here is how it is done. The workout you do needs to be 15 to 30 minutes in duration. It has to be hard, as hard as you can stand it. I like strength training because I can work all the muscles that way, but you can use a bike, sprints, plyometric exercise or body weight exercises. They all would work, just do it hard. Before you begin, take a few minutes to concentrate on your feelings. Why are you feeling angry, sad, depressed or anxious? Do some real soul searching. When you have it pinned down, start your exercise program always focusing on the feelings and what's driving them. If you have to yell or scream while working out, do it! This is a release. Then when you are done with the workout, lay down on a mat and let your breathing come back to normal. When you have your breath back, start a chant. You can use any chant. It just has to be repetitive so that you can go into a deeper state. Do that for another 15 minutes. All the time stay focused on the feelings, and pay attention to what comes up. Trust me, your issues will come up. The ego is so beat up it can't suppress what is beneath the surface. When it comes up, just be with it. Hold no judgement or shame. Just be with it. Let it talk to you. Stay with it as long as you like. I have stayed in this trance for as long as an hour after my workout. When you come out of it, you will feel a peace and calm you have never experienced before. One time is not enough, though. Your ego always comes back, but if you make a consistent practice, you will see longer and longer periods of calm throughout your day and your life. Just like any discipline, you have to commit to see long term benefits.
You may be wondering how my life is at this point with the work I have done. Glad you asked. My life is fabulous! I have a successful business that is low stress. I am happily married to a wonderful woman who loves me for who I am, and I love her for who she is. She is amazed at how I don't get upset over anything, and how I can handle all my problems calmly. I have a great relationship with both of my kids. They stay out of trouble, are self motivated, and we have mutual respect for each other. I am truly happy and centered. I am sure this process played a big role in my attitude toward life. I encourage you to give it a try. See what it can do for you.