Mindfulness is Forged in the Gym
Workouts are the gateway drug to mindfulness training
There are plenty of articles on why athletes should meditate, but for everyone else, the body needs to be quieted first before mental training can begin.
Before committing to a three-times-a-week workout routine, I couldn’t sit still or focus for extended periods. I was easily distracted, couldn’t make good food choices, drank too much booze and was quick to snap at my kids after a long day. I’m not sure mindfulness training would have worked in that chaos.
In an exercised body I can now make better, more intentional choices about my eating, life in general and I have more energy. I use a raised voice as a tool to manage my kid’s behavior, not out of desperation.
Vigorous exercise came first for me and meditation or — to use the less spiritually-charged expression, mindfulness training — followed. There’s one clear distinction that must be made: one is forced on the mind, the other is brought about by the mind. Here’s what I discovered along the way.
A healthy mind in a healthy body
You may have heard the Latin phrase “mens sana in corpore sano” — a healthy mind in a healthy body. From this perspective, your mind’s vessel needs taking care of. With all the conflicting information on healthy eating, I think we can agree that our sedentary lifestyle calls for more exercise. So that’s where I started.
For me it has to be the hard, painful type of exercise like CrossFit probably because I was raised Catholic and need to experience suffering, I don’t know, but it paved the way for my mindfulness training.
Anyone that does CrossFit will know what I mean. It’s by no means the only way and may not be right for you but it works for me. This is not an article about CrossFit. Disclaimer: I’m also a CrossFit Level 1 coach, so I’m sold on the methodology. I assume you know what it is but if you don’t know go the source for a description.
The CrossFit-style workout is a mental game: you vs. you. You learn how far you can push yourself physically and mentally and it is humbling, as you become acutely aware of your limitations. It’s a great way to keep my ego in check, but the main thing is my physical and mental energy stores are obliterated from the intensity. Once I’ve recovered there’s a quiet and energy-filled calm that washes over me the rest of the day.
Drugs aren’t my thing, so mindfulness training is my way of chasing that post-workout feeling without having to go to the gym. I’m clearly not on some spiritual quest; I just want to feel at ease, be calm and have energy.
Here’s how CrossFit sets me up for mindfulness training:
Breathe through it
Mindfulness training is about observing your breath. In a workout, beyond getting your body to execute the movement, the most important thing is the right kind of breathing. Try doing 100 wall balls as fast as you can without finding a rhythm. You will heave your way through and burn out. I have become acutely aware of my breathing in order to adapt to these demands, unlocking when it’s best to inhale and exhale.
Embrace the process
Working out hard has taught me to embrace process over outcome. If you’re in the middle of another grueling round of 40 burpees and only half-way to the finish line it’s best to just count out one rep at a time and breathe through it. It’s about survival: panic, fear, and regret have no place being there, and time starts to fly by. Being present in the moment is what meditation aims to achieve. Mindfulness training is a process and requires constant application. The effects are sometimes imperceptible (just like my abs), but I know they are getting stronger.
Most of all, working out has built mental resilience into my daily life. Sure, I get tired sometimes, but I show up, stick to the plan and follow through. There is no room for my emotions to get in the way of the task at hand.
Former CrossFit games athlete Jason Khalipa is writing a book about how the mental game in CrossFit informs his life. I heard him talk about this AMRAP (As Many Reps or Rounds As Possible) mentality and understood intrinsically what he meant. Each task or situation in daily life can be approached with the same commitment and focus as a workout, which leaves you little room to think beyond the present moment. Take that mentality into daily life, and you may find it easier to embrace the good, the bad, the mundane and the extraordinary in your day, and become more mindful.
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