Mindfulness is Not Confined to Meditation
The basic idea of mindfulness in exercise is the same as in meditation. Just pay close attention to what you’re doing moment by moment. And when your attention drifts, bring it back to the present. As with meditation, it helps to use some aids to keep your mind focused.
When I was 32 and very out of shape I joined an early morning men’s volleyball group that met at a local high school gym. We were all guys who wanted to get in some exercise before work. Some of them ran on the track after the volleyball games. One day I decided join them and to my great surprise I couldn’t make it one time around the quarter mile track without stopping to rest. When I began to run all I could think about was how difficult it was, how out of breath I felt. There was no joy, I just wanted to be finished.
Focus on the Breath
But I continued to try. After struggling like this for a few weeks I hit upon the idea of linking my breaths to my steps. I began linking my exhalations to every third step. One, two exhale, one, two exhale over and over as I ran. This seemed to calm my mind and organize my chaotic breathing. It’s a similar technique to counting your breath in meditation. It focuses your mind and calms you down.
When breathing out on every third step your exhalations alternate between the left and right foot. It feels nice and symmetrical. When the rhythm of my steps and my breathing were linked, running seemed much easier. The sound of my foot falls and the rhythm of my breath became unified and had a calming effect on my mind.
Mindfulness in Motion
I had a feeling of all my parts working together. The feeling of chaos and struggle was gone. I doubt I would have continued running had I not discovered this technique. After a few months I progressed to eight times around the track each morning and switched to running around the neighborhood instead.
Today my mindful exercise is walking, but I use the breath in the same way. Walking this way, I feel like I am inside my own energy bubble, paying acute attention to my breath, body and the pace of my exercise. I have less interest in thinking about other things. I fall into a mild trance, enjoying the rhythm of my walking, the crunch of my shoes on the ground and the sound of my breathing. When thoughts begin to intrude I can easily bring my attention back to my walking. Sometimes it becomes a sort of walking meditation.
Once you get good at this you begin to look forward to each day’s walk or run –it becomes your own private period of solitude and contemplation. I prefer to walk alone most of the time, and to walk without listening to music on my headphones.
I’ll close with a quote I like about running from Ozzie Gontang, Ph.D. (His blog is called “Mindfulness – Your Present Moment.”)
“Observe your environs. Listen to your body and all the sounds it makes and all the feelings that come with muscles working. No iPod or anything in my ears. Become a ninja running or stealth runner. Go for the grace. Identify thoughts as thoughts and let them go. Identify emotional feelings as feelings and let them go.”