Yoga teacher, author, and martial artist Adam Brady has been associated with the Chopra Center for nearly 20 years.
For many people, the idea of getting fit is more of a chore than an inspiring or uplifting activity. With this mindset it’s easy to procrastinate or postpone a workout rather than to embrace the opportunity to actively strengthen and move your body. When you do eventually make it to the gym or get out for a walk or run, you may not even enjoy the experience.
Are you one of those people who mindlessly rushes through your workout to get it over with? Or do you distract yourself with background noise or TV so you don’t have to face the drudgery of working out? Unfortunately, this approach rarely allows you to enjoy the workout and it certainly doesn’t set you up for optimal results or the achievement of your long-term fitness goals. Worse yet, the distractions caused by unfocused workouts can lead to accidents and injuries that can take you further off track.
The trick is to create a more mindful and enjoyable workout. When it comes to exercise, certain activities naturally lean toward a more mindful approach to fitness. By selecting those exercises that foster a more attentive mindset, you can reap the deeper benefits of training, be they physical, mental, or spiritual. What follows is a list of a few common activities and techniques that can lead you toward a fitter, more mindful you.
It can be very easy to take this activity for granted and ignore the opportunities for mindful exercise it holds. When walking for a prolonged period, take walking from the unconscious into the conscious realm by simply becoming attentive to the process. Focus on the different muscles engaged, pay attention to your balance as it moves from right to left, and actively swing your arms and lengthen your spine.
Running, on the other hand, requires more focus as it engages all these qualities and deepens them with the entraining rhythm of your feet hitting the pavement, the cyclical flow of your breath, and the beat of your heart. Indeed, many runners find this experience to be a type of meditation in which the beats and cadences of the run become a mantra of sorts, leading to a shift in awareness. Whichever activity you choose, walking or running, you’ll find they each offer ample opportunities for mindful fitness.
An often-overlooked exercise that you likely learned as a child, jumping rope has a host of incredible mind-body benefits. Cardiovascular strength, timing, and coordination all come together when repeatedly hopping over a whirling rope. Since repetition is the key to successful rope jumping, the longer you jump, skip, and breathe, the more focused and attentive your mind can become. Multitasking in this exercise is not an option. Only single-pointed awareness will get you through a 3-minute round of skipping rope.
Another activity you may have learned as a child, riding a bike is an inherently mindful activity. Indeed, learning to ride a bike is often considered a major breakthrough in the development of basic mind-body coordination for a kid. The combined balance, strength, cardiovascular conditioning, variable terrain, and fresh air create an unsurpassed opportunity for present-moment body awareness. Anchored to the moment by the rhythm of the pedals and the breath, you can let go of the past and the future and simply enjoy the ride, no matter where it takes you.
The Kettlebell is a 300-year-old Russian strength-building tool that looks like a cannonball with a handle. Its offset balance makes it a unique piece of equipment that can build whole-body muscular strength as well as enhance cardiovascular fitness. The kettlebell swing is the staple of all kettlebell movements. It consists of holding the bell in the hands and using the hips to drive the bell from between the legs up to mid-chest level and back again. Multiple repetitions create a regular breathing rhythm that helps to anchor your mind to the present moment. In addition, due to the intricacy and level of detail necessary to perform the swing properly, it demands the utmost focus and attention.
For hundreds of years martial artists and boxers have used shadowboxing to hone their technique and prepare for combat. However, you don’t have to be fighters to benefit from a basic shadowboxing routine. Slowly throwing simple punches or kicks in the air helps to develop mind-body coordination, timing, reflexes, and overall kinesthetic awareness. Paired with simple footwork and steady breathing, shadowboxing becomes an excellent vehicle for mindful exercise.
This ancient Chinese practice is known as the art and science of using breathing techniques, gentle movements, and focused intentions to cultivate and circulate life energy through the body. By its very definition, qi gong is consciousness in motion and helps to guide the practitioner into a deeply mindful and relaxed state as the awareness goes within. An ideal activity for present moment fitness, qi gong also helps to reduce stress, increase vitality, strengthen the immune system, and benefit cardiovascular, respiratory, circulatory, lymphatic, and digestive functions.
An amazing exercise that originated in India, the dand, or Hindu pushup is one of the most comprehensive and beneficial exercises for the entire body. Ideal for building functional strength, endurance, and hip mobility, the dand resembles a dynamic and flowing combination of two classic yoga poses—downward dog and cobra. Performed in repetitions of 25, 50, or more, the dand requires not only focused and mindful breathing, but also an attentive awareness to posture and bodily alignment. As such, it’s a wonderful exercise to cultivate bodily present moment awareness.
The sister exercise to the dand, the baithak or Hindu squat is an Indian callisthenic bodyweight exercise used by wrestlers to develop lower body strength. As opposed to traditional squats, the baithak resembles more of a deep knee bounce with the heels raised off the ground. The arms swing in rhythmic manner with each squat, moving toward the back during the descent and forward toward the chest on the upward stroke. As with the dand, a focused breathing cadence is necessary to maintain an even tempo with the movement and to ensure adequate respiration during the exercise. The gaze is kept directed straight ahead, which further helps to focus the mind and keep the awareness on the movement at hand. Traditionally, the dand and baithak were performed together in sets—two baithaks for every one dand. Thus, 25 dands equals 50 baithaks. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by these two amazing exercises. Since they are both bodyweight exercises, they can be practiced by anyone provided each person begins at their own level.
No discussion on mind-body fitness would be complete without acknowledging yoga as a foundational practice. The gentle stretching, breathing, and relaxation cultivated during yoga sets the stage for a deeper experience of body, mind, and spirit. Each movement, practiced mindfully, can open the door to higher awareness and deeper self-knowledge. In addition, the physical benefits of the practice—increased flexibility, strength, and balance along with improved digestion, circulation, and immune function—add up to make yoga an ideal choice for complete mind-body integration.
Enjoy the benefits of focused activity and continued well-being when you bring more mindfulness to your exercise program.
*Author’s Note: Always check with your physician before beginning any exercise program and seek expert instruction when learning new movements that you are unfamiliar with. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific exercise instruction.