4 Ways to Practice Mindfulness While You Exercise
Mindfulness is a form of meditation, but that doesn’t mean you have to sit still on the floor for hours to practice and benefit from it. In fact, you can practice mindfulness while you’re exercising—think of it as the perfect opportunity to care for your body and your mind at the same time.
Mindfulness is a mental state of being fully present in the moment and aware of your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, without judgment. And it offers tons of benefits.
“Mindfulness gives us the ability to be more present in our life, so we are better able to savor it,” explains London-based mindfulness coach and trainer Jo Kaye. “It encourages us to use all of our senses—touch, taste, smell, etcetera—and to step out of our usual ‘doing’ mode and reconnect with ourselves. When we do this, we are better able to attend to our needs.”
The first step toward incorporating mindfulness into your daily or weekly exercise routine is shifting your current perspective on exercise itself, says therapist Amira Johnson, from Berman Psychotherapy in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Rather than thinking of exercise as a solely physical experience, look at it through a different lens and try to understand that it’s a practice of unity and connection with the self,” Johnson recommends.
Next comes deciding what type of exercise provides the best opportunity for mindfulness. Here are a few methods experts recommend.
Maybe the most obvious choice is yoga—and for good reason. “I would say yoga is the best practice for incorporating mindfulness because yoga and meditation are closely related,” says Kaye. “When we pay full attention to the movements in the body while doing yoga, and especially the breath, we are getting as close to a meditation as we can while moving.”
So, whether you’re going through a sun-salutation sequence or sitting in the lotus position, the key is to pay full attention to what is happening in that particular moment, rather than plan your shopping list in your head.
Kaye also finds swimming a fantastic practice for tapping into mindfulness. “Mindful movement is the ability to bring our attention back to the sensations in the body, as well as being able to observe thoughts as they arise,” she says. “Swimming has a lot going on to support this—feeling the sensation of the water around your body, correcting your stroke, timing and feeling each breath, reaching the end of the pool and having to turn to come back, counting lengths, and feeling your muscles working as you kick your legs.”
With so many things going on, you’ll have no choice but to continually bring your attention back to your body while you swim.
Kaye teaches a lot of mindful walking, which she describes as “a tried and tested practice.”
“It requires us to walk very slowly, paying full attention to the experience of each movement in the body while also noticing the distractions in our mind,” she says. “It takes a lot of patience and concentration, and can be very revealing!”
As with all types of mindfulness practice, the key is awareness. So, wherever you’re walking, the goal is to pay attention to all the sensations, sounds, thoughts, and emotions as they arise. “It’s about noticing when we are getting lost in the past or the future and bringing ourselves back to what is happening in the present, as best we can,” says Kaye.
It’s possible to bring mindful attention to running, but it’s definitely best done without any distractions, like music or podcasts.
“By paying attention to the body while we run, we can really feel the effort and sensations of each move, and especially our breath,” Kaye explains. “We may also hear birds singing, or people talking. It’s possible to use all of our senses to keep us present, from moment to moment.”
More Ideas for Mindful Movement
If a yoga flow, dip in the pool, or leisurely walk isn’t your thing, don’t worry—Johnson says mindfulness can be incorporated into any type of exercise. After all, the breath is an essential component of all exercise routines. Even your sweaty gym session can be the perfect time to bring your attention back to the moment.
“Squats, Roman deadlifts, and lunges can incorporate mindful breathing, such as deep inhaling on the drive up or down during a squat, Roman deadlift or lunge—depending on which pattern of breathing works best in the moment—and paying close attention to form, rather than rushing to complete each set due to the intensity,” says Johnson.
Remember, this is simply an understanding of where you are as it relates to time and space, and not letting your mind wander elsewhere, like to what you’re making for dinner that night or what homework tasks your kids still have to do—and if it does, bringing it back to the present moment.
Another mental-health practice that can easily become part of your gym routine is gratitude, Johnson adds. For instance, after each set you could acknowledge your body’s hard work and everything it does for you.
“A simple affirmation, such as ‘Thank you, body’ or ‘My body works wonders’ can help create an energy shift where you feel more connected to yourself and give your body more motivation to continue being so supportive on a daily basis,” she explains.
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