Meditation and exercise

Meditation has been showing up in my world a lot lately. It could be argued that as a yoga practitioner, meditation should show up daily, but it is easy to put that portion of the practice on hold for the physicality of asana. It could also be argued that yoga is moving meditation, and I definitely think that it can be, but first a brief explanation of what meditation actually is and how it can be applied to all realms of exercise, not just asana.

Lately, I have been a bit dissatisfied with the fitness industry, or more accurately, the air of negativity and self righteousness that permeates the online scene. Perhaps this is the downside of social media- often the ones with the loudest voices are also the ones with the strongest opinions. I study a variety of systems in an effort to find the most effective way to get people moving well, get them strong, and prepare them for the demands of life. The systems I study all provide aha moments, but I find them incomplete. Each one is missing something and so I am constantly searching for the answer, the one system that will help all of my clients lead pain free lives. I find many people in my profession like to make absolute claims regarding movement, (“Distance running will kill you!” “Yoga will make you weak!” "Kettlebells cure everything!") all while claiming a specific system/methodology/philosophy is the solution to movement dysfunction. This frustration led me to run away to a yoga festival in Boulder and study with several well respected teachers and turn off my phone. Meditation came up in two of the classes, and I found the teachers saying things that made sense. Jason Crandall said that meditation is really the observation of thoughts without judgement, and Maty Ezraty said her cues (which were given while we were shaking in deceptively simple postures) were meant to help focus our thoughts and move us towards a more meditative state. 

According to Wikipedia, “meditation is a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or as an end in itself.” A meta-analysis performed by Morgan,, (2014) found mind-body therapies are effective at reducing markers of inflammation, and it is well-accepted that meditation can be an effective way to reduce blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and decrease cortisol. The term meditation can indicate several different techniques. A fascinating paper Debarnot (2014) examines the influence meditation can have on expertise (if you have any sort of interest in mastery, this is well-worth the read. The link can be found below). They categorized meditation into two different groups: focused attention and open monitoring. Focused attention is the concentration of a particular external stimulus while ignoring all other input. This was the type of meditative practice Maty was hoping we would achieve by listening to her cues rather than fixating on what our bodies were feeling or thoughts of “this is too hard.” This type of practice can develop sustained attention and enables the practitioner to redirect attention to the desired object, in my example, Maty’s voice. On the opposite end of the spectrum is open monitoring, which aims to enlarge focus to all incoming sensations, emotions, or thoughts without any judgement. This was what Jason was emphasizing during his arm balance class. He wanted us to notice what we felt and observe the thoughts associated with the asana without judging them (harder than it seems if you are at all type A). This type of practice is believed to develop awareness, and improve executive attention. John Ratey, Richard Manning, and David Perimutter point out in their book “Go Wild” there is a belief that meditation is about relaxation and bliss when it is actually about hyper attention and focus. From an evolution perspective, this makes sense. Hunter gatherers needed to use this hyper focus and awareness to both stalk their prey and perceive danger. This requires both focused attention and open monitoring, and the beauty of understanding meditation in this way is that it can be applied to several areas of motor learning and performance.

The easiest way to begin improving awareness is by leaving the cell phone at home or in the car prior to engaging in physical activity. This was one of the things I appreciated about my timel in Boulder. I am not someone that is necessarily tied to the phone; however leaving it at the hotel while I participated in 6 hours of yoga was freeing and allowed me to focus, not just on the yoga, but on my surroundings. While much of the technology built into the cell phones is great for data collection, I will argue that leaving the cell phone when one hikes or runs is a way to increase both open monitoring and focused attention. The ability to observe our surroundings and  thoughts without technology is powerful, and actually focusing on body sensing during movement allows us to recognize unnecessary tension and ease of movement (Danny Dreyer discusses this in depth in his book, “Chi Running”). What “mind-body” disciplines all have in common is they require the practitioner to focus on what is going on, a sort of focused attention to the task at hand. Not using electronics, minimizing music, and choosing movements that require focus are all ways to ensure a movement meditation. While this type of training is harder for the teacher or trainer, the mental benefits could be significant, and perhaps improve our overall health. I frequently cue clients to think about  the breath during “regular” exercise movements in an attempt to keep them focused on the task at hand and ask clients to notice how one part of the body responds when another is moving. Instead of viewing meditation as a separate activity, if we try and incorporate it into our everyday lives and particularly into our movement regimens, we might find an increase in performance, attention, empathy, and health.

Yours in health and wellness.

Morgan. N., Irwin, M.R., Chung, M., & Wang, C., (2014). The effects of mind-body therapies on the immune system: a meta-analysis. PLoS One, 9(7). 
Debarnot, U., Sperduti, M., Di Rienzo, F., & Guillot, A., (2014). Experts bodies, experts minds: how physical and mental training shape the brain. Frontier of Human Neuroscience, 8.