1. Feel Your Body
This might sound obvious, but many people approach exercise at full force and don’t slow down long enough to truly feel what’s going on in their bodies. In some cases, people suffer through a workout on pure grit, ignoring aches, pains, and objections from the body. This disconnection from your body sets the stage for distractions and injuries. Exercise should not be an out-of-body experience; it should be an in-body experience.
Before beginning any exercise, pause and bring awareness to your physical form. Feel your bones, muscles, organs, tissues, and even skin. How does your body feel? Do you have pain or discomfort? Are you low on energy? As I frequently remind my yoga students, always make the most nourishing choice for your body. If you’re not mentally and physically prepared to exercise, stop. Only after you’ve taken an inventory of how you feel and firmly established awareness in your body should you proceed with your warm-up or workout.
2. Notice Your Environment
Expand the awareness you brought inward, out to your environment. Allow your awareness to fill up the space that you’re going to be moving through. Ideally, your space should be distraction-free so as to help localize your attention on the exercises at hand. If you’re running or participating in another outdoor activity, you’ll have to deal with distractions, and maintaining situational awareness in such spaces is imperative.
No matter what space you’re in, notice the temperature, lighting, odors, and any additional sensory perceptions that may influence your experience. Also, make sure you have all the necessary equipment, water, towels, or tools required for the workout. The point isn’t to become compulsive about your space; it’s meant to help you finely tune your awareness for the work you’re about to do.
A workout performed in this manner is a moving meditation, and as such should have a sense of focused reverence around it. Close the door, turn off the TV (with the exception of an exercise video), and choose music that helps you maintain your sense of self-referral. This is your time.
3. Always Use Correct Posture
Posture affects every move you make. Through correct posture you create the optimal spinal alignment for any physical activity. Without a neutral spinal position, you throw off your body’s power chain and interfere with the natural flow of energy and information through your nervous system.
Correct posture ensures that your energetic body is functioning optimally and thereby providing an adequate supply of energy throughout the movement. On the other hand, improper posture causes a dramatic power falloff and leads to an increased likelihood of serious injury. In general, if you don’t know how to (or can’t) perform an exercise with proper posture and form, don’t do it.
4. Make Your Breath the Anchor
The key to creating a mindful practice is your breath. The repetitive inflow and outflow of your breath creates a rhythm that can help anchor you into the present moment. This breathing rhythm also serves as a bridge between your mind, body, and soul; the more deeply you breathe, the deeper that connection becomes. In a very practical sense, steady and even breathing efficiently infuses your body with the oxygen and Prana (life force) it needs to function under the strain of physical exertion.
With each exercise strive to maintain breath awareness. Don’t let it overshadow the focus required to perform the exercise itself, but make it the background sensation that guides and supports each movement. Experiment to find a breathing cadence that best aligns with the exercise you’re doing. Notice how it may change between strength exercises, aerobic conditioning, and rest periods. Regardless of its variations, continue to come back to the breath as your anchor to the present moment.
5. Clear Intention
Before beginning your exercise, pause briefly to form a clear intention for what you are about to do. This doesn’t need to be verbalized, but you should make note of what you plan to accomplish—whether it’s doing 10 push-ups, running 3 miles, or swinging a kettlebell 50 times.
Intention has organizing power, so by clearly creating the intention, you lay the groundwork for its manifestation. In addition, intention focuses your mind on what you’re doing, thereby increasing your chances of success. Remember that where attention goes, energy flows, so plant the seed of intention and the exercise will perform itself.
6. Stay On Target
As you move through your workout, your mind will wander and your awareness will drift. This is a natural part of training. As in meditation, the mind will get pulled away to other thoughts, sensations, and distractions in the environment. Your job is to come back to the present moment, the breath, and the exercise. It doesn’t matter how many times your attention drifts, just keep coming back to the practice of mindful movement.
As you become more adept at this process, you grow less attached to those thoughts and distractions and can begin to simply witness them with compassion. You can separate yourself from the temptation to indulge in distractions of the ego, especially when the muscles begin to ache and the sweat starts to drip. You’ll start to see those distractions for what they are—scenery that comes and goes in the field of your awareness. But the real you, the ever-present witness within, remains stable, steady, and rooted in the eternal present.
These are the steps to take your exercise routine from the realm of the unconscious to the conscious and into the experience of higher awareness. With them you can transform your fitness routine into a mindful practice.