Monday, June 30, 2014

Weight loss project: Meditate while you work out

While doing my aerobic workout I noticed many people distracting themselves. Some would read books, others watch TV, and people sometimes wear headphones. One time a woman was chatting intensely on her cell phone while working out, and another right next  to me was reading a long series of PowerPoint slides about motivating employees (OK, I peeked).

Distracting (taking your mind off of something unpleasant) and self soothing (inserting a pleasurable activity like eating, lighting candles, listening to music, or rubbing lotion on your hands) are effective ways to take care of yourself emotionally. However their power is very limited and their effects wear off quickly; you don't get a lot of bang for the buck with distraction and self soothing. They should be used in conjunction with more powerful methods of relaxing, accepting, and "holding in your mind comfortably" the present moment.

This thought also occurred to me: if people are treating working out as something so unpleasant that they have to remove their minds from the experience, how likely are they to commit to a long-lasting workout regime? In other words if it's so unpleasant, wouldn't one be motivated to drop the activity as soon as the goal (weight loss) is achieved, setting the person up for gaining back all that weight? What might it be like to engage with the activity, make peace with it, flow with it, pay attention to it, and hopefully find a way to enjoy it for its own sake, regardless of the ultimate goal? In a gym workout, what is the equivalent of "it's the journey, not the destination"?

It was then that, as part of my lose-the-gut effort, I began experimenting with doing my aerobics mindfully—without distracting or self soothing. That way I could kill two birds with one stone; I could exercise and do an extensive mindfulness meditation!

I decided to apply mindfulness to aerobics, because that's the part of the gym workout less naturally lending itself to being present with the activity. When lifting weights I find that I naturally pay close attention to my breathing and how my body feels as I lift, which is necessary to avoid injury.

So for the past few months, I've been focusing on a number of meditative thoughts as I worked out on the elliptical machine. As I mentioned in a previous post I do intervals on the elliptical. Therefore I decided to do a meditation during the challenging interval (the more unpleasant one) and let my mind wander during the easier one.

A dozen times or so during my one-hour aerobic workout, I would recite in my mind the following statements during a difficult interval:

  • I am
Focus on your body and its movement and nothing else.
  • THEY are
Become aware of everyone else working out around you.
  • WE are
Get in touch with how you all are there for a common reason, a common purpose. You're connected in this way.
Get a fleeting sense of how you all are a part of a much, MUCH larger world and universe.
  •  I am CLEAR...HERE and NOW
Take your attention and focus on specific details around you: read words on a poster, notice the buttons on a machine in front of you, notice a crack in the wall, pay attention to the electrical outlets and wires. Simply “notice” all sorts of small details around you. In this way you connect with your surroundings.
  • I am this place
Shift your attention to the larger room or place where you are working out.
  • I am this time and at no other
Notice how the space looks RIGHT NOW (as opposed to a few minutes ago).
  • I think
Notice thoughts that occur to you.
  • My five senses ARE!
Notice your breathing, how your body feels—sweat, heat, a breeze, fatigue, pain, sounds you hear, a taste that’s lingering, how your clothes tug against you as you move—and notice how these sensations are different than “thoughts.”
  • I'm FINE doing this here and now...
Choose to accept being in that place, doing what you are doing, and feeling what you are feeling. Notice that you’re OK. You’re fine as you are right now. There’s no “rule” that you should be doing something else or feeling any differently, and you can accept this and “be here.” You’re fine as is. The past and the future all fall away; there is only right now, and it's fine by you.
  • I'm FINE!
Reinforce it. Say it again. Get in touch with its truth.

Sometimes I touch my belly, which is a part of my body that I’m trying to reduce using exercise, and I add, “My belly is fine as it is right now…it’s fine.”
  • I'm at PEACE doing this here and now...
Get in touch with this truth. Try to FEEL how true it is.
  • I'm AT PEACE!
Reinforce it.

Sometimes late in the exercise I’ll remind myself, I’m at peace with sweating, I’m at peace with a flushed face, I’m at peace with my fatigue. It’s OK. I accept this. I can manage this. There’s no “rule” or “tablets from on high” that say it should be any other way.
  • I belong here doing this now...
Get in touch with this truth. Try to FEEL how true it is.
Reinforce it.
  • I'm at home doing this here and now...
Get in touch with this truth. Try to FEEL how true it is.
  • I'm HOME! 
Reinforce it. You're exactly where you should be, doing exactly what you should be doing right now. (We'll deal with what you should be doing "later" at another time.)
You are a part of everything, everything is a part of you, and you can accept everything as it is right in this moment. You can accept it, engage with it, participate in it, flow cooperatively with it, and make the most of it.
  • I am...I am...I am...
Relax, adjust your pace so that it’s not too fast or too slow, not too hard or too easy, smile, and feel yourself peacefully participating in the exercise. Stay clear; don’t “space out.” Complete the challenging interval as best you can.

Remember to say it like you mean it. Put some emotion behind your thoughts, really get into it.

Then during the easier interval I usually try to keep my mind clear by reading posters, noticing details on machines, glancing very briefly at the TV, noticing new people who enter the exercise area, feeling a breeze from the fan, and so on. 

Try to limit how much you become engrossed in the program on the TV or let your mind wander as you listen to a song. Glimpse and notice the TV; notice and appreciate the song. Just don't let your mind immerse itself into a program or lose itself in the music. Stay present in the room, alternating between everything there is to see, hear, and feel. 

I remember one time, during the easy interval, I watched some TV, answered a "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" question, and then returned to mindfulness meditation once the difficult interval began again. Be present and mindful through as much of the exercise as possible, but don't worry if your mind wanders from time to time, or if you zero in on the TV program for a minute. Perfection is not the goal.

*     *     *
It's been a few months now that I've been doing mindfulness meditations and thought-chanting while I've been working out on the elliptical, and it's begun to pay off outside the gym. Mornings have always been a difficult time for me to "get out of my head" and be mindful and "in my body." My mind's been running around like a child all night long, and it has trouble settling down first thing in the morning.

Recently I noticed that I was "up in my head" during my morning bathroom routine, I thought to myself I AM, and I calmed down and gently focused very quickly; it felt almost like someone turning the "lens" of my camera and feeling everything come into sharper focus. I now use the phrases I AM and EVERYTHING IS AS IT SHOULD BE as instant Chill Pills, relaxing me and helping me to focus on what I'm doing in the present moment. (It may take months of practice for you to see similar results, and your results may vary.)


  1. When I'm using meditation to be more "present" during my aerobics, I'm often struck by how I notice details that alluded me earlier in the exercise. For example, I was half way through my work out, and I then noticed that someone had left a handy wipe towel on top of one of the machines right in front of me. How odd that I hadn't noticed it for 30 minutes and suddenly "became aware of it" as I practiced mindfulness and paying more attention. Another example is that I was a month or two into these awareness exercises, and I noticed that some of the Cybex machines had black swirly logos and some had purple ones.

    You might be thinking that these details are trivial, and you'd be correct. I think that the bigger benefits are 1) An increase in being able to pay close attention to detail ("it's like going to the gym for your attention span"), and 2) Being peaceful, and emotionally OK simply with being in one place and doing one activity, without having to distract yourself away from it, demand more, lose yourself in thought, or try to do many things at one time.

  2. I'm beginning to get some really spectacular results from these meditative gym workouts. When I'm outside the gym, all I need to do is think, "I am," and my mind clears and everything around me comes into crisper perspective. I'm more able to instantly get out of my head and feel connected to my body and to the world around me. There have been a few days when I've transitioned into this more aware state, and I've been aware of how incredibly wonderful it feels; I smile broadly when this happens.

  3. One thought/chant that seems to get me into this "aware" state quickly is to say to myself, "Relax into it." By relaxing and just being present with the activity, I feel peace. It's also remarkable how, when you're relaxing into ("accepting") and focusing on only one activity, you can actually be moving quite fast while feeling peaceful.

    George Harrison, who was a meditation devotee, took an interest in race car drivers. Apparently, when handling a car going at such high speeds, the drivers enter into a kind of meditative, hyper-aware state. One driver described it as "being able to distinguish a blade of grass" as he drove past a grassy patch.

    These exercises really do create an ability to enter into an altered state like this, and it feels great.