How to Transform Mere Movement into a Spiritual Workout
Most personal training sessions are so deeply, stringently focused on biomechanics, sets, reps, rest times, splits into body segments: upper, lower, and core, and the body pump you feel when your muscles bulge through your skin. Raw SCIENCE.
Without knocking its criticality to moving well inside and outside of the gym, and achieving our desired aesthetics, I’d like to tell you how I really feel about a purely scientific approach to training…
It begins with a question burning from the seat of my soul: where are the art and spirituality in fitness?!
Movement as merely science bores me. Movement as a meld of science, art, and spirituality, spiced up by emotion, soul, and intellect is quite exciting.
HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY, YO
Let me take a jaunt back in time to skate on the rink of philosophy for a minute (already craving some movement ;P)…
In 1941, English Philosopher Rene Descartés postulated Dualism, a theory that the mind and the body are separate entities. In this theory, the mental exists outside of the body and the body is incapable of thinking.
At this time, he was hyper-focused on separation.
Fortunately, after some time, he extrapolated his idea to a subview called Interactionism, which posits that matter and mind, separate entities, exert causal effects on one another, that they work together.
Now I like where he was heading (no pun intended). In the direction of connection and synergy.
Whether or not the bloke was right or found the Truth, he did create some inviting grounds for my post today.
Branching out on Interactionism, I fitlosophize that Descartes was missing the boat on a key aspect of our being that is fundamentally part of being human: spirit. [Btw, Rene, I know, times have changed. If you are looking for someone to show you how your theory has expanded, I’ve kept a session open for you Wednesday at 11am].
In my own training sessions and in teaching others how to get fit as they can be, I encourage us to connect and disconnect the various aspects of ourselves when appropriate, and to feel our movement. Rather than concentrating on mind and body separately, connect your mind and body simultaneously. Rather than simply going through the motions, feel and appreciate the motions. Sure, this includes the inner scream coming from your muscles as they beg to shuttle out lactic acid, but even more, seeing with artist’s eyes and a beginner’s mind the beauty of the movement which you are manifesting. Rather than acknowledging the power of just your mind and body, you employ your emotional, spiritual, and soulful self.
How is this possible? That’s what I will share with you today—the tools and tactics to transform any workout of mere kinetic motion into a deep, all-encompassing human and spiritual experience. The best part of this whole journey? You don’t need to purchase anything. All that you need is within.
TOOLS AND TACTICS TO TRANSCEND GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS AND ENTER THE REALM OF SPIRITUAL FITNESS
1. Just Breathe.
It begins with breath—it always begins with breath, which allows you to drop from your mind into your heart, your place of abundant love and no questions (body, soul, and spirit).
Inhaaaaaale. Exhaaaaaale. Take a deep breath through your nose, and let it carry crisp, clean, clarity-giving oxygen directly to your brain.
To practice the style of breathing I use with my clients most often, begin with exhales through your mouth the first few breaths. Thereafter, seal your lips and force the air off the back of your throat, creating an oceanic or Darth-Vader like sound. This is called Ujjayi Pranayama, or “breath of victory” in Sanskrit.
Ujjayi breath will not only stoke an internal fire that helps to rid your body of toxins (especially when you add in twisting or rotational movements), it will also tone your abdominal wall. Who doesn’t want a sexy six-pack?
But more than just chiseling your body, breathing provides a bridge between your mind and your body. To tip my hat to Descartes, it is our way of connecting the ‘thinking’ self and the ‘doing’ self. Thus, breath is a way out of your mind and into your body, and out of your body and into your mind. Once you have breathed long enough, the mind is silent, the body is warm, and you have the dharana (single-pointed focus) and dhayana (concentration) to move spiritually.
2. Pair Your Breath With Your Movement.
Inhales on the ‘loading phase’ and exhales on the ‘working phase.’
In yoga, this correlates to inhales on the upward, expanding, opening movements such as upward facing dog, and exhales on the downward, folding in, closing movements. At the gym, this correlates to: inhales on the bending and hinging movements and exhaling on the pushing and pulling movements. You inhale as you bend at the knees for a squat and elbows for a push-up or hinge at the hips for a deadlift and elbows for an overhead press, and you exhale as you push up to standing for a squat and to plank for a pushup and come to standing for a deadlift or arm extension for an overhead press.
Breathing in this way not only sharpens your focus. Your breath can be used to absorb the discomfort which accrues during exercise—return to it whenever a distraction or escape is needed to finish a set or a race. Consider your breath the bridge between mind and body. Whenever you are feeling too “heady” and thinking too hard about how to execute the form of a movement, breath to tap into your body and feel-sense. Whenever you find yourself going through the motions, breathe to engage your mind.
3. Set Your Mantra.
Design a short, spiffy, memorable phrase that you can repeat over and over. Something that holds emotional power and will pick you up or inspire you to continue when you are feeling like quitting or remind you why you started when you feel lost.
In yoga, a mantra is a sacred word, sound, or phrase believed to have spiritual and psychological power. Another definition is a statement or slogan repeated frequently to harness the mind and meditative power.
I encourage you to be playful in creating your mantra. Make it personally meaningful.
Much like your breath, your mantra provides an anchor point or a buoy that you keeps you centered and afloat when you find yourself drifting away from your goals and your intentions (up next).
4. Set Your Intention.
An intention is different than a plan. A plan is split into individual steps that you take to get from Point A to Point B. It is purely the mental and physical part of how. An intention, however, is the spiritual and emotional part of how. It is how you want to live, show up, and be in the world—or in this context, your workout.
Turns out that to set an intention from a place of alignment and centeredness, you need to start with a breath. To clear your mind and drop into your heart.
You can set more than one intention, but I recommend picking just one per workout. This way, like your mantra, it will be memorable and powerful.
Also, like your mantra and like your breath, an intention is something that you can return to whenever you forget what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it in your workout.
5. Find Your WHY.
Your why is your reason for starting, continuing, and finishing. It is the greater, emotional, mental, spiritual, or soulful reason that you are choosing to move your body. Perhaps it is to set an example of healthy living for your kids. Perhaps it is to reverse or stave off negative health conditions. Perhaps it is to transcend the ego so you can be present in each and every moment with others.
Whatever your unique WHY is, I suggest that you write it down and keep it somewhere in sight or easily accessible, such as on a notecard in your workout bag or as a note in your phone. That’s workout-specific. For life, you can keep it on a notecard next to your bathroom sink, so that each morning and evening when you go to sleep, you are reminded WHY you do what you do.
Like your breath, mantra, and intention, your WHY is another anchor to return to, specifically when doubt creeps in.
(As you may have picked up on, you are always one breath away from being re-focused, re-centered, and re-inspired).
Working With and Working Through
6. Go To Your Edge.
Backbending into Wheel Pose, sliding into full splits, clasping your hands behind your back and reaching overhead. It mostly feels good, but we sometimes we hit “sticky points” where we sense discomfort and have the urge to back away. This is where it is key to be able to distinguish between tension and pain. Tension is a sign that we are getting to a new point with our workout, facing a harder challenge than before. Pain, on the other hand, is a sign to take precaution and possibly back off or else do further harm to yourself.
Tension can come from mental, emotional, and even soulful sources. When you enter a period of tension, this is when you whip out the aforementioned tools to work through what comes up. By practicing patience and acceptance, embodying whatever you feel, and still breathing with it, you become not just physically, but mentally and emotionally stronger, more resilient, and more mobile.
7. Flow On Your Own
“Flowing on your own” is this beautiful approach to yoga that I now apply to any workout session. I’ll briefly explain.
In your typical yoga class, the teacher takes you through each movement one pose at a time from the first pose to Savasana (Corpse Pose)/Namasté. Flowing on your own, after guiding breathwork and warm-up flows, gives you the blueprint for the next, biggest sequence of the class, and after coaching you through it one or two times, unlatches you and lets you improvise. You take out what doesn’t feel good or right and add in what you need.
Translated to a workout, this means having a template of moves to incorporate into your workout, but not holding steadfastly to the plan. If your hip feels tight, you might add in some hip circles. If your upper body is terribly fatigued, you might move to lower body. If a song comes on and you are feeling it, you might break away from your planned circuit and just dance! I could go on and on about flowing on your own, which is why it will be my next post on the WMGS blog :).
8. Just Notice.
Another way of escaping both mind and body is to simply notice. Much like meditation, with the aid of breath, you can “go outside” of yourself and become the observer. When a workout is feeling mentally fatiguing or physically taxing, just notice what you are doing. My right arm is lifting. My left knee is bending. My torso is twisting. Becoming objective on demand is a tool for intelligently becoming mindless—a rest period, so to speak, so that you come back more mindful.
9. Kiss Yourself.
Okay, not literally, but energetically. Give your body, mind, and spirit a lot of love. It is amazing how resilient we are—bouncing back from illnesses, trauma, and other forms of hardship and coming back even stronger? I think that is a damn miracle.
In your workout, you can show gratitude for yourself in some pretty normal and pretty abnormal ways.
Let’s start with normal. You can:
-Say “thank you” aloud or silently to your body for being a vessel for building strength and unleashing feel-good hormones (this may be woven into the fabric of your mantra, intention, and/or WHY)
And for the abnormal (requires boldness as it might attract some attention), you can:
-Get hands on and rub the muscles that you are working with or are extra tender as you repeat, silently or aloud, something along the lines of “you are so strong” (Steve Maxwell, a world-renowned fitness coach gave me this idea with his routine of slapping his triceps and telling them “you’ve got this” to amp up his testosterone and faith)
10. Reward Yourself With Decompression
I ironically began my personal training business with the motto “Get AMPT,” the AMPT standing for Abby Maroko Person Trainer and the underlying message/intended impact to be: (a) to train the whole person, not just the body, and (b) for people to get enthusiastic about their health and their lives.
Over the years, the more frequently I used it to market myself, it seemed imbalanced. The intention was to get people enthusiastic, not always rah-rah, adrenaline-spiking, chronically-caffeinated. It was more about equanimity, an energized calm excitement towards health.
Anyways, while I still surf the waters of the perfect name for my business, the main message I am sharing here is that it is unhealthy to be amped up all the time,. In fact, we need rest, recovery, and rejuvenation practices to be our fittest selves.
When we are amped, we are in fight-or-flight mode, our sympathetic, or reactionary, nervous system turned on. This increases the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, and causes our heart rates to increase, blood vessels to dilate, and vision to become more acute. This condition is ideal in small spurts, such as when you are running a sprint or getting under the barbell to lift heavy weights. Being in that state too frequently or for too long, however, can lead to inflammation and eventually adrenal fatigue, both precursors for disease and decreased performance.
To sustain our health and motivation for workouts and life, we need to utilize the tools that take us from operating in the sympathetic to operating in the parasympathetic nervous system. Here are two ways you can do this in a workout:
1. Practice these breathing techniques (a Google search will serve you well)
a. Diaphragmatic Breathing
b. Box Breathing
(and now you’ve sandwiched the workout with a breathing technique at the beginning and a breathing technique at the end!)
2. Practice these “poses”:
a. Dead Hang from a Pullup Bar: Grip as tightly as needed and then let your whole body hang heavy
b. Emptying your limbs: For upper body, circle your arms overhead (together or one at a time) and without straining, use momentum to let your arm come down as heavy and quickly as possible (imagine your hand is the paintbrush and you are splattering paint onto the ground); for lower body, practice leg swings, front to back or laterally, similarly letting momentum fuel the downswing. This technique will help you feel physically emptied of any trash in your tissues.
c. Halasana, also known as Plow Pose, Shoulderstand, or Feet Up The Wall -
Any of these poses will do the trick, which is to stimulate your vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve, which interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. In other words, it helps us de-stress and recover. People with optimal vagal tone can more readily shift from an excited state (amped) to a relaxed state and vice-versa without too much physiological commotion. To do Plow Pose: lay on your back and bring your legs up to the sky…if your shoulders and neck are healthy, bring your feet over your head to the ground behind you. Staying here for a minute or more is sufficient.
d. A repeat favorite, Savasana
To summarize, to turn mere movement into a spiritual experience and thus elevate your life:
-First, you work in—breathing to clear and connect with your core motivations and inspirations (mantra, intention, why).
-Next, you work through and with, channeling emotion and creativity into your movement, going to your edge but softening that sharpness with love and acceptance.
-You calm your mind and body down, and after the tightness and tension of the work through…
-Alas, you work up, which is really doing no work at all. It is very much like laying in sweet Savasana pose, simply being still. You make yourself open to optimally receiving the wave of benefits that will wash over of you as a reward for your previous hard work. It is here that you experience the benefits of a mental, spiritual, and physical progression.
FITNESS AND MEDITATION: ONE IN THE SAME
As you can see, there are many parallels between the strategies of meditation and working in: returning to your breath, accepting what is, and being the observer. Then there is this artistic side of it, where, like Pablo Picasso advised us, we happily break the rules because we know them (i.e. flowing on your own).
TO YOUR OPTIMAL HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Please use these tools to take your mere movement into something not just of the mind or just of the body, but of the mind, body, and spirit in your next workout to chisel yourself into your best human possible.
All of these tips can be applied to life outside the four walls of the gym or yoga room, or beyond the mountain, trail, or road (for the runners out there) with bountiful benefits. There really is no separation. Approach life as a workout, and your workout as life, and you’ve already won.
Sweaty Vibes, Sweet Strides, and Spiritual Highs,