Mindful body practices like yoga and tai chi have been around for thousands of years, and many fitness instructors are starting to incorporate mindfulness into their trendy, modern-day workouts, as well. And while it can be great to have a guide leading you through any sort of mindfulness activity, you can also improve your workout—any workout—with mindfulness all on your own.
First, let’s take a step back and ask why we would want to do that in the first place. Different people have different definitions of mindfulness. To me, mindfulness is "awareness infused with intention." In many practices, that means intentionally placing your awareness on the present moment. We do this to feel fully alive and enjoy what’s happening right here, right now—to not get lost in worries about the past or the future.
We are at our best when our minds and bodies are synchronized. Our bodies are already living in the present moment, but as soon as we can use mindfulness to also bring our minds into the present moment, a kind of magic occurs. Things start to feel easier and more natural; we become more aware of our environment; we avoid injury. As we learn to let go of the story lines we tell ourselves about our workout, our fitness, and our bodies, we might learn to look forward to our workouts more. Ultimately we just might end up with an all-around better workout!
Mindfulness is like a muscle you have to train. It requires practice and repetition. Here are some ways to practice mindfulness during your workout:
1. Set an intention.
It can be helpful to set an intention for why you are working out to begin with. Is it to have more energy? Lose weight? Get stronger? Live longer? Improve your mood? Discover some cool new music? When the going gets tough during your workout, you can then remind yourself of your original intention. But it’s important to use that intention as a gentle reminder rather than as a stick to beat yourself up with. The key word here is gentle. Otherwise, believe me, it doesn’t work.
2. Turn off your phone.
Use your workout as a break in your normal routine and give yourself the space to be fully there, dedicated to that workout. You deserve it. Also, don’t multitask (I can’t tell you the number of people I see reading while they exercise). Your workout will suffer if you do, and mindfulness is impossible when you multitask.
3. Tune into your breath.
Our breath is one of our most powerful tools for mindfulness as well as for fitness. When I’m at peak exertion during a workout and I think I can’t do it anymore, I breathe very, very deeply and that usually gets me through. In terms of mindfulness, your breath is something that is always available to you and always in the present moment. You can’t breathe in the past or the future, can you? During your workout, keep checking back in with your breath. Don’t forget to use it as fuel and as a reminder to come back to your body.
4. Pay attention to your internal environment ...
Pay attention to what is going on with your body. When you first start your workout, notice and respect how your body feels today. Be honest and don’t compare it to where you think you should be or how you felt yesterday or last week or 10 years ago. You can’t grow if you don’t start with where you are.
As you start to get into your workout, bring your attention to your body. You can practice this at the beginning by choosing one part of your body to attend to with each workout. For example, if you’re running, you can pay attention to the feeling of your feet hitting the ground. If you’re in a Spin class, you can pay attention to whether your shoulders are tensing and shrugging up toward your ears. This is different from focusing on form; it’s a wider and more relaxed awareness, and it’s just a flash of feeling rather than drawn-out thinking.
5. ... and to your external environment.
Mindfulness is about experiencing a wide awareness that encompasses everything that is going on in the present moment. Although we start with what’s going on inside, once you get into your groove you can open your awareness up to what’s going on in the environment around you. Tune into your senses and what they’re picking up—the coolness of the wind, the greenness of the grass, the energy of the people around you.
6. Relate to your pain and discomfort.
If you’re working out hard, and if you’re staying present in the moment, chances are that at some point during your workout you will start to encounter discomfort or pain. If you don’t, you’re probably not getting a very effective workout. Discomfort is a natural part of growing and of getting stronger—it’s an indication that you’re extending beyond your comfort zone. When you encounter this type of pain or discomfort, try leaning into it rather than running away from it, keeping in mind that this is what is making you stronger. Here’s where you can remind yourself of your original intention.
Pain can also be a message that something is wrong. Listen to your body; it will tell you whether the pain is a part of the growing process or whether you need to stop or change something or ease up. Sakyong Mipham, marathon runner and head of Shambhala, a global community of meditation centers, says, "If we do not push ourselves enough, we do not grow, but if we push ourselves too much, we regress. What is enough will change, depending on where we are and what we are doing. In that sense, the present moment is always some kind of beginning." Treat your pain as a messenger, and do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
7. Let go and just be.
Often you hear people referring to being “in the zone” when they work out. This is a sense of being completely present while letting go of thoughts. It’s about synchronizing body and mind and holding an open awareness‚—an awareness that is natural to us but often gets clouded over by busy thoughts. This is different from zoning out, aka not being in the present, which can be dangerous and also lead to a pretty ineffectual workout.
8. Don’t skip the stretch.
In case you forgot to practice the tips above during your workout, your post-workout stretch is the perfect opportunity to remind yourself. Stretch slowly and with intention and reward yourself with some well-deserved TLC.
Don’t worry if you forget these tips altogether when you work out; it takes practice. Just as you would train for a marathon, you can train in mindfulness, in letting go of those extraneous thoughts and coming back to your body and the present moment, with kindness and compassion. It’s a wonderful opportunity to improve your workout experience and to grow as a human being. As I tell my students in my mindful Spin class, combining mindfulness with working out is like getting a two-for-one deal: You’re training your body and your mind at the same time!