Monday, February 14, 2011

Running Meditation

Exercising for a clearer mind and a higher quality of consciousness is an incredible combined effort and an efficient method of exacting mind-body connection. I am interested in the long-term practice of such techniques and will sometimes share my own explorations here.

Yesterday, at the suggestion of Mushtaq Ali I ran 32 tabata intervals (20 seconds on, 10 seconds off) followed by a 20 minute walking meditation.

The experience was interesting in that my focus stayed in-the-moment for each 20 seconds of exertion (I pushed the pace) - attention was on proper foot strike (barefoot style), efficient breathing, observation of heart rate. The 10 seconds of rest were focused on recovery breathing and route choices (light traffic to Bernal Hill). There wasn't room for anything else. 32 intervals passed as though there was only one interval - the one I was focusing on.

The chemical effect of the running resulted in a high that was primal - I was not my urban self - the resulting freedom jolted me out of my regular sitting meditation thought loops.

When I moved into the walking meditation portion of the exercise, my heart rate and breathing were still elevated so I focused on bringing them down. Then the crispness of the air burning my lungs came into focus as did the dirt patterns of the path I was on. Then focus shifted to running energy. Then I experienced the fatigue of 32 intervals of explosive running so I sat for the last 10 minutes looking out over San Francisco - metta-meditation. Next time I will choose to observe the exhaustion while continuing to walk.

This technique is not easier than, nor is it an escape from, seated meditation. It definitely requires active attention! Discipline and depth will develop through practice.

Friday, February 11, 2011


How much rest do we need when we are participating in an exercise program? This is a common question and a sensitive one, because we receive such strong messages about the importance of exercise at this time in cultural history.

Just like exercise, rest is incredibly important no matter what your level of fitness.

Numerous effective formulas currently exist in the exercise community for determining proper rest schedules, examples being:

- every other day
- two days on, one day off, three days on, two days off
- one day off every four
- one day off every six
- seven - nine active days with varying levels of exertion

My personal preference after years of self-evaluation is to tune into my body and recognize my own need-for-rest indicators. These are typically a combination of: lack of experience of flow, a feeling of strained movements, a lack of energy generation to keep pace with the workout, irritability, over-tiredness or hyperactivity, breath rate and fatigue that is in excess of the demand, an immune system dip or an inability to fall asleep.

Some of us tend to drag our feet with regard to exercise, meaning, it is difficult to engage in an exercise program at all. The initial experience of exercise is unpleasant, and sticking with it feels continuously exhausting. Ideally, when starting an exercise program, the program design is progressive. We start with light exertion, light weights, light cardiovascular work, adequate warm-ups and cool-downs. We ease into the program. We take days off from formal exercise and instead go for walks and participate in enjoyable physical activities that we don't classify as workouts. If we are consistent, our energy will begin to rise to meet the workout. Days off are important, but ideally, we begin to crave the workout and our energy levels will begin to let us know when it is time for a rest day.

Once a fitness baseline has been established, finding a work / rest schedule is much easier. Experiment with the list above to determine what works best for you and if necessary, consult with a coach or trainer. Often trainers offer program design sessions which are a great way to establish an individual program if you are not a candidate for ongoing training. Exercise routines should be varied (unless sport specific work is of the essence), and programs should be changed at least every 4-6 weeks to avoid fitness plateaus, boredom and repetitive stress issues.

Some of us tend to over-train due to an intense physical drive that is closely linked to the experience of mental-emotional release, or because we are under the impression that more is better. This is fairly common, and finding balance is crucial. Exercise is culturally lauded so coming to terms with chronic over-training can be tricky. Among other things, exercise is incredibly beneficial for mood-balancing, stress reduction, and relief from depression. This is good! The problem arises when exercise is taken to the point where mental acuity is reduced, fatigue prevents us from addressing real issues, we feel emotionally numb and the risk of injury increases. Slowing this pattern is not easy, but is necessary for improved performance and a balanced life. In the best case scenario, workout sessions are reduced, and rest / recovery sessions are substituted in their place. The quality of the remaining workouts increases, a feeling of well-being replaces the symptoms of over-training and there is minimal back-lash. Often a meditative practice emphasizing stillness and calm, communication with friends, or another form of support is necessary.

For more information on rest, check out this article:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Exercise and Emotions

Some days are just hard, things might not go our way or we feel overwhelmed. When we bring those feelings to our workouts, occasionally we are surprised by a sudden downward spiral of emotion from the very activity we had hoped would alleviate our stress. This type of emotional curve ball can catch us off guard, but it doesn't have to.

Physical-emotional connectivity is primal and yet we often experience an exercise culture that deals primarily with the body, and therapeutic and spiritual cultures that more readily addresses the mind and emotions. There are some areas of overlap, for example, somatic therapy is a branch of psychotherapy that addresses mental and emotional issues in close relation to the client's physicality. In an athletic context, issues of mental and emotional fortitude are often addressed under the umbrella of mental toughness or strategy.

So what do we do when mid-workout our training partner suddenly warps into a tyrannical figure intent on our destruction, or the barbell starts to represent all that has ever made us fail in life? If catching ourselves mid-thought is possible, there is a chance that laughter might resolve the issue. More realistically, we need a plan of action for recognizing what's going on and moving through our emotions.

The following suggestions come from several overlapping sources, including my coaches and teachers, various meditation techniques and my own life experience.

Option One: Return to the present moment. Notice the physical sensations that are occurring. Notice where your feet are. Notice the pace of your breath. Notice the movement of the activity you are doing. Presence takes us out of story and gives us an opportunity to reset our focus.

Option Two: Create more room for your emotions, give them more space in which to exist. Expand your perspective so that there is also a place for calmer emotions, thereby making the difficult emotions less intense.

Option Three: Purposefully compartmentalize at the start of the workout (or at the moment of duress) by making an agreement with yourself to stay on task throughout the workout, and as much as possible to think only about the workout. Feel free to attach an heroic theme to the workout or listen to specific music. Promise yourself that you will return to your day and the emotions of the day at a designated time (it is important to keep this promise).

Option Four: Channel the challenging emotions into a winning scenario by triumphing physically over the workout. Sometimes diving into physical exertion takes us through our feelings in a productive way, leaving us more relaxed and better able to handle life stresses.

Option Five: Stop working out and do something calming and restorative. This can include taking the time to let your emotions out, calling a friend, resting. The right choice might be to ease up entirely.

Whatever you choose to do under pressure, put your safety first and remember that there will be easier days ahead!