Whatever your motivation, the fact you’re reading this website means that you are invested in your personal development in some form.

Usually, talk of the mind-body-spirit union is avoided in fitness blogs, or worse, enshrouded in wanky spiritual & religious rhetoric. Alienating readers with esotericism is a disservice to the value of meditation.

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Why should you care?
High level athletes, surgeons and sportsmen are in tune with this aspect of themselves, given all kinds of labels.

The longer you’ve been training (or habitually developing any skill that you get fully immersed in), the more likely it is that you’ve organically developed an inclination to an underlying, more subtle process going on beneath the physical series of actions you perform.

(The stress-reducing effects may also help keep you lean and recover faster)

JC Deen & Elliott Hulse
Fortunately, two guys we love, JC Deen and Elliot Hulse have addressed this and made the ‘spiritual’ dimension of training very accessible.

– Elliott describes strength training as a way to unify your being with aim to becoming a stronger version of yourself, rather than compartmentalising your training to one part of your life. Explained here in his distinctive manner:

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52eTlKDBgBA

JC discusses using meditation as a means to living mindfully, Eckhart Tolle style. By cultivating a focus on the present moment, you can turn training into meditation by dissolving any separation between you and the task, whatever it is.

Flow
This experience has been well researched and described as ‘flow’. It is effectively a state of total immersion in a task, where the mind stops its neurotic whining and directs all of your resources towards a single point.

This is not an other-worldly, fancy-pantsy, vegan-kaftan, unwashed-hair, woah-dude-pass-me-the-spliff experience. This is a replicable neurochemical effect resulting from terrestrial, organic processes.

You may recall me writing something about this when trying out yoga for a month, which very clearly induces this state. If you’re not sure if you’ve experienced what I’m describing, it’s worth trying a few yoga sessions and you’ll know when ‘stage 3’ hits you:

“Stage 3: 30 – 60+ minutes – The Void

The restrictions, pains and burnings start to become pure sensation as the suffering detaches from the feeling, and your breath naturally rises to the forefront of your awareness. You Suddenly you realise you absolutely do not give a fig about any of the worries from stage 1 anymore. In fact, all of your concerns become very distant.

The mind becomes profoundly quiet, the senses dim and it seems as though the only sound is your breathing.

– From ‘A month of yoga: A Propane perspective” 

I very much agree with both Hulse and JC’s approaches, and while they have some overlap with this article, the approach I describe below is specifically how to use your training as a form of catharsis.

Over the last few months, I’ve been meditating for 5 minutes before training.

Wouldn’t this calm you down beforehand and have the opposite effect?

Over the day, your mind fills up like a pressure cooker with low level stresses that accumulate.

The cat shat on the carpet.
Then someone swore at you from his car.
You tripped over and stubbed your toe in front of a bunch of people.

Over time, the little disturbances can build up and have 3 eventual fates:

1 – Suppression
The most common habit. Stuffing it down or denying that it’s there. We can try to medicate or distract ourselves to sweep these under the carpet and forget about them:

– Drugs
– Alcohol
– Physical self harm
– TV
– Overeating
– Denial

The most chronic suppressors can find their emotion accumulates over the years into a pulsating mass of resentment, making these people quite toxic to be around.

2 – Expression
The emotion is directed outwards, often causing collateral damage and harming others. You might feel better, but you may be passing the hot potato to someone else.

3 – Release
Emotional depressurisation. This can happen consciously or automatically.

Meditating before training generates a calm before a storm, stilling the mind and opening up an emotional gateway for cathartic expression during the training. Elite athletes are able to channel this very precisely. Case in point:

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbvfGIieLZg

Training is a physical expression of meditation, an emotional outlet and opportunity to simultaneously develop other positive attributes.

This does NOT have to be confined to weight training, but it is suited very well. Other approaches could be dancing, running, swimming whatever you like, although weightlifting is a very direct and accessible manifestation.

Nothing else exists when you have 180kg on your back. The concerns about your job, studies, spouse are suspended while your mind and body are unified on to a single point. You become slightly disinhibited and a window of opportunity opens up. An emotional sphincter loosens (keep all other sphincters contracted please).

Something for you to try. especially if you’re skeptical – it will transform your training.

spilt-red-sea
Benefits:
“The end of suffering” – Thich Nhat Hanh
– Efficiency – for me this is the big one. By switching your focus, you can hit two birds with one stone and achieve benefits of exercise and meditation at the same time.
– Cultivating patience.
– Creating space between you and your thoughts.
– The ultimate goal of meditation is to achieve jhana,  a state of bliss, beyond what is achievable with the 5 senses. Direct, face-to-face experience of the nature of your mind:

 

“Remember the mind is that which knows. But is it possible for the knower to know itself? The eye is that which sees, but it can see itself when it looks into a mirror: it sees its reflection. The reflection you see in this stage of meditation, the nimitta, is a true reflection of the mind. You look into a mirror that has been cleaned of all the dust and grime on its surface, and now at last you can see yourself. ” – Ajan Brahm

Physiological benefits 
Improvements in the following variables:
– Self-reported sleep quality[1],
– Subjective well-being,
– Interleukin (immunity biomarker)[3],
– Salivary cortisol[3],
– Pain tolerance and diastolic blood pressure[5].

Suppression of age-related cortical thinning, and increased grey matter density in the frontal cortex and brain stem[8],[9], particularly areas related to cardiorespiratory control.
– Enhanced recovery response to a wide range of stressors[2].
–  Improved capacity for emotional regulation [10], acute pain tolerance[3 and chronic pain management[9].
–  Longitudinal differences in amygdala activation in response to emotional stimuli, indicating potential long term benefits of meditation on emotional processing. [10] – Reducing oxidative stress and DNA damage: Qigong was found to stimulate antioxidant enzyme activity, increasing telomere length, attenuating oxidative stress and DNA damage [11]

From Martin & Childre: HeartMath Solution:
Physiologically speaking, when we experience stress our energy reserves are redirected. Processes that break down the body’s energy stores for immediate use are activated at the expense of processes that maintain, repair, and regenerate our systems. The body’s aim is to make energy available to help us confront our stressors. It comes down to a simple fact: when our energy reserves are continually channeled into the stress pathway, there isn’t enough energy left to support re- generative processes that replenish the resources we’ve lost, repair damage to our bodies, and defend us against disease. The synthesis of new stores of protein, fats, and carbohydrates is halted; the repair and replacement of most kinds of cells is diminished; bone repair and wound healing is slowed; and levels of circulating immune cells and antibodies fall. [I] In the long run, as we saw in Chapter 3, stress depletes our system and can be severely damaging to our health.

TL:DR? While I hate the word ‘mindfulness’, this cartoon nails the definition on the head:


 

Actionable steps:

Week 1-3
– Sit and follow your breath for 5 minutes before you head to the gym.

Week 3 & 4
– Between sets, also become aware of your breath. That’s all. Don’t expect razor sharp focus at first, but over a couple of weeks, you will begin to feel the breath taking on a distinctive form. It feels akin to a constant undercurrent of your consciousness, separate from the twitchy darting of your mind.

Week 4+
– Breaths between sets: Week on week, the undercurrent grows from being a faint thread into a low rumble with some force behind it. The separation between your yapping thoughts and your breath becomes more evident.

– This is where it differs from breath-focused meditation. Engage head-on with what presents itself in consciousness. Notice your current emotional state. Breathe it in, stop resisting it for a second. Look for its physical counterpart – usually a sensation in the stomach or chest.

– Start your set and allow it to leave. Think of the movement of the body like moving a pair of old bellows to blow out the stagnant dust. Emptying a bottle of stale water.

Troubleshooting:
– What is the purpose of weeks 1-4?
The purpose of weeks 1-4 are to develop a more subtle awareness of your emotional body, or the emotional quality of mind. This differs from pure thoughts in that there is a physical sensation counterpart. ‘Butterflies in the stomach’ is an example. It may take you longer than 4 weeks, it may take you less. That’s OK.

– How do I know if it’s working
There will be a shift in your consciousness, less of a contraction. You give less of a shit.

– I’m shit at this.
“The master has failed more times than the beginner has tried”

– This looks like too much wizardry. Can’t I just train normally?
Sure. You could then spend those valuable rest periods playing with your phone and idly staring at treadmill-woman’s bumbum.

– Are you a wizard
Yes

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1. Russinova Z, Wewiorski NJ, Cash D. Use of Alternative Health Care Practices by Persons With Serious Mental Illness: Perceived Benefits. American Journal of Public Health. American Public Health Association; 2002 Oct 10

2. Shapiro SL, Astin JA, Bishop SR, Cordova M. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Health Care Professionals: Results From a Randomized Trial. International journal of stress management. 20052:164-176

3. Pace TWW, Negi LT, Adame DD, Cole SP, Sivilli TI, Brown TD, et al. Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2009 Jan;34(1):87–98.

4. Delmonte MM. Electrocortical Activity and Related Phenomena Associated with Meditation Practice: A Literature Review. Informa UK Ltd  UK; 2009 Jul 7

5. Kingston J, Chadwick P, Meron D, Skinner T. A pilot randomized control trial investigating the effect of mindfulness practice on pain tolerance, psychological well-being, and physiological activity. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 2007 p. 297–300.

6. Vestergaard-Poulsen P, van Beek M, Skewes J, Bjarkam CR, Stubberup M, Bertelsen J, et al. Long-term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem. Neuroreport. 2009 Jan 28;20(2):170–4.

7. Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research. 2011 Jan 30;191(1):36–43.

8. Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ. Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise. Public library of Science one. 2008 Jan;3(3):e1897.

9. Morone NE, Greco CM, Weiner DK. Mindfulness meditation for the treatment of chronic low back pain in older adults: a randomized controlled pilot study. Pain. 2008 Feb 134(3):310–9.

10. Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TWW, Wallace BA, Raison CL, Schwartz EL. Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience . 2012 Jan ;6:292.

11. Goon, J. A., et al. “Effect of Tai Chi exercise on DNA damage, antioxidant enzymes, and oxidative stress in middle-age adults.” Journal of physical activity & health 6.1 (2009).

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3 responses to “How to turn your training into meditation

  1. Cool and timely post. I’ve been noticing this intuively in my training as well. Interestingly, I find that channeling feelings of aggresion, confidence (borderline overconfidence), and “alpha” posture cue for amazing workouts as well.

    In fact, I prefer that over more sedated or calm “mediation” but I will have to give the latter a try.

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