5 Reasons Why You Need Meditation AND Exercise
By JENNIFER WANG
On the face of it, meditation and exercise might seem like polar opposites. In meditation you sit silently on a cushion basically doing nothing. When you're working out, you're probably the most active you've been all day. So what could they possibly have in common? From my experience, more than you think.
1. Meditation and exercise both wake us up. In meditation, we're placing our attention on the feeling of the body breathing, and if our attention wanders, we gently bring it back. Each time we actually notice that our attention has wandered, we're waking up to the fact that our mind is somewhere else, and when we come back, we're feeling alive in our bodies at this very moment. We're tuning in to our senses. We're awakening to the present.
When you're exercising, you also have the opportunity to tune in to your body and senses to feel fully alive. You've probably noticed that you're more energized and reinvigorated after a good workout.
Of course, some people enjoy zoning out when they're exercising or daydreaming on the meditation cushion. And if that happens, it's not necessarily a bad thing. But again, the moment we notice that's happening, we have the potential to wake up to what we're doing in that moment. So the next time you feel yourself zoning out during a workout or meditation session, try bringing yourself back to your senses and be in your own skin at that moment.
2. Gentleness is important to both exercise and meditation. That may seem a bit counterintuitive when it comes to working out. Sakyong Mipham, author 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."
Exertion and discipline aren't the same as aggression, which often comes from a sense of discontentment and lashing out. We can push ourselves in a supportive way that's fully alive to where and how we are at that moment. We can keep reminding ourselves to come back to our intention and the original instruction for working out or meditating, all without scolding or judgment, otherwise we may never want to try it again. With a sense of gentleness, we can truly be kind to ourselves.
3. There can be discomfort and pain. "Pain is not punishment, and pleasure is not a reward. They are both ordinary occurrences," according to Chogyam Trungpa, the founder of Shambhala. Especially at the beginning (or after coming back after a while away), our minds and bodies aren't used to meditating or exercising, and so we become fidgety, uncomfortable, irritated or achy. Or maybe we were all of these things before, and now we're just shining a light on it.
Either way, there are the physical sensations, and then there are the storylines that our minds attach to them. A physical sensation may be "my knee aches." The storyline then could be, "I knew I shouldn't have waited so long to work out again; I'm too out of shape; I'll never get fit again." That storyline has the potential to make the pain feel worse than it really is.
For most of us, our automatic reaction when a workout starts to burn is to find a way to make it easier. But if you can pause before following that automatic reaction, you can touch in to your original intention for working out and really feel whether this pain is harmful or if it's the result of being outside your comfort zone. You can trust your body's natural intelligence to distinguish between helpful and harmful and maybe even lean in to the helpful pain, which then helps to deepen and strengthen your session.
The same can be said of meditation. If you start to feel uncomfortable, itchy or irritated, it could be a signal that your mind isn't used to the stillness and wants to go back to its familiar mode of speediness and entertainment. But here you can apply gentleness and curiosity, and as you might with a child throwing a tantrum, give it space and love without reacting or buying into its storyline.
4. Balance is key. This applies to both the physical and mental elements of exercising and meditation. A good meditation posture is not too tight and not too loose. We're relaxed but upright and dignified. In most exercise, the best form is when you're relaxed but alert and ready to exert yourself. Mentally, if you're lackadaisical about your workout or meditation it likely won't happen or it'll be half-hearted. But if you're too uptight you won't be able to breathe and fully engage.
So next time you're getting ready to work out or to meditate, be mindful of how tight or loose your posture is as well as your level of engagement and intensity.
5. Meditation and exercise are complementary activities. Without a healthy mind, it's difficult to nurture a healthy body, and a healthy body creates the balance and alignment to support a healthy mind. However, it's important to note that despite their similarities, they are not the same. Sakyong Mipham says, "The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness."
While a meditative approach can definitely be applied to exercise, there's no replacement for sitting silently on a cushion engaging in the simple practice of meditation. When we take away our gadgets and our distractions, we're giving ourselves the space to settle and to become familiar with whatever arises in that space.
Readers -- Do you work out and meditate? Do you prefer one to the other? If you do both, do you feel like the benefits of both are similar, or do you get different results from each? What is your preferred method of meditation? Leave a comment below and let us know!
Jennifer Wang is the founder and CEO of The Tasteful Pantry. Having lived with multiple food intolerances and tried countless "free-from" snacks that taste like cardboard, Jennifer's mission now is to share her love of wholesome food and healthy living through The Tasteful Pantry. When she's not scouring the country looking for yummy snacks, Jennifer enjoys teaching spinning and meditation (although not at the same time).