Contemplations About Practicing Mindful Exercise

Jared Levenson is an eating coach and counselor who blogs at Jared writes about new ways to think about and relate to food. He also has a podcast titled Eating Enlightenment. Jared also works at an eating disorder center in California’s Bay Area. He plays chess and hikes in his spare time.

In this contribution to the KineSophy Mindfulness Series, Jared discusses the benefits of mindful exercise in yoga and other movement practices.

Mindfulness meditation has been practiced for 1000’s of years, and modern science has confirmed this ancient practice is great for your mental health and peace of mind.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist whose mindfulness research in the 1970’s spurred the scientific community to investigate this ancient practice in more depth, came up with one of the most widely used definitions of mindfulness today:

“The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”

To practice mindfulness, an individual is typically instructed to practice seated mindfulness meditation. This is where you sit down, sometimes cross-legged, and focus on your breath while remaining still.

Yet maintaining a consistent seated meditation practice is difficult—fortunately, there is yoga!

Yoga is beginner friendly. It’s not as boring as sitting down in silence without checking your phone.

From hot yoga to the yoga now offered at your local gym on the corner, yoga offers movement, excitement and some introductory mindfulness meditation for people.

For thousands of years, yoga has been recognized as a practice of mindful movement (yoga has also been recognized as more than mindful movement too—for example, as an ethical training system).

But what about other types of exercise, like running or weight lifting—can mindfulness be practiced then?

Or is yoga the only viable exercise in which to practice mindfulness?

If you do combine mindfulness with other forms of exercise, does the quality of mindfulness decrease, when compared to seated mindfulness meditation?

And if the quality of mindfulness decreases, should you even bother with mindful exercise? If so, how do you go about it?

Let’s explore!

I’ll share with you my perspectives based on seven years as a yoga instructor, two years as a personal trainer, and thirteen months living as a Zen monk.

First let’s understand how mindfulness works in yoga, so that we can extrapolate for other forms of exercise.

Mindful Exercise

How Mindfulness Works in Yoga

In yoga you are twisting, flowing, stretching and doing all sorts of different movements with your body.

So between all this twisting and flowing, where does the mindfulness fit within yoga?

There are a few different ways mindfulness is incorporated into yoga:

  1. Awareness of breathing
  2. Awareness of body sensations
  3. Awareness of thoughts

Awareness of Breathing: You are aware of the in and out rhythm of your breath. You can become aware of whether your breath is deep or shallow, ragged or smooth.

Awareness of Body Sensations: You are aware of the intensity of the stretch, or even the way your body moves through the air. The key thing to practice is non-judgment, or being willing to feel all sensations equally.

Awareness of Thoughts: Traditionally in yoga, you move your body and then you are more settled. Once you are settled, then you can focus on your thoughts like in traditional meditation. Oftentimes when I teach yoga, I’ll give more emphasis to being aware of mental thoughts in these poses of stillness.

However, you can also incorporate awareness of mental activity as you move through the physical aspect of yoga.

One important note about is that the setting and instructor play a huge role in the mindfulness of a yoga session. If you are at a local studio, the instructor will probably give more verbal instruction to pay attention to your breath and how you feel.

If you’re at a gym, the instructor will probably be doing more yoga poses, but might not include the emphasis on mindfulness.

Finally, in yoga you can practice presence, kindness, and relaxation in addition to awareness.

Four Qualities of Mindfulness

Applying Mindfulness Principles to Other Forms of Exercise Besides Yoga

These three basic principles of mindfulness while exercising—awareness of breath, bodily sensations and thoughts—can be applied very easily to other forms of exercise.

Walking: In Thailand, I lived for three weeks at a Thai forest monastery, where the monks placed equal emphasis on walking meditation and seated meditation.

I remember walking a ton in Thailand, mindfully concentrating on each step, and noticing my breath and the textures of the forest and various sounds as I walked.

You can also be kind, relaxed and present as well.

Running: Running is perhaps the second easiest of all forms of exercise to practice mindfulness. Many runners even report getting into meditative states as they run.

Running is very conducive to following your breath. Many runners run alone, and there are no complicated movements in running to distract one’s attention.

You can easily tune into how your body feels, as well as your thoughts as you run. Swimming is another form of exercise where it is relatively easy to practice mindfulness.

Weightlifting: Weightlifting is a bit more difficult than running to apply mindfulness. For starters, most people lift weights in the gym where there are other people around.

However, a huge part of weightlifting is synchronizing movements with inhales and exhales. Yet on the other hand, people are usually counting in their heads while they lift weights, and this can make being mindful of bodily sensations or thoughts more difficult.

Although the attitudes of kindness may seem to contradict the gym mentality of “No pain, no gain,” one can certainly practice being present. However, relaxing while weight lifting might be difficult.

Dance / other more complicated forms of movement: If you take a dance class, you’ll have an even harder time practicing mindfulness.

Same with other exercise classes like Zumba, Jazzercise, or P90X.

What makes these other forms of exercise more difficult from a mindfulness perspective is that you are relying on another person. Your attention is outward, whether that be towards your dance partner or following the lead exercise instructor.

Now of course, mindfulness can complement these forms of exercise. However, developing and practicing mindfulness while you are doing these activities, from my experience, is noticeably more difficult and nearly impossible.

I can remember trying to learn dance steps and feeling like 100% of my concentration had to go towards the footwork.

However, I do imagine it is possible to be mindful at a more advanced level of dance when the movements have become second nature.

At this point in the article, I believe we can say definitively that mindfulness can be practiced with many forms of exercise.

However, we have more questions to explore:

  • Is the quality of mindfulness decreased in comparison to seated meditation?
  • Should you even bother to practice mindfulness while exercising?

Does Mindfulness Decrease With Exercise?

Let’s say you practice mindfulness meditation for ten minutes. Then the next day, you practice weightlifting mindfully for ten minutes.

Do you get the same amount of mindfulness with each activity? The answer is no.

You get less mindfulness the more variables you add into your activity, in my opinion.

It’s why the sages of ancient times past recommended yoga as a means of preparing the body for meditation.

The body and mind, through the mindful exercise found in yoga, became supple and strong to sit in mindfulness meditation. Then within mindfulness meditation, a person could truly practice a deeper level of mindfulness.

This has been my experience as well. For example, during some mindfulness retreats I’ve been on where the primary emphasis is on seated meditation, the depth of my experience has been much greater than on other more yoga-centric retreats.

I know this opinion might be unpopular because it might be tempting to want to kill two birds in one stone. That is, by mindfully exercising you could get the benefits of both mindfulness and exercise (we’ll talk about this in the next section too).

Yet by maintaining that there are differences in mindfulness quality between exercise and seated meditation, this stance respects meditation for the unique mental discipline that it truly is.

In essence, the more complicated the movements, the more people, the more external things you focus on—the lower your mindfulness.

When you can just sit there in silence, without any sort of distraction, you can more easily work with your attention. This in turn leads to a different quality of mindfulness.

Of course, if you just sit there and practice mindfulness, you aren’t getting stronger, working your cardio, learning a new form of movement, or breathing hard at all.

This isn’t a knock on exercise at all, but rather an encouragement to both practice mindfulness in seated meditation and to continue exercising too!

Trust me, I wish I could achieve the same amount of mindfulness through yoga, running or weightlifting as I can through seated meditation. That’d be awesome!

However, in my experience, different activities yield different results of mindfulness.

And that’s okay. Different activities are just different.

Should You Even Bother With Mindful Exercise, If You Get Less?

If meditation and exercise are two distinct disciplines, why worry about mindful exercise?

Why not just keep exercise and seated mindfulness meditation separate? Exercise trains the body; mindfulness meditation trains the mind.

Plus, if mindful exercise yields less mindfulness than seated mindfulness meditation, why bother with mindful exercise at all?

Overall, it can seem like a huge headache to consider what it might mean to practice mindful exercise, and if it’s even worth it in the first place.

My opinion as a yoga instructor, former personal trainer and avid lover of running and weightlifting is that mindful exercise is a worthy endeavor.

While I do not believe mindful exercise can replace seated mindfulness meditation, mindful exercise is still inherently worthwhile.

To understand why, let’s return to the Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness as stated earlier:

Mindfulness is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”

Let’s examine these four points briefly:

Paying attention: Some of the worst injuries in athletics occur simply because of inattention. A weight drops. A stretch is held too long. A runner zones out and runs into an oncoming bicyclist.

When you pay attention to what you’re doing—whether that’s washing the dishes or doing Crossfit—that’s part of mindfulness and it will help you in your exercise endeavors.

On purpose: Part of mindfulness is intention. You deliberately choose that you will focus on the present moment.

I know that some days when I run I am very clear why I am running. Deep down in my bones, I know that running is good for me, that running will clear my mind and help me feel better. When I remember these reasons, I run differently. My pace and breathing are smoother. I enjoy the process more, and my performance increases along with my purposefulness.

The same is true with any exercise. The more intention and purpose you bring to the activity, the more you’ll enjoy the process, and you’ll see better results.

In the present moment: If you practice the first two elements of mindfulness, paying attention and purposefulness, you’ll naturally reach a state of “flow” or being in the present moment.

Flow is another topic entirely, but it’s been well studied and I’ll talk about it here briefly. Flow is the zone of maximum performance.

A chart of flow based on changes in difficulty and ability

Flow is defined as the zone where your activity is difficult enough to engage you, but not so challenging as to overwhelm you.

The hallmark sign of being in a state of flow is a sense of timelessness.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the original researcher who brought awareness to this state of being and spurred the scientific community to research this phenomenon in more depth, first proposed this state of timelessness by interviewing world-class performers including athletes, chess players, musicians and artists.

He found that every performer reported a feeling where time flew by, where the individual lost themselves in the present moment of the activity. They were one with their craft.

This may sound silly, but it’s incredibly well-researched and is totally valid.

Essentially, mindfulness can help a person be in the present moment and more easily tap into states of flow. Since flow is a concept that world-class performers utilize to be their best, we can certainly take a page out of their book and use mindfulness while we exercise.

Non-judgment: Finally, how many times does a person’s exercise get thrown off by negative self-judgment?

For years, I would run and try to push myself to sprint at the very end of my run. If I didn’t sprint at the end, I considered it a failure.

Yet this attitude made me hate running! And I see this attitude so often when people are just learning new ways to move their bodies—whether they are new to weightlifting or dance, people can be their own worst critics and end up being too hard on themselves!

Non-judgment means you are kind to yourself. So instead of beating yourself up for making a mistake, you realize that all people make mistakes, especially beginners. This attitude can foster a more genuine joy for mindful movement as you stop being so negative towards yourself!

Nowadays I mainly jog because I no longer push myself to run so fast. And I enjoy the process much more and find myself naturally wanting to run.

Finally, one last note before you try to incorporate mindfulness in your exercise routines.

Don’t try too hard to be mindful.

For some people, noticing with more attention and awareness can make them feel awkward or bring up past memories.

If mindfulness is making you feel bad, don’t do it! You can certainly exercise without the added emphasis on mindfulness.

I find that when learning a new activity, like yoga, so much of your attention is given to learning the new movements and dealing with the inevitable embarrassment of moving like a clutz that trying to doubly focus on being mindful can be too big of an ask.

But hopefully, you can practice some non-judgment if you’re beginning something and feeling overwhelmed, or feeling awkward with mindful exercise in general! Be easy on yourself!

Be kind, be gentle. These are important parts of mindfulness as well.

With that said, I’m sure you have your thoughts. Perhaps you disagree, that mindfulness is equal within exercise and seated meditation? Or you have a different concept of mindfulness entirely?

Let me know in the comments, and in the meantime, go practice mindfulness the next you move your body.

Read the other articles in the KineSophy Mindfulness Series.