Hey fitness fanatics: Do you watch TV while running on the treadmill? Do you make small talk while lifting weights? Do you blast house music and hip-hop while spinning? The fitness community in the typical American gym is fun, diverse, and active, but the whole “mind-body” exercise phenomenon that is creeping onto the scene is bewildering to some. What’s the difference between a yoga class and an aerobics class? How will Pilates give me a better strength-training workout than weightlifting? What on earth is Tai Chi all about?
Perhaps you’ve let your mind drift off to somewhere else while working out and oops, there goes a ligament. Maybe, more than a few times, you’ve told yourself to “feel the burn” or “tough it out.” Perchance there is an ideal “you” floating around in your head that you strive for with each workout, tracking the calories you burn, the weight you lose, the changes in your body mass index, and the inches around your waist?
When we exercise absent-mindedly or in a goal-oriented mindset, we cultivate several behaviors that can be detrimental to our overall health including increased risk of injury, a lack of enjoyment of physical activity, and chronic conditions resulting from improper and repeated movements.
Mindlessness vs. Mindfulness
Ancient arts such as Yoga and Tai Chi and modern techniques such as Pilates offer something to the student that conventional fitness routines do not. These practices engage the body and the mind; their approach to physical activity is through mindfulness.
When you calm the mind and cultivate your awareness, you begin to experience the joy of movement and become sensitive to the messages your body is sending you. This is the empowering feeling of developing your own “body wisdom,” the ability to know intimately what is going on in your being and the skill and knowledge to be self-healing.
Because awareness is at the center of these practices, there is typically a lesser risk of injury. You may get into “the zone” on a treadmill and not feel your knee going out. You may wake up the day after a high-impact aerobics class and ache all over. Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi and other mind-body arts teach the student to respect the body as he moves through the practice and honor its abilities and limitations. This level of mindfulness keeps you aware of your edge in any given movement and usually pre-empts strain, overexertion, and dangerous misalignments.
Pain Versus Pleasure
The intention behind mind-body exercise is to bring wellness to both aspects of our being. This is in contrast to our western concepts of “getting fit,” “toning,” and “shaping” the body, terms which connote that there is some end-goal we must strive for through punishing hard work.
A healthy and happy body is a fit body: the goals we often push ourselves towards in the gym to “look good” and “be strong” are natural side effects of mind-body practices. In the wisdom of doing what is good for us, our best selves come through, happy, healthy, and beautiful.
The most pleasant benefit of mind-body exercise is the sense of innate joy the practitioner begins to derive from the simple act of movement. Mindfulness and awareness will transfer to other activities like running and biking, playing sports and playing with children, gardening and cleaning; work becomes play when it is done with joy.
Mind Body Fitness Demystified
The International Dance and Exercise Association (IDEA) defined mind-body fitness activities as “physical exercise executed with a profoundly inwardly directed focus.” This includes Yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates, Reiki, Nia and Gyrokinesis – to name a few.
Due to the growing popularity of mind-body fitness in the 1990s, IDEA created a sub-component dedicated to the mind-body-spirit connection, which they call “Inner IDEA”. The committee identified five major characteristics of mind-body exercise, noting that any style of mind-body fitness regimen includes one or more of these components:
Internal focus of thoughts
Concentration on muscular movements and actions
Synchronization of movement with breath
Attention to alignment
Belief in a form of life energy (such as prana or chi)
Some forms of mind-body exercise encompass all five qualities, Yoga and Tai Chi are the most familiar of those. Pilates focuses on the breath and movement portions, and does not emphasize the idea of a shared and moving life-energy. On the other hand, Reiki is considered one of the original mind-body healing techniques, and it focuses almost solely on the movement of energy, without much movement on the part of the participant at all.
Nia and Gyrokinesis are newer techniques and are hybrids of ancient practices of Yoga, Tai Chi and martial arts practices, movement and dance schools of thought and pure bodywork studies such as the Feldenkrais method, Alexander Technique or Rolfing.
Bodywork versus Mind-Body
There is some confusion as to whether bodywork techniques should be included in the mind-body category, due to the fact that there is an element of kinesthetic awareness required to study or practice bodywork techniques, and a strong focus on alignment. To that point, who is to say that conventional exercise such as swimming, running or weight lifting is not mindful?
The difference rests in the intention behind the activities. In mind-body practices, the mental focus of the practitioner is an essential element. One could perform a single Yoga pose and meditation, and it could be considered a complete practice.
All About Connection
Because the term mind-body itself springs out of the medical research field, where scientists were studying the connections between the brain and the physical well-being of their subjects, the mind-body definition of fitness is couched securely in the sustenance and creation of that connection.
It is succinctly explained by W. Michael Keane and Stephen Cope in “When the Therapist is a Yogi: Integrating Yoga and Psychotherapy”: “For the yogi, no one aspect of human functioning is more important than the other. To work with the emotions you need mind and body. There is no separation. Change the emotional state then you affect the mind and body. Change the physical experience then you affect the mind and emotions.” (Transpersonal Psychotherapy,” SUNY Press, Albany NY 1996 ed. Seymour Boorstein, M.D.)
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