The Myth of Mind-Body connection
The new buzzword in the fitness industry is ‘mind-body’ exercise. This primarily includes yoga, pilates, tai chi, quigong, etc where the mind-body connection is unmistakable. The instructions are directed to the breath and a very deliberate association is made between the breath and the movement.
This false differentiation however makes it appear as if all other forms of fitness (like running, aerobic dance, strength training) somehow do not involve the mind!
It is my belief that every single form of exercise needs to be a mind-body activity. It cannot and should not be any other way.
I often see the gym rat glowing blue in the face as he tries to force a movement holding the breath and paying no attention to what his body is telling him.
A major part of fitness is about the mind. Determination, cognition, perseverance and dedication — qualities without which one cannot hope to persist with one’s fitness routine day after day. It may seem as if physical fitness is just that — a “physical” intervention. But it is not really completely physical, is it? There are times when the body is reluctant to complete that last mile, pick up the weights or go through a yoga routine. It is one’s mind that is then responsible for following through.
Weight training – Strength training, for instance, cannot be a mindless activity one participates in while having an animated conversation with a buddy in the gym. There has to be total focus on the weight being used, the rhythm and pattern of breathing that has to follow the movement (exhaling during the effort for instance), the muscles being worked, the accessory muscles being worked, the correct ‘form’ of the exercise and so on. How can it not be a mind-body exercise then? If one is not mindful while training with weights, the chances of injury are extremely high.
The breath, while exercising, is the essence of life, obviously, but I often see the gym rat glowing blue in the face as he/she tries to force a movement while simultaneously holding the breath and paying no attention to what his body is telling him. Catastrophic! Even experienced exercisers and trainers seem to constantly need reminding of their breathing pattern while training with weights. So the next time, instead of watching to see if your neighbour in the gym is watching you perform a seemingly herculean dead lift, focus on your own breath and form of exercise instead. Focus on which muscles in your body are working to lift the weight. Focus on keeping your core stable, spine aligned and your body weight balanced evenly between your feet. Focus on what you are pushing your body to do. Listen to what it is telling you in response.
While building muscle, finishing those last few reps when your muscles are begging you to stop is possible only with the right mental attitude.
Cardio – Although some people enjoy their cardio, many find it extremely dreary and/or difficult. You can trick your mind into enjoying it by adding fun to the activity. If you absolutely cannot go for a run or use the cross trainer, why not try one of the new cardio classes with music, some entertainment, and other exercisers that add to the thrill making one forget (to some extent at least), the actual work done. Some people need that distraction while others are able to stoically go through their daily workout without external motivation. These are just personality types. Some people are self-motivated while others are not. Identify your personality type and figure out what works best for you, the prime objective being to help you stay with your exercise routine by using the mind.
There are times when the body is reluctant to complete that last mile. It is one’s mind that is then responsible for following through.
The mind is very clearly called upon to focus, learn and commit to memory when you are taken through a complicated aerobic/step/kick-boxing class with choreography and music. Yes, your mind is working. There is no question about it. There are students who will swear they have two left feet, they are tone deaf and have no clue about music. Somehow, with practice, their body learns to adapt to a new kind of movement. It learns to listen to and understand rhythm. All this is possible when the mind is alert.
Researchers (Kramer, Erickson and Colcombe, 2006, and Hillman and Van Prag, 2008) found that regular exercise creates new pathways, new cells (neurogenesis) and improved blood flow (vascularity) in the brain thereby improving cognition, working memory, multitasking even dealing with ambiguity. These are the very functions that normally decline with age. Regular exercise therefore could prevent this decline paving the way for a better quality of life.
It works both ways. The mind is used to exercise effectively and exercise in turn improves brain function. All fitness activities have a mind-body connection. This is more palpable when one focuses on the activity at hand — when one is open to learning and understanding; when one is conscious and mindful.
(The writer is a fitness and