Erika Shevchek: A meditation on exercise and vice versa

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Monday, December 4, 2017 - 4:41pm

I feel the anticipation run through my blood before I face the inevitable: My warm body is about to jump into the chilly, chlorinated water. I’ll have to continue to exert my body forward under the water until my arm and my head decide to emerge through the surface, breaking the barrier where air meets water. I’ll feel my skin slap itself against the water –– by my toes, in my palms, on my cheeks –– and I’ll build the motion of my body with each stroke because that’s the only way I’ll get from one side the other.

The wall approaches, and there will be that split second where the world flips upside down and I’ll see a colored cap coming from behind me. By the time I have any recollection of that image, I’m already bouncing off the wall and flutter kicking underwater. What was once my warm body, turned to a shivering body, has now become my perspiring body. I feel the heat slither up my chest and into my face. My body has adapted to its condition in water, and I feel my heart beat a little faster and the heat race throughout my muscles. I mean, it’s called warm up for a reason, right?

This is a meditative response to how I feel during a swim warm-up. Usually when I do cardio –– and I’m sure what is a similar feeling for others –– I lose myself in the workout. I forget that my body is attacking the water, or that my body is even in water for that matter. But it’s always during warm-up, the between pre-workout and working out, where I am so intensely aware of everything happening in my body.  

In most meditations, the core method of the practice is to focus: to pay meticulous attention to breath, to body position and to what thoughts you’re having. Guided meditations will tell you to focus on the space where your body meets the surface it is on (like a chair, a pillow or a bed), or focus on the moment when your breath touches your upper lip. Meditation is a process that allows us to focus on the unfocusable. It’s these spaces that we forget even exist, and when our minds and bodies hone in on a particular portion, the connection is pure magic.

Yes, I’ll agree that it’s hard to focus when doing cardio. For many, the purpose of exercising is to reach this meta feeling of escaping and to push the body until it’s reached the most powerful state of numbness. I can’t help but emphasize, however, how we can design our cardio workouts to become meditative and detailed.

Similar to why athletes work on technique within their sport, their major focus in those types of exercises is to pay more attention to what the body is doing. They take a moment to bring awareness to one part of the body, and they make that motion the most effective it can be, whether that is through speed, trajectory, angles, force, etc. In our own high-intensity workouts, we, too, can concentrate on the way we are moving, what’s hurting or what feels right.

Even more so, this type of focus during an exercise doesn’t just have to be physical. We can focus in on what’s happening in our minds as well. There are moments when one can channel certain energies that help fuel our physical experience. Maybe you’re excited or angry or stressed, and these are emotions that can be physically translated when running or swimming or biking. It’s amazing when you take the rapid motions in the brain and execute them in your practice; you are meditating on how you’re feeling and the workout will reflect those energies.

I sense the soreness of my shoulders when I’m in a distance set. I feel the water dripping through my teeth. I concentrate on how far my head comes out of the water when I breath. I allow my mind to acknowledge the limits that my body is pushing.

It’s that drip of sweat you feel down your spine when you're on the field, or the cyclical motion you recognize in your arms when rowing. How mindful it is to feel the lightest touch of your feet contacting the ground when sprinting or your hamstrings pulling on themselves in yoga during uttanasana.  

By returning to our exercise, even when our minds are far away, our awareness can be sharpened. We should center our thoughts with our actions, and by doing so, it makes us better at the exercise we’re doing.