Thursday, January 6, 2011

Exercise as Meditation

I've discovered an interesting phenomenon at the gym. I use the elliptical machine for cardio or weight-loss workouts. I really love the motion of that machine, it's like running without the pounding, or like riding a bike standing up. It is really unusual and really delightful.

Krishna Das
As nice as it is however, 30+ minutes of it several times a week can get a little tedious. So, now I bring my iPod with me and listen to music while I'm exercising. I've actually been doing this for quite a while, and during that time I've tried many different styles of music. Somewhere along the way, I tried Krishna Das' kirtan chants and now I rarely listen to anything else. The chanting has an amazing impact on my workouts. The first thing I noticed was that if I closed my eyes and allowed myself to get caught up in the chanting, the workout would just zip by.

But, after a few weeks of listening to only chants while exercising, I became aware of a more profound effect. I start to feel an intense joy, about mid-way through my workout. Then a huge smile would appear on my face and just stay there for the rest of the session. Sometimes I wondered if the other folks in the gym noticed this madman fiercely pedaling away on the elliptical with his eyes closed and a big smile on his face. No ever said anything, but people don't typically comment on things like that in the gym. Some people grunt, some hum or sing along to whatever they're listening to via their earbuds, some remain stoically silent. No one really pays any attention, as far as I can tell. Your workout space is your own.

Recently, I've begun to experiment with another technique on the elliptical. I still listen to the chants, and mostly keep my eyes closed, but now I try to focus on my breathing -- in and out through my nose -- almost as if I were meditating. Well, not almost, exactly like I was meditating. Now here's the really neat part: when I'm successful at focusing on my breathing for a while, my heart rate slows, even while I'm working harder on the machine.

This may not be a scientific breakthrough; I've read about studies that document the stress-reducing effect of meditation. Nevertheless, for me the combination of breathing, listening to the chants, and working hard, yet progressively feeling better and better as I do, is like catnip. Whereas there was definitely a time when I resisted these workouts, now I happily look forward to them, and am even disappointed if I miss one.


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