Staying Present With Exercise

Yoga and hiking are the only two forms of exercise I enjoy that also help me stay present. Yoga naturally encourages you to be present with your sensations as you adjust your pose to maximize the lengthening and stretching. When I’m hiking the beauty of the outdoors reminds me to get out of my own head and observe what’s happening around me. These subtle reminders allow me to develop my practice and get some exercise.

I think it’s important to maintain my physical health so in the past I would find ways to trick myself into getting a daily workout. I could rarely motivate myself visit the gym but I always enjoyed a nice competitive game. I could get wrapped up in a game of basketball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, or tennis and leave the court knowing I filled my exercise quota. What I’ve noticed is my mind was far from present when competing. I was trained with the, “Do whatever it takes to win,” mentality so my mind was usually calculating strategies to be victorious. Getting lost in the competition and having my mind aways in the future was great because it distracted me from receiving my dose of exercise.

Now competition doesn’t feel right. Always being stuck in the future goes against my practice. The goals of exercising to look good have become less important. Without the motivations that worked in the past I’m getting much less exercise and that’s a problem so I want to reevaluate how I play sports. Is there a way to compete without getting lost in the future?

Athletes often talk about “the zone” where everything is going right. The world is moving in slow motion and you can’t miss. While I’m no Michael Jordan, I’ve experienced this a few times on the basketball court. In those few moments I felt more present than on other days. My mind was locked in and I wasn’t worried about anything outside of that game. I still wanted to win but I knew that focussing my effort on the present was all I could do.

Can I learn from this? Instead of intentionally getting lost in the competition to disconnect from my body so I can get my exercise could I use sports to develop mental presence? Instead of getting lost in the end goal can I bring my attention to the process? This all seems counterintuitive to my thoughts on exercise but my body is screaming for better care so I need to listen.

One thought on “Staying Present With Exercise

  1. I remember one time when Shane Battier had an awesome game, at the end someone was interviewing him about his performance. He said it was like watching himself from the outside, like he was completely and effortlessly focused on the game and everything just seemed to flow. He said if he knew how to get back to that place, he’d do it every time!

    I think this is a phenomenon that’s fleshed out pretty well in Zen literature. Those guys would merge some kind of activity, like archery, or painting, or martial arts, into their practice. I think there are entire books written about Zen archery. Like, there’s a complete loss of self and total immersion in the activity, which is a sensation I think most can relate to.

    When I was serving as course manager a couple years ago, there was a long-term server at the center who said he would meditate while exercising, and it enabled him to push himself to extremes because he could observe his pain without reacting to it. I’ve never been able to do this, but I have changed how I work out based on lessons from meditation. When I go running, I used to try and phase out completely in a daydream. Now I try to be more mindful – to be aware of every step, every breath, every movement. Constantly aware of my form, constantly aware of my breathing, examining fully the nature of any pain or fatigue, objectively. It completely changes the experience (although it hasn’t made me any faster…)

    You know how in Vipassana, sometimes your mind just does things on its own? Like, you’re just doing your practice, observing sensation, observing sensation, and then new things start to happen, without your choice or intent. I wonder if something similar happens in sports – you practice and train so much, and focus so diligently, and then… your mind starts to do things. I think being aware of the end goal is part of it – if you’re a quarterback and you’re looking for an open receiver, initially, you may have to think hard about where people are running and what might happen. But with experience, you come to feel these things, and you can be completely in the moment. It’s not even about competition anymore, it’s just about executing a task, manipulating your body and your environment properly by becoming selflessly immersed in your endeavor.

    In the end, I think the best motivation for a meditator to exercise is as another method of discovery. When you meditate on a cushion, you observe without reacting. When you exercise, you observe while constantly acting in ways that will maintain the flow of your task. There’s an active, moving component to your job. I can’t help but suspect that including that additional aspect of your cognition could be another perspective of insight.

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