By Lisa Quigley
Many are aware of the touted benefits of meditation: increased awareness, decreased anxiety, enhanced peace of mind and an improved connection with the present moment. In The Artist’s Way(Penguin Random House 2016), Julia Cameron describes it like this: “Through meditation, we acquire and eventually acknowledge our connection to an inner power source that has the ability to transform our outer world.” As fitness professionals, perhaps you have encouraged your clients to boost wellness by meditating.
Despite the transformative power of meditation, however, some people experience resistance to the practice for many reasons, not least of which is the tendency for emotions to surface in the stillness. For others, just being still in the midst of busy lives, constant digital connection and racing thoughts is a challenge that creates anxiety. After all, who can find time to simply sit and concentrate?
The good news is that meditation does not have to be an “all-or-nothing” activity. Aside from what we may think of as traditional meditation, there are several ways to reap the physical and mental health benefits by, for instance, incorporating mindfulness practices into our daily lives and simply bringing full awareness to any given moment. Share the following meditation “gateways” with clients as part of a stress reduction program or simply to educate people about different ways to feel more centered and grounded.
SCIENTIFICALLY VALIDATED BENEFITS OF MEDITATION
- boosts the immune system
- decreases inflammation
- decreases stress
- helps with social connections
- enhances brain function
- supports focus and attention
- improves memory
- decreases anxiety
- supports emotional intelligence
- ignites creativity
Source: Seppala 2013.
Pranayama, or breath work, is arguably one of the simplest elements of meditation. It doesn’t require any special props, tools or fancy locations. In fact, for those who already have a strong connection to their bodies, pranayama may come naturally. Many fitness clients are accustomed to breath cues because they are used to physically exerting themselves.
While there are a variety of breathing exercises, which vary in complexity, author and contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle suggests we begin by simply becoming aware of our breath. “Notice the sensation of the breath. Feel the air moving in and out of your body,” he says in Oneness With All Life (Penguin Group 2008). This simple act of following one’s breathing automatically connects us with the present moment, reducing the potential for the anxiety that comes with focusing on the past or future.
Pranayama teaches us to be aware of our breath and to breathe deeply. Tolle adds that meditating for hours is not required to experience the benefits: “One breath is all you ever need to be aware of, indeed ever can be aware of.” So take it one breath at a time. A more conscious awareness of our breath can even improve our workouts as we learn to take longer, more nourishing breaths that can sustain vigorous physical activity.
Something to note if you decide to guide a client through a breathing practice: As Max Strom notes in A Life Worth Breathing (Skyhorse Publishing 2012), intentional breathing may bring up difficult emotions. “Many of us have fear about breathing deeply because we know deep down that our breath is somehow connected to our emotions,” he writes. “If we are stressed out and besieged with unexpressed grief, rage, or fear, then deep breathing terrifies us. So, we keep our breaths small and shallow and erratic, no matter how many times our yoga teacher tells us to breathe deeply. Like opening Pandora’s Box, we feel that if we took a deep breath, our life might fall apart. But the inverse is true. When we take a deep breath, we fall deeper into life.”
Cameron recommends “morning pages,” three pages of longhand writing completed every morning. The idea is to tap into stream-of-consciousness thinking, not worrying about what you say or how you say it—so there’s no obsessing over grammar, spelling or propriety. The writing doesn’t have to sound smart, contain elevated thought or be artistic in nature. Cameron advises practitioners against allowing anyone to read their pages. For at least the first 2 months, even the author shouldn’t go back to read what’s been written.
So then, what’s the point? According to Cameron, morning pages might be considered a form of “brain drain, since that is one of their main functions.” The meditation is in the act of moving the hand across the page, essentially creating a space for a random flow of our thoughts that can air out our anxieties, frustrations and grievances. This type of active meditation, she suggests, takes us to a space beyond our thoughts and “gives us not only the light of insight but also the power for expansive change.”
Using this method can be empowering and can ultimately translate into clients deepening their resolve, not only in relation to their training with you, but also in their everyday lives. This can unlock a strength beyond mere willpower, helping clients stay committed to personal goals—including fitness goals!
Another meditation modality is labyrinth walking. Pamela Underwood, MA, artist and expressive arts therapist with studios in California and Texas, suggests this practice “might be an easier point of entry for someone who is body-based but isn’t comfortable settling into a sitting meditation.” A labyrinth is a sacred geometry design, and Underwood has found examples “at churches, hospitals, public gardens and preserves.”
Walking a labyrinth is an active, moving meditation that, through its many twists and turns, “physically shifts the mind from the left brain to the right brain, eliciting a trance state, which naturally drops the mind from its surface/linear thinking to deeper states of consciousness,” Underwood explains. She instructs her participants to breathe consciously throughout and to pay careful attention to each individual footfall. “Used intentionally, the labyrinth is a container that can safely hold a walking meditation or prayer. There are no dead ends; there is only one way in and one way out.”
How can you find a labyrinth to walk? Underwood recommends visiting the labyrinth-finder website sponsored by Veriditas (verditas.org) and The Labyrinth Society (labyrinthsociety.org), whether you’re looking for a location near your home or while traveling. Not only can it be fun to discover labyrinths in your neighborhood and in the places you visit, but you can even experiment with creating your own. Underwood gives the following helpful tips:
- Lay out rope or toilet paper to create a simple spiral labyrinth indoors.
- Use a stick to draw a labyrinth in the sand at the beach.
- Use chalk to draw one on a driveway or in a parking lot.
- Use contractor spray chalk to draw one on your own lawn or dirt—this will eventually wash away with rain.
To experience the benefits of this practice, it isn’t even necessary to walk a life-size labyrinth path—or to walk! “Draw a labyrinth big enough to ‘walk’ with your finger,” Underwood says. “Turn inward and notice your body sensations as your finger presses the surface of the drawing and follows the path into the center and back out again. Journal for 10 minutes about the experience.”
10 ALTERNATIVES TO SITTING MEDITATION
- guided, intentional movement
- standup paddling/surfing
- music practice
- nonjudgmental awareness
- tai chi
Source: Sisson 2015.
Here is an easy pranayama practice you can teach your clients (and try yourself) to help calm the nervous system and become more present. You can do box breathing anywhere, including in the car, at work or in a coffee shop.
- Begin seated with the back supported, feet on the
floor. Close your eyes.
- Slowly exhale all air from the lungs. Pause.
- Inhale through your nose while slowly counting to 4. Feel the air inflate the lungs.
- Hold your breath while slowly counting to 4. Don’t strain; simply don’t breathe for 4 counts.
- Slowly exhale for 4 counts.
- Hold the exhalation for 4 counts.
- Repeat at least three times, or until you feel calm.
Many people struggle with an all-or-nothing mentality that tends to shrink their world. This can be true when it comes to meditation. If people can’t find the discipline to sit and meditate for 10 minutes or more a day, they may abandon the idea without a second frustrated thought. However, one goal of meditation is not necessarily to sit still but to find the potential for inner stillness in a variety of life experiences. The alternative practices presented here will help your clients reap the benefits of meditation and perhaps be so inspired by the inner peace they tap into that they find their way to a more traditional method.
If you want to help your clients meet and surpass their fitness and wellness goals, don’t overlook the power of mental toughness. NASM offers a continuing education course on this topic, focused on the key aspects of psychological strength for fitness and sport. Mental toughness leads to greater awareness and effectiveness by keeping the mind engaged, responsive, resilient and strong under pressure, leading to measurable results.