When most people envision meditation, they think of the Buddha, gongs, candles, chanting monks and seasoned yogis twisted into complicated seated positions. Yet, meditation may not be what you think it is. It also may not be as complex as you might think. The most important part of meditation involves an attitude of mindfulness. You can cultivate this attitude no matter your activity -- and you can even meditate during exercise.
Mindfulness is the act of simply paying attention to what is. It means being in the present moment and witnessing whatever feelings and thoughts may arise without judgment or the need to take action. According to meditation instructor Eliza Mada Dalian, active meditation is the process of witnessing while being engaged in activity. Whether you're making a cup of coffee or out for your daily run, you can perform active meditation by simply being aware of, without attachment, the sensations in your body, the stimuli in your environment and any thoughts or feelings you are having.
The body scan is a mental technique used to increase awareness of physical sensations and to help you get in touch with your body. By paying attention to physical sensations, you can more easily cease the constant barrage of thoughts that can interfere with attempts to meditate. The body scan is best performed before your workout or during your warmup, although certain parts of this technique can be practiced any time you feel your mind start to wander. Begin by standing still, allowing your awareness to settle in your body. Take a few deep breaths. Mentally scan your body to see if you have any places of tightness or pain, breathing into these areas to release the tension. A formal body scan involves lying on the ground and rotating your consciousness throughout various parts of your body, focusing on one particular muscle group at a time. You may wish to perform the formal body scan after your exercise program to bring closure to your meditation practice.
Breathwork is another critical component of meditation. When you pay attention to the way you breathe, you naturally take the focus off of your thoughts and worries. No matter what you're doing -- running, walking, kickboxing, or rowing -- you mentally tune into your breathing patterns, observing the flow of breath without judgment or criticism. Pay attention to where your inhalation begins. Ideally, your inhalation should stem from your abdominal area, allowing for a full, slow, complete breath. If you're engaged in an intense form of exercise, your breath is naturally going to be deeper and more intense to meet the demands of your cardiovascular system. Regardless of the intensity level, you can still tune into your breathing as a way to promote a meditative mindset.
A useful way to learn to meditate while exercising is to start with a simple, everyday activity like walking. Walking meditation helps you learn what it feels like to be mindful while performing an activity you already know, whereas it can be more difficult to immediately start meditating during more complex activities. Practice the body scan and pay attention to your breathing. Focus on your surroundings and the sensations in your body. Start walking, feeling the way your feet hit the ground, the way your legs move, and the way your arms coordinate with each other to help propel you forward. Release tension in your arms, shoulders and neck. Enjoy the experience of movement. When you feel comfortable practicing walking meditation, you can then transfer the skills you've learned to other forms of exercise.