Exercise Can Be More Like Sitting Than You Think
The Buddha never joined a health club. He never pedaled furiously on a Lifecycle trying to shed body fat, worrying that his blood pressure was too high. No cardiologist ever advised him to lose those “extra” pounds and lower his cholesterol.
These days, though, people are constantly bombarded by media messages about the body beautiful and the health risks of a sedentary lifestyle; so they join health clubs. Some of the 22 million Americans exercising in gyms every day grit their teeth and suffer through their workouts, and more than 50 percent of all new members drop out after just a few months.
Others seem to absolutely enjoy the exercise process. So what’s the difference between the dropouts and those who love their workouts? How do the exercise lovers maintain their equanimity in the hectic club environment? How do they avoid becoming dangerously obsessed with reaching specific goals like increased aerobic capacity or a tiny twenty-two-inch waistline? How do they keep their minds from going on the run whenever their bodies do the same?
There is a way for anyone to become part of what you might call a whole new generation of enlightened exercise bodhisattvas. Using the model of the Ten Perfections, or paramitas, which the Buddha described as the basic virtues of an enlightened being, we can draw corollaries to exercise that even have support from modern exercise science. Let’s call them the Six Exercise Perfections. If we exercise with as much commitment as we give our daily sitting, we can learn to alchemize the potentially stressful experience of strenuous exercise into mindful practice without getting carried away.
The Perfection of Exercise Wisdom
Up-to-date factual knowledge of exercise physiology gives us the skillful means we need to train within reasonable physical and psychological limits. We can avoid the sixty percent dropout risk that most new exercisers face, and we can protect ourselves from unfortunate physical and emotional ailments such as pathorexia, the mental and physical addiction to exercise.
Physiologists are constantly discovering new facts about how our bodies respond to different workloads. For example, in 1995, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommended a working heart rate of seventy percent of our predicted maximum, maintained for at least 30 minutes, three times a week. Then, two years later, ACSM and the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health on the basis of new research recommended a lower 60 percent heart rate level and said that the thirty minutes need not be accomplished at one session, but could be accumulated in smaller sessions throughout the day.
We should make it a point to study the latest literature from organizations like the ACSM and the American Council on Exercise (ACE), just as we study Buddhist writings. Exercise science explains physical phenomenon, and the more we know the facts, the better we can perform. We did not learn to meditate without knowledge, and we should not try to exercise without it either.
The Perfection of Exercise Adherence
Intensity of exercise is not the only factor in improving physical fitness. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports says that fewer than 20 percent of Americans adhere to exercise programs long enough to produce a statistical improvement in their strength, joint and tissue flexibility, aerobic capacity, and muscle-to-fat ratio.
Just as we require daily sitting practice to deepen our experience of shunyata (emptiness), so our bodies also need repetitive exposure to muscle overload, increased respiration, and stretching to become more fit. Since infrequent exercise produces no measurable effect on physical health, it is absolutely essential to discipline yourself to make workouts as much a part of your daily routine as your sitting practice is.
The Perfection of Nasal Breathing
The “zone” effect athletes describe, where strenuous physical effort turns to joyous flow, has finally been quantified. Exercise scientists at Ohio State University have proven that the “zone” can be produced at will, with a simple nasal breathing technique.
Breathing in and out through the nose during exercise activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Relaxing alpha waves increase, even when you are running or weight lifting. Respiration and heart rate decrease, along with your perceived level of exertion. In other words, formerly stressful work becomes pleasant. This is true meditation in action. The nasal breathing technique is described beautifully by Dr. John Douillard in his book Body, Mind, and Sport. Douillard, an Ayurvedic physician, studied the technique in India and found it a tremendous help in his own triathlete training regimen. Since that time, he has instructed thousands of athletes and health club members in the technique. In contrast, mouth breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system’s stressful “fight-or-flight” response, with its pounding, adrenalin-based cardiac response, panting, and sense of general panic. Nasal breathing could actually become the exercise pranayama (Yoga breathing exercises) for the millennium, and there’s another plus—the hormonal endorphins that create “runner’s high” are still being produced, even though the sense of exertion is diminished. Just another benefit of practicing the skillful means of exercise.
Many meditators abandon conventional exercises like running and strength training in favor of Eastern exercise forms like T’ai Chi, because they believe these forms produce more peace of mind. The nasal breathing technique changes all that.
The Perfection of Exercise Bodhicitta
When you exercise with your mind and body at peace, you immediately notice others whose minds and bodies are definitely on the run. Those poor souls grunt and groan, sweat profusely, and look simply miserable, but conscious exercisers can help them.
You can instantly become a modern-day fitness bodhisattva and alchemize others’ stress by practicing workout tonglen. Taught in a delightfully caring way by Pema Chodron, tonglen is a healing practice that uses the rhythm of the in and out breaths to take in pain and give out comfort and healing good wishes for yourself and others. It is traditionally used when a person wants to practice compassion for difficult situations. Used in the exercise environment, you can simply inhale and absorb the distress you see in those nearby and exhale the mental and physical peace you are personally experiencing.
If the Pentagon’s meditation club can positively affect our military establishment, conscious exercisers can use their clear experience to change a health club’s atmosphere of stress. Talk about helping sentient beings! How about helping sentient exercisers, who, because of their ignorance, are suffering their way to fitness instead of enjoying it?
Exercise tonglen practiced for our own workout challenges reminds us to keep our own minds from going on the run if we become frustrated or impatient. The healing warmth of tonglen’s maitri bhavana, which in Sanskrit means “friendliness or sympathy meditation,” will calm our minds when we forget our skillful exercise means and try to overachieve. This exercise perfection can replace the effort and pain of workouts and make them the joy they are supposed to be, even when our goal-oriented society tells us we must push hard and demand a concrete payback for every exercise minute we spend.
The Perfection of Exercise Noting
Meditating exercisers should also practice physical sensation noting as practiced in vipassana. By repeatedly sweeping the body to fully experience muscle tension, connective tissue stretching, heart rate, breathing changes, and perspiration—without labeling these sensations good or bad—we can actually find genuine delight in how our bodies function during high performance.
While unskilled exercisers may resent how their bodies feel, meditators who are careful not to resist their body sensations actually turn workouts into a physical symphony. We can select any single part of our physical experience and use that as our object of meditation, or we can focus on our mind’s reaction to the physical sensations themselves. At this level of perfection, we fully experience all the subtle nuances of the mind-body link and transcend them both. Instead of staying stuck in a mental rut of effort now for a specific physical fitness payoff in the future, with noting we are in the physical here and now timelessly. Our minds simply cannot go on the run when the experience is so skillfully enjoyed.
The Perfection of Exercise Patience
In a society addicted to instant gratification, our minds can easily go on the run by expecting fitness results too fast. However, our bodies don’t cooperate. They gradually adapt to increased workloads, but do not become lean, strong, and supple quickly. We have to be patient and let our bodies improve at their own pace.
The American College of Sports Medicine advises that visible changes such as significantly increased muscle tone and decreased body fat usually do not become apparent much under ninety days. Even though invisible physiological changes begin immediately, the “body beautiful” look takes time and patience. Unfortunately, when you stop exercising, the ACSM confirms, you begin to lose strength and metabolic pace within just two weeks. Our physical body does not retain physiological fitness the way our minds retain the View, which Sogyal Rinpoche calls the awareness of the ground of our being gained from meditation.
As Lama Surya Das says in Awakening the Buddha Within, “Like muscle tone, concentration disappears when it isn’t used. However, the insight, wisdom, and understanding we can realize through meditation training does stay with us.”
A Helping View of Exercise for the New Millennium
Consistent exercise, consciously performed, can lower stress, slow the aging process, control body fat, prevent sports injuries, improve posture, reduce work absenteeism, and elevate mood. If these rewards are available to us without the stress and strain most people associate with them, who wouldn’t want to join in the fun? By practicing the Six Exercise Perfections, we can begin to experience and radiate the joy and confidence these skillful means provide instead of becoming stuck in a fleeting New Age feel-good physical materialism.
We can enjoy glimpses of a physical awakening just as we experience the gradual awakening to pure awareness that develops over the days, months, and years as we sit and learn to let “monkey mind” go. When it comes to exercise, the principle is the same. We let the mind and body go on their own run, noting but not minding at all. It can be a lot more like sitting than you think.
Michael Hoffman is a veteran fitness-industry journalist and lecturer and a student of Buddhism from Dana Point, California. He is currently researching a story about the fitness challenges of his own Baby Boomer generation.