The Mind & Body Connection
Let’s see how the mind and body are connected and how we can take advantage of this during exercise.
The mind-body connection has been debated for centuries, ever since Descartes came to the conclusion that the two were separate entities in the 17th century. I’ve never really bought into this. The mind may be the domain of all things non-physical such as fear, anger, jealousy, joy, excitement etc., but it’s so clear to me that such emotions manifest themselves physically in us. When we feel sad, our throats constrict, we cry and we feel the weight in our chest. Fear brings sweaty palms and a pounding heart that races when we’re excited. Stress shows itself physically too, doesn’t it? Sleepless nights, nausea, high blood pressure and strokes? So there must be a connection, mustn’t there? Just recently I have started to study towards my next Pilates qualification, and I can now see more than ever before that the whole mind-body connection is at the very heart of it. The aim of Pilates is to strengthen the body evenly with particular emphasis on core strength to improve fitness and well-being. But, here’s the thing. Pilates addresses posture, muscle tone, balance, strength, flexibility, and joint mobility as well as being a renowned therapy for lower back pain. I think a lot of people know that. And yes, it relieves stress and tension. Everyone knows that all exercise does that. But what I hadn’t appreciated before was that Pilates encourages us to think of our minds and body as one and to find a harmony there. It encourages mindfulness. So, it’s a kind of moving meditation, as well as a great body workout. It teaches us to put our mind and body into such a state that they can positively influence each other.
So, what exactly is mindfulness?
In our hectic modern world, our bodies constantly seem to be in one place and our minds in another. Mindfulness is simply bringing our attention back to the present moment in an effort to re-connect the two and be more aware of our own self. This is central to Pilates, where you are required to concentrate on your body during movement and feel each part in order to achieve the correct movement pattern. This is achieved through breathing, controlled movement and focus. But mindfulness can be applied to any workout and there are many benefits.
What are the benefits of being mindful during our workouts?
Sometimes, I agree, it’s great to just ‘zone out’ during a workout. Listening to favourite music and moving our bodies through simple activities we don’t have to think about can be a great way to chill out and allow our minds to wander free. However, when we’re too distracted, we lose that connection to what we’re doing. Here’s three benefits of being mindful during exercise:
A stronger connection to our body: When we focus on each exercise, the muscles we’re working, and what we’re actually accomplishing, we get more out of each exercise and each workout.
Better results: When we focus on your what we’re doing, we improve the quality of our movement and, as a result, the quality of our overall workout.
More satisfaction: When we know exactly what we’re working for and how each exercise should feel, we feel more satisfied when we achieve it.
How do we get more mindful when we exercise?
To achieve a better mind-body connection while working out, bear in mind the following five points:
1. Have a purpose for each workout. This should be something specific and something you can focus on and work on during that session. Losing weight may be a long term goal, but it’s not immediate enough. Your purpose could be one of the following:
To simply finish the planned workout
To strengthen specific muscles
To work particularly hard in a certain class
To burn a certain number of calories
To do a certain number of steps
2. Remember why you’re exercising. If you find yourself just going through the motions and distracted by all sorts of other things you’ve done or have still to do, try and bring your attention back to why you’re there in that class at that moment and focus on it. Your reason why could be one of the following:
Because you know you will feel energised afterwards
Because working out makes you feel better about yourself
Because you sleep better afterwards
Because you feel less stressed after a work out
3. Slow down. Take your time with each activity, each movement, particularly resistance exercises such as Pilates and body weight exercises. Focus on your movement and doing everything properly, executing each arm stretch, each squat or lunge with the correct technique. Think about your posture, your core and the rest of your body, including the muscles you are targeting.
4. Remind yourself to breathe. Breathing deeply and with control is the simplest way to combat stress and bring you into the current moment. If your mind wanders during your workout or you keep watching the clock, close your eyes and take a breath to bring yourself back. You’re exercising right now and that’s all you have to think about.
5. End on a good note. Take time to cool down and stretch the muscles you’ve exercised. In summary, taking advantage of the mind-body connection may well be easier in classes such as Yoga, Pilates, Burn or Jagua, but with a little application, it can be beneficial in any exercise class. It isn’t easy, but with time and practice, we can all learn to be more present and more aware when we exercise. Mindfulness is a powerful tool to use in any workout and the effect it can have on the results we achieve should not be underestimated. The next time you go to a class, try it and see what happens.