By Fred Pitt
Being conscious of our physical and mental being and learning how to cope and be present has become even more important in light of the world's situation. Today's guest contribution is timely as local Mindfulness Coach Fred Pitt explains the benefits of training your mind the same way we train our bodies.
Try Working Out Your Mind As Well As Your Body
If you work out regularly and are an active person, you are likely already sold on the concept that staying physically healthy can have a real impact on your mental wellbeing. Have you also thought about how your mental health can have a real impact on your physical wellbeing? It works both ways. If you’re like me, you work on your physical body, going to the gym, working with a trainer, hiking, snowshoeing, cycling - the list goes on. We put a lot of effort into our bodies to help them stay functional, to be able to touch our toes, to continue to enjoy the outdoors and do the things we love. Can you imagine what the outcome would be if we spent only a fraction of that time working out our minds as well?
Major sports teams like the Seattle Seahawks and the Chicago Cubs as well as Olympic teams and athletes from all sports have been on board with training the mind for a while now. Professional athletes like Bianca Andreescu who famously said “At this level everyone knows how to play tennis. The thing that separates the best from the rest is just the mindset”, use mindfulness daily to help them reach optimal performance.
Have you ever played a sport and just felt like your head wasn’t in it? Have you gotten down on yourself for what you perceived was a bad shot, run or workout? How long did you feel down for? Did it affect the rest of your game? Did it affect your teammates? I find it funny that we use the term “my head wasn’t in it” – because our mind was likely exactly what the problem was. We were likely too much in our heads – not concentrating on what was happening right then, but instead having a wandering focus, and letting self-judgement and doubt take over. Mindfulness can help us be more resilient, getting back in the game more quickly after a perceived mistake. It can improve our ability to prioritize and focus on what we need – for instance to get out for that run or work out. It can train us to be more compassionate towards ourselves and create a positive energy that gets broadcast out to those around us.
So, what’s holding us back from putting mindfulness to work for ourselves? Most of us have heard about mindfulness, but think we don’t have time to do it, or don’t know how to do it, or don’t understand how it can work with physical fitness to lead to overall wellbeing and happiness.
At the gym we use weights, treadmills, bikes and more to work out our bodies, building muscles and burning calories. To work out our mind we can use mindfulness techniques to build ‘brain muscles’ like concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity (be cool!), while burning self-doubt and judgment. This can help us up our physical game, as well as our overall wellbeing.
Mindfulness is a technique that helps us focus on the present moment by concentrating on sensory experience as it happens, (like our breath, or like the cadence of our cycling or running, or our arms cutting through the water while swimming to name a few) and letting thoughts of the past or the future go. Those thoughts are full of worrying, longing, avoiding, judging – stuff that usually is not helpful and can cause us unnecessary stress and dis-ease. Overtime we learn to become more compassionate (read ‘less hard’) towards ourselves and others. It can push our focus and equanimity to the next level, which can really help in an athletic endeavor.
It’s not hard to do, and it doesn’t take a lot of time. Some mindfulness methods promote using ‘Micro Hits’, which can be anywhere from a few seconds, to just under 10 minutes. You can do those just before, or even during athletic activity. A simple Micro Hit would be to focus on your breath for 60 seconds. Try this right before doing an exercise, or during a break in a sporting activity. Really concentrate on your breath. You can use a label to keep you on track – every time you feel your breath in your body, say the label “Feel” to yourself. If your mind wanders from focusing on your breath, just gently bring it back to the technique and let the wandering thought go. Do this at a steady pace and when finished, start back into your activity. Over time, you may notice this improves your focus and concentration.
Unified Mindfulness, the systematic mindfulness approach developed by Shinzen Young even promotes ‘Background Practice’, where you can keep a low buzz of mindfulness going in the background (say 20%), while you are putting most of your concentration into something else (say 80%). These, along with a formal practice where you use mindfulness for at least 10 minutes a day, can bring improvements to all facets of your life – including athletics. It’s a practice that, like working out physically, won’t get you ripped overnight, but with a consistent practice of going back to the mindfulness gym overtime, you will notice results. Of course, you still have to eat healthy, sleep well, and exercise, but mindfulness can be a great addition to your overall life toolbelt.
If you are interested in learning the fundamentals of mindfulness, and how to start a workout practice for your mind, check out this FREE e-learning module at www.unifiedmindfulness.com/core.
About the Author: Fred Pitt
Fred Pitt is a Mindfulness Coach based in Collingwood, Ontario. When he is not out on his bike or hiking, he delivers workshops to organizations looking to introduce mindfulness into their work culture. You can reach Fred through his website at www.mindthegap.ca.