Exercising with a chronic illness is a battlefield. You know you should do it. It’s part of a healthy lifestyle. But you also know it could make things worse. Like biking 60km without training and becoming bedridden for the next week worse(I maybe did this). So how can you reap the benefits of exercise without living in fear of harming your body and aggravating your symptoms? You want me to make it easy for you, don’t you? You say to yourself- this is a yoga blog! You are going to tell me to do yoga! But you can’t outsmart me this time lassies. You are going to have to put in some work to make exercise help you. It requires paying attention, and being fully present when you are moving. We’ve all been told to ‘listen to our bodies’. And it works, to listen to your body- you can stop when you need to stop and push on when you need to push on. But how do you develop this secret ‘body sense’ that some people seem to have so down, while you seem to overdo it almost every time? For me, the answer is mindfulness. When you use mindfulness in exercise you’ll be able to listen to your body, and with continued practice, find yourself more in sync with what your bod is craving.
Listening to your body with mindfulness
If you’re wondering what mindfulness is, take a look at this post for an introduction. Mindfulness means paying attention. And for a daydreamer like me that is much harder than it sounds. I used to be the girl who listened to music while she exercised, or used the time swimming to reflect on my day. Not anymore, mi amigos. Now when I am exercising. I am just exercising. That is it. Nothing else! You can give this theory a try without exercising. Next time you sit down for a rest. Instead of switching on the TV, pulling out your favourite book, or thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner, try thinking about the moment instead. Let’s give it a try right now. Are you ready? Read the instructions and then close your eyes and try it:
1. Put down your computer or tablet and close your eyes.
2. Start to notice your breathing (you are breathing, right?)
3. How are you breathing? Slowly? Quickly? Deep? Shallow? Don’t try to change your breath, just notice it. Count out 5 breaths this way.
4. Next, put your entire focus on your toes. How are your toes feeling? You don’t need to express in words, just giving your toes your full and utter attention.
5. With each breath, begin moving your attention up your body. Through your feet and legs, up through the hips and the torso, noticing the movement of your belly with your breath, all the way through to your neck and head.
6. Take two more breaths and then open your eyes.
Are you still reading?
Go do it now!
Did you do it yet?
How did it feel? Did you notice anything in your body you hadn’t before? Maybe something was sore or tight feeling. Maybe a muscle felt nice and strong or loose. Or maybe you didn’t notice many sensations at all! Either way I hope you felt like you had a short check in with your body. So now let’s look at how can we apply this principle to exercise.
To start with, it’s good to be realistic about your current level of fitness. If you have been mostly inactive for over a month, I recommend starting with walking or yoga. If you know that you can already exercise a fair amount without hitting your limit, you can apply these principles to whichever type of exercise you choose.
Before you begin exercising at all, do a 5-10 minute meditation, like the body scan we just practiced above. Take a few minutes to take inventory of your body. Maybe you recently ran 5k, but when you do your body scan realise you are feeling drained today. Instead of trying to force yourself to run again maybe walk 3km, or do a yoga video. If you are feeling energetic, like you can do a bit more, maybe choose a slightly harder workout than your last. Keep in mind that sometimes when you are feeling sluggish, you need a more energetic workout to wake yourself up, and if you are feeling more energetic you need a calmer workout to slow yourself down. However, this understanding will come after much practice of mindfulness. To begin with, use your common sense when checking in with your body. If you feel tired, do less. No matter how much you did last week or last year.
For the purposes of this article I am going to be talking about mindfulness yoga. That is because part of practicing yoga is mindfulness. So if you are new to mindful exercise yoga is a great place to start. It also provides a mixture of cardio, strength, and flexibility training. However, these principles can be applied to any kind of exercise.
Mindful exercise means using the principles of mindfulness in this article, along with the exercise above, to stay focused throughout your exercise routine.
After your5-10 minute meditation, make a goal to keep your attention on your breath and body throughout your mindful yoga practice. During the practice, if your mind starts to wander, notice what you are thinking about, and then guide your attention back to your body. It’s normal for your mind to wander, but notice how you can also choose to bring your focus back to your mindful yoga session.
Mindful Yoga- Bite Size Steps
1. Set aside a time for yourself, whether it is 10 minutes or 1 hour. Make sure you will not be disturbed during this time, and that you are committed to staying present for this time.
2. Begin and end with a body scan to check in with your body and how you are feeling.
3. Use common sense- even if you are feeling energetic your muscles need time to build. Increase your work out only slightly each time.
4. Don’t be afraid to ‘go backwards’. Sometimes you will need to do less than you did last week. But you aren’t in last week’s body you are in today’s body.
5. If you go too far one day, know that it is okay. It takes time to grow your awareness and get more in tune with your body. Take each setback as a chance to rest up and work on your meditation practice :).
Any questions about mindfulness yoga or mindfulness exercise? Post them in the comments below!
My next mindful yoga course starts June 15! Reserve your spot here!