When it comes to exercise, whether we are a couch potato just getting started, are already an elite athlete or fall somewhere in between, in our efforts to push through barriers, our mind is often challenged as much as our body. To progress to the next level, we are taught to tap into willpower: “just one more rep” or, “run just a little further,” “go just a little longer.” The problem with this approach is that willpower is a limited resource. If we pull on it every time we exercise, it may run out long before we meet our fitness goals. Reliance on willpower as the primary momentum for fitness progress makes us so prone to burnout and motivation fatigue that I consider it the #1 reason many people dislike, avoid, or quit exercise.
There is another way. The most untapped exercise resource we have is our mind-body connection. When we learn to unlock inner mind-body resources for motivation, endurance, and power, new levels of peak fitness become available. I have watched this happen with clients I have worked with, and I have experienced it myself: when the mind-body connection is properly utilized, breakthroughs to entirely new levels of stamina and performance occur simultaneously with an increase in enjoyment of athletics. With mind-body strategies, fitness progress is not always the grueling thing we would otherwise make it to be. After dieting and exercise alone for me was only somewhat successful, I added mind-body strategies and dropped 94 pounds. I have painlessly and I dare say enjoyably maintained that loss now for over 7 years.
As I described in a chapter called Run Like a Lung-gom-pa Runner Monk in my 2014 book Unlocking the Heart of Healing (Healing Point Press), I watch grim, tight-lipped women jog by my office every day in a fierce battle against aging and weight gain. Exercise executed grimly does not help us become more free, more joyous, nor more energized to address the challenges in our life. I once asked a patient of mine who men consider “hot” but who to me looks stressed and strained, how much she ran every day to keep such a great figure. “Oh, about three miles a day,” she grimaced. “I make myself do it first thing in the morning before I can think about what I’m doing” she confessed. Personally, I couldn’t imagine the willpower it must take to sustain such a joyless grueling practice. “How fast do you get your runner’s high going?” I queried hopefully. “Runners high?” she looked at me blankly. “I’ve never had a runner’s high.” Unfortunately, because few people are familiar with current advances in mind-body medicine, her attitude is not unusual. The steps she could take to change this experience are so simple they practically inspire a “Well, Duh!” But what is obvious and what we do are not always the same thing. To make exercise far more enjoyable and rewarding in the long run requires some changing of habits in the short term.
I have been working with performance athletes in my acupuncture practice for almost two decades. One of the first key practices I teach clients is a tool I call a Feeling Mantra. A Feeling Mantra is an inner feeling state practiced repetitively to help a person gain access to the biochemicals, neurotransmitters, and other physiological correlates of peak performance. Studies of Russian Olympic Athletes show that groups of athletes employing 25% physical training and 75% mental training through visualization made greater gains in actual performance than either subjects using 100% physical training, or groups using 75% physical training and 25% mental training. This is incredible to consider. When we layer in newer research including studies such as those by Dr. Kazuo Murakami who showed that laughter up-regulates 23 genes that regulate blood sugar, 18 of which also control immune response, or research published in the Journal of Advancement in Medicine that has shown that experiencing 5 minutes of feelings of compassion increases an immune marker known as salivary IgA, or the work of neuroscientist Mark Robert Waldman that uses brain scans to show in vivid color just how radically our brain and neurotransmitters are impacted by meaningful meditation, we begin to get an idea of just how powerful the mind-body connection is. To rely on willpower alone when so many more inner resources are available to improve performance and recovery is to forfeit one of our most powerful and unique tools for change. When we learn to harness the power of our imagination to initiate cascades of biochemical changes in our bodies, exciting new possibilities for improved performance are the result.
With a Feeling Mantra, we draw either from a memory of a past experience, or we create an entirely new “feeling memory” in our mind’s eye, which we then practice repetitively until it changes us biochemically, electromagnetically, and neurologically. Over time, such practice literally rewires our neural pathways. We pair the experience of the sport or exercise we are doing with a carefully selected state of mind-body consciousness until the two become linked. We recondition our mind and body to a new state.
By using this strategy in my own training I was able to train my body to get a “runner’s high” in the first few minutes of a run. At the time I set out to do this, I hadn’t exercised beyond very minimally in over five years and had been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome complete with “post-exertional malaise” (feeling flattened by a bus) from even the most moderate exercise. My personal obstacles were steep to say the least, and most people who felt as winded, weakened, and awful from exercise as I did would have happily abandoned any aspirations of improvement. I was not so inclined and proceeded with a sense of curiosity and inspiration.
For my Feeling Mantra, I chose a past experience that happened while I was salsa dancing almost ten years prior. During that experience I had a numinous breakthrough in consciousness marked by a sense of my awareness expanding far beyond the ordinary, a feeling of an ecstatic connection to all of life, and a sudden ability to dance salsa greatly beyond my usual capacity. It is not necessary to build a Feeling Mantra around an experience this profound or unusual, but since I had it, I used it. Every time I exercised I would engage my sensory recall of that past peak athletic experience: I reviewed the sounds, the smells, and the feelings in my body. Through repetition in my mind’s eye, over time my body began to recall the event. At first I could get a tiny whisper of a flash of the feeling memory in my body. After some practice, I could experience that exhilarated feeling as a prolonged state. This practice became a meditation that I used every time I exercised.
Our bodies experience an event relived in our mind’s eye similarly to experiencing the actual event. As I ran while practicing a Feeling Mantra, I could keenly experience the shift as I focused my attention on that past exhilarated memory rather than on any current exercise-associated boredom, resistance, or dislike I might be tempted to fixate upon. I used my understanding that minute adjustments in neurotransmitters, immune complexes, and other biological correlates are known to shift in response to our thoughts and feelings as my motivation to stick with the practice. The results were stunning. Over time I developed stamina far greater than I had experienced at any other time prior in my life. I have continued to make marked gains in stamina and energy, and at the time of this writing I am 42 years old, and salsa dancing sometimes as much as 8-12 hours a week. While there were other steps I took to fully heal, particularly to heal the immune component of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (see my book Unlocking the Heart of Healing for more details), through training my mind’s eye I was able to resume enjoyably vigorous exercise on a regular basis. I no longer experience symptoms of chronic fatigue nor post-exertional malaise.
It is not necessary to use the Feeling Mantra practice indefinitely. Once the body and mind are reconditioned to a new experience during athletics, these benefits are retained, freeing a person to simply enjoy their sport. When my son goes to a Jiu Jitsu tournament, or when I dance salsa in the clubs, there is no time for nor advantage to focusing on a mind-body practice, or mental practice of any kind. In fact for best performance, the mind must be totally empty and the body free to do what it knows how to do. But just as Russian Olympic coaches will work for months teaching an athlete how to recondition a minute adjustment in their hip angle or a barely perceptible degree of knee bend to shave time and improve muscle performance, we must train our mind-body connection to operate optimally if we want it there for us when we need it.
For me, retraining and reconditioning using a Feeling Mantra yielded results in only several weeks, and completely transformed my running (and later dancing) experience after only several months. Now, with the skill of the Feeling Mantra online, instead of tapping harder and harder into willpower, I can drop deeper and open wider into what I experience as an ecstatic state (the etymology of the work “ecstatic” is “beyond stasis.”) Instead of being at risk for athletic boredom and burn out, I’m now at much higher risk for having transcendent experiences during exercise, and this has happened on multiple occasions. Whereas previously exercise was something I made myself do to reduce weight or tone appearance, now I carve time out of a busy schedule to get that incredible high. In Meditation: The First and Last Freedom, spiritual teacher Osho remarked, “. . . my own observation is that a runner can come close to meditation more easily than anybody else.” I believe any sport can be a vehicle for peak experiences. There have been moments so powerful during my own running and salsa dancing that I have described them as “holy raptures” (this is not so unusual when we remember that exercise induced “endorphins” are our “endogenous morphines” and morphine provides a significant “high”!) While not every person seeks to have a holy rapture experience during exercise, for any person exercise of any kind can become a powerful medium for mind-body meditation, and using the mind-body connection can lead to powerful fitness breakthroughs.
To learn more, about using the mind-body connection to heal, check out my book Unlocking the Heart of Healing (Healing Point Press, 2014). To learn more about using the mind-body connection to improve fitness, join me at an upcoming talk: “How to Use Your Mind-Body Connection and Get on the Fast Track to Peak Performance” at Excellence in Fitness, 1023 Benfield Blvd Millersville, MD 21108 on December 2nd, 2015 at 7PM.
No charge. Seating is limited. For more information or to reserve a seat email:
or see www.unlockingtheheartofhealing.com
Hughes, Bridget. (2014). Unlocking the Heart of Healing. Maryland: Healing Point Press. Page 120
Murakami, K. (2006). The Divine Code of Life: Awaken Your Genes & Discover Hidden
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Rein, Atkinson, and McCraty. Journal of Advancement in Medicine Volume 8, Number 2, Summer 1995. “The Physiological and Psychological Effects of Compassion and Anger”
Waldman, M. (2010, March 27th). [Video File] retrieved from http://markrobertwaldman.com/
Osho. (2004). Meditation: The First and Last Freedom. New York: St. Martin's Griffin. p.29