Friday, October 20th 2017

Peak experience: when exercise and spirituality meet

A middle way between The Biggest Loser and 127 Hours extreme-sport.

BY MICHELLE MORRA-CARLISLE — I am not tough. If a gang of men with sticks repeatedly pelted me with a rock-hard projectile you might find me on the ground in the fetal position, pleading with them to stop.

What I actually mean by that is that, unlike Sarah Palin, I am a real hockey mom. I live in Canada. And when I first saw my husband play goal and assume the iconic, fearless “bring it on” stance, I was in awe. As well-rounded as I consider myself to be, in that moment I saw that in my non-athletic development I had missed out on something important.

The fittest of the fit are sublimely aware that for the mind to be in optimal shape, so must the body, and vice versa. Our souls, too, are connected to flesh-and-blood bodies, which is why the Dalai Lama follows his morning yoga routine with a jog on the treadmill and why many Olympic athletes meditate.

Does a sluggish body yield a sluggish spirit? Does strength of body create strength of spirit? I suspect enlightenment does not happen when you’re going brain-dead on the couch watching any of the Real Housewives. Being both out of shape and enlightened seems possible for Buddha but, for most of us, scientists have established strong links between a sedentary lifestyle, obesity and depression.

Higher heart rate, higher plane

In yoga we learn to slow everything down and, eventually, reach a more peaceful and finely-attuned state. If paying attention to our breathing is grounding, what about the physically purging experience of breathing to the max? Exercise can push a lazy heart back into some healthy exertion and pump much-needed oxygen through the blood. So it stands to reason that physical exhaustion from activities such as mountain biking, salsa dancing and rowing can transport us in spiritual ways – think breathless, sweaty sex (NOTE: Though vigorous exercise can be almost orgasmic I’m not knocking the deeper, more yoga-like effects of the slow, patient approach).

Studies show that exercise can be as effective as certain prescription antidepressants. It improves the short-term memory of people with schizophrenia. It helps for various forms of depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder and, unlike medication, starts to work right away. Vigorous exercise offers an immediate mood boost and is often followed by longer-term relief in the form of an altogether brighter outlook on life.

Why aren’t we all doing it? Perhaps because it’s not always easy to convince Zerona-converts that running a marathon is more rapturous than lying on a fat-melting machine (who ever heard of a zerona high?). Or because it’s easier to watch someone claim to have an epiphany on Oprah than to work toward one’s own epiphany.

For a workout to be spiritual, the mind must be committed and willing. I’ve seen reality shows that feature recovering couch potatoes jogging on treadmills, bitching the whole time, with the sole purpose of shedding pounds. That’s like grunting and cursing at the vacuum cleaner while doing housework. Where’s the love? Workouts we love and take pride in work best.

Finding the perfect exercise match

My inexperience with team sports doesn’t mean I don’t work out. Over the years I have dabbled in aerobics, aquafit and lots of hiking and cross country skiing. The pinnacle came during my brief, two-year stint as a runner. I went from being unable to run for five minutes to running for an hour (about 10-12k) and, yes, it was every bit as empowering, liberating, toning, and mood-boosting as people say.  Unfortunately, as a runner I was forever at the chiropractor’s for a wonky lower back, pelvis and hip. So I no longer run. And I currently live in a city where I am uninspired by the scenery, and where there are no woods or snow in sight to hike or ski. Almost daily I walk the dog and spend 30 minutes on a treadmill or stationary bike at the gym, but these workouts are rarely “spiritual” unless an enlightening song pops up on my iPod.

For anyone who, like me, is either not exercising or shopping for a more enlightening fitness routine, over the next few weeks SoulsCode will feature 5 Workouts About to Break Out. Meanwhile, as you try new ways to get breathless keep the following in mind:

10 Things that Make a Workout Spiritual

1.  Safe and healthy (unlike bear-wrestling at a stampede, which burns calories but can get you eaten)

2.  Clears the mind – It’s hard to focus on problems of any kind when you’re consumed with catching your breath.

3.  Promotes a sense of achievement — Initial aches and pains aside, just doing it makes other things seem possible.

4.  Cheers you up — If the darkness doesn’t lift, try another form of exercise. It really should eventually lift.

5. Connection with nature. Besides the obvious connection with our own bodies, exercising near or in water, in the woods or on a mountain can be downright epiphanic.

6.  Connection with other people – If you’re inclined to exercise in a group.

7.  Connection with self – If you prefer a solitary workout.

8.  Creates emotional balance – With a regular and enjoyable fitness routine, extreme highs and lows are tempered.

9.  Makes you feel stronger, physically – A strong body is an ideal host for the soul.

10. Makes you feel stronger, spiritually – like you can tackle and conquer anything.

Watch for flashes of aerobic wisdom, coming soon on Soul’s Code.

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