Exploring the spiritual side of exercise
Tara Patricia | October/November Issue 2011
To his ears, The cheering crowd is silent. The young, brown-eyed man digs deeply into every ounce of his being. This is it; all his training, all his sacrifice have brought him to this moment. As the crowd jumps around him in muted slow motion, a drop of sweat rolls down his face. The beating of his heart echoes through his mind. He is one with everything, yet there is no distraction… just him and a silent sense of knowing.
We have all seen this situation play out in the movies. We have listened to athletes explain being “in the zone.” We have heard the runner, the swimmer and the cyclist say, “It clears my mind and I feel alive.” But what are they talking about? What is “being in the zone” all about? Simply put, it is the moving meditation, the spiritual side of exercise.
We know how movement affects our bodies, but the same movement affects our mental, emotional and spiritual selves, too. Movement creates chemical and emotional shifts in our mind-body state that allow us to clear the clutter of our minds and reconnect more deeply to our spirits, our essence. When athletes experience “being in the zone,” they are in a state of moving meditation. They are focused on the “now.” They have detached from the chaos of the mind and reached a place of connection. In this state, we become connected with our true selves, feeding our spirits and allowing the natural process of life to unfold.
The spiritual side of exercise allows us to calm and control our thoughts, increase our joy and peace of mind, improve our concentration and creativity and reconnect with our essence. It can also help us improve our health and physiques.
Tremendous changes take place in the brain and nervous system during both meditation and exercise. These changes bear similarities, providing the opportunity to tap into benefits beyond the traditional idea of exercise. Brain waves, neurotransmitters (the chemicals that ferry messages around our bodies) and the limbic system (which regulates our emotional states) combine to good effect in the spiritual side of exercise.
Whether we are awake and alert or in deep sleep, the nerve cells in our brains, called neurons, are producing electrical activity. When these neurons fire, they result in wave patterns—beta, alpha, theta, delta and gamma—that use different frequencies to regulate activities. In our conscious state, we are mostly exhibiting beta wave patterns. These waves also come into play during times of frustration, fear and aggression. When we enter a more relaxed state, such as in meditation, our brains emit alpha waves, while gamma waves help increase mental focus and clarity.
Professional athletes and accomplished meditators produce alpha and gamma waves during their exercise and meditation. The increase in alpha waves over time creates changes in the autonomic nervous system and prefrontal cortex, producing lasting changes in mood and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Gamma waves have also been shown to improve the ability to focus and maintain mental clarity.
Exercise can have beneficial effects on neurotransmitters, too. If levels are balanced, the bodily response is to breathe deeply, providing oxygenated red blood cells evenly to every part of the body. In this state, the cardiovascular, endocrine, respiratory and muscular systems are relaxed and working in harmony. Mood is balanced; sleep is normal; and digestive and elimination systems run like clockwork, resulting in a well-detoxified body with a healthy immune system.
During periods of high or prolonged stress, however, the body begins to under-produce certain neurotransmitters while overproducing others. This overload or depletion can creates stress, inflammation and illness, taxing the autonomic nervous system as well as the limbic system. This is nature’s way of protecting the body, and it is wonderful—for short periods of time.
Problems start when the stress doesn’t go away—and in today’s world, it doesn’t take a lot to stress our bodies into this state. Many general diagnoses—from insomnia, migraines and depression to anxiety disorders, pre-menstrual syndrome and hypertension—can result from imbalances in neurotransmitters. Exercise can help regulate and enhance the functioning of the limbic system and the brain’s neurotransmitters. Three of the main neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin and norephedrine) have been clinically proven to increase with meditation and aerobic exercise. Over time, this reduces stress and increases well-being, alertness, focus, creativity, calmness and problem-solving abilities, improving memory and mood.
The good news is, anyone can reap the mental, emotional and spiritual benefits of exercise. The key is freeing your mind and matching your exercise with your mind, body and spirit. You will discover an exercise routine you are more apt to stick to.
When matching your exercise routine to your mind-body type, take an inventory of yourself and how you address life. Think of your body frame and your natural pace. Consider your energy level and personality traits. Being honest with yourself is essential to reaching this deep, replenishing level of the exercise experience. A true fit between you and your exercise program will increase your ability to free your mind and focus on the “now” of exercise.
If you get bored quickly, changing your exercise program from time to time is important. One week you may go dancing, canoeing or hiking; the next, maybe a short game of golf or some biking, yoga or pilates would do you well. If your thoughts, actions and pace in life are purposeful or you’re competitive, you may enjoy team sports. If you are strong and have stamina and plenty of stored energy, running, lifting weights, rowing, swimming long distances, aerobics or hatha yoga may be great for you. By matching your mind and body type to your exercise program, you will be able to find the “zone” meant for you.
As you begin to allow yourself to enter into and feel the process of the deeper mind-body state during exercise, you will begin to notice the calm, connected feeling spill over into other parts of your day. This will result in less stress and greater joy and peace of mind. Through moving meditation, you will develop increased creativity and enthusiasm.
Tara Patricia is the author of The Road You Were Meant to Travel: A Transformational Journey of Reconnecting to Self, Peace, and Abundance (Merkaba).
Photo: H.koppdelaney via Flickr