Experiencing Zen Through a Barbell?  Thoughts on Mindfulness, Presence, and Strength Training.

We hear a lot about mindfulness and being present. It seems that more and more people are adopting some type of mindfulness practice. We’re downloading apps to help remind us to be present. We’re engaging in meditation, mindful breathing, body scans, etc., to improve our presence and mindfulness. We’re taking courses on mindfulness and stress reduction offered by our employers’ HR departments.

The scientific literature is exploding in breadth and depth about the effects of mindfulness training on a variety of outcomes like stress management, decision making, interactions with other people, etc.

Because of these beneficial outcomes, many people are tempted to think of mindfulness primarily as a means to an end – “I do it because it makes me feel better [helps me manage stress; helps me sleep more peacefully; etc].”

However, when we do something because we see it as an activity that will give us a certain outcome, and we don’t get that outcome immediately, it decreases our likelihood of engaging in the activity.

If we shift our approach to instead practice mindfulness not primarily as a means to an end per se, but because we simply enjoy the practice in the moment, I argue we’re probably more likely to continue the practice. When we focus less attention on and energy to striving for the beneficial outcomes of being mindful/present, then I argue that we’re more likely to see those positive outcomes.

Mindfulness and Being Present Can Be Hard … Womp Womp

I was thinking the other day about the different domains in my life – relationships, work, home, exercise, commuting, etc. – and trying to identify the domains where I am most present.

Scary to say that my commute is one area where I am least present and mindful, and I bet other people would say the same for themselves. This is not because we are texting or talking on the phone (hopefully), but because we are usually focused on the dozens of ‘to-do’ items on our task list for the day or the next day, replaying conversations in our minds, or worrying about how we are going to get everything done in the next few days that we need to. In these instances, some of us have a hard time even thinking about practicing mindfulness or presence because there is no room left in our brains.

We are at max capacity and are too zoned out to Zen out.

Sadly, in relationships many of us are also not as present and engaged as we would like to be – usually, we find ourselves either worrying about saying something stupid or waiting for our turn to speak instead of actually listening. Especially in relationships, when we try hard to be present and engaged because we focus on the intended outcome of being a better partner/offspring/sibling/friend/colleague, we fail miserably.

This relates back to what I mentioned above about being focused on outcomes/goals of mindfulness.  I think a challenge in being mindful in relationships is due to focusing more on the outcome of being a better partner, etc., rather than focusing on the enjoyment/experience of simply being in the moment with the other person or people.

At their core, mindfulness and being present are simple. They are grounded in being aware of the current moment, one’s body, being engaged with other people, paying attention to what we’re doing in any given moment.

But we know that simple and easy are not the same. Although the premise is simple, the ‘action’ is not necessarily easy. It takes work. That’s why it’s called mindfulness practice.

So, What Do Mindfulness and Presence Have to do With Strength Training?

The domain in my life where I am most present is when I am at the gym, specifically, when I am strength training.

For me, despite the phrase ‘strength training’ which implies that one is engaging in the activity for a goal or reason (e.g., training to get stronger), I am not terribly goal-oriented while in the moment at the gym.

Of course I have overarching goals that motivate me to go to the gym like improving my mobility and stability, fat loss, stress management, general health and wellness, etc. I go to the gym because I feel the need to. But, when I am physically at the gym, these goals are not forefront in my mind.

Once I get in the door, I am immersed in the experience.

  • Being greeted by Kirsten at the front desk, the trainers and interns, and the owners, Bill and Mike.
  • Saying hello to friends warming up, lifting, or conditioning.
  • Loud banging of bumper plates hitting the platforms.
  • Seeing young athletes Olympic lifting while blind-folded and ‘being one with the bar.’
  • Hearing Coach Rufus offer feedback to the lifters.
  • Clanging of the metal bar hitting the pins in the rack.
  • White chalk dust on the black flooring.
  • The feel of the lacrosse ball rolling under my feet. The PVC tube rolling under my upper back.
  • Chatting with Trainer Lance about the mind-blowing stuff he’s learning about posture, breathing, and neuroscience.
  • Flipping through the pages of my awesome program (“progruhm”), remembering which day I am on.
  • The joy I experience when I see I am on deadlift day. FIST PUMPS!!!

I love deadlift day. Like, really, really, really love deadlift day.

Deadlift day especially is when I am most present and mindful at the gym. In deadlifting, for me anyway, there is complete and total presence about it. There really is no higher goal or outcome I’m focusing on in the moment other than to try to pick the bar up off the floor and focusing on what the experience feels like.

When I am loading plates on a bar, I am in the zone. It’s difficult to calculate how much more to load on the bar and safely load the bar without smashing your fingers or crushing your toes if your mind is 100% someplace else.

I stand with my shins against the bar. I make sure my feet are the appropriate distance apart. I pay attention to my breath — when to inhale and exhale. The hinge in my hips as I bend down to pick up the bar. The feel of the rough knurling on my palms and fingers. How far apart are my hands from one another on the bar? Is my lumbar extended or is my back as neutral as it can be? Are my glutes loaded? How about the feet – are they planted on the floor while setting back some into my heels? Is my chin down? Can I feel my lats setting?

And when I’m ready to lift the bar, am I ‘spreading the floor’ with my feet and engaging my glutes? Is the bar staying close to my legs as I pull it off the floor? When I get to the top of the lift, do I feel my hips driving forward without going into lumbar extension? Is my back still neutral? Is my chin still tucked?

At the top of the lift my mind says, “Oh wow! What a privilege to be capable of motion and of strength. You are fortunate to be able to do this and, man, it sure feels good!”

As silly as it sounds, at the top of a big deadlift everything else goes away for me for that second or two. At that moment, I can’t tell you what song is playing on the radio. I can’t tell you if my pant legs look funny because they got bunched up by the bar on its way up. I can’t tell you if I have a weird look on my face or am gritting my teeth. I can’t tell you who else is in the gym.

I can’t tell you if my ponytail is straight (probably not), if I am dripping sweat (definitely), or if I look like Alice Cooper because mascara is running down my face (probably).

It’s just me, the bar, and how the experience feels.

On times when the bar won’t come off the floor, when my body says, “Not today, lady,” or when the bar comes off the floor but I can’t lock out – I am just as present and mindful, only it’s to how my body feels to struggle. And I am grateful for those experiences.

As I set the bar down, path still staying as close to my legs as possible, still trying to keep neutral spine and chin tucked, and glutes engaged, I am present. Then I am grateful.

I am grateful for the experience. I am grateful to the gym, the other gym goers, and community I’ve been introduced to in the past few years.

I am grateful to my dear friend, Zach, for writing a great program and believing in my strength. In fact, Zach has taught me so much about mindfulness and presence by way of helping me listen to my body – am I stressed? tired? energetic?—and teaching me cues to help my body breathe, move, and lift.

So, for me, lifting is probably as close to a Zen moment as I’ve ever gotten. It’s addictive. It’s amazing.

No matter if there are 2 plates or 6 plates on the bar, I’ve learned that the miracle and experience of being capable of movement are not to be taken for granted.

How about you? Where do you find “Zen moments” of mindfulness and presence in your life?

Thanks for reading.  Be well!

Lead image courtesy of Allen Tucker.

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