There’s a phrase that’s used in the fitness world that’s meant to help you focus: “put your mind in the muscle”. The theory is that by channelling your mental energy as well as your physical grunt, your efforts become more concerted, and you get results.
It’s a principle and a practice that I find makes the strain both worthwhile and satisfying. Not only does it keep my mind “in the game”, it helps me tune out all of the peripheral noise that would otherwise be a distracting hindrance to the reason I am in the gym in the first place – which is to develop strength, stability, balance and stamina.
While I’m repeating this mantra in my head, I’m also reminded of how effective it is at taming an otherwise restless mind, of “being here now”, resisting the temptation to get involved in an internal monologue about how annoying other people are, how good/bad the music is, what I’m having for breakfast, what I have to work on that day, etcetera et-tediously-cetera.
On a good day, by the time I leave the gym, I’m not only full of endorphins, I’ve focused my mind so that I’m open to and ready for however the rest of the day will unfold.
To put it in modern parlance, it makes me more mindful.
Intelligent movement builds awareness, which can only be a good thing in a world that’s frenetic enough as it is, and where the reason for going to the gym or doing yoga is often to step outside of ordinary clock time and create some space, mentally and physically.
"Hey man, slow down, idiot, slow down." Radiohead, The Tourist
Far too often, we’re inclined to distract ourselves from the pain of exertion, as though this practice of living – which is what any kind of strength work is about, looking after one’s temple, so to speak – is only tolerable if we can think of something else while doing it. That approach is wholly antithetical to getting the most out of exercise, out of the moment, out of anything.
If you distract yourself in the gym, if your mind wanders away from the yoga mat, you’re more prone to injury. If you’re not paying attention to how your back feels as you bend forward, how your shoulder rotates as you press up, where your knee goes as you lunge, you’re likely to misread or completely miss a signal from your muscle that you’ve overdone it or aren’t working it hard enough.
Not only will you not go to your edge, you’ll completely miss it one way or another.
"You don't have to be wound so tight." Interpol, Pace is the Trick
My father has always told me, “what’s the rush?” when I’m hurtling around unnecessarily, even when I, with all my learning, book-based knowledge and strained yogic/meditative efforts (ahem), know that it’s the best way to get nowhere fast.
My mother is the same, constantly reminding me to “take your time”, every time – and there have been many – when I’ve spilled a cup of coffee on the carpet because I forgot it was there and/or I’m jumping to attention when my mind tells me there is something I should do, write down, fetch.
I’m forever bumping into door frames, tripping over pavements, over my own feet, dropping glasses, gashing my knees and bruising my elbows in the kitchen, the gym, anywhere and everywhere. I’m clumsy and uncoordinated, and that’s being kind.
Why? Because I have the all too human tendency to get carried away with my own thoughts, which stops me from being fully present.
It’s when I slow down that I regain control, of my limbs and my senses. And that’s when I live life with more vitality, see things more clearly, pay attention – by putting my mind back in the muscle so that it doesn’t run away with its silly self and so that I remain present in the here and now.