Most people treat exercise like it’s a battle of wills with the goal of the mind conquering the body. This approach is harmful to both your body and your mind because it ensures that half of you will lose regardless of which side wins the battle – and in a battle between allies, even the winner loses in the end. With this attitude, it’s no wonder that people tend to dread exercise!
Always remember that your body and mind are on the same team, so the goal is to work with the body, not against it.
When we think of exercise as imposing our will upon our bodies, we tend to be far too aggressive in our methods. The way most people exercise could be seen as a brutal assault on the body, whereas the healthy approach to exercise revolves around stimulation, not destruction. Nobody wants to be miserable and exhausted (unless you’re a masochist), but we’re taught to think of exercise as punishment, so we just assume that this is something we have to put up with if we want to be fit. Not only do you not have to put up with this, but if you do put up with it then you will likely do more harm than good.
What about no pain no gain?
This single phrase has done more damage than just about anything else in the fitness field. Ever notice that in Eastern cultures, exercise is light, stimulating, and enjoyable – and the people in these cultures actually enjoy partaking in these practices and tend to be much healthier? Here, where our motto is no pain, no gain, most of us hate exercise and our society is incredibly overweight and unhealthy. It isn’t a coincidence that less of us exercise here, given that our ways of exercising simply don’t feel good.
Eastern exercise is energizing and relaxing, while Western exercise is miserable and exhausting. Heck, just look at how we each refer to our exercise sessions: In the East it’s called a practice, and in the West it’s called a workout. Sounds appealing right? Ok, maybe not… Think of it like this – stimulating exercise is like spending some time outside on a regular basis; you’ll end up with a healthy tan, lots of Vitamin D, and the best anti-depressant that money can’t buy. Aggressive exercise, however, is more like locking yourself in a tanning bed for an hour at a time. Sure, you might end up getting darker, but you’ll also end up with painful burns (i.e. muscle soreness), a higher risk of skin cancer (injury), and an all-around negative experience that requires significant recovery time and won’t exactly encourage you to make it a habit.
It’s not about what you do, it’s about how you do it
Here’s the twist… Switching to yoga won’t magically solve this problem. More often than not, we end up bringing our Western mindset into yoga and turning that into work too. Yoga is fantastic for many reasons (beyond just fitness), but this problem has nothing to do with the type of exercise you engage in. While the spirit behind yoga is intended to be light, fluid, effortless, and meditative movement, many yoga practitioners here tend to go through the motions in a forceful, rigid way, thus making it little more than a workout that happens to involve yoga poses.
Regardless of the form of exercise you choose, the same principles apply when it comes to getting the most of that practice and doing it in a way that actually feels good and brings you back again and again…
The first thing people do when they push too hard is change (or stop) their breathing. Rule #1 for exercising in a stimulating (not destructive) way is to always breathe calmly. It’s not enough to just not hold your breath – your breathing should never be forceful either, even if you are winded. Labored, forceful breathing is a clear sign that you are straining, and strain leads to tension. After all, we want to release tension, not create it!
Rule of thumb: The easiest way to monitor your breathing is to simply breathe quietly. There are exceptions to every rule, but if you can’t help but pant vigorously, you’re probably pushing too hard.
Modern exercise is traditionally taught in such a way that the appearance of “good form” is emphasized over how it actually feels. When your goal is more about how an exercise looks than how it feels, you will almost never be able to move in a loose and light way. This is yet another form of straining and creating unnecessary tension. Lightly maintain the best posture you can without becoming tense, and trust your body to move naturally from there. Keep it simple – the more details you try to control, the less natural it will be. Little kids tend to enjoy being active more than adults because they don’t take it too seriously and haven’t forgotten how to play!
Rule of thumb: If your face becomes tense, then it’s a good bet that your body is too. Keep your face relaxed (it’s even okay to smile from time to time!), shake out any tension from your arms and legs, and move like you’re playing!
This is where we come full circle back to the notion of not turning exercise into a battle between the mind and body. Your body knows what it wants, so why not listen? When you push through warning signs like pain, you are ignoring your instincts, creating an internal battle with yourself, and forcing your body to protect itself (from you!) by tensing up.
Limited flexibility is not a matter of your body not being able to move beyond those limits, it’s a matter of your body not trusting you to move outside of those limits without causing harm. Just like with another person, that trust is regained over time if you improve the way you’re treating your body. Luckily, the language your body speaks is much easier to learn than English. Here are a few common translations… Pain -> Stop. Ease -> Continue. Strain -> Stop. Relaxation -> Continue. Exhaustion -> Stop. Invigoration -> Continue.
Rule of thumb: This one is easy… If it doesn’t feel good, stop.