I enjoy moving my body in a variety of ways: trail running, climbing, weight training, biking, mountaineering, playing games, etc. I find it satisfying to experience the challenges that these activities present and the strength, speed, agility, and skill required to manage those challenges. Some days the challenges feel more inspiring than others, but the idea is to always strive for improvement in some way. About 9 years ago, I began to wonder if there were ways to train the mind to be more flexible, creative, pleasurable, and less irritable. To my delight, I found several wonderful tools to train my mind. What surprised me was that training my mind made me question how I trained my body. I began to wonder if the “more is better”, “always strive for improvement”, “good things come to those that suffer”, “go hard or go home” mentality that accompanied my physical training was necessary to achieve my goals. I also wondered if there are consequences to training within that context.
Then something clicked for me. Here’s what I mean. The brain is very much like skeletal muscle in that it adapts according to how it is or is not being used. The parts of your brain that you use a lot get bigger, richer, and more fortified. The basic structures of the brain (neurons) can change size and how they connect to each other based on when and how much they are used. That means if your circumstances trigger the “I’m stressed out” parts of your brain a lot, the areas and structures responsible for the “I’m stressed out” experience will get bigger and more efficient. By the same token, if your circumstances do not trigger the “I feel great” parts of your brain, “I feel great” areas will get smaller and less efficient. So there seems to be an anatomical reason for why regularly practicing positive thoughts tends to make us feel better for longer periods of time and why when we are sad or stressed for long periods of time, it is hard to feel better. But wait, there’s more.
It turns out that the same parts of the brain that are active in cognitive function – which include the emotional centers of the brain – are active during movement. In other words, exercise not only trains the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems, movement also trains the brain. Specifically, exercise trains the brain to think, feel, and perceive in the way that is chosen (by default or intension) during the exercise. In this way, the mental processes that are active during exercise (including your emotions, attitudes, perspectives) are being encouraged to develop. The more we practice those mental processes linked to the physical exercise, the more our neuroanatomy shifts toward the structures needed for those processes. In addition, muscles contracting during exercise produce hormones that, among other things, travel to the brain to help the neurons grow and form the connections needed to fortify the practiced experience. In other words, as we exercise the body, muscles produce hormones that provide the opportunity to the shape the brain. As the brain changes, so does the mind (and vice versa). What this means is that there is no separation of body and mind. Your mind is being trained as you move your body whether you know it or not.
We have a plethora of opportunities to train the continuum of body and mind. In meditation, we are mindfully still. What about mindful motion, especially in challenging physical environments like exercise? Exercise is a huge opportunity to train the mind to be supple, creative, open, resilient, generous, and compassionate even under challenging circumstances. How can we orchestrate salubrious interactions between the continuum of non-physical mind and physical body? By strategically placing our minds as specifically as we place our limbs and move our joints. By paying attention to the pulse of the mind with the same awareness as the pulse of our hearts. Making choices about our attitudes and emotions during exercise is just as important as proper physical form and posture.
This continuum of body and mind training is typically associated with yoga or Tai Chi; however, training the mind is always happening while training the body. No matter the type of exercise (Pilates, power lifting, weight training, hiking, running, etc.) you can choose to focus on perspectives that are life-affirming, positive, and compassion toward self and others. For example, contracting the muscles that extend the spine can be associated with dignity and self-respect. Positioning your feet, knees, and hips in preparation for a squat could be paired with thinking about the way you relate to your community and your commitment to your community. During a workout we can strategically create opportunities to condition our minds as specifically as we are conditioning our bodies.