To think creatively is to bring about harmony between mind, emotion, and action. That is, if you are convinced of an action, without the search of a reward at the end, then that action, being the result of intelligence, releases all hindrances that have been placed on the mind through the lack of understanding.
Movement: how we engage with the world. What does that conjure in you? I see trails being hiked and biked. I see lakes being paddled, and waves surfed. I see bodies move fluidly up a rock wall, or steadily toward a mountain summit. I see thousands running a marathon. I also see calmness, people breathing rhythmically while stretching, and concentrating on a yoga pose. Over time, after many months and years of practice, your patience is no longer fleeting. You lose track of time, flowing with your activity, living your lifestyle. Having found your movement solution you no longer focus on outcomes.
Process brings pleasure.
Completion is satisfying. Repetition brings familiarity, grounding you upon engagement. Soul provides the why. Mind and body connect within the movement.
Your environment will play a factor. Running in the city, which is built for commuting culture and the mass flow of people from place to place, may mean you gravitate towards racing (community events) to find meaning and purpose. The event may be the motivation needed for “getting out there.” Above all else it is important to move within your environment, connecting on a primal level with the life forces around you. Racing and training can become highly social, providing a bonus not immediately sought. Be open. You must think about this and recognize why you are gravitating toward a specific activity. This allows the process to occur on a daily basis. Remember, repetition makes life automatic. We can callous the mind with good just as easily as we can with bad.
Awakening the body while confronting resistance. Yoga is an amazing practice. I’ve heard it described as a martial art you do unto yourself. How fitting and true that is. The yogi may spend countless hours practicing in their home environment:
- controlling temperature, sound, mood, etc.
- diving deeply inward
- consciously connecting breath with position
- engaging the mind with bodily sensation
- recognizing the effect of lifestyle on their frame
At times the yogi may choose to join a class with others. Either indoors in a studio environment, or outdoors amongst nature. Your choice will elicit a mental, physical, and emotional response. Movement will open the door. Repetition will heal.
If you are near a clean source of water the calling may be strong to be on or in that environment. Swimming, paddling, or surfing. Maybe this thought comes from your heart or your soul. You feel it as desire or even destiny. If you follow this path you will begin to wake to your calling. Participate daily, if possible, and watch your appreciation for your environment grow. Over time, comfort will be felt in the familiar. As you plunge your head under the water, senses exploding as the body comes to life, you are deeply connected with your core being. You may be at your local pool at 5:30 AM swimming meditative laps, diving off the dock into the clear spring-fed lake, or swimming out into the sea under sparkling blue skies and sunshine. As a surfer paddling out to await the waves at sunrise you are immensely grateful for this opportunity to simply “be”. Nothing more. Standing on your board with a paddle in hand you rise above the water and move fluidly, either covering distance with powerful paddle strokes or contemplatively flowing with gentleness, you find balance with nature. Meeting friends for a leisurely paddle, and conversation on the water in a beautiful environment is a second to none experience.
The activity you choose, and the environment it occurs in, are your primal connection to your world.
A cyclist sees both roads and trails as freedom. A true endurance sport, the bike can transport you easily over 100 miles in a day, with little to no damage to the joints. Low impact, high freedom. With elevated heart rate and rhythmic breathing, the cyclist senses more clearly. Extended endurance is a gateway to thought and self-conversation, not just of the physical variety (can or can’t I), but of the mental and spiritual as well. The effect of being out in our natural environment should be duly noted. The bike is the perfect tool for group events. In cities, you often see groups of up to 15-20 people riding together and moving as one mass of humanity elevating their consciousness one pedal stroke at a time. The city also highlights the role of the bike as a commuting tool. Getting to and from work, appointments, errands, etc. is often easiest done on two wheels. Every day the cyclist increases their fitness and becomes more efficient as the repetitive motion of pedaling develops the lungs and builds your leg muscles. A true experience in your environment.
To walk in the city or hike in nature is the purest form of exercise. For most of us, there is no barrier to entry. The confines of your space are a gateway to experience. Stepping outside with your head held high, lungs open and full from that initial deep breath, the warm sun and/or cool air on your skin, feet touching the Earth, you begin to move at a pace of your choosing. Can you find peace wherever you are? Often, a barrier, the mind readily builds walls to stymy experience. Confining you to consume entertainment in an artificial environment (TV, web, media, conditioned air). To choose to walk with eyes up you are opening yourself to an experience in your environment. In nature, you may encounter hills or even mountains to hike up and down. Ascending you build power in your legs and strengthen your lungs, moving at your own pace, and having your own personal experience. Out in the elements, away from the grid of the city, your mind is free to wander. Your eyes may be able to see far and wide, exposing you to the true wonder of time and place. If you look and listen inward, to your heart, you may feel a sense of peace and wonder. If resistance is felt, or an urge to stop sets in, recognize this as the mind working to limit experience. With the calmness of breath, we remind ourselves that to have an experience is to be alive. Appreciate the moment. Every walk or hike is an opportunity to present yourself in calmness, with an open and inviting demeanor. There is much beauty in simplicity.
For others, the summit is one of high elevation, steep grades, difficult climates, or exposure to risk. As you can imagine this type of experience in the environment is atypical. Unique challenges inspire those with an intense desire for challenge. The world is ready and waiting for those of us willing to partake, though it is up to the individual to prepare mind, body, and soul for this undertaking. Your conviction must be very strong. The normalcy of society can be a poison to ambition. Guarding their desire, fostering an environment of extreme excellence, and reducing the size of their world is paramount. Self-experimentation may be the correct way to describe such actions. It takes an enlightened individual to begin the process of experimenting with one’s own life, not in a reckless manner, but an experiential one. The amount of physical and mental preparation required to participate successfully is beyond what one can even imagine. Though, it is imagination that often fuels the desire for a true experience.
These are just a few examples of movement experiences. The common theme is that of having an experience. Stay curious. You must tune out the influence of the media and personalize your process.
Think on these things:
- What is the most accessible to you on a daily basis?
- What has the lowest barrier to entry and the highest reward?
- What do you like to do?
- What are you curious about?
- What kind of an experience do you wish to have?
These are but a few questions that can help clarify your purpose. No matter what age you choose to begin it is always wise to have a direction. Continually look inward and ask yourself the hard questions:
- Will this make me a better person?
- Am I doing this for myself?
- Will this make me healthier?
- Is this a grounding activity that I am happy to do anywhere at any time?
- Am I doing this for the attention of others?
- Does the desire for movement come from my heart? Is it pure?
Proper breathing is essential to your quality of life. Anything that harms your ability to breathe should be stopped immediately. Without oxygen, we die quickly. Oxygenated blood is required for metabolism to occur. Oxygen-rich blood is pumped to all parts of the body to be utilized in metabolism. For example, the neurons in your brain have a very high rate of metabolism, requiring a rich supply of oxygen, much more than any other organ of the body. Thus, taking a deep breath is often recommended in times of stress. In physical exercise, I often witness clients holding their breath during times of difficulty, or tension. This makes the experience worse; as in a lowered state of oxygen, we lose mental balance, concentration, and control of emotions. Not the combination we want when engaging in healthy exercise. The highlight of proper breathing in physicality, as well as life in general, is:
- improved concentration
- clarity of thought
- decreased stress
- increased ability to manage complex situations
- emotional control
All from consistent, cognizant breathing.
Have you ever slowed things down and simply focused on your breath? Often, when I’m leading a client in a stretch, I’m also telling them when and how to breathe in that position, or while moving between positions. Upon finishing the movement they feel completely changed. This is the power of the breath. How do I breathe properly? First, draw air inward, preferably through the nostrils, lifting the chest as the abdomen and rib cage expands and the diaphragm moves down. With a proper inhalation, you may even feel a stretch in the muscles of the ribs. Second, deep exhalation occurs, again, preferably through the nostrils, by compressing the lungs and raising the diaphragm. You must finish the exhalation to remove stale air from the lungs for full effect. Remember your lungs are the ultimate filter. Proper breathing cleanses the countless small air sacs. Some training movements require a significant amount of oxygen. Running uphill, working through a long circuit, utilizing more than one joint in a movement such as kettlebell swings, dumbbell cleans, squat presses, or even simply holding weight overhead statically and planking for an extended period of time causes significant oxygen demand. Consistent breathing, simply inward and outward, can help you work through those difficult moments and award you with the confidence of completion. Similarly, in stretching the cue may be to focus on the breath, especially the exhalation. As the lungs contract the body “gives” into the difficulty, often allowing you to go deeper. The neural effect of breathing must always be recognized, as the mind is controlling your moment-to-moment experience.
Understand when an activity is aerobic (endure–prolonged) and when it is anaerobic (sprint–completed). Aerobic activities require oxygen. To breathe effectively you must elicit a feeling of relaxation. To a beginner, this often means slowing down and exercising patience so consistent breathing can occur. The reason many of us do not like cardio is the time assigned to the task (you begin already knowing the conclusion). This places a continued focus on how far or close we are to being done. Whether a 20-minute session or a 3-hour session there is a time assignment and with that comes awareness. With experience we relax into our aerobic sessions, simply letting them develop. Almost all exercise is aerobic. Unless practicing very short sprinting, or powerful Olympic-style lifting, you’ll be utilizing the benefit of oxygen to complete your training session. Remember that things take time. Feeling successful or “good” at your workouts is developed through repetition.
I can’t think of a single movement that is not improved by engaging, contracting, or focusing on the core. Think of the core as your power center. We aren’t speaking of your “abs” per se, but including the powerful muscles of your glutes, lower back, lats, abdominals, obliques, and all the small supporting muscles that help align and protect the spine. Core training is structural training, yet all movements can train the core. What do I mean? Muscle recruitment is first and foremost a mental activity. To make something happen you must decide that it can and should happen. Believe it, then focus your energy and desire on the intended outcome. Think of the action of lifting a heavy weight off of an object and onto you (like lifting a child from a car seat into your arms, or a heavy dumbbell off the rack). If your body is limp and loose you won’t be able to control that weight, will you? Now if I go to pick up my nephew, bending at the waist, extending my arms away from my body, my core must engage (think navel to spin, hard exhale), my butt must tighten, and I must quickly transition the child between positions. If your core is loose, you fall over. Now, take that analogy and strategy and apply it to any and all situations. Let’s take an exercise like a walking lunge, which almost everyone has attempted. Done right there is little arm movement, balance is superb, and motion is fluid. It becomes as much an aerobic/cardio activity as a strength exercise. Done wrong, the arms flail out and up on each step, your body tips side to side due to no core tension or gluteus (butt) engagement. It’s a hot mess! Butt tight, arms tight, core tight… boom! Now let’s say we have to lift something heavy OVER our heads. Heavy is relative, but let’s say its a carry-on suitcase into the overhead storage. With knees bent slightly, core braced with a sharp exhale (like you were laughing hysterically), you lift the suitcase with continuous tension, squeezing your butt to brace your hips throughout the movement until it is placed securely overhead.
Want to see core tension at its finest? Watch gymnasts, figure skaters and ballerinas move. Effortlessness is a product of physicality.
If I tell you to engage or flex your core while doing a static movement, such as a plank, it will make the exercise much more difficult. This will, in turn, bother and frustrate you. Shouldn’t having a tight core make it easier? Not exactly. No muscle group can be continuously contracted. Remember, the core is not simply your “abs” … we are targeting a large group of powerful muscles. Thus that 20-second max contraction plank (pulling all muscles inward toward the navel) might be insanely hard, whereas that one minute plank was almost effortless. Being able to recruit those muscles on demand is what makes moving, controlling, and lifting large amounts of weight possible.
Posture. Perfect posture is rare because it requires active engagement. It does not happen passively. Lengthening your spine, extending the top of your skull skyward, allows maximum oxygen to flow through your system, filling your lungs, expanding your rib cage to max-width. Upon standing you should take a deep breath and lengthen your spine lifting yourself to max height. What does this feel like? Remember the feeling and be aware of how posture represents your position in this world. Standing tall, with your chin raised, you assume your optimal form.
Core strength and posture
Our habits, job requirements, and simply inattentiveness are often the cause of chronic pain. The stimulus is constant (repeated sitting at work, incessant texting and screen time, poor biomechanics, etc.) and the body responds with pain and inflammation. When you sit down, you hunch forward, even slightly. This is your abdominals “flexing” or contracting. Thus your lower back is in extension (to contract the lower back you lift the chest up and skull skyward). Over time chronic lower back pain may become present. The effects of gravity are felt as compression. Think of the world as constantly trying to push you down, to bury you, place you 6-feet under (morbid, I know!). You must actively fight back, decompressing the spine, lengthening, breathing deep and expansively, while standing upright with a powerful posture.
Balance / Coordination / Athleticism
The best way to prepare for an unstable activity (anything that requires balance or is on an unstable surface) is to do that activity more often. Remember when you learned to ride a bike? That feeling of finding balance, and distributing weight and pressure in just the right proportion to stay upright was pretty amazing. The more you rode your bike the less you had to think about it. The less you think about it, the more natural it becomes, hence the mind stops making it a “big deal” … you essentially lose the fear of failure or falling (fear is manifest in the mind). Now, years later you try standup paddleboarding. Hopefully, the process you went through to learn to ride your bike is not repeated. Nevertheless, you must learn to be stable in a very unstable environment (water). Balancing on the water, while standing on a board, and then paddling is not simple. The word coordination implies that you can “coordinate” your body to perform multiple or complex tasks, simultaneously. Knowledge of how your body moves, core tension, and the importance of breathing, greatly enhance the likelihood of your having success with new activities. With repetition also comes enjoyment. Your mind is calloused (in a good way) to the experience. The physical body must feel something being done correctly. Maybe you are a good downhill skier, or you can wakeboard, surf, or skate with proficiency. Chalk that ability up to hours of right–practice, which have culminated in skilled movement patterns, balance, and athleticism. A consistent theme to improvement and skill attainment is the desire to improve, and do the activity as often as possible, all while accumulating massive amounts of repetition.
What is functional training?
Let’s define functional: designed to be practical and useful. Hmm… The term functional training began to gain prominence around 2005. A quick flashback to that time in my career and I see medicine balls, Bosu-balls (half ball – half platform), rubber bands, stability balls, etc. Functional looked an awful lot like complicated and frustrating, not practical and useful. For example; one way to get strength back in an injured ankle would be to stand on a Bosu-ball for a minute, another would be to walk uphill on a treadmill barefoot. Which is more functional to you? I’ll choose the walking activity any day. To me, functional training involves training movements, not muscles. Bodybuilding targets muscle development through isolation. When done right, the muscles grow. Rarely does muscle growth alone improve any athletic activity, thus most of us should avoid this training option. Exhaustive repetition wherein the mirror is the ultimate judge of improvement and effectiveness. Egoistic, sophomoric pursuits and thoughts should be abandoned immediately. Appearance should be a consequence of fitness, not a focus of exercising. Back to functional training. What movements are we designed to do? I’ll list a few: walk, run, sprint, climb, crawl, jump, bend, extend, lift, squat, push, and pull. These are functional movements, soliciting multiple joints (hip, knee, ankle, shoulder, elbow, etc.) to execute. Functional training can be a specific activity alone, such as climbing or running, or it can be mimicked in the gym utilizing circuits to solicit the same bodily response. For example; I’m a downhill ski racer and each run lasts about 90 seconds, of which the intensity is through the charts. In training, I want to mimic the demand of the event with exercise. Squatting, lunging, jumping, and sprinting, in a circuit format, elicit a similar systemic response, therefore it is functional. Example 2; you are a generalist, which most of us are, and are passionate about your lifestyle, training to be prepared when the opportunity arises to perform your best… to be more capable. You may perform a set of pull-ups, squat thrusts, and finally a set of kettlebell swings. You are circuit training. After a few rounds, you move on to your next circuit, doing a set of body curls on the high rings, plank up-downs, then finishing with squat presses. Training can be kept interesting with a myriad of intelligent exercise combinations. This is functional, practical, and useful.
7 Rules of Training: An ounce of practice is worth tons of theory
- Improve your posture with foundation building exercises and body awareness
- Squats, lunges, planks, pullups, step-ups, push-ups, etc.
- Focus on your breathing
- Are you aware of your breath?
- Choose an activity of enjoyment to build your movement routine around
- You are what you eat
- Choose your consequence
- Repetition is the mother of skill, choose a few exercises and become skilled
- Identify and work on your weakness (flexibility, strength, endurance, etc.)
- That which we resist (avoid) persists
- Look inward: if the desire comes from your heart and soul it is right
- Pursue it at all costs
Flexibility / Stretching / Yoga
The key to bodywork is to be consistent. Persistence is the only way to change. Daily practice, along with non-judgment, is a requirement. You are simply where you are. If you are following a video or tutorial, your teacher may have attained mastery in their practice. Recognize and respect this without comparison to your own practice or ability. Only by doing will you honestly know where you’re at.
Stretch. Breathe into your weakness. Stretching brings balance back into the body. As an endurance athlete, the hours of repetition add up. The monotony of movement takes its toll. When my quads are tight, my hamstrings hurt, therefore I must stretch my quads to release my hamstrings. Functioning in a planar fashion, we experience continued action-reaction responses to our exercise. When I run uphill, climbing hard and then descending aggressively, my quads become knotted and tight. Continuing the activity, I am now limited in my ability to extend my legs. This shortening of my stride causes the hamstring to remain flexed (contracted). This is often felt upon waking the next day. Stretch it out. Breathe into those sore muscles. Explore with your hands and perform self-massage. Work on knots with a foam roller, massage stick, lacrosse ball, or your thumbs.
Flexibility. This is often largely genetic. How well we move around a joint is not something that can be greatly improved. In fact, many have been seriously injured by coaches, as well as themselves, from forcing a movement. You must listen to your body, always. A warning signal is just that. A sign to STOP. That being said, working within your limitations, improving flexibility through daily repetition, and connecting body and mind via the breath is a worthwhile endeavor. Your personal prioritization or level of engagement will depend on your interest as well as short and long-term priorities.
Yoga. This is a way of life for many. An integrated system of education for the body, mind, and inner spirit (soul). This art of right living was perfected and practiced in India thousands of years ago, but since Yoga deals with universal truths, its teachings are as valid today as they were in ancient times. Yoga is a practical aid, not a religion. The yogi would not question the existence of the soul, but would instead see the body as a vehicle for the soul on its journey toward enlightenment. Many forms of yoga exist: hot yoga, vinyasa, flow, Bhakti, restorative, ashtanga, Hatha, etc. Often one will appeal more than any other. If so, choose it, and let your body reap the benefits of repetition and personal enjoyment.