In the day and age of quick fixes, constant fads and “7 minute workouts,” it can be hard to slow down and ask ourselves, Is this really what’s best for my body? In our American culture, there seems to be an ongoing obsession with ‘new forms’ of exercise; for example, the latest, greatest form of functional fitness, performed in an efficient, short period of time, giving you the most “bang for your buck,” and relying on external sources to guide and motivate you.
While these forms of exercise are effective and do lead to a fit, strong body, they are only part of the picture if we are truly seeking a healthy lifestyle. By relying solely on these forms of fitness, we risk creating a vicious cycle of continually striving to be faster, stronger, look younger, be more ripped, track more daily steps…etc. We never actually “arrive”, because there’s always that next level to strive for. And that can get exhausting!
It’s important to balance these forms of exercise with what I like to call “mindfulness on the mat” so that we can continue to enjoy a variety of activities and pursuits, and most importantly, so we can prevent injuries and be more mindful of our existing ones. When we step onto our yoga or Pilates mat, our first priority is tuning into our body and tuning out our goals, expectations, what we did yesterday, and what we need to do tomorrow. If we pay attention, our body will tell us what it needs. The ego is not invited onto our mat. With time, practice, and patience we begin to notice imbalances and places we hold tension and resistance. We learn to practice compassionate observation and tolerance for ourself so we are in a better place to extend it to others once off the mat.
Yoga and Pilates are two wonderful practices that teach mindfulness on the mat so that we can be more self-aware in our over-stimulated, consumer-driven world. Yoga is over 5000 years old. Pilates is nearly 100 years old. These time-honored practices have much to teach us!
Pilates is a form of strength training with little to no impact. It emphasizes alignment, core strength, muscular rebalancing and joint strength. It is a very safe way to stay fit, prevent injury, and rehabilitate from injury, while increasing balance, body awareness, confidence and better posture. While we use props during class to keep it interesting and fun, the classical Mat Pilates series is a total body workout using your own body as your guide.
Yoga has become so westernized that it’s hard to define what yoga is today. In its truest form, yoga teaches us about ourselves and our relationship to the world. It ignites awareness about how we respond to difficulty and ease, to consistency and change, to the way we face our universal human struggles of avoiding difficult situations (hard yoga postures, tough life issues), or the way we cling to the familiar and comfortable (postures that we can do, habits we grow accustomed to).
Besides reducing stress, yoga also teaches us balance between sthira (effort) and sukha (ease) both in our yoga practice and in life. It teaches us to balance stability with mobility, and strength with flexibility, so that we can balance setting boundaries in our relationships with creating the space we need. Yoga teaches us to feel the poses rather than force them. The postures are questions, not answers. We ask ourselves, “How can I create more ease in this pose?” which then translates off the mat to “How can I create more ease in my life?” Yoga is not about doing the poses; it’s about undoing what gets in the way of the poses.
In a Vinyasa Yoga class, we become aware of our breath, the life force that pulsates through our body. From there we let the breath guide us and connect us with movement. While we get stronger and more flexible practicing weight-bearing and balancing exercises, twists, backbends, forward folds and inversions, we also become stronger and more flexible in our mind. We tune into the subtle energy body and discover what we have always heard to be true: that the body and mind cannot act separately from one another. Yoga is a practice because, rather that striving to accomplish something, we continually return to the bottomless well of wisdom and guidance from within. As Judith Lasater, veteran yogi, says: “Slowing down is the same thing as waking up.”
So, as you plan your fitness program, be sure and schedule time to consistently practice “mindfulness on the mat” through Pilates and yoga. With regular practice, you will not only become more mindful and body-aware, you will find more ease and inner strength in your body and in your life. Best of all, you will bring your newfound insights into everything you do, which will add to your enjoyment and keep you safe and injury-free!