Zen of Exercise
By Jaime Collins, Director of Marketing and Communications
To read about exercise is to be told what you should do. This article is the complete opposite. This is about doing nothing.
Well O.K., not literally nothing. None of us gets away that easily.
As you read, be mindful I make the assumption you’re like me – you find nothing easy about exercise. However, I am here to suggest there is an easier way. That a more meditative or contemplative path can help you make what is difficult and painful a little easier. Easier enough perhaps to discover the joy in it that I do. So let’s jump in!
Lessons from the Tao
The way to use life is to do nothing through acting.
The way to use life is to do everything through being.
~Lao Tze, Tao Te Ching
Doing Without Doing – Wei Wu Wei – is the concept of effortless action that permeates the Tao Te Ching, an ancient text written by Chinese philosopher Lao Tze in the 5th or 6th Century B.C. It’s the foundation of the philosophy/religion of Taoism. Though Taoism and Zen have separate histories and vary greatly in philosophy and practice, my own experience of Taoism in relation to exercise centers on the concept of effortless action. With Zen, actions are guided by intuition and enlightenment than by conscious effort, so the two philosophies are different yet similar.
We’ve all heard of, if not experienced for ourselves, the feeling of being so practiced at some skill or a given sport that our actions just flow naturally without effort. It’s often called being in the zone. That’s Wei Wu Wei. The challenge is not to feel that for a fleeting moment or two in our lives but to be able to bring it forth and channel it. We’re not necessarily talking about how we hit or throw a ball but in the case of exercise, it’s being in tune with our steps, our stride, our arm stroke, our breathing, our body mechanics, and our enjoyment of our moving bodies. Gently move your mind away from any discomfort the movement is providing you and think instead about the movement and the joy in it.
This is called the flow state. “Act without action,” writes Lao Tze. Because “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” I was utterly confused on first reading those words, but fortunately, I don’t give up on things easily. The unfathomable wisdom contained in Lao Tze’s little book kept me coming back. Eventually, I came to understand living more whole heartedly meant I had to let go. To stop resisting and struggling and give in to my true nature. You see, we’re often taught the goal is what matters… at all costs. And I’m a fan of goals generally. Sometimes though, facing a situation (like exercise) unencumbered by intentions, with our minds free from fear and desire, we open our intuitive selves to lead us rather than to be led by someone else’s rules for what we should do or how we need to do it. It’s then that decisions and actions happen in harmony with our genuine selves, and the path to change appears more effortlessly. Put down the magazines that dictate everything you supposedly SHOULD do, and calmly walk, jog, run, bike, or just BE in nature. In that way, the most effortless path to a healthier you becomes yours.
Lessons from Nature
The gentlest thing in the world
Overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
~Lao Tze, Tao Te Ching
Rock is hard. Water is soft. A drop of water is no match for solid Earth, right? Yet, what carved the Grand Canyon? Nature shows us rock is no match for moving water over time. For us humans, persistence and resilience are the obvious lessons here. None of us will reduce our risk of heart disease or lose 20 pounds in a workout or two. Stay away from that bathroom scale. In the Zen state, we let go of those unrealistic expectations. In fact, we let go of all expectations, and simply lose ourselves in our activity.
Lessons from Zenman
“When we train neural fitness, we MOVE smarter… with less energy, less injury, and faster recovery. We rely far less on the high-tech instruments that measure [performance] because we are more in tune with the most intelligent instrument of all – our own bodies. What happens when we begin to patiently focus on training neural fitness and developing kinetic intelligence? We can defy our own perceived limits.”
~Zenman in his book, “Kaizen-Durance”
A few years after reading the Tao Te Ching and while working on a website for a triathlon and mountaineering store, I was fortunate enough to forge a great and lasting friendship with an amazing athlete known widely as Zenman. Shane Alton Eversfield is a former dancer turned entrepreneur. He’s an educator and coach and is author (true to form) of “Zendurance” and many other books. He’s also founder of Zendurance Cycling and Kaizen-Durance, and a Master Coach at Total Emersion Swim. Today, at 60 years old, Zenman competes in multi-day triathlons and ultra-endurance races that far surpass commonly perceived limits of human endurance. Given these credentials, Zenman is also widely recognized as a modern day martial artist and a guru of mindful athletic movement. It was Zenman who introduced me to the vital concepts of proprioception and kinetic intelligence.
Like our brain’s intelligence of logic and reason and our heart’s emotional intelligence of feelings, we human beings can also tap into a natural intelligence of movement that our bodies regularly use to do all sorts of physical activities. From hitting a golf ball straight and long to a slight forward lean and a torso twist in a walk or run that helps propel our bodies forward a little more effortlessly, we all have our own kinetic intelligence. And we can enhance that intelligence and learn from it. If we pay attention to it. Like all forms of intelligence, what doesn’t come hardwired in us naturally, we can learn.
Similarly, proprioception is our body’s ability to sense itself. Proprioception is how we know the position of our various parts, our limbs, our body position, how each part moves, and the effort we’re putting forth relative to our movement. Most of it involves no conscious thinking at all. Proprioception enables us to walk without concentrating on walking. Or, for example, walk in relative darkness without losing balance. It also helps us learn new motor skills, and in that way our conscious proprioception can help us improve whatever activity we take up. Improving our walking or running stride, our cycling and pedal stroke, and other similar motor skills (swimming, skiing, etc.) can lead us to being much more efficient in our movements, lessening the energy required to propel us from point A to point B.
Our Southwest Health Physical Therapist Samantha Jordan, DPT, OCS, CSCS hosts a running clinic, for example, which anyone of any running ability can benefit from. I’ve learned a great deal from her myself and have improved the efficiency of my running stride with her expert insights. Likewise, Tim Ingram at Momentum Bikes in Platteville can help expertly fit a bike, adjusting the seat, peddles, bars and more to deliver more power to your pedals with less effort. Zenman helps many thousands of people each year glide through the water faster and more freely with a more efficient swim stroke. If you can move, you can improve how you move.
Of course, you don’t have to be an athlete to reap big rewards from careful attention to HOW you’re moving. In fact, activities like yoga and tai chi, for instance, are all about kinetic intelligence and proprioception. Every posture and every move is more beneficial when you’re performing them consciously and focusing on form.
Additionally, I’ve started a new walking club called Sole Mates where we can walk together, enjoy nature, and talk together about all our experiences, including how to use our proprioception and kinetic intelligence. Visit southwesthealth.org/walk to find out more about this free club.
Lessons from Rest
Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.
~Lao Tze, Tao Te Ching
The Tao teaches a duality of nature, knowledge, and virtue. Lao Tze describes human nature as an interaction of opposite but complimentary forces with the goal harmonization of the two. Similarly, we should look at exercise and rest as opposite but complimentary forces, each one requiring the other to balance and even to conceive its very existence. After all, how would you define work if there were no rest… and vice versa?
For your body, rest is every bit as necessary as exercise. In a sense, exercise produces a sort of “injury” to our muscles, joints, and bones as we use them, and during our rest, our body not only recovers but is actually strengthened in response to the “stress” we just put ourselves through. The quality of your rest is, therefore, as important as the quality of your exercise. A good work out, walk or whatever you do requires rest to build muscle and strengthen our bones and circulatory system. Only together can they help us live better and healthier.
We learn to walk as babies, to run as toddlers, and ride a bike shortly thereafter. At 54 years old, you might think there’s nothing for me (or any of us) to learn about those very simple activities. But, as humans we are prone to struggle against discomfort and to resist challenges. Truth is, we often don’t know what we don’t know. Moving with grace and in harmony with our bodies, especially as we age, requires a fresh new look with lots to learn. There is no finish line. There isn’t even a race. There are simply the here and the now and how we perceive them.