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Our bodies are designed for physical activity—to move and breathe and circulate our vital life energy. From physical exercise, one gets lightness, a capacity for work, firmness, tolerance of difficulties, elimination of impurities, and stimulation of digestion.

Getting regular exercise is one of the most powerful things you can do to stay healthy, relieve stress, and reverse the aging process.

A regular exercise program is also important for a healthy lifestyle. Strength training, flexibility, and cardiovascular conditioning make up the backbone of a well-rounded fitness routine that can keep you healthy and strong throughout your life.

To keep your body in peak condition for as long as possible, you need to exercise it regularly, but this doesn’t mean pounding your muscles into shape. It is not only about losing weight, winning races, and staying healthy. In the Ayurvedic view, exercise is meant to leave you feeling invigorated, happy, and ready for the day’s activities—not exhausted or in need of painkillers.

Exercise provides a kind of physical stress that can be used to teach us how to deal with all kinds of stress (mental, emotional and social) with an internal sense of composure.

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These are the steps to take your exercise routine from the realm of the unconscious to the conscious and into the experience of higher awareness. With them you can transform your fitness routine into a mindful practice:

  • To feel the body

Many people approach exercise at full force and don’t slow down long enough to truly feel what’s going on in their bodies. In some cases, people suffer through a workout on pure grit, ignoring aches, pains, and objections from the body. This disconnection from your body sets the stage for distractions and injuries. Exercise should not be an out-of-body experience; it should be an in-body experience.

Before beginning any exercise, pause and bring awareness to your physical form. Feel your bones, muscles, organs, tissues, and even skin. How does your body feel? Do you have pain or discomfort? Are you low on energy?

  • To notice your environment

Expand the awareness you brought inward, out to your environment. Allow your awareness to fill up the space that you’re going to be moving through. Ideally, your space should be distraction-free so as to help localize your attention on the exercises at hand. If you’re running or participating in another outdoor activity, you’ll have to deal with distractions, and maintaining situational awareness in such spaces is imperative.

No matter what space you’re in, notice the temperature, lighting, odors, and any additional sensory perceptions that may influence your experience.

  • To use the correct posture

Posture affects every move you make. Through correct posture you create the optimal spinal alignment for any physical activity. Without a neutral spinal position, you throw off your body’s power chain and interfere with the natural flow of energy and information through your nervous system.

Correct posture ensures that your energetic body is functioning optimally and thereby providing an adequate supply of energy throughout the movement. On the other hand, improper posture causes a dramatic power falloff and leads to an increased likelihood of serious injury.

  • To make your breath the anchor

The key to creating a mindful practice is your breath. The repetitive inflow and outflow of your breath creates a rhythm that can help anchor you into the present moment. This breathing rhythm also serves as a bridge between your mind, body, and soul; the more deeply you breathe, the deeper that connection becomes. In a very practical sense, steady and even breathing efficiently infuses your body with the oxygen and Prana (life force).

With each exercise strive to maintain breath awareness. Don’t let it overshadow the focus required to perform the exercise itself, but make it the background sensation that guides and supports each movement. Experiment to find a breathing cadence that best aligns with the exercise you’re doing. Notice how it may change between strength exercises, aerobic conditioning, and rest periods. Regardless of its variations, continue to come back to the breath as your anchor to the present moment.

  • To set a clear intention

Before beginning your exercise, pause briefly to form a clear intention for what you are about to do, whether it’s doing 10 push-ups, running 3 miles, or swinging a kettlebell 50 times.

  • To stay on target

As you move through your workout, your mind will wander and your awareness will drift. This is a natural part of training. As in meditation, the mind will get pulled away to other thoughts, sensations, and distractions in the environment. Your job is to come back to the present moment, the breath, and the exercise. It doesn’t matter how many times your attention drifts, just keep coming back to the practice of mindful movement.

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There are 3 different types of sports: challenging, grounding and endurance.

  • Challenging sports such as skiing, hiking, tennis, and mountain climbing.
  • Grounding exercises such as yoga, easy walking, bicycling, and dancing
  • Endurance sports such as long distance running, aerobics, dance, soccer, rowing, and so on.

To feel a noticeable improvement in vitality, it’s important to experience some sweating during your exercise. Gradually increase your exercise to include jogging, hiking, and bicycling.

Here are a few activities that are particularly effective when it comes to cultivating mind-body integration.

  • Kettlebell Training
  • Martial Arts/Shadowboxing
  • Walking
  • Running
  • Jumping Rope
  • Yoga
  • Qi Gong/Tai Chi

The ability to know exactly how much exercise is good for you and how much is harmful becomes more automatic as you learn to listen to your body. Explore and find your own exercise vehicles for awakening your spirit. There are countless paths up the mountain; what’s important is that you find the one that works for you.