You just finished teaching a particularly challenging group exercise class and decide to end the session with a bit of quiet reflection. Your students aren’t used to the tradition of Savasana, and some have even admitted to you that they dislike yoga, so you decide to ease them in gently, offering options for different ways to sit or lay down and a variety of stretches that will likely feel amazing after that killer glute series you incorporated into today’s class.
As everyone is settling in, finding the rhythm to their own breath, some even closing their eyes, you notice one individual looks frustrated. They fumble with their gym bag, try disguising their annoyance as being late for a meeting, give you a short nod, and slip out the door. At the start of the next class they confront you, “Are you going to be doing that yoga stuff again???”
How would you react? You might be a little caught off guard, offended even, especially if you yourself have long felt the benefits of a mindfulness and meditation. But the reality is, meditation is not for everyone. What I mean by that is, all types of meditation are not for everyone. And this is the exact reason why we must be creative as fitness professionals when sharing mindfulness with our students.
I recently read a blog post that surprised me. It laid out eight reasons why meditation is “a complete waste of time.” While at first I found myself frustrated at how much of meditation, and mindfulness as a whole, was misunderstood within this post, I couldn’t help but remember my first interactions with meditation. I had hated it. My anxious mind thought my time could be better spent DOING something, anything else, other than sitting quietly with my own thoughts.
It’s no wonder I didn’t want to be alone with my own thoughts. The reality was, my thoughts weren’t very kind. Why would anyone want to sit alone with their biggest bully?
Many people struggle with practicing mindfulness because they too believe it to be a waste of time. What’s surprising to many, is that all the reasons we have to not practice mindfulness, are also all the reasons why we should practice mindfulness.
The lack of time, the stress that keeps mounting, the burnout, the sleepless nights that turn into days where we’re wishing we could rest our heads…all of these are reasons to practice mindfulness and they are also the exact reasons that keep us from initially giving it a try.
The irony is that in order for me to even recognize the critical tone I’d become accustomed to using with myself, to even begin to understand the deep rooted history of guilt and shame I had been using to “motivate” myself into burning the candle at both ends, quiet reflection was exactly what I needed. Yet seemingly everything I did was to avoid being present with myself because I just hadn’t found a way yet to make mindfulness feel accessible.
This is our challenge as fitness professionals who want to share the benefits of mindfulness. We must meet our clients where they are at and we find what works best for them. It took me a long time to realize mindfulness wasn’t about forcing myself to be still.
Before I continue, I feel it important to clarify that meditation, just one form of practicing mindfulness, is NOT…
- sitting alone in a room free from any distractions,
- isolating yourself with your thoughts,
- remaining still when everything in your body is itching to move,
- punishing yourself when your mind wanders,
- the cure all for any and all of your problems
Let me repeat that last one: meditation alone will not solve all your problems, cure your anxiety and depression, and miraculously help you manifest your dreams. Sorry. I wish it were that easy.
What the academic literature and scientific research says mindfulness can do…
- help an individual cope with symptoms of depression and even reduce the likelihood of recurring bouts of depression (1). Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues actually created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program for patients diagnosed with depression.
- minimize irritability and anxiety (2)
- improve memory and reaction times (3)
- reduce key indicators of chronic stress, like hypertension (4)
- boost the immune system to help ward off the flu and common cold (5)
- help recovery from drug and alcohol dependence (6)
Despite all of the research that supports the benefits of mindfulness, it’s not a miracle pill, and it’s not easy to do. Practicing mindfulness, slowing down and remaining present with oneself, goes against almost everything our modern productivity obsessed world endorses. It’s difficult. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
Mindfulness, and in particular meditation, can be messy. It requires us to face ourselves and look at the reality of the present moment without rose-tinted glasses. And sometimes we don’t always like what we see. But how can we expect change to ever occur if we can’t first clearly see and accept what is happening.
The messy, and the difficult, nature of mindfulness is what discourages many from practicing and keeps many away after their first “failed” attempts.
But the good news is. There is no “right” way to practice, and in turn this means there is no “wrong” way to practice mindfulness. Anything can be a meditation. Anything that allows us to tune in to our present experience, to see how we are interacting with and influencing others, to become aware of our thoughts and emotions or how we are reacting vs. responding to our environment…anything that helps us do this is an act of mindfulness.
What does this mean for you as a fitness professional?
We get to be creative. We get to find new ways of sharing with our clients the alternative to the fast-paced world we live in. We get to show them the benefits of slowing down, of paying attention, of practicing compassion, in a way that resonates with them. We get to showcase how mindfulness isn’t necessarily about being still, how it can happen in the middle of a run, just before beating your PR, or after a particularly challenging group exercise class. We get to show them how mindfulness is not a waste of time, but how to make the most of the time they have.
Here are eight ways incorporating mindfulness into your fitness classes can improve your experience teaching and benefit your students’ workouts:
- Mindfulness can help with focus. Complex choreography or exercises that challenge one’s balance leave little room for outside thoughts. If you want to help your students follow along with complex cues, include some mindfulness cues before hand to help them stay present and set them up for success.
- Mindfulness can help one embrace a beginner’s mindset. Learning new things can be quite humbling. Even the earliest “beginner” and the most seasoned “advanced” students will feel a little uneasy with new exercises. Mindfulness can teach them to embrace the awkwardness of being a beginner and trying something new. If we recognize hat we are all lifelong-learners and continuing to grow, we won’t shy away from new challenges.
- Mindfulness can help one recognize how their inner chatter is affecting them. We all face thoughts of being “not enough,” and given the associations most people have with the gym and studios, your clients are likely coming into class with a lot of thoughts of how they need to do better to be better. Mindfulness can teach them that their thoughts are just that, merely thoughts and not necessarily thoughts that reflect reality.
- Mindfulness can teach compassion, particularly self-compassion. Speaking of feeling less than or not enough, the only way through these difficult emotions is with kindness towards oneself and others. Mindfulness can teach your students how to spot when their inner dialogue is being self-critical or judgmental.
- Mindfulness can help students let go of attachment and expectations. This can be extremely helpful when working towards goals that require a lot of time and effort. As you know, increasing physical activity and changing one’s body takes time. This timeline can be frustrating for clients. Whether your goals are strength, weight loss, stress management, or a combination of all of the above, practicing non-attachment towards the final outcome can help your clients learn to appreciate the process and not just the end result. I’m not saying don’t have goals, I’m saying help your clients learn to appreciate where they are at now and how to recognize their current strengths.
- Mindfulness can increase self-awareness. This can take the form of improved proprioception in exercises that focus on alignment and control, or it can also mean students and clients are more aware of their perceived efforts during their workout. By learning to listen to their body they can become aware of when they need to rest and when they have the energy to push a little further.
- Mindfulness can help move your workouts from boring and stale to transformative moving meditations. Everyone is looking for that little extra spark that will set them apart from the rest. Why not create classes that are truly an experience, a chance for your clients to connect with themselves on a deeper level, and not just a workout. Mindfulness can be your way of creating unique classes even if your choreography doesn’t change.
- Mindfulness can help you become a better instructor. Noticing and becoming aware of your own thoughts, emotions, and behavior will help you better see how you’re influencing your students and vice versa. Co-regulation can be a powerful thing. Mindfulness helps you manage your own fears, judgements, and worries so you feel safe to be yourself. And a confident instructor who feels safe taking up space in the present moment, can create space for your clients and students to do the same.
Of course there are many more reasons to practice and teach mindfulness but these are some of my favorite.
To save you from all the headache of trial and error trying to figure out how to create not just a kick ass class but an EXPERIENCE for your students, I created this guide to help…
✨The Essential Mindfulness Guide for Fitness Professionals ✨
This guide is for any group exercise instructor or personal trainer that wants to learn the fundamentals of mindfulness and teach moving meditations.
- Ivanowski, B. & Malhi, G. S. (2007), “The psychological and neurophysical concomitants of mindfulness forms of meditation,” Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 19, pp. 76-91
- Bauer, R. Smith, G. T., Hopkins, J., Kreitemeyer, J. & Toney, L. (2006), “Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness,” Assessment, 13, pp. 27-45
- Jha, A. et al. (2007), “Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention,” Cognitive Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, pp. 109-19; Tang, Y. Y., Ma, Y. , Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., Lu, Q., et al. (2007), “Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (US), 104(43), pp. 1715-6.
- Low, C. A., Stanton, A. L. & Bower, J. E. (2008), “Effects of acceptance-oriented versus evaluative emotional processing on heart rate recovery and habituation,” Emotion, 8, pp. 419-24.
- Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., Urbanowski, F., Harrignton, A., Bonus, K. & Sheridan, J. F. (2003), “Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation,” Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, pp. 567-70.
- Bowen, S., et al. (2006), “Mindfulness Meditation and Substance Use in an Incarcerated Population,” Psychology of Addictive Behavior, 20, pp. 343-7