Moving the Body Opens the Door to Spirit
It’s the Sabbath, a day of prayer, and millions of people across America are quietly sitting or kneeling, humbly communing with a power greater than themselves.
But inside the Alchemy of Movement studio in Boulder, Colorado, the Soul Sweat faithful are connecting with their higher power in a different fashion. In bare feet, and wearing yoga pants and tank tops, they find a place before a wall-to-wall mirror while a slow, Afro-Brazilian rhythm vibrates the wooden floor.
At the urging of instructor Chantal Pierrat, they let their arms and necks go limp, shaking off the week’s stresses via a sensual, full-body writhe she calls “the flail.” As the World Beat playlist picks up the pace, Pierrat leads the group through a funky, rave-like series of dance moves aimed at “opening up” the hips and chest and something less tangible deep inside. By song five, the sweat is flowing and some are dancing unabashedly, eyes closed, lost in the music. Others are smiling broadly, making eye contact in the mirror.
The sense of joy and interconnectedness in the room is palpable. “Exercise can be a powerful gateway to the spiritual,” observes Pierrat, the founder of Soul Sweat, a highly choreographed, spiritually charged dance workout.
Twenty years after the yoga craze introduced Westerners to the possibility that the two seemingly incongruous goals could be intertwined, the spirituality-fitness link has spread well beyond the yoga mat. It has spawned fusions ranging from Body Gospel, a Christian workout tape, and Jewish Yoga classes to triathlon programs rooted in Native American teachings and Buddhism-based running meditation workshops.
In addition, creative instructors have been fusing body/mind/spirit classics like yoga and Pilates with hardcore cardio disciplines like spinning and boxing. Half of all U.S. fitness clubs now offer mind/body programming, according to the IDEA Health & Fitness Association, and the portion of classes dedicated to “mind/spirit” versus just “body” is on the rise.
~ Chantal Pierrat
“The newer programming is balanced 50-50, rather than the 80-20 body-mind split of the past,” estimates Sandy Todd Webster, editor in chief of IDEA’s publications.
At a time when, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the number of people that identify with “no organized religion” continues to grow (topping one-fifth of Americans and one-third of U.S. adults under 30), more people than ever are exploring exercise as a path to both flatter abs and deeper self-discovery. “We have spent so long focusing on the mind and the brain… but that is not the whole story,” says Pierrat. “The somatic, or physical, expression of spirituality is the future.”
In the Zone
The notion that intense dancing or a long run could spark what feels like a spiritual awakening makes sense to Philadelphia-based research neuroscientist and physician Andrew Newberg, author of How God Changes Your Brain. A pioneer in the field of integrative “neurotheology”, he has for years used brain imaging technologies to study the impact religious or spiritual practices like deep meditation, intense prayer and speaking in tongues have on the brain. Exercise, he says, provides many of the same effects.
In addition to prompting a surge of feel-good endorphins, a highly strenuous workout is one of the few activities that can lead to simultaneous activation of both sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (calming) nervous system reactions. “Normally, when one of these is active, the other one shuts down, but when people drive one or the other to a very heightened level of activity, there is some evidence that the other turns on too,” explains Newberg.
That intense dual firing can paradoxically lead to an interruption in sensory information traveling to areas of the brain that control our sense of ourselves at any moment. “Not only do you have this great feeling of energy and calmness, but you tend to lose your sense of space and time,” he notes.
Newberg’s own research also suggests that when people “surrender” themselves in a spiritual practice, the frontal lobe (the practical part of the brain that keeps our thoughts in check) quiets. He speculates that something similar may happen in the midst of, say, a marathon or intense dance, enabling out of the ordinary thoughts and feelings to surface. “It can allow for creativity—a blending of different, more intuitive ideas in ways you don’t normally mix things,” comments Newberg.
~ Marcus Freed
So, is exercise able to only make us feel like we’re having a mystical experience, or is it somehow actually opening a channel to the divine? Newberg declines to go there, commenting that a brain scan tells what’s going on in the brain, not in the soul. Yet he has no doubt the two are inextricably linked. He says, “There are many well-known examples of intense experiences, like Sufi dancing, generating spiritual experiences for people.”
Marcus Freed is one of those people. He grew up in a traditional Jewish family in London, England, and attended a rabbinical seminary in Israel. Still, he felt that something was missing in his spiritual life. “I thought, ‘God has created us with a body. Why aren’t we praying with our body?’”
Freed says that Biblical text often references the body: King David, in the Book of Psalms, says, “Let all my bones praise the creator.” The Jewish Talmud refers to a rabbi that “stretched his spine with a prayer of gratitude.” Yet, Freed observes, the physical elements of daily spiritual practice have been largely forgotten over the centuries. When he discovered yoga, it filled a gap for him. “I found a way to draw upon this incredible spiritual literature but ground it in the body, so that experience is not just in the head, but also in the heart.”
Thus, Freed founded Bibliyoga, which launches each class with a Hebrew or Kabbalistic teaching, followed by poses that incorporate its themes, as reflected in his book, The Kosher Sutras: The Jewish Way in Yoga and Meditation. The practice, now taught in cities around the United States and Europe, has prompted the birth of similarly religion-infused classes, including Christ Yoga, and the Jewish Yoga Network. “A lot of people separate things, saying they’ll get their spirituality from one place and their exercise from somewhere else,” says Freed. “I think they are missing out.”
The spirituality-exercise link likewise resonates through other traditionally solo pursuits such as triathlon activities and running, in which many athletes say a more mindful approach to training has infused their sport with more meaning, and in some cases, improved their performances.
Ironman Marty Kibiloski, formerly a competitive marathoner and road racer, led what he terms a “high achievement, low contentment” life for years, measuring his self-worth by timed results that never quite satisfied him. In 2006, he attended a Running with the Mind of Meditation three-day workshop, based on Rinpoche Sakyong Mipham’s book of the same name. The retreat combined with his newfound interest in Buddhism, completely redefined running for him.
~ Marty Kibiloski
Kibiloski prefers to steer clear of the word “spiritual” (which he sees as somewhat ambiguous) when describing what he now experiences when running. Instead, he frames it as a vehicle for self-discovery, a mobile meditation that provides the intense focus and freedom from distraction that enables him to “awaken to how things really are.”
He now leads the retreat that proved pivotal for him, drawing more than 100 runners each Labor Day weekend to the Shambhala Mountain Center, in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. Participants learn to focus on the cadence of their footfalls, their breathing and their surroundings to, as he puts it, “move meditation beyond the cushion.” He remarks, “It trains you to have your mind be still when your body is active, which is how you are in everyday life.”
Triathlete Mark Allen credits his work with Brant Secunda, a shaman and teacher in the Huichol Indian tradition of Mexico, for enabling him to overcome negative self-talk and physical stresses and go on to win the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, six times in the late 1980s and early 90s. He notes, “In every one of my physical workouts, I also focused on training the spiritual aspect, so that when I got that chatter in my head, saying, ‘This is too hard’ or ‘I want to quit,’ I could go to a quiet place, rather than a negative one.”
Based on their book, Fit Soul, Fit Body: Nine Keys to a Healthier, Happier You, the pair conduct workshops around the country on how to strengthen both soul and body by intertwining both. “Some people think you are only spiritual when you are praying, but when you are moving your body, that is an intensely spiritual experience, too,” says Allen. “It’s my way of saying, ‘Thank you for letting me be alive.’”
Lisa Marshall is a freelance health writer near Boulder, CO. Connect at Lisa@LisaAnnMarshall.com.
UNIVERSAL FITNESS TIPS
Mindful Practices Enhance Any Routine
by Casey McAnn
When it comes to attaining fitness, several well-regarded recommendations increase the likelihood of success. Natural Awakenings canvassed online fitness sources for tips and techniques intended to keep workouts safe, fun and satisfying. Our favorites follow.
Always stretch – Light stretching before and after workouts loosens muscles and increases circulation for quicker repair and healing. It can also help prevent injuries. It’s ideal to hold stretches for at least 30 seconds, breathing “into” the muscles that are being stretched and inviting a gentle release of tension on the exhalation. If any pain surfaces while stretching a certain area, stop.
Start slowly – Begin and build workout routines slowly in order to avoid straining muscles and ligaments. Exercise at least twice a week, the bare minimum for staying physically fit.
Be well rounded – Add leg and back exercises to crunches and bicep curls, and vary cardio routines to stay enthusiastic about workouts. Experiment with all the equipment available at a studio or gym, asking a trainer for guidance.
Drink plenty of water – Drinking water helps to decrease appetite and eliminate cravings, while nourishing and hydrating the body. The goal is to drink half of one’s body weight number in ounces each day.
Keep it regular – Making exercise a regularly scheduled part of the week eliminates excuses. Keep it on the calendar and show up as dutifully as for any other important appointment. Make up any days missed.
Increase intensity – More intense workouts mean less time spent doing them while achieving the same level of benefits. It’s also important to keep endurance exercises in any routine, however, because they are vital for cardiovascular benefits and building stamina.
Use weights – Adding muscle to the body increases strength, life expectancy and fat burning. To tone muscles, use a weight that works for eight to 12 lifts. For bulk, use a weight suited to four to six lifts. Practice a weight training routine two to three times a week, keeping sessions under 45 minutes.
Add interval training – Sprinting for about 50 yards boosts metabolism and heart health. Return to the starting point by taking a slow walk. Repeat as many times as possible, making sure to warm up before the interval training and cool down afterwards.
Dress up – Energize a workout session and boost confidence by wearing something snazzy. Donning an exercise “uniform” gets us in the mood, and a new piece of clothing or footwear can make us excited to get moving again.
Be a safe runner – Every six weeks, cut running mileage and frequency in half for a week. This allows the body to recover from workouts and helps to prevent injury.
Make it meaningful – While walking or running, recite prayers or a gratitude list, or listen to inspirational podcasts and downloads.
Volunteer for fitness – Many volunteer tasks involve some form of physical movement. It feels good to burn calories while helping others.
Bring workout buddies – Friends and pets need exercise, too, and they provide restorative companionship. Working out with a pal adds support and motivation, which are keys to success. Seek out a human buddy with similar fitness goals.
Go green – Research from the University of Essex, in England, shows that exercising in nature produces additional physical and mental benefits. The researchers found that “green exercise” improves mood, self-esteem, enjoyment and motivation.
Casey McAnn is a freelance writer in Boston, MA.