Feel the Burn: An Embodied Approach to Fitness
Updated: Mar 14, 2022
Published in Inside Fitness.
I went for a run along Toronto’s Humber River Recreational Trail the other day. It was an unusually balmy Sunday in March. I followed the semi-thawed trail, bounding over the puddles of ice-melt. This run didn’t have the usual rhythmic, Zen-out quality. My mind was alert, intent on keeping my Hoka’s dry. I ran those 50 minutes hyper-aware of my surroundings, and of my feet in particular. They continuously tensed and released as I gingerly tippy-toed over icy patches and zig-zagged along the undulating, tree-lined path. As I grow to appreciate the importance of mindful movement, in the day-to-day and in my personal growth, each time I see an opportunity for it, I run with it (pun intended).
What is Embodiment?
With no singular definition of embodiment, in simple terms, it means to be at home in your body. Embodiment is a direct and conscious experience of your physiological senses and processes, supporting a deeper mind-body integration. When you are embodied, you live with a sense of wholeness and grounded-ness.
Embodied Strength Training
Traditional arts like Tai Chia and Yoga are ideal for exploring embodiment because they are inherently a form of movement meditation; but we aren’t necessarily limited to these traditional arts. If you already possess basic familiarity in mindfulness and body awareness practice, why not integrate these skills into your present workouts?
Like strength training.
Slowing down and focusing your attention on all your physical sensations maximizes the benefits of your workouts. You are not merely thinking about the movement but feeling it. The point is to get out of our head space, where we are prone to being self-conscious or critical, and engage with the language of our body.
Embodied strength training keeps you tethered to the inner dynamism of your body, something that you may miss out on when you’re on autopilot in the gym, or focused on the mirror for guidance. With practice, you will leave your workouts with a sense of ease and centeredness that will stay with you longer than any post-workout endorphins.
Embodiment enhances your strength training in notable ways:
It develops skills and elevates performance. You learn movement patterns more quickly and deepen your concentration on muscle contraction and tension, release and relaxation;
It promotes safer practices. With heightened body sensitivity, you notice form and alignment better;
It relieves stress. You calm your nervous system when you feel more deeply into your body, enabling a more immersive and centering experience;
Here are some tips on practicing embodied mindfulness in a weight-lifting session:
Breath Awareness Focus on your breath at the start of your workout to check into your body. Make an effort to sustain this breath focus throughout the session to keep the inner vibrancy fresh.
As you inhale and as you exhale, feel the air going in and out and feel the rise and fall of your chest or ribcage;
Breathe in tandem with your reps: the lift and release, the push and the pull. Keep your breathing unforced and natural;
Whenever you notice that you’re holding your breath, gently release it;
Feel the quality of your breathing. If it’s shallow, can you make it deeper? If it’s quickening, can you slow it down or soften it?
If your mind has drifted, let your breath lead you back to the immediate sensations of your movements.
To really feel the movement and stay connected to your body, practice the following:
Focus on the target muscles– feel the contraction and the release; use your breath to intensify or draw out the sensation;
Recruit your sensory skills, other than sight, to observe your movements. Closing your eyes can help but only if it’s safe to do so. Note the information you’re picking up from this internal awareness and make any adjustments needed;
Feel all the muscles that are involved to support a movement: stabilizers, feet, grip, facial muscles. Which ones can you enhance? Which can be let go?
Feel your feet, your toes. How are they planted on the ground? How does your weight shift in each movement? Can you adjust the position of your feet to support your form and execution?
Are the reps getting difficult? Can you find ease and be open to the discomfort? Can you deepen your breath to assist you?
Ground yourself between sets to recalibrate and reset your focus and energy. This can be done with a brief body scan. Then, direct your attention towards the physical space around you to balance your internal and external awareness, preparing you for the next set or exercise.
You will notice over time that there is so much happening within your body! With practice, these embodiment techniques will become more natural and intuitive and you will likely discover your own ways to access the information in your body and bring them authentically into your training.