When I’m not on my yoga mat, my exercise of choice is power walking, ideally with my dog in the beautiful mountains that are just ten minutes away from where I’m fortunate enough to live. There is nothing better than the smell of the fynbos (the natural shrubland vegetation occurring in a small belt of the Western Cape of South Africa), the wind in the trees, the reflection of the pristine peaks in the mountain dam and my dog’s unbridled joy at all the scents and sounds that surround us as we walk. Aside from the thrill of having a great cardio workout, it’s my time to really deepen my yoga practice as I make mindfulness the name of the game: rather than succumbing to the easy option of pondering any challenges or worries that I may be experiencing in my life, I try to stay focused on simply putting one foot in front of the other, following my breath, and becoming exquisitely aware of the entire experience.
As winter settles down in this southern hemisphere, however, I find that the rain keeps me off the slopes much more than I would like, and recently decided to go against my better judgement and sign up at the local University gym for a month in an attempt to keep my cardio fitness up. When I was younger, I spent heaps of time in the gym, doing aerobics, step, spin classes, circuit training and more. I loved everything about it, however as I have become more committed to my yoga practice over the years, I’ve found that I’ve gravitated away from the noise, the mirrors, the competitiveness that seems to be an integral part of a gym, choosing the quiet reflectiveness of a yoga studio instead.
And this is why I have had such fun over the last number of weeks as I found myself on the treadmill / rowing machine / cross-trainer at the gym, noticing the myriad ways it’s possible to keep yoga in my life, even in the gym:
- Developing single-pointedness. Instead of being distracted by all the pinging machines, the thumping music, the noise of my neighbour pounding along on the treadmill, the smell of sweat, I turn inwards and start to follow my breath.
- Letting go of criticism of others. Instead of dwelling on how very un-ahimsa it all seems, consciously kicking to the curb any dangerous sense of smugness that may threaten to arise upon thinking how oh-so-advanced us yoga crowd is in terms of our more holistic approach to health. Louise Hay put it beautifully: ‘“I release others to experience whatever is meaningful to them, and I am free to create that which is meaningful to me.”
- Letting go of criticism of myself. Surrounded by many very fit, young and healthy bodies, there is a constant reminder to be kind and gentle to myself and my perceived shortcomings, rather than finding myself lacking every time I look in one of the many mirrors. This brings me to my next point…
- Mollifying the ego: Surrounded by the above-mentioned mirrors, I suddenly can find myself sucking in my tummy and thinking that if only I could shift this bit of fat around my midriff… thinking how I should really make an appointment to have my hair cut (and maybe coloured as well)… thinking that if only I could find a better eye cream, perhaps the puffiness around my eyes wouldn’t be so obvious… thinking about what I look like, about what other people are thinking about me, and then catching myself (a bit like one does during meditation when you realise that you’ve been off on a tangent for the last 5 minutes before coming back to your next breath) and having a little chuckle at how loudly – and persistently – the ego can chat.
- Letting go of comparison. This is really a follow-on from the above point – so what if I am thinner/ fatter/ older / younger/ sadder / happier than the other people in the gym? So what if my outfit isn’t as new / funky / fashionable. So what!
- Constantly returning to my breath. Again and again and again.
- Listening to my body intently. It’s so easy to get into a rhythm where you are being driven by the music in your ipod or the tunes being blasted out in the gym, or being spurred on by the numbers on the electronic display of the equipment – just 5 minutes more, just 5 kilometres more, just 500 calories more…rather than gently listening to the cues that we’re getting from our own flesh and bones.
- Letting go of competitiveness. I am, by nature, competitive. My friends used to tease me about the fact that I would race my neighbour on the rowing machine at gym even though said neighbour was blissfully unaware of the fact that we were competing. I even raced cars up the hill when I was walking home after work. So to learn to let go of competitiveness with myself – instead of striving to go just a little bit further, a little bit faster than I did last time, rather checking in with my energy levels and adjusting my goals accordingly – was a biggie for me when I started practicing yoga, as was letting go of competing with others. I used to be one of those annoying people who would try to take sneaky peeks at other people’s displays to see how much faster or deeper I was working. What a relief to not have to do that anymore, especially since when I did that, I would automatically be risking injury and losing connection with my breath.
- Mindfulness – even though it’s not my number one form of exercise, taking the time to be completely present and mindful of what I’m doing regardless. Feeling the hard grips of the rowing machine in both hands, feeling my feet taking turns to lift up and lower down onto the treadmill, sensing how my clothing feels on my body, how my ribcage expands and contracts with each breath, how my temperature increases, how my heart is beating…
- Embracing a sense of oneness, of compassion, and of inter-connectedness. We are different shapes and sizes, we have different pigmentation and cultures, different desires, longings, challenges and joys. We have different objectives, different goals, different ways of getting there, different paths, but we are all doing the best that we can with what we have, muddling along in this thing called life together, and so we may as well be as gentle and accepting of each other as we can while we’re on the ride together.
Do you think it’s possible to keep yoga alive in a gym environment?