Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

As January draws to an end, don’t beat yourself up if your new year’s resolution to get fit has not yet got out the starting blocks. You wouldn’t be the first to find the lure of the couch too strong to resist after the holiday season excess.

There are ways to put a rocket up exercise resolutions, one of which is on the list of the top 10 global fitness trends for 2019. It’s as old as the hills of ancient Greece and India and as young as the digital world.

It is “mindfulness”, also known as learning to live “in the present moment”. Like many, you may spend so much time living in the past or planning for the future in your head that you forget about the present.

Exercise experts will tell you that’s not optimum for peak performance at any given time.

Mindfulness is the foundation on which the ancient Greek aphorism of a “sound mind in a sound body” rests. Fitness trainers and coaches (of life as well as sport) use the phrase widely to express the importance of mental fitness for physical fitness.

It makes sense, since research shows that the body and mind are indeed inextricably linked. Growing research also points to mental and physical benefits of mindfulness.

Yet achieving mindfulness can be easier said than done. A simple intellectual decision may not be enough to rein in what Buddhists call your undisciplined “monkey mind”. It’s the one running mindlessly through the past and the future inside your head.

Meditation can help. One of the most well-known meditation techniques is “vipassana”, or “insight meditation” that has its spiritual home in India. It gives valuable insight into how your mental processes work — for and against fitness and other goals.

Not surprisingly, in our high-tech digital world, there’s also an app to help you on your mindful way.

The Waking Up app is the brainchild of US neuroscientist, philosopher and best-selling author Sam Harris. According to Harris, it’s a meditation course “steeped in mindfulness for beginners and experienced meditators alike”.

If you still harbour doubts about the benefits of mindfulness, SA lay Buddhist teacher Mervyn Croft instantly dispels them.Croft runs the Emoyeni Retreat Centre in the  Magaliesberg. Athletes are regularly among the centre’s retreatants, he says, because mindfulness plays a role in exercise performance.

Mindfulness is “a very natural human quality”, Croft says. He defines it as “your capacity to be aware, to know what you are doing or feeling in the present moment”.

In the gym, for example, if the trainer asks you to raise your arms, move them to the left and then to the right with attention — that’s mindfulness, Croft says. If someone asks what emotion you are feeling right now, “again that’s being mindful”.

One problem is the hectic, stressful pace of 21st century living and working that militates against mindfulness.

It’s easy enough to move through a whole day from waking up in the morning to falling exhausted into bed at night, without being aware of much of what happened to you in between, Croft says. “It’s as though you were a robot as if your body were just a machine and your feelings mostly numbed.”

Without you being aware, your muscles may be tense, shoulders up around your ears, your hands and jaw clenched. It’s as if you are “ready for battle”, he says. You may often forget to eat, let alone relax.

Introducing mindfulness into your lifestyle invites you to “break out of that nonstop, robot-like existence”. It creates opportunity to see what happens when you take a moment to pause and “listen” to yourself, Croft says.

The first thing you are likely to notice, he says, is how incredibly busy your mind is. And how enervating is an endless stream of thoughts preoccupied with planning the future or replaying the drama of your past. 

Taking the time simply to take a few deep breaths is a big first step to begin to relax, soften tense areas in your body and “connect” with yourself in the moment. “Pausing and listening” creates the “relaxed alertness” for true physical and mental fitness.

Once you become aware of what is going on in the moment, you give yourself a “priceless gift” that is mindfulness, Croft says.

“After all, life is lived only in the present moment,” he says. Mindfulness gives you the ability to “be alive in this moment and make fundamental changes to the way that you engage with life”, he says.

That includes your fitness routines.

The takeaway message here is positive: mindfulness is something you can easily integrate into everyday life and physical workouts. “Quietening the mind” helps you to target specific muscle groups more effectively and find the mental and  physical energy to push yourself to work harder on all levels.

And as US president John F Kennedy is quoted as saying: “Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity”.