Intense physical exercise is good for your body and your soul. The gym is a source of wisdom. Ten spiritual reasons to work up a sweat.
Lesson 1: You encounter yourself
They say that working out makes you encounter yourself. What an encounter that is! At the gym and in the playing field you find out a lot about yourself. You get to know your body, you experience muscles in places you had no idea you had them, your whole body tingles and glows. You come home into your own body.
That’s why it’s easier to feel where you flex your muscles when you shouldn’t: you’re more alert to a wrong posture and you change it playfully, perhaps even without noticing.
Lesson 2: It makes you humble
Your ego tends to get bored during a workout. Because, let’s face it: most of the time, you don’t look all that good. You’re sweating, moaning, growing purple… The air streams from your inflated ego, and then it fills itself again with fresh air. You feel good, so you have a friendlier outlook on humanity. You are more sensitive to others’ needs when you’re in touch with your own body. Empathy is based on this awareness.
Lesson 3: It makes you happier
Athletes know all about it and scientists have proven it: exercise improves your mood significantly. It releases higher amounts of the substances in the brain that make you happy, such as endorphin, dopamine and serotonine. Going for a run three times a week is as good for your soul as therapy or meditation.
Going to the gym on a regular basis can even prevent depression and burn-out: the more you exercise, the less likely you are to develop psychological complaints. Supposably, four hours of exercise a week is the perfect amount. That’s half an hour a day and one hour a week. But research also shows that the first twenty minutes of every work-out produces the highest level of happiness hormones. Even if you start off easily.
Lesson 4: You learn to love your body
If you exercise regularly, you automatically start appreciating your body more. Because it does so much for you: how could you not appreciate it? This realization makes you take better care of your body. After an intense work-out, you don’t reward yourself with some fries, but rather choose a green smoothie or a handful of nuts. Your body is your temple, and this becomes more than a phrase: you feel it in your bones. No matter how imperfect you think your body is, it deserves respect.
Lesson 5: You arrive in the now
Workout = mindfulness XL! Fresh air in your lungs, sweat on your skin, your muscles flexing, the wind in your hair: it’s all happening right here, right now. The oxygen in your brain wakes up your senses. It seems as if you see, hear, smell and feel more intensely (of course, there’s less of an effect if you’re wearing headphones outside, or looking at a tv screen at the gym). Exercise as zen as you can, empty your mind, let the wind blow away your thoughts and be as present as you can be. Feel what you’re doing, breathe consciously, stretch with 100% awareness. This moment, right now, is all you have.
Lesson 6: It gives you energy
Sometimes, you think you’re too tired for a game of tennis or a pilates lesson – and then, if you do decide to go, you realize that the exercise activates you. ‘Had a rough night’ is a reason to hurry to the gym – not to sit on the sofa. Life is all about paradoxes, and this is one of the best ones: exercise gives you more energy than it costs you. It’s the same in spiritual life: you get what you give.
Lesson 7: Set your boundaries
It’s not until you challenge yourself physically, that you discover the boundaries of your body. You can do much more than you thought, and yet there are things you’re not capable of. Sports and work-out are constant reality checks. And being a realist makes you more self-confident.
Lesson 8: You learn to follow through
If you work out regularly, you’ll find that it’s easier to develop other good habits, such as meditating or studying. Your body leads the way for your mind. Physical exercise creates perseverance, and that brings you further in life.
Lesson 9: It makes you smarter
The gym is a source of life lessons. And you take all these insights with you in your daily life – because you feel them in your body. Your body and mind are one, what happens in your mind, translates to your soul. For instance, take running. Every gym instructor knows it’s better to take long steps than to trot.
In the end, running is something you do in the air: the ‘floating’ phase between two steps is essential. Isn’t that the same in life? There’s always a floating phase between two steps of growth, when there’s no certainty and you commit yourself to the air. Running, outside or on a treadmill, is an exercise in letting go and trusting life itself.
Lesson 10: You learn to relax
A work-out is, in fact, all about stress: your heart is beating harder, you’re moaning, your brain produces substances that also emerge when you’re in danger. But there is no real danger, so you get calm again, time and time again. This teaches your body to pacify itself, in times of mental stress as well. Exercise also makes you sleep better, research shows. But it also makes you relax on a deeper, more spiritual level. If you and your body are one, you and the universe are one too. Because if your body feels like home, the earth does, too.
Photo: Christopher Campbell