Mindfulness and Physical Activity

The following is an excerpt from Doctor Stillman’s online course, “Practical Wellness.” To find out more or to subscribe, visit StillmanMD.com.

Exercise in the West has generally consisted of either manual labor or sports. What is interesting is that neither of these takes, as their stated goal, longevity and good health. This is in stark contrast to the traditions of Yoga and traditional martial arts that come to us from the East. These traditions also have much to offer us aside from physical activity. They have sophisticated insights into how to use food, herbs, and our minds to achieve and maintain health.

Yoga has become popular enough in the United States that it requires no explanation. It is worth pointing out that perhaps most of the yoga being practiced in the United States is far removed from its origins, and therefore much of the benefits that people seek from yoga may be absent from modern practice. It is difficult to be more specific than that in guiding you to the yoga practice that would be best for your health.

Traditional martial arts come to us from Southeast Asia. Systems of martial arts are found from the tip of the sub-continent to the northern reaches of Japan and Korea. Many of them unfortunately make the same mistakes in training as Western sports do, like repetitive head trauma or overuse. To find a school of martial arts that will train you in a way that is compatible with longevity as well as physical fitness, find a school where there are old masters who are still physically fit. A successful student will replicate the health, or disease, of their masters. This can also guide you away from sports or exercises that are detrimental to your health. The reason you don’t see people at fifty, sixty, and seventy years old playing soccer or football is that injuries are common in these sports and players are not trained to avoid or recover from them. Yoga and martial arts, in contrast, can be practiced by anyone with meaningful results.

Part of the success of yoga and martial arts to build health is that they typically are comprehensive in their attention to physical fitness. Flexibility, strength, endurance, and speed are all valued and taught. In most cases, mindfulness is an important part of the practice of yoga or martial arts.

Yoga and martial arts typically include some kind of mindfulness practice, though this may be limited. Mindfulness is about connecting to and understanding your present circumstances and your entire being. The physical body is in many ways the gateway to the rest of our beings. Systems of energy medicine, such as acupuncture, may have profound emotional effects through interactions with the physical body. It is no coincidence that the practice of mindfulness is inseparable from the practice of yoga and martial arts. If it is worthwhile to pursue exercise, it is worthwhile to pursue exercise that incorporates mindfulness. Awareness of the body cultivated during exercise can inform therapeutic decisions about many different health issues. Without this awareness, patients and their healers may feel like they are groping blindly forward, instead of making intelligent decisions.

That is why I recommend everyone to have a practice of mindfulness rooted in a strong tradition of healing, such as traditional Chinese martial arts or yoga.

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