Updated: Nov 27
This post is a compilation of past essays on exercise, fitness, and movement.
I started the day with an hour of meditation and breath work. But sitting for extended periods of time, even in meditation, is not good for the body. Sitting raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Sitting stresses the muscles of the back, neck, and spine. It’s worse if we slouch.
Moving throughout the day does the body good.
Meditators and yogis practice asanas, walking meditation, qi gong, taichi, and other exercises to stay fit. Movement is integrated in many contemplative traditions. Some mystics, like the whirling dervishes, dance their way to ecstasy. In the Hindu tradition, gods and goddesses are said to dance as a way of expressing the dynamic energy of life. Many styles of Indian classical dance—Bharat Natyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Kathak, Mohini Attam, and Manipuri—are meditations of sorts. Postures, known as karanas, require intense concentration and are considered vehicles to the Self.
This essay is divided into parts. In part one, I share research on the benefits of exercise. In part 2, I offer evidence-based prescriptions and contraindications for exercise. In part 3, I share the 9 elements of a well-rounded exercise regimen. A well-rounded program trains for flexibility, mobility, functionality, strength, balance, pliability, hydration, diet, and rest/recovery. While sleep and diet are fundamental to good health, they deserve special attention. Diet is as integral to mindful and holistic living as sleep is. I have uploaded separate posts on diet and nutrition. In part 4, I will share how to integrate mindfulness into your routines and how science informs our practice. I will also look at some of the traditional forms that were most often used by contemplatives for millennia and some of the mechanisms that explain how they work, so that whether its yoga, taichi, martial arts, or high intensity interval training you can get the most out of your workouts by remaining present and focused.
Part 1: Benefits
Overwhelming evidence exists that lifelong exercise is associated with a healthier life span, delaying the onset of 40 chronic conditions/diseases. Those who are physically active have lower blood pressure, higher insulin sensitivity, and more favorable plasma lipoprotein profiles. It’s not only good for the body, exercise is good for the brain. Exercise improves learning and memory (van Praag et al., 1999), improves the quality of sleep, counters the mental decline that comes with age. Exercise improves mood and can be more effective than some drugs for treating depression and anxiety (Siuciak et al., 1996; Shirayama et al., 2002). Exercise is a very powerful stimulus to the induction of neurogenesis in the adult dentate gyrus (van Praag et al., 1999) which contributes to remodelling hippocampal synaptic circuits and to enhanced cognitive function.
Many people with depression or anxiety turn to non-pharmacologic and holistic interventions like exercise, yoga, meditation, tai chi, or qi gong. Meta-analyses and systematic reviews have shown that these interventions can improve symptoms of depression anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress.
Part 2: Dosing, contraindications, intensity, frequency, and types of exercise
As with drugs a doctor might prescribe, dosing is extremely important to get the beneficial effects of exercise.
There is evidence for prescribing exercise in the primary and secondary prevention of pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases (CHD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, and intermittent claudication); metabolic disorders (type 2 diabetes, obesity, insulin resistance); muscle, bone and joint diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, osteoporosis); cancer; and depression (Pedersen and Saltin, 2006; Warburton et al., 2006a). Even if exercise is an effective therapeutic agent for all of these diseases, as with any other medicine, the dosage (volume and intensity of the exercise), frequency of administration (sessions per week), type (aerobic vs. resistance exercise), systemic and psychoactive effects and contraindications and side effects of the exercise must be taken into account to achieve the best outcomes. For instance, both resistance or weight training and aerobic training have been shown to be of benefit for the control of diabetes; however, resistance training may have greater benefits for glycemic control than aerobic training (Dunstan et al., 2005).
A number of caveats are in order. First, as always, consult with your doctor. What I share here should not be taken as medical advice. I’m not a doctor; I’m an educator. Here's the research.
For patients with CHD, exercise is contraindicated, that is, exercise is not advisable until the condition has been stable for at least 5 days; Other heart conditions like aortic stenosis, pericarditis, myocarditis, endocarditis, fever and severe hypertension all are contraindications to exercise. In other words, you shouldn’t be doing them. Strenuous exercise can cause acute injury to coronary plaques, leading to occlusion of coronary arteries. The risk of primary cardiac arrest is increased during a single bout of vigorous exercise, habitual vigorous exercise was associated with an overall decrease in this risk. There are no absolute contraindications to very moderate exercise in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients (Pedersen and Saltin, 2006).
In patients with asthma, a pause in training is recommended when an acute exacerbation occurs. In cases of infection, a pause in training is recommended until the patient has been asymptomatic for a day, after which training can resume.
Regarding muscle, bone and joint diseases, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, for example, exercise is contraindicated in cases of acute joint inflammation
In cancer patients being treated with chemotherapy or radiotherapy, exercise is contraindicated, again not recommended when leukocyte, hemoglobin, and thrombocyte concentrations fall below certain levels and temperature above 38°C or 100.4 degree F. Patients with bone metastases should not perform strength conditioning with weights. In diabetic patients (both types I and II), exercise should be postponed if blood glucose levels are too high. In patients with hypertension high-intensity training should be avoided.
Intensity matters. Moderate-intensity activities are those in which heart rate and breathing are raised; but, still, it is possible to speak comfortably. Brisk walking is an example. It has been shown that 72 min of moderate exercise or brisk walking per week (which averages to about 10 minutes per day- appears sufficient to provide some improvement in fitness. However, at this low exercise dosage, cardiovascular risk factors (blood pressure, lipid profile and weight) do not improve. Gradually, you would want to move into whats called zone 2 cardio. Vigorous-intensity activities are that in which heart rate is higher, breathing is heavier and conversation is possible but harder.
Now more is not necessarily better. it has been found that long-term vigorous endurance exercise training may in some cases promote adverse cardiac remodeling and produce a substrate for cardiac arrhythmias. Even though moderate levels of exercise have been found to be consistently associated with a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk, there is evidence to suggest that continuously high levels of exercise (e.g., marathon running) could have detrimental effects on cardiovascular health.
When prescribing drugs, physicians typically start with the minimum effective dose. If the patient does not respond, this initial dose may then be titrated or adjusted upwards to a maximum dose. Similarly, the intensity of aerobic training may be also titrated in healthy people (Warburton et al., 2006b). Unfit people can get significant improvements in physical fitness with a low training intensity, while those with a higher fitness level need a greater level of exercise intensity to achieve further improvements in fitness (Shephard, 2001).
The guidelines discussed above are generally appropriate for young to middle-aged adults. But, as with medicines, special considerations should be taken when prescribing exercise for people with special needs such as elderly, children, pregnant women, overweight or obese patients and patients with chronic diseases (Warburton et al., 2006b). For instance, it has been shown that vigorous activities are not essential for the reduction of cardiovascular risk in men over 60. Regular physical activity is enough to achieve that.
The effects of exercise training on brain function have received much attention in recent years. In the early ‘80s, exercise was shown to increase β-endorphin concentrations in the blood. Endorphins have been linked to a variety of psychological and physiological changes, including mood state changes , altered pain perception, and ‘exercise-induced euphoria.’
Researchers also found increased expression of neurotrophic factors in some brain areas. Increased expression of these factors is related to better memory and improved cognitive function.
PART 3: The 9 elements of a well-rounded exercise regimen
A well-rounded program trains for mobility, functionality, strength, balance, pliability, hydration, rest/recovery, and diet.
Let’s start with functionality. Unlike sports specific movements like pitching, weight lifting or distance running, real-world movements involve whole body biomechanics. Machines one might find at a gym isolate and train specific muscles usually along the sagittal plane (that is, up and down). We curl up and down, squat up and down, bench up and down. Our day to day movements, however, are usually functional, multi-jointed, and multi-planar. We move up and down, laterally (side to side), and diagonally. We rotate. Sometimes we're off balance. Sometimes we're carrying a load- a baby, a bag of groceries, a bag of fertilizer, a bucket of water. We're bending and squatting and contorting our bodies this way and that.
Our movements are complex. There aren't machines to train the body to stand on the third rung of a ladder, balancing a heavy sheet of drywall over head with one hand while trying to drill it into the ceiling joists with the other. This explains why athletes are prone to injury if their training is not well-rounded. Rotator cuff injuries for example are very common. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint, keeping the head of the upper arm bone firmly within the shallow socket of the shoulder. There are specific exercises that we can do to train the 3 heads that make up the shoulder. At the gym, most beginners train only along the sagittal plane and do shoulder presses or other exercises that hyperextend the shoulders like upright rows and contribute to injury. There are preventive, functional movement exercises we can do. I would recommend consulting with an experienced trainer or physical therapist for exercises you can incorporate into your workouts.
Stretching increases range of motion and flexibility. It can help improve performance. Stretching decreases stiffness and lowers chance of injury. Stretching can be dynamic or static. Dynamic stretches are usually used as warm ups. For dynamic stretches, I practice QiGong and Tai Chi exercises.
Stretching statically involves stretching a muscle as far as it can go and relaxing into it. I prefer yoga asanas (poses) for static stretches and hold each asana for 30 seconds or more.
When I get to the edge of a stretch and feel I cannot go further, sensory neurons, called intrafusal muscle fibers, send an electrical potential, or signal, from the muscle to the spinal cord. Another signal is sent from the motor neurons within the spinal cord back to the muscles to contract. This safety loop is designed to bring the muscle back into a prescribed range of motion- ensuring I do not overstretch, damage the connective tissue, or overload the muscles. This biological mechanism is protective and helps prevent injury, but also restricts range of motion.
I can redefine and extend those parameters, however, by relaxing into the stretch, breathing calmly into it. If I breathe and relax into the edge, not judging my performance, not comparing myself with others, a population of neurons (von economo neurons) within a brain structure called the insula, integrates information about my somatic (body) experience, evaluates it as "good" or "bad" then routes this information to other parts of the brain. If I lean into an uncomfortable stretch and interpret the discomfort and unpleasantness as "good," I can override it to a degree. This process allows me to lean into discomfort and reinterpret a seemingly unpleasant experience as positive.
Yoga, Qigong, and tai chi can also be performed as mobility exercises. Mobility exercises train range of motion around the joints. My favorite mobility exercise is dance.
I incorporate dance into my exercise routine, but as a training it is very different than the kind of movements one might see on the dance floor. As a training, I dance to improve elasticity and mobility, to strengthen fascial tissue, to improve cardiovascular and respiratory health, and for fun.
When we dance, we move along multiple planes of motion- side to side (frontal plane) and up and down (sagittal plane). We twist and rotate, spin and pivot along the transverse plane. Moving along multiple planes of motion is better for the body than moving along a single plane. The functional movements of dance strengthen the body's structural fasciae. Fascia refers to connective tissues. These bands hold the body together, connecting muscle to muscle, bone to bone, and muscle to bone. Fascia is elastic and supple. It helps the body absorb and distribute force. When I dance, I move every body part and every joint along multiple planes of motion with mindfulness.
When we dance, all fascial tissue needs to be elastic, resilient and strong enough to accommodate dynamic, multi-directional movement. Fascia adapts when exposed to movements that cover all planes of motion. Training on machines or free weights doesn’t offer the same stimuli to create adaptations in the fascia.
When I'm working out, I don't dance like I'm at da club. Sometimes I practice mild breath holding. Short breath holds simulate the effects of high-altitude training by inducing both a hypoxic (lack of oxygen) and hypercapnic (high carbon dioxide) response. These two effects lower sensitivity to carbon dioxide, increase endurance, reduce the discomfort and fatigue from lactic acid build-up, increase the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, improve breathing economy, and improve VO2 max (McKeown, 2015).
I also give the vestibular system a workout. Within the inner ear are two organs, the utricle and saccule, which help us maintain balance. They use small stones and a viscous fluid to stimulate hair cells to detect motion and orientation. This is the vestibular system. When I throw myself off balance, I force the vestibular system to re-orient. If we are not intentional, we lose our ability to balance as we age. Balance training sends robust information to the brain about the relationship between the visual world and the vestibular system. It also forces the body to correct. These micro-movements strengthen the kinetic chain from the feet, up the legs, to the core muscles, and the rest of the body. The vestibular system is also wired to the limbic system, which is involved in processing emotion. It could trigger the rush you feel when you're on a roller coaster or in a Tesla rocketing from 0-60 in 2.7 seconds. It triggers the nausea and dizziness you may feel after spinning in circles. Interestingly, children love this sort of play: roller coasters, carousels, spinning. The older we get, however, the less we enjoy these kinds of movements.
Balance degrades with age if not trained, so I incorporate it intentionally into my routines.
When I dance, I'm giving the brain a workout. The brain houses a map of the body's orientation, helping direct movement through space. This awareness of the body's position, force and motion is called proprioception.
Proprioception is mediated by neurons located in the muscles, tendons, and joints called proprioceptors. Different proprioceptors detect distinct kinematic parameters, such as joint position, movement, and load.
Proprioceptive signals are transmitted to the brain where they are integrated with information from the vestibular, visual and motor systems to create an overall representation of body position, movement, and acceleration. The feedback from these proprioceptors stabilizes body posture and coordinates body movement.
Dancers have thicker gray matter than controls in the superior and middle temporal gyri and precentral gyrus. They also have greater white-matter diffusivity in the corpus callosum, corticospinal tract, and superior longitudinal fasciculus. Long-term dance training is associated with brain plasticity in both gray- and white-matter regions associated with motor and auditory functions. In studies where dance was used as therapy or as an intervention, participants showed significant improvements in several aspects of brain function involving cognition and sensorimotor performance. In one study, researchers found that dancing led to larger volume increases in mo re brain areas, including the cingulate cortex, insula, corpus callosum and sensorimotor cortex compared to conventional fitness activities. Dancing was also associated with an increase in plasma BDNF levels (Rehfeld, 2018). BDNF is a molecule that plays a key role in plastic changes related to learning and memory.
Dancing significantly increases levels of osteocalcin. Osteocalcin is a versatile hormone secreted by the bones. It regulates whole body metabolism, reproduction, and cognition. Indeed, studies suggest that osteocalcin acts as an anti-geronic hormone that could prevent age-related cognitive decline (Obri, 2018). By contrast, an absence of osteocalcin resulted in profound deficits in both spatial learning and memory. Increased anxiety was also associated with a decrease in osteocalcin.
There are other important aspects related to dance that are worth mentioning. The cerebellum, synchronizes (or entrains) body rhythms to music. In an instant, the brain makes calculations related to balance, spatial awareness, intention, and timing in the brain's sensorimotor region. The posterior parietal cortex translates visual information into motor commands, sending motor-to-motion signals to the premotor cortex and supplementary motor areas. The putamen is involved in metric motion, and the superior parietal lobule gives spatial guidance to our leg movements.
Dance is athletic and artistic. It is emotive. In Move: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind Free, Caroline Williams writes that light, expansive, repetitive, and rhythmic movements like those seen in the Jewish dance Hava Nagila can affect mood, promoting happiness. Indeed, dancers often express emotions through the body.
Dancing can be therapeutic. The acute care unit of brain and spinal cord injury at Dodd Rehabilitation Hospital uses dance to help patients recovering from central nervous system injury. In a meta-analysis of 44 studies, researchers found that the elderly "showed significant improvements in several aspects of brain function involving cognition and sensorimotor performance" following post-dance interventions (Kshtriya, 2015).
Dancing is highly social. When we study other dancers, mirror neurons, linked to empathy, are activated. Brain activity associated with observing and imagining movements was detected in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal lobule and was related to how much experience participants had with the dance steps and how highly they rated their ability to perform them.
Pliability training is quarterback Tom Brady's go to workout. Tom Brady is one of the winningest quarterbacks in NFL history (National Football League or American football for listeners outside of the US). Tom Brady is also one of the oldest players in the league. American football is a violent sport. Players often retire early and suffer many injuries. Pliability speeds muscle repair and recovery. Bands, foam rollers, and deep muscle work are some ways to increase blood flow, improve muscle oxygen saturation, cell permeability, and neural muscular efficiency.
Hydration is another important but often overlooked pillar of health. The general advice is to consume about half your body weight in fluid ounces. Water needs increase with physical activity, so you would want to consume more during exercise. I work out in the morning and hydrate until about 3 or 4, as frequent midnight bathroom runs would undermine the health outcomes I'm trying to achieve. Sometimes, I’ll add electrolytes to my water. Beet juice contains nitrates which improve cardiovascular function. The increase in nitric oxide also improves lung function and muscle contraction. Beetroot juice is best before a workout.
Sleep is vital to health and recovery. I uploaded a talk on sleep which you can access for more specifics. As far as recovery, though. there are many protocols from ice and heat, compression socks and therapeutic bands, supplements like creatine monohydrate which aid in muscle hypertrophy, strength, and recovery, as well as sodium bicarbonate or baking soda which you can mix with lemon juice and water.
Another important aspect of recovery which I’ve already addressed relates to the intensity and frequency of exercise. When I was young, there was a very popular expression that went viral: No pain, no gain. But research debunks this. No pain, no gain, no brain. Discomfort, soreness, and pushing to muscle failure is one thing. These lead to adaptations and improve endurance, strength and conditioning. Learning and endurance and growth demand discomfort. Ignoring pain signals, though, especially chronic pain signals can keep you sidelined for a long time. If you have a rotator cuff tear and keep lifting weights or you have achilles tendonitis and keep running hills, you may not be doing either for much longer. The pain will eventually wear you down.
Part 4: Integrating Movement and Mindfulness
This leads me to the final part of this talk on the integration of mindfulness and exercise. The body is often likened to a temple. The 12th century Indian poet and philosopher Basava wrote: the legs are pillars, the body the shrine, the head a cupola of gold. In the New Testament it reads: What. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you and ye are not your own?
In contemplative circles, we treat the body with respect, gratitude, and reverence, we attend to those conditions that promote it’s well-being: sleep, exercise, and diet, for example. But we also recognize that this body is temporary and can be a form of attachment and suffering. Buddhists meditate on the 5 remembrances:
I am of the nature to grow old; I cannot escape old age.
I am of the nature to get sick; I cannot escape sickness.
I am of the nature to die; I cannot escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. (Here This includes one’s health, strength, vigor, and mobility).
I inherit the results of my actions of body, speech, and mind.
So, in contemplative circles, we seek balance. We take care of the body, but do not obsess over it as many of us in the West do. Within this vessel pulses something mysterious and beautiful. It may be a temple, but like all temples made of stone it is dirt in the end. What dances within you is something beautiful waiting to be discovered, but we often make idols out of the temple itself.
Exercising is much more pleasant when performed mindfully. Traditional practices like yoga, qi gong, tai chi, and walking meditation integrate breath, mind, spirit, and body. But there is no reason I can think of why mindfulness cannot be extended to running, kayaking, swimming, weight lifting, or even bloodsports.
Last summer, I presented at a dojo in Los Angeles and shared meditation and regulatory techniques for dialing down stress, improving concentration and focus, and controlling primitive emotions. It's easy to stay calm on a meditation cushion; it's harder to stay centered when you’re getting punched in the mouth.
The roots of martial arts are Buddhist. The monk Ta Mo traveled from India to China in 527 AD to see Emperor Wu of Liang. He taught the monks of the Shaolin Temple the 18 Buddhist Fists, which turned into the Five Animal Styles of Shaolin, from which all other martial art forms descend.
I was an amateur boxer once. I loved the rawness of it, the discipline and brutality, the beauty of form, the intensity of present moment is-ness, and the power to remain calm and relaxed in the ring. Most people shy away from pain and violence. Fighters embrace the suck and the suffering. In Buddhism, interestingly, it is common to see wrathful dieties wielding weapons, baring their teeth, and poised as if to strike.
Meditation enhances a fighter's awareness. When we enter the ring, all the neural circuitry and molecules that trigger the fight-flight response are primed. Acute stress leads to dynamic changes in the brain. The mind is in a heightened state of alertness, and the body is juiced on adrenaline, ready to fight. This primitive response was designed by nature. The fighter intentionally puts himself in harm's way. Before touching gloves, he must inhibit the fear response.
In the Dhammapada, an ancient Buddhist text, the author writes: "A wrongly directed mind brings greater harm than any enemy, a rightly directed mind brings greater good than any other relative or friend. The one who conquers himself achieves a victory which can never be undone, a victory greater than that of the mightiest warriors."
In contemplative circles, violence is often regarded as reprehensible; non-violence is the ideal. But absent malice, hatred, anger, or ego a stiff jab is just a stiff jab. My opponent and I are challenging each other to dig deep. There is no ill will behind the punches- just a crisp sting. Absent ill will, we can transcend anger, fear, and hatred in the ring and learn about the mind and its relationship to fear in real-time. All the better, if the blows are delivered with loving kindness. It’s not personal, any more than the afflictions that torment the body or the circumstances that destroy nation states are personal.
Meditation, as part of a training regimen, can offer the fighter an advantage, keeping us grounded in the present and in a flow state. In a flow state, it feels as if there is an absence of a doer and a sense of effortless control. One can maintain calm in the midst of a flurry of punches. “Jiu-jitsu puts you completely in the moment, where you must have a complete focus on finding a solution to the problem," Gracie said. "This trains the mind to build that focus, to increase your awareness, your capacity to solve problems.”
Research suggests that a grape-sized section of the brain called the insular cortex is especially fine-tuned in top athletes, helping them anticipate upcoming pressures to adapt quickly. According to Sandra Upson in an article published in Scientific AmericanThe insula “can generate strikingly accurate predictions of how the body will feel in the next moment. That model of the body's future condition instructs other brain areas to initiate actions that are more tailored to coming demands,”
In the ring, this might translate into timing a counter-punch, pivoting inside to cover block and stifle an opponent's offense, or waiting for an opponent to wind up and throw before stepping inside and catching him with a hook to the body. And there is nothing like a blow to the body to test the accuracy of one's predictions and mental models.
Meditation can enhance these qualities of processing. Experienced meditators or those who received mindfulness meditation training demonstrated better information processing speeds in an attention task (Moore, 2009) or vigilance task (Ching, 2015), suggesting the beneficial effect of mindfulness training on basic levels of cognitive function.
If we train the mind as intensely as we train the body, there is less anxiety, and less mental processing diverted away to worrying or rumination. These changes occur at the structural level. There is less activity in those regions that manufacture worry and fear.
More mindful athletes neutralize negative self-talk. Marathoners and ultra-runners, for example, suppress both the physical and psychological markers of fatigue when running (Jacobson, 2014) and ignore distractions caused by task-irrelevant information in order to optimize running performance (Cona, 2015). Furthermore, given that stress has been shown to influence executive functions (Henderson, 2012) and that mindfulness training appears to reduce stress (de Vibe, 2017), it is also possible that mindfulness enhances athletes' executive functions and performance via stress reduction. Indeed, meditation practices have been observed to reduce psychological stress responses and improve cognitive functions (Singh, 2012).
Stepping into the ring to fight someone there to inflict pain triggers the fight or flight response. Molecules and brain circuits prime the body. Absent negative storylines, fighting becomes play. When what you fear most becomes play, confidence grows. You learn to remain still in the midst of chaos. "The biggest gift I received as a martial artist is without question the capacity to be at peace," wrote Gracie.
Meditation improves pain tolerance. Experiencing throbbing as throbbing or heaviness as heaviness is one thing, pain catastrophizing or labeling sensations as "bad" adds a layer of what psychologists call secondary pain. Mindfulness training changes one's physiological response to pain (John, 2011; MacDonald, 2017). For example, Solberg et al. (2000) observed that lactate concentration decreased significantly following mindfulness training, and both John et al. (2011) and MacDonald and Minahan (2017) suggested that mindfulness training decreases salivary cortisol associated with stress. With mindfulness training, we learn to be aware of the signals and feedback that some call pain without judgment. Absent the unnecessary mental chatter, pulsing is just pulsing, throbbing is just throbbing, sensations are just sensations.
Here, we are training nocioception and interoception. Nocioception refers to the body's ability to detect pain and mobilize a defense response. It occurs when a nociceptor fiber detects a painful stimulus on the skin or in an internal organ (peripheral nervous system). The detection of that signal is “picked up” by receptors at the dorsal horn of the spinal cord and brainstem and transmitted to various areas of the brain as sensory information. There are 2 main pathways to carry these nociceptive messages to the brain, the spinothalamic and spinoreticular tracts. The spinothalamic tract transmits pain signals that are important to localizing pain, for example, when you get clocked in the mouth and your lip starts swelling.
The second pathway—the spinoreticular tract—is important in the emotional aspects of pain. Interoception is the sense that answers the question: "How do I feel?" In the ring, swelling, bleeding, and pain are to be expected. The brain registers the hit, but then ignores the pain allowing the fighter to focus and block, slip, or counter the next threat.
Evidence suggests that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is involved in the processing of pain. The ACC acts as a mediator between the "rational" and "emotional" areas of the brain. Studies also provide evidence that the insular cortex receives nociceptive information. The connectivity of the insula to other areas of the brain may play a complex and multifaceted role in the modulation of pain. Connections of the insula with the prefrontal cortex (the cognitive part of the brain), ACC (the mediator), and amygdala (the emotional seat of the brain) can allow painful information to be integrated with information related to working memory, affect, and attention. In the ring, the process unfolds something like this: you get punched in the mouth, the body sends a signal to the brain localizing the pain, you register a swelling lip, the brain assesses the damage and determines no serious injury. Getting hit is to be expected in boxing (working memory reminds you), so you remain nonplussed (affect/attitude), shrug it off, and reorient attention back to the moment. Excitatory neurotransmitters responsible for providing energy, motivation, and focus work in tandem with inhibitory neurotransmitters which filter out unnecessary signals to minimize the pain. The ACC signals the release of endogenous opioids to modulate or numb intense pain. And the amygdala may trigger an off-switch for pain, the CeAGA neurons (Hua et al., 2022). All of this unfolds in thousandths of a second.
Interestingly, if I am accidentally elbowed in the lip outside of the ring, a different process may unfold. The mind may construct a different narrative of a similar experience (getting hit in the mouth with the same intensity). My response might be different. I might stop whatever I'm doing, wince, and reach for my swollen lip in pain. In the ring, the fight doesn't stop because Little Johnny got hit in the eye.
Meditation is a path to egolessness. In the Fighter's Mind, Sam Sheridan wrote: “From my very first real fighting experience in Thailand, I saw that the best fighters were the most humble. But much like jiu-jitsu, you start to see it as a ‘chicken-and-egg’ problem. Is it that great fighters lose their ego? Or is it that you cannot become great unless you lose your ego? Your ego keeps you out of the zone? Guys who can naturally control big egos do better?”
One's greatest rival is ego. Many champions have been TKO'ed by their outsized egos: their careers destroyed, earnings lost, marriages ruined, bodies broken, their peace and joy stripped from them. There is no more ruthless or destructive opponent. You can't square off and go toe to toe with the ego. It's too cunning and powerful. It knows all of your weaknesses.
Ego cannot abide long in the present moment, however. Fighting brings us into the present moment. We prime the stress response and can leverage it. One becomes hyper-vigilant, focused. If we can leave our stories and ego outside of the ring and abide in the moment, we enter into a flow state.
One does not have to spar or fight to awaken this response. Exercise is also a stressor. When I was younger, I loved working out as much as I enjoyed sparring. I learned to meditate in my late teens, but began to practice earnestly after I met a coach who integrated meditation and sports. He was a professor at UC Berkeley and trained Olympic athletes. I don't remember his name, but his lessons stayed with me. He offered a course which I could not afford, but I did attend his free introductory class. I learned progressive muscle relaxation, body scanning, and visualization to improve focus. There is ample evidence to show that coupling mental imagery with physical training can improve performance (Slimani, 2016). Mental imagery is widely used by athletes to improve motor performance without overt motor output.
Zen Master Shinzen Young also produced recordings for athletes which I devoured and listened to prior to working out. He, too, encouraged body scanning and mental imagery. The brain is predictive (Ridderinkhof, 2015). Visualization or kinesthetic motor imagery helps athletes refine their motor skills. Visualizations are simulations. Brain regions involved in the simulation partially overlap with brain areas involved in overt motor performance including the posterior parietal cortex, the cerebellum, the basal ganglia and the premotor cortex. Even if an athlete is sitting still on a bench with eyes closed, scans show brain activation in motor regions during visualization. In other words, the brain responds as if one were engaged in the activity.
In another paper published in 2020, the authors offered the following suggestions extracted from their research:
To achieve the best results, visualisation techniques should include the five major senses (touch, hearing, sight, smell and taste) and should consider key aspects such as perspective, emotion, environment, task and timing. Mental rehearsal (or visualisation) is powerful because the subconscious processes the experience as a real one (by firing those neurons that are responsible for skill acquisition), makes the person calmer and more adapted to stressful situations, and can speed up the learning process.
Boxing traumatizes the brain. I ignored the research when I was young. No pain, no gain, no brain remember?
These days, I run, swim, kayak, and cycle; I do yoga, calisthenics, mobility exercises, pliability training, and high intensity interval training; I lift weights. I dance. My son and nephew challenged me to try the Navy Seals and Air Force Special Forces physical fitness tests. I uploaded that journey here.
Meditation remains a part of my training regimen. It's good for body and mind. To be fully present in any physical activity, whether running or pumping iron, lifts my spirits. I am fully embodied, fully alert, fully present, celebrating the gift of movement and the joy of life.
Wishing you good health all the days of your life.