It was a windy summer day in southeastern Tasmania, and Heather Larsen, a professional slackliner, was standing on an inch-wide stretch of nylon suspended between two of the tallest sea cliffs in the Southern Hemisphere. Nearly 1,000 feet below, seals barked and waves pounded the rocks.
Ms. Larsen was secured to the line with a harness and a leash, but the wind gusts and sheer height terrified her as she walked across. So she concentrated on her breath. Arms above her head, knees bent slightly to absorb the line’s vibration, she breathed in as she took one step, and out as she took the next.
“Be here,” she thought to herself as she placed her foot down. “Now be here.”
Ms. Larsen, who is 35, uses this kind of breathing and mantra as a form of meditation to keep herself focused while balancing on a bouncy strip of webbing. “It helps me stay only in that moment,” she said, and prevents distractions, like from previous shaky steps or changes in the tension of the line ahead.
While meditation has been shown to have many benefits, including increased focus, reduced stress and a mind cleared of distractions, it can be a struggle to find time for it in a busy day. But some coaches, doctors and athletes say it can be incorporated into your exercise routine, enriching your workout in the process.
With a clear, focused mind, you’re better able to make quick decisions in a pick-up basketball game or react to a set in beach volleyball. And experts say that meditation’s emphasis on the breath and the body shifts the focus from the outcome — whether it’s winning a race, increasing your mile time or weight loss — to movement for movement’s sake, which makes it more enjoyable.
Most often, this meditation takes the form of mindfulness, which Sara Lazar, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, called “paying attention to the present moment in an open, curious and nonjudgmental way.” Her research has shown that as little as eight weeks of mindfulness meditation, including movement-based forms like yoga, produced beneficial structural changes in the brain, especially in brain regions associated with mind wandering and stress. She said incorporating mindfulness into your movements is straightforward and can bring about some unexpected rewards.
Before a sports game or an activity that requires focus, a few minutes of intentional breathing can prepare you mentally, said George Mumford, a performance expert and author of “The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance,” who led regular meditation sessions with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. And during the activity, deep breathing can get you out of your head and quiet what he calls “the monkey brain,” a mind filled with emotions and thoughts.
“You’re frenetic, you’re scattered. You’re all over the place, so you’re no place,” he said.
Dr. Chiti Parikh, who runs the Integrative Health and Wellbeing Program at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, teaches her patients how to breathe deeply in a way that engages the diaphragm, the body’s largest breathing muscle, which separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. Studies show that deep breathing can activate bodily functions associated with calm and relaxation, and quiet stress responses. Also, she said, people have a tendency to take shallow breaths during exercise rather than lung-filling breaths from the diaphragm.
To train yourself to breathe this way, Dr. Parikh said, lie on your back, relax your muscles and place one hand on the chest and the other on the belly. Take long, slow breaths in and out through your nose, and watch your hands as they move. Breathe in for four seconds, then out for six. Over time, lengthen your exhales. Notice how, with shallow breaths, the chest moves, but with deep breathing, the belly moves too.
Once you are able to breathe deeply, you can incorporate it into any activity: swimming, scuba diving, or shoveling snow off the driveway.
Focus on the body.
Focusing on the sensations in your body while it moves — for example, mentally scanning body parts and thinking about muscle groups that are engaged — can also bring peace to a wandering mind, said Kalpanatit Broderick, who runs a fitness studio in Seattle that combines strength and cardiovascular training with mindfulness meditation.
“If I pay attention to my body while doing a push-up, I can feel my shoulders, my chest, my triceps, my quads,” said Mr. Broderick, who was once a nationally ranked distance runner. Or during a run, he said, think about how the arms are swinging, if the shoulders are relaxed, if you’re striking the ground with your heels or toes.
This forces you to be engaged in the movement rather than fixated on the outcome, he said. “The current fitness paradigm is so result-based,” he said. Working out with meditation, he added, slows down the mind, connects you to the body “and then we get to enjoy what’s around us.”
Dr. Lazar suggested using a meditation app, some of which have meditations specifically designed for walking or other kinds of movement. Many are free; others require monthly payments.
Set an intention.
Two years ago, Imani Cheers began a daily ritual of meditative running, walking, yoga and cycling to combat the stress of working a busy job as a single mom during the pandemic. A fundamental part of her meditation is setting an intention for each day that she says aloud to herself while exercising. “Don’t repeat poor habits and expect a different result,” for example, or “finish this half-marathon without getting injured.”
Her routine has affected more than just her workout, said Dr. Cheers, who is a provost for undergraduate education at the George Washington University. “At 41, I’m healthier, happier and stronger than I’ve ever been. And who says that after a pandemic?”
The goal: Finding flow.
Bringing meditation into movement may have another benefit: achieving the state of “flow.”
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first coined the term flow, defined it in his book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”
Anyone who exercises or plays sports, whether professional or amateur, has likely experienced some version of a flow state. On the basketball court, Mr. Mumford said, the basket gets bigger and time slows down.
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow looks a lot like the benefits gained from meditative movement: inner clarity, intense focus and a sense of serenity. And while meditating before or during exercise can’t guarantee flow, it can establish the conditions for attaining it. “You’re not trying to make things happen, you’re allowing them to happen,” Mr. Mumford said.
Ms. Larsen, the slackliner, agrees. She is best known for her stomach-dropping tricks, such as splits, handstands and hanging upside down from her ankles, all executed impossibly high in the air. One of her favorite slacklines near her home in southern Utah stretches across a slot canyon overlooking swirling sandstone and cottonwood trees.
There, Ms. Larsen can easily access the flow state because she’s become better, through meditation, at shoving aside the distractions, the ego and the focus on outcome. And that’s the goal with meditative movement, she said: “The effort goes away and it just is. It feels good, and it feels easy.”
Jenny Marder is a senior science writer for NASA and a freelance journalist. She was formerly digital managing editor for the PBS NewsHour.