Like so many fitness breakthroughs, this one started with a New Year's resolution. After reading countless articles about the benefits of mindfulness and even hearing some firsthand accounts from friends who had adopted the practice, I decided I had nothing to lose and everything to gain from making meditation a daily habit.
I set a goal to meditate for at least 10 minutes a day and got started with Headspace, an app that guides the user through an introductory 10-day series before offering a full library of guided meditation tracks. One of the first practices from the app was to count my breaths as a way to keep focused on the simple act of breathing. In for one, out for two, in for three, out for four, and so on until I reached 10, then start back at one. Even as I progressed past the 10-day introduction and into experimenting with meditating without the app, I continued to find the act of counting my breaths for 10 counts at a time to be a helpful practice.
While I wasn't sure I was doing it "right" — or even exactly what that meant — I found myself returning to the act of counting my breaths throughout the day as a way to shrug off stress or simply remind myself to stop breathing so shallowly, a longtime bad habit.
I even found myself trying out the breath counting while I ran, and that's where things got interesting. Although I've been running since high school and even ran my first marathon last year, running has never come easily for me. I'm perpetually slow, often discouraged, and usually desperately counting down the minutes until each run is over. My head is often filled with negative self-talk while I run, doubting that I'll be able to finish, berating myself for being so slow, thumbing through the index of excuses that would justify stopping early. The new focus on my breathing while I ran distracted me from a lot of that.
In for one, out for two. In for three, out for four. Right foot, left foot. Forcing myself to count my breaths while I ran took up just enough mental space that there wasn't much room left for all that negative self-talk. I began linking thoughts or words to my inhales and exhales, repeating the words "gratitude" or "strength" on the inhale and "doubt" or "blame" on the exhale, imagining filling and emptying myself of the respective virtues. It didn't make the run noticeably easier, necessarily, but it felt so much more productive. The effort I exerted with my body was matched by a mental effort to stay focused, stay positive, stay present. That balancing of physical and mental effort made me feel a bit like a superhero, like I was firing on all cylinders and reaching my full potential.
I finished my "meditation runs" feeling winded and sore like I did after any run, but I also finished feeling strong and grateful. I began using the breathing mantras and breath counting in other workouts too — yoga, strength training, even steep incline treadmill sprints in bootcamp class. Maybe the focus on my breath was forcing me to breathe deeper and subsequently better oxygenate my body, or maybe the mantras were a form of self brainwashing; all I knew was that this new mindfulness in my workouts made me feel really good. Not about my pace (which was still painfully slow, for the record) or my reps or my jean size or a number on the scale, but about myself.
When people ask me how my resolution to meditate regularly is going, I'm not sure I can tell them that I'm doing it "right," but I can confidently say it's working.