Zen and the Art of Orange Theory

Have I told you I don’t like running? Because I don’t like running. In fact, until a few months ago, I believed that I was unable to run for distance. And when I say distance I don’t mean anything close to the distances you crazy marathon runners run. I mean I couldn’t run a mile straight. Or at least I thought I couldn’t until Orange Theory came to town.

This is not at all what I look like running.

Is this an ad for Orange Theory? Not exactly, though it certainly helped. I like that the coaches just tell me what to do so I don’t have to take time planning a workout. In addition, the mix of cardio, strength, and endurance means I never have the chance to get bored. Finally, the technology that displays my numbers (you know those pesky things that never lie) visually as I work has helped me to learn when it’s time to ease back or crank it up.

Still, treadmills are the first things I saw when I walked into the Orange Theory studio and with them came the threat of extended running. Yeah, of course I didn’t have to run. Of course, I could walk or increase the incline. But I quickly learned that running on a treadmill when you have long legs is far more comfortable than trying to walk at a fast pace or with a steep incline. So I tried running and to my great surprise I did not immediately die, self-combust, or fly screaming from the studio. In fact, I recently ran a mile during one of the challenges. It was hard and slow but it was something I didn’t think I could do. After that, I actually noticed myself having fun—legit fun—while running.

So what changed? I used mindfulness. This wasn’t my strategy going in or anything. But one of the first days that I tried running I used it in a small way to stave off the phobias that seemed to be chasing me on the treadmill. I noticed myself starting to get winded and saw my screen bright red. As my heart rate climbed, I felt my arms clench up and my posture slump. Before I panicked, I made an effort to correct my posture so I could breathe as deeply as possible. Then I relaxed my arms and focused on my breathing. Though it was ugly, I made it through to the active recovery and my confidence surged.

After clearing this initial hurdle, I have more recently caught myself having fun. In my meditation practice I have been focusing a bit more lately on enjoyment after I read Dan Harris’ thoughts on the subject in Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. He explained that the emphasis on the health and psychological benefits of meditation can have the unintended consequence of making some feel that meditation is just another chore to complete. This mindset, however, overlooks the fact that the calm and sensations of meditation are quite enjoyable. For someone who has a lot of “shoulds” on my daily schedule, it was freeing to treat my daily meditation practice as something I liked doing rather than something I ought to do. With meditation, though, I always relished the quiet even in the earliest and most fraught part of my practice. So, could emphasizing enjoyment actually work for something I had until recently detested?

It turns out it can. Since I now know I can run (for a little bit at least) on a treadmill, I try to pay attention to the pleasant parts. When I got past the heaving of my chest, sweat, and fatigue in my legs, I saw the pleasant parts, in fact, existed. I noticed times when the music and my body rhythms synced up and it felt like dancing more than work. Occasionally, I notice goosebumps prickle on my arms and cascade all the way to the crown of my head. I experienced delight and surprise during the moments I wasn’t as tired as I expected to be or could bump the speed up higher than I could a few days before. I would look around and see classmates in a groove so intense they look like a bass player in a rock band and break unconsciously into a smile.

So what’s my point with all of this? Am I trying to convince you to go run? No, as I said before, up until recently I hated it. I would not wish that misery on anyone. What I am suggesting, however, is that what you think of as “misery” can change and it can do so radically. There’s power in letting things change. There’s power in letting go of what our mind tells us and, instead, listening to our bodies. I’m probably not going to run a marathon anytime soon or, frankly, ever. But I found a new way to have fun that happens to be good for me. Since I have responsibilities and limited time to take care of myself, this feels like a miracle. And that’s the last way that mindfulness has helped me change my mind about running: it allowed me notice this small miracle and celebrate it.

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