Sustainability through Ritual: Exercise


A few years back when my stress level at work was at a peak, my doctor suggested I try some exercise to improve my blood pressure. She actually suggested Yoga. Although I have added Yoga to my practice it was not the exercise I started then. In a week, I had started practicing martial arts at a local dojo. I practiced ritually for ten years. Three days a week I left work on time to make it to the first class. Over the years that I was able (there were a couple of changes in my life that changed my ability to practice three days a week) I attended two classes each of those days and joined in on the special event classes as well. Although my doctor would have preferred a lower impact exercise, she could not deny that it had the expected effect. My stress dropped, my blood pressure came with it.

I am not the only person to find this to be a true story in their lives, but there is more to this than just that exercise is good for you. Exercise is good for you. If you aren’t exercising, you should. Maybe not martial arts. Perhaps Yoga. But, there is more to this than just that. The act of stopping my work and going to class was a mindfulness exercise. It required me to stop thinking about work. It required me to think about the exercise. This created a change in pace, a sort of reset. This is the goal of using a ritual like exercise to provide sustainability.

What my doctor knew, indirectly, was that my inability to get away from the work and leave it at work was increasing my stress. The exercise had a physical benefit, but the break was, in my opinion, more valuable. Actually, I think my doctor knew. That was why she suggested Yoga.

Yoga adds a deeper layer to this whole idea of sustainability and getting your mind off of work. You see, an added benefit of Yoga is that when done correctly it centers your mind on only what you are doing at that moment. It actively challenges you to relax and think of noting. In this meditative activity, the idea is to only think about your breathing as you move through the poses. Many exercises have this benefit organically, but you can still bring the work thoughts with you into most of them. Yoga actively teaches you to be mindful of your breath or focus only on your breath. This intentional centering or mindfulness is designed to get your mind to relax, because once your mind relaxes your body can relax.

I played golf for many years and it can be a very relaxing ritual. It can also be a miserably frustrating ritual. And that is also fine. The reason is that I am getting my mind away from work. I guess it is true that a bad day on the golf course can be better than a good day at the office.

Don’t get the wrong idea here. I’m not against the office (or the home office if that is where you’re working right now). Work is part of our life. I am talking about balance. Using an exercise ritual gives you an outlet to not do work. It gives you balance back to your life. As I said in a previous post, I knew someone who enjoyed running. They would discover a few hours in a day that were not filled with meetings and rather than fill that time with more work, they would take a break for a run. The benefit to them was that they would feel better after the run. They would be in a better mood to face whatever remained waiting for them at the office. It would put them in the right place to face that next challenge and overcome it.

On the opposite side, I have worked with people who stayed locked to their desks for the entire duration of their day even when they had slack time. They did it because they didn’t want other people to look at them as if they were not working hard. To protect an image of productivity they stayed at their desk even when they had nothing to work on. In many cases they would have been more productive if they had just taken that time to go for a run, or whatever exercise they did. Instead they stuck it out and increased their work frustration.

Whether you place your exercise in an after work time slot and make it a ritual, or you make it a ritual to do your exercise whenever their is available down time, give yourself the benefit of the break to help maintain your sustainability. Give yourself a chance to think about your breathing, or your pace, or your aim, or whatever. Be mindful of the now1 for a little while and you will bring back your individual sustainability. You will make tomorrow a great day at the office.

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Notes:
1Many of the ideas expressed here come loosely from Deepak Chopra and his book Golf for Enlightenment. No specific quotations are used, but I wanted to cite my source on this topic.

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