Next to my desk, there’s a small hanging ceramic plaque that says, "Learn to be calm and you will always be happy."
I thought it’d be a nice reminder to manage stress better. It has become, however, a guiding principle in just about everything I do, including fitness, wellness, and athletic pursuits.
In those areas especially, finding calm has a multitude of benefits.
Ways to Find Calm
It’s one thing to read a saying or even have the intention of being more at peace. To actually do it, especially when life heats up, takes practice. Sometimes a lifetime of practice. Meditation, breathing exercises, and pursuits like yoga or Pilates can help.
So can directing your mind to calming thoughts.
Tara Brach, founder of the Insight Meditation Community, tells a story of the great thinker and teacher Krishnamurti, who asked his students if they’d like to know his secret. He tells them simply: “I don’t mind what happens.” Or, as Brach interprets it, this is a “letting go of the belief that something is wrong.”
When it comes to our athletics, we’re often focused on what’s wrong; we often do mind what happens. While it’s certainly natural to care or have goals around health and fitness, releasing some resistance to what is and relaxing a clenched grasp on what we think the future must be can be incredibly calming.
This calmness liberates you to focus on the present and be open to possibilities you may not have considered. When we’re not so gripped by controlling or judging thoughts, it’s also so much easier to simply enjoy yourself.
Calm Melts Fear and Stress
So let’s start there, with finding joy in your movement and workouts. If you’re not quite ready for unabashed joy, let’s at least step away from fear and stress. Fear and stress that your workout might be hard, you might not do it right, you might not look like your “perfect” neighbor–whatever insecurities or stress you may have around moving your body: Let. It. Go. By focusing instead on calm.
This isn’t always easy to do, but the rewards are so worth at least making an attempt. For a moment, just image that everything is fine just how it is: your body looks just how it should today, your ability is A-OK where it is right now, your speed or strength or whatever it is you’re working on is good, even great, right this moment.
Start from there and notice a greater ease in your thoughts and movement.
Calm Bodies Move More Efficiently
This can be a profound realization to feel. It’s something that makes total sense: when you’re stressed and tense, it’s tough to be fluid in your movement. When you’re not fluid in your movement, you’re essentially fighting against yourself.
But, when you’re doing something challenging or something you’re not completely confident about, it’s tough to not be stressed and tense. It’s tough not to be effortful, not to try your hardest.
When you can relax into those moments, however, it’s truly shocking how much more efficient you can be, how much less difficult the effort feels, and how much better or faster you can perform. When you actually start to feel how less trying leads to better doing, it's a wonderful skill you can continue to hone.
This is akin to being in “the zone” or in a “flow state.” While that state of being tends to happen in the moment, you can practice getting there by being mindful of the effort you’re exerting.
What muscles are you using to execute your activity? If you’re tensing your jaw, for instance, that’s likely not needed. Or maybe you're hunching your shoulders or tensing your neck, but the action is in your lower body. How can you make this activity as easy as possible, even if it’s "hard"?
Calm Is Better Breathing
When you’re stressed or reacting against what is, you constrict. Even if it’s just in your thoughts or emotions, you’ll notice a tightening up. Try it.
Think of something that causes you anxiety or worry and notice how it impacts you. Can you feel your face, your scalp, your shoulders get tight? Now think about something that brings you joy, and feel that tension start to melt.
This often happens if you're stressed or especially if you're in the midst of testing the limits of your physical abilities: be it an interval, your final reps, the uphill section of your hike. And a go to place where that constricting happens is in your chest, inhibiting your ability to breath free and easy.
When your breathing is constricted, it impacts your entire system, limiting your performance. In finding calm, you help settle your nervous system and return to full, complete breathing.
An Evolving Pursuit
It might be a bit of a reach to say you'll find eternal happiness by calming yourself down. But there's no doubt that finding calm can positively impact aspects of life. Your health and wellness journey is among them.
Start with a deep breath, an accepting thought, and let the pursuit of calm evolve from there.