We see it in Michelangelo’s David, in da Vinci’s anatomical sketches, and in Indian and Tibetan renderings of enlightened beings: the persistent concept that strength and beauty are part of the divine design of the human form. The sedentary lifestyle that’s so easy to live in the western world, circa 21st century, can make this seem like an impossible ideal, but it doesn’t have to be. The first step in reclaiming it is to appreciate your body as it is this minute, and trust its God-given ability to gain fitness, grace and elegance at any age.
A growing collection of research tells us that this doesn’t take a great leap of faith, but it probably will take some time at the gym. One US/Canadian study looked at the effects of twice-weekly strength training on healthy senior volunteers with an average age of 70. Before the weight-lifting program, the older adults were 59% weaker than the younger controls, but after only six months they’d narrowed the gap to 38%.
A temple of the spirit
We know that, at any age, the body requires cardiovascular exercise (continuous movement, such as walking or running within your “training heart rate” range), resistance exercise (weight training), and stretching to maintain flexibility. Current recommendations suggest doing cardio at least four times a week for a minimum of half an hour, full-body weight training two days a week (with rest days in between), and stretching after every exercise session. (One or two yoga classes a week will give you even more flexibility.) Fitting these into your life can be a spiritual commitment as well as a healthy discipline when you:
- Look at regular exercise as a sacred trust. The body is a gift to care for, and it was engineered to move. In his classic, Invitation to a Great Experiment (the experiment is to achieve an experiential knowledge of God), author Thomas Powers tells readers to arise an hour earlier in the morning to be sure there’s ample time for prayer, spiritual study and physical exercise.
- Explore those types of exercise that have an inner component. In addition to yoga, tai chi and sacred dance, innovative programs that invite students to go within and find the metaphysical underpinnings of physical activity are cropping up around the country. “The soul can only be present when body and spirit are one,” says Gabrielle Roth, author of Sweat Your Prayers: Movement as Spiritual Practice. Roth and her son, Jonathan Horan, founded New Vibration Wave, an exercise program in New York City where prayer and panting are part of the workout.
- Include your spiritual self in the exercise you do already. You can recite affirmations—“I’m healthy and strong,” or “Thy will be done”—while you’re on the treadmill; or you can walk or ride your bike outside with the commitment to see God’s handiwork wherever you look.
Exercise and your inner self
Most of us grew up with clear distinctions around which activities were physical and which were spiritual: you had gym class and Sunday school, and those two weren’t meeting any time soon! When yoga hit our hemisphere full-force, we met with the novel notion that physical culture and soul maintenance could take place in the same hour in the same room.
We think of the “imports,” yoga and tai chi, the slow-motion Chinese movement art that also includes inner awareness, as the foremost “spiritual exercises,” and they are excellent. Still, any movement can bring us to that in-the-moment state where the “spiritual experience” lies.
The well-known “runner’s high” is a result of this mental focus and the body’s own endorphins, the “feel-good chemicals” it produces in response to vigorous exercise. The combination of movement and music gives dancers a sense of elation that doesn’t “crash” later like a sugar rush or a caffeine buzz. And regardless of the exercise you choose, there’s always the after-it’s-over triumph, knowing that you’ve done something terrific for yourself. Call it instant karma or just deserts, it’s yours for showing up and going through the motions.
Legendary choreographer, Martha Graham, stated that whether “we learn to dance by practicing dancing, or to live by practicing living…One becomes in some area an athlete of God.” That, I must say, is a thought that can get me to the gym.
Victoria Moran is the author of Main Street Vegan. She never liked exercise until age 65 when she discovered aerial yoga.