Zen and the Art of Exercise (part 1)

Howdy readers! This is the first in a series of six articles titled Zen and the Art of Exercise. In each part I’ll be looking at a different koan – an anecdote or riddle used in Zen Buddhism to provoke thoughtfulness and enlightenment by circumventing typical logical thought – and then talking about how I feel it applies to exercise, fitness, health, training, etc. If you have no interest in philosophy at all, then this isn’t the series for you. But if you like thinking in the abstract and challenging your mind to understand new ideas, then this might be a fun read for you.

Zen and the Art of Exercise

Part 1: Emptying your cup

The Koan

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The Lesson

There are a lot of thoughts running around your head on any given day, at any given moment.

Did I wear the right clothes? Does my hair look okay?

Why do I have to go to work? Why don’t I get paid more?

Are my kids doing well in school? Am I doing well in school?

Am I a good person? Am I a healthy person

Swirling around, over and over again, bumping into one another so that your thoughts are more a maelstrom of ideas than a stream of consciousness. This seems to be the normal human condition for a great many of us. Our cups are overfull with the thoughts and opinions we spend years building up, so that as we age we become less able to add new ones, let alone consider the ones we see from other people

Exercise is a way to empty your cup, at least for a little while, and make room for more “tea”


The things that let you calm your mind and pick through the constant swell of thoughts – often worried and harried thoughts, at that – are the same skills you use to push through a challenging workout session


Generally, our breathing follows our thoughts. When you’re feeling anxious or aroused mentally, your body speeds up the usage of oxygen, causing your breathing to become shallow and fast. When your body relaxes, your breathing becomes slow and even. I’m sure you’ve experienced this many times in your life just like I have. You can actively calm your mind by using this same principle in reverse: control your breathing first and let the mind follow.

When you workout, breathing is incredibly important. The more even you keep it, the better you’ll perform since your body is getting the oxygen it needs to function at a high capacity. In science, we measure the VO2 Max for an athlete to determine how much – and how well – they’re using the air they breathe in. The better an athlete is at controlling their breath during exertion, the higher their performance tends to be.

When we want to calm the mind, we measure how fast and deep the breaths feel as they’re taken in. The more controlled they are, the more calm you become. Here are some ways to control your breathing that can be used both in the gym and when you want to calm the mind.

Equal Breathing

The simplest technique is to inhale at the same rate as you exhale with deliberate control. A good place to start is by breathing in for three (3) seconds, holding the breath for a fraction of a second, and then slowly breathing out the same volume of air for another three (3) seconds. You should inhale and exhale through the nose to create a bit of physical resistance to the action, so that you can better control it.

Try to practice this for five (5) minutes in the morning to center your mind after waking up and again at night before bed to help calm you from the day. You can set a timer and then focus on nothing but breathing for that time. Don’t worry about it being perfect; if you lose track just reset and start a new breathing cycle. Once your time is up, move on with your day. As you get better, you can increase this to 10 or 15 minutes of practice.

It may take a few weeks of daily practice to start becoming good at this, but once three seconds feels natural, increase the inhale/exhale time to four (4) seconds. Let your body become accustomed to this over another few weeks, and then try for five (5) seconds. Your goal is to be able to control your breathing in eight (8) second intervals.

The best yogis I’ve met can maintain steady controlled breathing for 50-60 minutes at a time at an eight (8) second interval inhale/exhale.

Abdominal Breathing

This is a good one when you’re about to face a stressful situation and need to calm the nerves/mind so you don’t freak out and do something silly. When your heart rate and blood pressure start to increase from stress, it’s time for this technique.

Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Breathe in so that the hand on your stomach rises but the hand on your chest doesn’t. This means you’re breathing “downward” into your diaphragm instead of into your upper lungs. Breathe deep until you feel a stretching sensation and then exhale. Your goal is to get 6-10 deeps breaths like this every minute for about 10 minutes.

This is a similar exercise to Equal Breathing, but the focus is on the depth of the breaths more than the timing.

Alternating Nostril Breathing

This is an interesting one. At the basic level you’ll follow the same pattern as with Equal Breathing: inhale for 3-5 seconds and then exhale for 3-5 seconds. The difference comes in how you actually do it.

Start in a comfortable position (standing, lotus, or  sitting straight) and place your right hand at your nose. The thumb should sit lightly on top of the right nostril and your ring/middle finger should sit lightly on top of your left nostril. Think about how you would hold your nose if something smelled really bad, but don’t actually press down to the close them off. That’s how you start.

Now, press down to close off your right nostril, and inhale through only the left for 3-5 seconds. At the “top” of the breath, hold in the air, release your right nostril and press down to close your left nostril. Now breathe out for 3-5 seconds. Your breath will have come in the left and then exited through the right. Continue this pattern for about 5 minutes.

The really interesting part about this exercise is that it seems to work the opposite of Equal Breathing, helping promote a feeling of being more energetic or ready to go. This is a good one to do right before strength work or a tough conditioning workout begins.

Finding Your Happy Place

Where breathing is a way to calm the mind using the body, what I call “Finding Your Happy Place” is using the mind to calm itself. Admittedly, this is a harder prospect to work with.

When you calm the mind using techniques of the body, it’s like using breakers to stop ocean waves from crashing so violently against the shoreline.

Using the mind to calm itself is like asking the water droplets in that same ocean to settle down and make fewer waves in general.

Difficult, but far from impossible. My recommendation is to try these exercises once you have a handle on the breathing techniques we talked about before.

Anxiety Control

Life makes us anxious. It’s true, sometimes it sucks, and it’s okay that it happens. Sometimes, a little mild anxiety can lead to excitement about new prospects or new challenges. This is “good” anxiety. Other times, it can leave you paralyzed with fear or worry for what’s coming, which is “bad” anxiety. Since the good anxiety tends to resolve itself into positive emotions, we’re going to leave that to help itself. When you need to deal with the bad stuff, try using this exercise.

Ask yourself three questions:

  1. What is causing my anxiety? This can be external or internal, but the key is to find the root cause of the anxiety. Be specific. Is it a new situation, a challenge you’re not sure you can meet, or a person you’re not comfortable with? Whatever the cause, pin it down now.
  1. Why does it make me anxious? Now that we know the “what”, figure out the “why”. Think less about how you’re feeling and try to discover why you feel that way. Are you afraid of looking dumb if you fail? Are you worried about disappointing someone? Your why will combine with your what to paint a picture for the next question.
  1. What do I need to overcome this feeling? You know the details, now think on the solution. If you’re working against fear of failure, remember that you’ve failed before and your life went on, the world kept spinning, you were fine. If it’s a person you’re close to, remind yourself that they care about you “win, lose, or draw”. Find the silver lining in your anxiety that answers the “worst case scenario” in a positive way, then focus on that feeling instead.

These steps are not easy, especially the last, but they help you root out your anxieties and answer them with positivity.

Angry Sea, Calm Sea

Things are going to change. That’s how life works. For many people, change is hard to deal with. We’re creatures of habit almost by default, and a predictable existence is one we tend to crave since it provides safety and reduces stress. But, change is going to happen and we all need to learn to deal with it. When you start to get a little overwhelmed by that change, try this:

  1. Sit or stand comfortably. Close your eyes. Start the “Equal Breathing” exercise from earlier.
  2. Imagine yourself on a beach overlooking the ocean. Just you. No one else. If you have the need for personal details, imagine yourself in all white pants/shirt or a dress, as your tastes may take you. This is a simple image that doesn’t use a lot of “mental real estate”.
  3. In the day dream, imagine that you are safe and secure, watching the waves come in and out.
  4. Notice that the surface of the ocean is sometimes choppy, sometimes calm, sometimes moving faster than other parts. This is your life, ruled by alternating times of change and turbulence. Remind yourself that, much like the swaying of the ocean, this is natural.
  5. Let your vision fall below the surface to the calm underwater world. Things are serene and tranquil. While the surface of your life may be hectic, the underlying truth is that your existence is natural, ordered, and enduring.
  6. Remind yourself to be mindful of the journey you take on the surface, and of the calmness which you have underlying everything, no matter where you are.

This visualization exercise is one of many possibilities to help remind you that even though things are complicated at times, in the end they tend to work out okay. Use this as a reminder that when you meet challenges head on with personal peace on your side, your chances of victory are very high.

The Takeaway

In order to add more to your cup, on occasion you have to empty it. Calming the mind and the body are ways you can let the excess flow out of you before trying to add more. In life, this lets you learn and grow as a person. In your health, this lets you forget the challenges where you fell short, and build on the victories that you’ve accumulated. Let yourself be happy with what you’ve accomplished, and let go of your failures. When your cup is again empty, add more challenges. Today, your only goal is to surpass yesterday. Worry about tomorrow when it becomes today, and keep your tea fresh.