Holistic Exercise Article

The following article on Holistics was edited and taken up by YMCA Fit Graduate magazine. Here’s the article as it appeared. Or in full for a general audience with extra juicy bits:

What is Holistic Exercise?

I came to work in gyms through an unusual route, having taught outdoor education, obtained a psychology degree, studied the martial arts worldwide and even lived with a circus in Ethiopia before my first studio class. Through these experiences I’ve developed an understanding of exercise that is quite different to conventional practice. I was taught in school that the body is basically a machine that we ride about in, that needs regular exercising to work properly. I’ve since added an appreciation of how body and mind are intimately linked, and how our bodies affect and express who we are as living feeling conscious people. I’d like to share this with other people interested in fitness so that they can benefit.

The studio class I developed as a result of my training is called Holistics. I describe it as exercise for the whole person as it’s a balanced workout that takes a broad view of fitness and the body. For some the word holistic conjures up images of dread-locked, tie-died crystal healers at Glastonbury, for me it just means taking everything into account – being aware of all the aspects of a person and how they’re united.

We often hear the phrase “mind, body and spirit” as a definition of a holistic approach, so how would this apply to exercise? Well, in a way all exercise is holistic – many people go to the gym to relax psychologically and emotionally as well as to workout physically and these things happen together. People may like the sense of confidence and empowerment they feel from a Bodycombat class or work out aggression lifting weights. I begin and end my classes by asking what mood clients are in – as emotions live in the body there is always a change over the class. Mind and body relax together either through exhaustion (muscularly or aerobically) or consciously and systematically (as in many yoga classes). Other mental aspects I work with are awareness and imagery. Again these aspects are not “just” mental in that awareness of the body affects how one uses the body and visualisations will create measurable outcomes. Next time you stretch imagine the relevant muscles are made of sticky, gooey, melting chocolate and see what happens. Alternatively notice what happens physically when remembering a stressful life situation, or conversely how few negative thoughts you have when physically relaxed. Thus the link works both ways with our bodies influencing our minds and vice versa. They are so linked that a single concept – bodymind is a more accurate description than the divide entrenched in English and often blamed on Descartes.

The emphasis in my classes is on exercising consciously, with clients feeling and exercising with their bodies rather than doing something to their bodies. When attention is paid to the body it becomes a source of pleasure and wisdom, rather than a piece of meat to be battered into submission. This approach is also safer as the body’s warning signs are noted. Awareness can be considered the bridge between mind and spirit and many forms of meditation consist simply of bringing awareness to the body (particularly the movement of breath). If the mind and body were split in Western culture for many years, then body and spirit were even more so, with the body being considered sinful and subsequently repressed and punished. Exercise that continues in this Medieval/ Victorian tradition of denying and stifling the joy and spirituality of the body is not holistic. To me the body is a spiritual domain and while I appreciate this is a personal matter and definitions can be problematic, I’ve met many regular people who’ve had what psychologists call peak experiences and found deep satisfaction in exercise at some time or another. This, along with the many wisdom traditions from around the world that celebrate the body and movement, leads me to say that exercise does indeed have a spiritual dimension, and it’s only how conscious of it we are that’s up for debate.

Holistic Fitness

People often exercise because they want to improve how they look and feel. I take an “inside-out” approach to both aesthetic and emotional development, building confidence, grace and poise, and working directly with mood and the experience of being a bodymind. This is a deeper level of working then trying to make clients bodies match whatever fashion the media are currently pushing, and in my view more ethical sound as such artificial images are not always healthy. Chronically contracted abdominal muscles for example, embody a tight, fearful and aggressive emotional state that I wouldn’t like to encourage with my clients.

I would define holistic fitness in terms of being healthy in various ways, the variety of things a person can do and their subjective feelings. For example, someone who can lift 500kg, but is at risk of a heart attack, cannot dance and who feels terrible is not holistically fit. Many readers will be familiar with the various aspects of physical fitness and I’m thankful that a broad view of fitness is now no longer “alternative”. Note also that to find balance classes traditionally considered “holistic” such as yoga and Pilates are not in and of themselves complete, though may bring flexibility, balance and alignment to balance aerobic and strength training. A single class need not tick all the boxes and while isolating components of exercise can get better results physically, I’ve found that the more aspects that are being exercised at once the deeper the personal change and overall benefits. There is a particular attractiveness that this approach brings that comes as much from a sparkle in the eye as from the physique.

Aside from the older physical categories a holistic approach might also consider such aspects as posture, grace and the ability to “centre” – keeping a calm, balanced body-mind, even under pressure. One aspect of being human that is sometimes forgotten in gyms is creativity and play, so I ask clients to invent their own movements and as long as it’s safe, do exercises in their own way. Another powerful thought is that we’re social beings. Clients interact with each other during Holistics classes making the experience more enjoyable, bringing up personal patterns to work with and creating a unique experience each time. The social aspects of gyms are crucial to many people and the power of the group to bring out a person’s best is the reason many people find studio classes much easier than exercising alone.

Embodiment and Conclusion

Who we are is embodied. Think of someone you really like, grounded, honest and open and someone you don’t like at all – perhaps untrustworthy and spineless. Our bodies not only express how we are right now (body language) but who we are as people and what we’re capable of. By this I don’t mean that all thin people are one way and all tall people another, but that the way we inhabit our bodies in terms of awareness, life and posture determines how we function. Try tensing your muscles, clenching your fists and sticking out your jaw while saying “I love you.” If you can do it at all it will feel very strange as the embodied state and the emotion don’t go together.

We can be strong, flexible, healthy people in every way and not just in the external sense. I lead embodied corporate trainings working with characteristics which might traditionally be considered well outside what is relevant to the body – trust, sincerity and integrity for example. While these things may not be aspects that people wish to work on at in a gym, they are still present whenever we work out, whatever the form of exercise.

An overview of all the aspects of exercise that can be considered would include objective, subjective and social factors – i.e. what’s happening, what people think and feel about it and the interpersonal dynamics. An appreciation of how’s these factors interact and merge together could be considered a truly holistic or integral approach to exercise. Because it encompasses more than conventional models I’m confident that those using it will get results and enjoy doing so.

Mark Walsh leads Holistics exercise classes (http://holisticexercise.co.uk/) and corporate training (http://integrationtraining.co.uk/) in the Brighton and Hove area. Those interested in the bodymind approach may also enjoy his blog: http://integrationtraining.blogspot.com/

Further reading

For theory I’d recommend Ken Wilber’s integral model, the writings of Richard Strozzi Heckler and Paul Linden give an expanded view of the body and Mirka Knaster’s book Bodyways provides an overview of the various body-mind practices available, linking alternative health to exercise.