One of the things that I missed the most, during the early months of the pandemic, was going to the gym. For many years I’ve enjoyed an ever-evolving form of weight-training that typically interweaves a bit of qigong, some yoga asana, some spontaneous dancing ~ with the actual free-weight or circuit training.
So, when suddenly all the gyms and recreation centers closed, this was a sad moment. [Miniscule, of course, in comparison to other kinds of covid-related sadness, but still …] The logical solution was to attempt an in-home facsimile of the same. But, of course, many others were having the same idea, and taking action on it. So, for a long while, acquiring dumbbells was almost as challenging as acquiring toilet paper 🙂
I did eventually assemble a collection of equipment—pairs of 8-lb and 12-lb and 15-lb hand-weights; an inflatable exercise ball; and an exercise tension-band—that allowed for a pretty nice in-home workout.
Nevertheless, it still felt great to be back in an actual weight-room, when our neighborhood recreation center opened its doors once again, a couple months ago. Access is still quite limited: reservations are required, only a small number are allowed in the room at any given time, masks are mandatory, as is a thorough wiping-down of the equipment. But, for me, it was and continues to be totally worth it!
Body & Mind
Upon my return to the room of padded floors and clanking steel, what I realized is that it was not only my body that had missed these workouts, but also ~ and perhaps primarily ~ my mind. Or, perhaps more precisely, I realized that the entire body-mind organism and its world are the field of exploration, when I weight-train.
Though I’ve acquired a fair amount of conceptual knowledge re: the anatomy and physiology of the physical body; and have explored various subtle-body mappings ~ mostly this knowledge remains in the background of experience, during the weight-training sessions.
Breath, Sensation, Imagery
Instead, I invite, first of all, an awareness of breath: how the physical breathing process feels in the body. And let that spread out into an awareness of all physical sensation: noticing how physical sensations arise, transform, repeat, dissolve, moment by moment. I appreciate the sense of relief that comes with allowing conceptual-mind to be mostly in the background.
Then, as I toggle back-and-forth between weight-training exercises and other forms of movement, I sometimes also invite an exploration of internal imagery: noticing how “placing” an image within a certain part of the body affects the patterns of sensation there. With this comes the joy of playful creativity ~ the space of the body becoming something like a painter’s canvas.
Certain types of imagery seem to facilitate particular qualities of sensation ~ and this is interesting to notice. Some of it seems genuinely archetypal, e.g. water imagery facilitating flowing sensations; fire imagery facilitating sensations of warmth. Other images feel more personal, so-to-say: shapes, colors, symbols or scenes that I’ve recently been feeling inspired by.
Some of you may be familiar with the Nei Jing Tu: a Taoist visual mapping of the human body (pictured above). Or, within the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, the imagined placement of Sanskrit letters within the human body.
Mappings such as these can be understood primarily as descriptive—i.e. as descriptions of what certain yogis in the past discovered, and are here reporting. They can also be understood as prescriptive—i.e. as suggested paths of practice, in which we also visualize these same images/letters in those places within the body.
In my own exploration of the relationship between physical sensation and mental imagery, I prefer a more organic and spontaneous approach. Though occasionally I’ll play with images suggested by others, mostly I allow them to emerge fresh in the moment. If I’m enjoying the effect of the image, perhaps I’ll come back to it again, later.
Sometimes, an image seems to change/transform “on its own”—and this is always an interesting moment, because it highlights hidden assumptions and uncertainty around who/what is actually choosing the images.
So, for example, a few weeks ago I began to play with the image of a swing (like at a playground) that was made of emerald. I imagined this emerald swing floating within my body (aka the field of physical sensation) at a specific location.
I enjoyed this emerald-swing image quite a lot, so came back to it frequently. Then, one day, as I activated this emerald-swing image, it began to transform—seemingly on its own—into an emerald waterfall. It was as though I were at the movies, just passively observing the unfolding of a scene. As I observed this, I had the thought: “Oh, that’s a really good idea, thank you!” And noticed the transformation of sensation, as the image transformed from an emerald-swing to an emerald-colored-waterfall.
So, there was the sense that while “I” had consciously chosen the emerald-swing image—something or someone else (a different “I”?) had chosen or was now suggesting the emerald-waterfall image. It was as though this new image had emerged from a deeper wisdom—that I owned as part of my Self, but at the same time was relating to as an external friend.
My feeling of having chosen the emerald-swing image was much stronger than my feeling of having chosen the emerald-waterfall image. So, are these actually two distinct types of choosing—or just an indication of ignorance, to the extent that I consider them different?
In any case, I love playing with this relationship between physical sensation and imagery. It’s fun! It’s a fun field of inquiry because it illustrates the deep interconnections between body and mind, which we may be in the habit of considering as separate, even in the face of quite convincing evidence to the contrary.
Of Related Interest: Do I Choose My Thoughts?
Imagine … holding a bright yellow lemon in your hand. Feel its weight, its smoothness. Now, imagine placing it on your kitchen counter. Pick up a knife and slice the lemon into quarters. See how the juicy lemon-flesh now glimmers in the afternoon sun. Now, pick up one quarter of the lemon, and sink your teeth into the juicy flesh—tasting the sourness of the lemon as its juice spreads out into your mouth.
And now, notice: Is your mouth watering, in this moment? If so, how is that possible, since you haven’t actually bitten into a lemon?
This is just one example of the powerful connection between mental imagery and physical sensation.
Perfect Mirror: Transparency
Returning now to the weight-room ….
Toward the end of the workout, I often place a balancing platform—a circular piece of wood affixed on top of a semi-spherical inflated rubber balloon—in front of a window looking out to the hallway of the recreation center.
The first time that I did this, the placement of the balancing platform was mostly random. I noticed a nice ridge near the window, which I could hold onto as I climbed onto the unstable platform. But this ridge—along with the actual balancing—quickly became secondary.
What drew my interest most deeply was the semi-transparent window—which I could look through into the hallway; while at the same time noticing a shadowy reflection/outline of my physical body. This reflection itself was transparent—mostly devoid of color, and easily seen through.
As my attention toggled back-and-forth between seeing the reflection and seeing through the reflection, I could feel the physical sensations of my body also, somehow, becoming more transparent, more spacious.
So, standing on the balancing platform in front of this window has become a favorite part of my weight-training sessions. It supports a refining of both visual and tactile perception—transforming the assumption of solidity into an understanding of fluidity and transparency.
To end the session, almost always I lie down with my legs up the wall for a few minutes, and then sit quietly, fully releasing all the various experiments and explorations that I’ve been playing with—just letting it all go.