A Musclehead’s Take on “Mind-Body” Fitness

Don’t get me wrong — I am all for yoga, Pilates, and dancing, and I believe that facilitating a better relationship between mind and body is of significance for almost every client I encounter (and for me!) However, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the way the use of the term “mind-body” is shaping up. It seems to me that it is being used in a way that perpetuates our culture’s skewed relations with the body.

One consequence is that people are being sold on exercise programs that aren’t adequate to helping them reach their goals of weight loss, cardiovascular health, or protection against osteoporosis. Another is that people are not being educated about the mind-related benefits of traditional cardiovascular and resistance training.

Take a look at the marketing for Pilates: Women are promised that they “won’t bulk up,” that they will instead develop “long, lean” muscles.” That line of conversation is, in my opinion, a bit too accomodating of the body image burden women receive and impose upon ourselves. It is also misleading: People who are genetically predisposed to building large, full muscles will bulk up to a certain degree through Pilates, though not as much as if they did a routine specifically designed to build muscle. If doing Pilates allows such people to avoid building muscle, it’s not because their body type has changed; they have simply sacrificed the bone-building and strength that a more intense program would have provided along with the “extra” muscle.

Then there’s the association of gentler forms of exercise with contemplative activity. Is contemplative, meditative activity the only mental break people need from multitasking, politicking, and worrying? It is not. Focused play is valuable. I’m writing here of the sort of mental effort employed to strategize in a basketball game, coach the aching legs through a long run, or psych out a racquetball opponent while dodging a fast-moving ball.

Which brings me to the elephant in the living room — a certain hostility, in some quarters, towards competitive sports. What unifies practices as far from one another as tai chi and Pliates is their distance from sporting activities that are scored or measured (even if the competition is with oneself.)

The mind-body split reflects a much more pervasive divide in the culture. The “work ethic” exiles the “being” self in favor of the “doing” self. In our attempt to get it back into our days, we must be wary of the danger of exiling the “doing” self from our play.

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