Incorporating Mindfulness Into Your Personal Training Sessions

Help clients conquer stress and improve performance by being in the moment.

By Tanya Colucci, MS
Sep 21, 2011

Teaching clients to calm their minds during movement is essential to helping them fight stress and achieve their wellness goals.

We must not underestimate how much our clients suffer from stress. Sure, it distracts them during training sessions, but it also infects every facet of their daily lives. Fortunately, time-tested yoga techniques for developing mindfulness and flow can help clients focus on their fitness goals and cope with stress outside the gym.

Stress and the Body, Mind and Spirit

Before we talk technique, let’s focus on basic ways that stress affects people every day. Going from client to client during my work as a trainer, I can’t help noticing what a “typical” workday is like for most people. I ask, “How are you feeling today Sally? How was your day at work? How did you sleep, eat—and how was your weekend? How does your body feel?”

Sally responds: “I am so overwhelmed at work. My boss is driving me crazy, I have all these projects due, the kids were late getting out of the house this morning so I didn’t have time to eat breakfast, and I was exhausted so I had a grande coffee and a scone from Starbucks® on my way to work. Then I rushed through meetings all day, grabbed a quick sandwich for lunch, and here I am! I feel tired but wired from my day, and I need a tough workout today.”

Clients face serious life challenges that interrupt their natural rhythms, sleep patterns and hormonal functions. These challenges distract them from the poisonous effects of stress, which disconnects the spirit (or inner self) from the body—from awareness of how it is moving, feeling and functioning.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA) (2010), stress has long-term effects on the immune system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, skin and muscular system. Constant stress can make clients more likely to get sick more often. Stress is linked to high blood pressure, abnormal heartbeat and atherosclerosis. Constant tension in the body from stress can lead to neck, shoulder and low-back pain, and research shows that it may make rheumatoid arthritis worse. Stress is also linked to low fertility, erection problems, pregnancy issues and painful menstrual periods (APA 2010).

The APA recommends managing stress with physical activity, relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga and tai chi.

Mindfulness and Going With the Flow

What evidence of stress do you see in your own clients? Once you have identified how stress is affecting those you train, you can teach them ways of getting into the flow of life.

Flow is a unified consciousness connecting spirit, body and mind—an unbroken stream of thoughts, fluid movements and embodied realizations, with a feeling of never-ending connection to self, others and the world around us. You can help clients achieve flow during each personal training session by establishing a clear “intention” for what you plan to accomplish. Clarifying that intention—whether it be to complete each exercise without complaining, to try a new exercise with joy and excitement, or to push a little harder for today’s workout—will help focus a client’s energy during your time together.

Establishing flow fosters mindfulness, a mental state that brings complete attention to what’s happening now. As psychologists define it, mindfulness means acknowledging each thought, feeling or sensation as it arises and accepting it as it is (Bishop et al. 2004).

Developing a mindful workout requires laser-focused attention on every detail of each exercise, noting how the body feels during exercises and syncing thoughts and breath with movement. Mindful sessions can have a significantly better outcome than sessions where distractions—nonstop talking, questions or gazing around the gym—disconnect clients from their bodies and the reality of what is happening to them in the moment.

4 Steps to Fight Stress, Enhance Flow

1. Slow movement down and focus on syncing the breath with the movements. Ease clients mindfully into the flow.

2. Incorporate pranayama breathing techniques like nadi shodhana.

3. Incorporate yoga postures, sequenced together, with a focus on breathing during movement.

4. End the session with progressive body relaxation, guided meditation or silent meditation.

See the sidebars for examples of how to incorporate these activities into your clients’ training sessions.

Helping your clients become more mindful does much more than make them feel better about their workouts while they’re doing them; it also improves body, mind and spirit at a deeper level, bringing clients consciously closer to their goals.

Meditation Exercises

Clients struggle to silence their minds, and many may think they have to sit for extended periods to enjoy the benefits of meditation. Actually, they can reap mental, physical and spiritual benefits by meditating for 2-minute intervals throughout the day. After practicing this way, clients will find it easier to silence their minds and sit for longer periods.

Start by sitting in a comfortable, cross-legged position in front of your client and together try one of the following methods:

1. Close the eyes, doing diaphragmatic breathing and focusing on the center of the black field of vision while the eyes are closed. Feel the breath moving in and out of the nose. As you breathe in, focus on the coolness of the in-breath and the warmth of the out-breath. As the mind starts to wander, tell it to file thoughts away in the “important file for later” folder to be accessed after the 2- to 3-minute meditation.

2. Occupy the mind with a mantra while meditating. You can repeat something as simple as “love, peace and harmony.”

Source: Hébert 2011.

Sample Workout: Stabilization and Endurance Focus, Incorporating Mindfulness

Warm-Up

Bring awareness to breath with diaphragmatic breathing while using a foam roller for self myofascial release. Work on the adductors, calves, iliotibial band, hip flexors and lats, holding still on tender spots for 30–90 seconds.

Stretching/Yoga Poses

Complete the following poses in a circuit, holding each pose for at least 30–60 seconds, focusing on the breath.

  • wide-legged forward bend (prasarita padottanasana)
  • downward-facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)
  • triangle pose (trikonasana)

Core and Balance

During these poses, focus on syncing breath with movement.

  • plank (adho mukha svanasana) to downward-facing dog: hold each pose for 3–4 breaths, 12 reps
  • bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana): hold for 20–30 seconds
  • upward-facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)
  • tree pose (vrksasana): balance

Workout

For all resistance exercises (S), add stabilization and endurance variables. Do 2–3 sets of 8–15 repetitions for each exercise; use slow tempos, 4/2/1–2/2/2, with minimal rest between exercises unless a client needs more.

  • S: dumbbell chest press off stability ball with hip bridge (add variables for stabilization endurance response)
  • plank to downward-facing dog: hold each pose for 1–2 breaths, 12 reps
  • S: squat to rows
  • yoga circuit: chair pose (utkatasana), tree pose, warrior 2 (virabhadrasana 2), triangle pose, plank, four-limbed staff pose (chaturanga dandasana), upward-facing dog: hold each pose for 3–4 breaths (2 rounds)
  • S: single-leg balance with overhead dumbbell press
  • yoga circuit (as above)
  • S: single-leg balance with biceps curl to single-leg deadlift, triangle pose, half-moon pose, plank
  • S: BOSU® Balance Trainer dumbbell triceps extension

Cool-Down

  • wide-legged forward bend: hold for 1–2 minutes to reduce heart rate and settle the body down
  • 3- to 4-minute meditation; progressive body relaxation; or pranayama breathing
Pranayama Breathing Technique: Nadi Shodhana

Nadi Shodhana is a form of alternate-nostril breathing that deliberately changes the flow of air from one side to the other, regularly and rhythmically, by pressing the side of one nostril and then the other. Nadi means channel, and refers to an energy pathway through which prana flows; shodhana means cleansing. Hence, nadi shodhana means “cleansing channel.”

Normally, each nostril takes its turn being dominant in the breathing pattern, with the switch occurring periodically throughout the day. The tissue swells in one nostril while becoming less swollen in the other. This documented and predictable rhythmic pattern can be interrupted by emotional disturbances, irregular meal and sleep schedules, and irritation of the nose from pollution and infection.

Throughout the day you will notice one nostril is easier to breathe through. Breathing through the right nostril can make you feel more active, alert and oriented toward the external world, while breathing through the left nostril can produce a more passive psychological state, oriented toward the inner world.

Nadi shodhana breathing (described below) is said to improve memory, calm the mind and regulate mood. For people who are hyperactive, tired or even exhausted, it can increase energy levels.

Yogic thought traditionally advises doing this practice before every meal and prior to meditation. Diaphragmatic breathing should be mastered first and then practiced during nadi shodhana to ensure that all airflow is smooth and consistent.

Nadi Shodhana Technique

There are several variations on this technique. Rama and Hymes (1979) teach it this way:

1. Sit in a calm, quiet place, adopting an easy, steady posture with head, neck and trunk erect and in a straight line. Keep the body still.

2. Bring the right hand up to the nose; the index and middle fingers should be folded so the right thumb can close the right nostril, and the ring finger can close the left nostril (Vishnu mudra).

3. With the right nostril closed, exhale completely through the left nostril (slowly and with control).

4. After exhaling, close the left nostril with the ring finger, open the right nostril, and inhale slowly and completely.

5. Repeat the cycle twice more—exhaling through the left nostril and inhaling through the right.

6. After the third inhalation through the right nostril, exhale completely through the same nostril, keeping the left nostril closed with the ring finger.

7. After this exhalation, close the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril. Repeat the cycle twice more—exhaling through the right nostril and inhaling through the left.

Complete a total of three cycles of exhaling through the left nostril and inhaling through the right, followed by three cycles of exhaling through the right nostril and inhaling through the left.

Note: One variation on this technique is to inhale through the left nostril, exhale through the right, inhale through the right, exhale through the left, and continue in this pattern, closing one nostril at a time as described above.

Progressive Body Relaxation

One option for incorporating mindfulness into a client’s personal training sessions is to end with a progressive body relaxation:

1. Put the client in a relaxation posture with legs up the wall, lying on the back, or with spine resting on the floor and a bolster under the knees.

2. Turn on relaxing music in the background (or relocate to a quiet place in the gym—unused group exercise studios are a great place for this portion of the session).

3. Gently lead the client through a body relaxation, focusing attention on relaxing one specific area of the body at a time. Here’s how you might guide a client through a sequence (giving each body part time to relax):

  • Relax the body on the floor, feeling the heaviness of the physical body and the lightness inside the body.
  • Relax the eyes back into the head; relax the forehead, eyebrows, jaw, lips, tongue, cheeks, ears, scalp, front neck, chest, right shoulder, right upper arm, right elbow, right forearm, right wrist, right thumb, right index finger, right ring finger, right pinky (repeat for left side).
  • Relax the stomach and back; take soft, easy breaths through the ribs and chest; relax the right hip, right upper thigh, right knee, right shin, right calf, right big toe, right toes, right top of foot, right bottom of foot (repeat for left side).
  • Notice the space and feel of the body against the floor, and the feel of the floor against the body, and notice the space between body and floor.
  • Bring awareness back into the body, slowly open the eyes, wiggle the toes and fingers, and end the session by slowly sitting up.

Source: Adapted from Satyananda 1998.


References

APA (American Psychological Association). 2010. Stress in America. www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/national-report.pdf; retrieved July 12, 2011.
Bishop, S.R., et al. 2004. Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science & Practice, 11 (3), 230–41.
Hébert, M. 2011. The Tenth Door: An Adventure Through the Jungles of Enlightenment. Austin, TX: Emerald Book Company.
Rama, R.B., & Hymes, A. 1979. Science of Breath: A Practical Guide. Honesdale, PA: Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy.
Satyananda, S. 1998. Yoga Nidra. Munger, India: Yoga Publications Trust.

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Tanya Colucci, MS

Tanya Colucci, MS, is a personal trainer and holistic lifestyle coach for Synergy Training Solutions at TAVO Total Health in the Washington, DC, area. She teaches nationally and is a master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Learn more at www.synergytrainingsolutions.com.

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