The Spiritual Side of ExerciseApr 26, 2022
When it comes to coping, healing, and finding better wellness, there are few things as "foolproof" and effective as physical exercise. Now depending on where a person is at in their healing and fitness journey, the type and intensity of exercise will be a little different for everyone. But some form of bodily activity - from stretching to walking to yoga to swimming to running to weightlifting - is going to be beneficial.
In previous posts I’ve talked about the practical mind benefits of exercise, such as how it helps us to reduce anxiety, solve problems, and think more creatively, but today I would like to focus on how it can be a crucial part of a strong spiritual life.
In the movie Point Break (the original, not the horrible reboot), Patrick Swayze's character Bodhi talks about the "spiritual side" of surfing, and this post focuses on the spiritual side of exercise. It isn't just about looking good or thinking more clearly in order to function better at some job. It is about getting in touch with the eternal.
I was once asked in a podcast interview how I connect with God on a regular basis, and my answer didn’t involve sitting in church. Neither did it involve daily Scripture and devotional reading, although all of these things are important.
When asked how I connect with God on a personal level and consistent basis, my answer was twofold: writing and exercise.
Those two things are activities that allow me to break through the gray presence of “literal” that can make us feel half-alive at times. Those two activities help me to get in touch with and get excited about the “me” that God created as a unique, unreplicable individual, and they are things that help to inject a supernatural vibrancy into my days.
And what is a spiritual life if it doesn’t have a supernatural vibrancy to it?
What is a spiritual life if it doesn’t allow us to transcend our pain, our anxieties, and any dull or challenging surroundings we might be struggling with? A spiritual life is about transcendence.
Exercise allows me to transcend the daily grind, especially when I’m going for a long run outdoors. During mile six or eight of a run in the fresh air, I feel so unfettered and spiritual at times that I nearly begin shivering. During these miles, I talk to God without even forming words, and I begin to see my life as perhaps He sees it—I forgive myself and love myself more. I see possibilities instead of limitations. I celebrate the little victories in my life even more fervently, and I begin to see how infinitely meaningful my “little” existence is, even amongst the 7.5 billion other people on this planet and even amongst the infinite expanses of galaxies that exist where we can barely imagine them.
As a Christian, I return again and again to the Gospel words of Jesus to find comfort and a roadmap for a productive and meaningful life. Jesus wasn’t really about formalities and religious rituals, instead he was about connecting with God on a very personal level. He was about inviting that Eternal Spirit into our hearts and minds in a way that might seem “outside the box” to the stuffed shirts that run some churches.
So exercise (again, running especially) is one “outside the box” way in which I walk and talk with God. And I believe that too many people miss the point when it comes to the purpose of exercise. Sure, it can help us to get a skinny waist and bigger biceps or help to give us that extra “motivational push” so that we can check off our weekly to-do lists without strangling somebody.
But I can tell you this: the purest purpose of exercise will never involve taking Instagram pictures in a gym. It will involve using exercise as a portal to the Divine.
My suggestion to you is this: Make exercise a nonnegotiable part of your every week, but do it in a spiritual way, too. Let it be a part of really feeling God’s presence in your life.
Here are a few quick bullet points toward that end:
1) Find some songs that really tug at your heart and soul and get lost in them during exercise. I’ve put everything from George Harrison to Stevie Wonder to Foo Fighters to Dave Matthews to Aerosmith to Steely Dan on my MP3, but a few “offbeat” selections that really, really get me emotionally moved are from artists like Yanni, Josh Groben, Nujabes, D.J. Okawari and tunes from theater works like Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera. I've recently begun listening to a few Christian contemporary tunes as well.
And here’s one current “offbeat” selection to add emotion and spiritual depth to your next workout: try playing Josh Groben’s version of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory next time you are on a nice walk or run or elliptical session—powerful.
2) Always make sure that cardio is a part of your exercise routine, even if you are into hitting the weights. For me, at least, weight lifting (although important) just doesn’t cross the blood/soul barrier like cardio does. Meet yourself where you are at with this. Start as slow as needed, and build your way up. I now run 5-8 miles at a time regularly, but years ago as I was beginning to heal from benzodiazepine withdrawal and SSRI withdrawal (after quitting Xanax and Paxil), I was mostly just going for long brisk walks. At the time, those walks were very spiritual for me, and healing. I got in touch with how God was allowing me a fresh start, how He was moving me forward. I found hope and strength.
3) Get your exercise outdoors as much as possible. Living in Wisconsin, I know that the gym is a necessity during certain months, but don’t get trapped there amongst the TVs and HIIT classes and backpack bros and girls getting prepped for Instagram action. Instead, get outdoors too and into the sunshine and fresh air. Feel yourself (you, God’s creation) getting in touch with the rest of His creation. Feel the sun putting vibrancy and optimism into your system, and feel the fresh air giving you a new lease on life!
4) Don’t obsess over time or results when exercising. Goal-setting is great and necessary to move forward with exercise, but again, don’t only obsess over how fast you run a mile, how much you bench press, or how many pounds you lose. Get in touch with the spiritual side of what you are doing, and that will keep you coming back just as surely as anything else will!
One of the best quotes I've heard about spirituality is this: It ought to be "baked into" our lives, simply a part of everything we do throughout the day and who we are.
If you can allow exercise to become a part of walking with God and finding Him in your daily life, then you are one step closer to finding that "baked in" spirituality that truly lives and breathes.
Have a good next workout,
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