Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Guided mental conditioning

As I've gotten bored in my ten-year relationship with running, I have been exploring various group workout options. Participating in instructor-led workouts has been surprisingly good for improving my mental strength.

My latest activity is an indoor cycling class I do 1-2 times a week at the Pro Club, the swank gym where Microsoft gives us a virtually free membership. For those of you unfamiliar with these classes, they have an enthusiastic instructor on a bike telling us to work harder so we can give it our all when we're chasing Lance Armstrong up the last hill in the Tour de France. It's somewhat goofy of me to do indoor cycling when I haven't used my bike for over a year, but I love the intensity of the workouts. Each class the instructor leads a different workout: there have been various hill workouts and interval ones. The instructors have been surprisingly good at getting me to push myself: they tell us how our body should be reacting to each resistance/cadence (breathing should be heavy, heart rate should go up in the first 10 seconds, etc.), they don't tell us in advance how many intervals are left, and at the end of the intense parts they emphasize how little time is left ("Twenty more seconds! Give it all you've got!"). It's kind of like having a coxswain--in fact, these workouts are quite similar to the machine workouts I used to do on the crew team*. Some of the workouts have been, as one instructor calls it, "quite a head trip" because they require so much focus on exerting power while maintaining form. I leave many workouts barely able to walk--it has been a while since I have been able to push myself to run this intensely.

This summer I have also continued doing heated power yoga 3-4 times a week. I have been doing baptiste yoga at Be Luminous, an amazing (and amazingly Lululemon-land**) studio by the Westlake Whole Foods. Not only do the instructors lead physically intense yet fun workouts, but they also pay attention to precision of alignment and the mental aspects (focus on breath, being present) in a way that leaves me feeling incredible afterward. The instructors coax us to push our limits by describing the physical beauty of the poses and the intensity we should feel. Yoga tests my focus in a very real way: if I lose my concentration, I will likely fall out of a pose. I leave the studio feeling mentally and physically cleansed.

Both cycling and yoga force me to be in the moment and focus on the physical: the combination (along with some moderate running) has kept me (arguably) sane after long days of reading bytecode***. I encourage skeptics to try out such "group fitness" activities--other people can get you out of your head much better than you can.

* I used to row crew, where the coxswain is the person who tells the rowers how quickly and how hard to stroke.
** My fellow yogis are rather well-dressed in high-end yoga gear as a result of what I call the "yoga arms race." Each age group of people sees people 10 years older (and 10 years wealthier) looking better than they do, so they spend more on flattering spandex.
*** Coconut juice has also been a key factor.

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