Why the "Why" Matters in Exercise & Creativity
Meaningful motivation can stoke creatives to sweat.
Posted Jun 27, 2011
You'd rather spend your time working on ideas or projects than be at a gym.
But you also know you need it. That fleshy mobile home you're hauling needs some attention. The foundation's a little shaky. The plumbing might be off. And the walls are feeling a little flabby.
Let's face it: "Good health" is not motivation enough for some of us to change behavior. Neither is slimming down. Those are fine motives, but alone they might make exercise feel like a medical activity more than a meaningful one.
And the "achievement" goals also might not do it for some of us. Just "pushing ourselves" another quarter mile or another five pushups each week might last for a few weeks, but after a while, where is the joy and where is the meaning?
We know that meaning and purpose more than achievement or approval motivates happier people in the long run (pardon the inevitable pun). So it's precisely in the "why" that trips us up and might not make an otherwise well intended exercise regime endure.
So try this. Check in with what matters most to you. I mean really matters. And ask yourself how exercise and its effects fit in.
I'll give you a personal example.
Thirteen years ago, my mind was unrecognizable to me. It swirled with anxiety and wouldn't really let me concentrate on the pieces of literature I was to teach at the time. What I wanted more than anything was a calm mind. A calm mind, I sensed, would help me write more and teach more deeply and, who knows, might help my humanity. And I sensed, however vaguely, that a calm mind had something to do with understanding the rest of my body below my chin.
So I made it to a yoga class. The next morning, I felt so indescribably good that I went back the next week. And the next. Soon, I was going twice, thrice a week. For the first time as an adult, I felt at home in my body.
But for me, more meaningful shifts occurred that, coupled with the good feelings, kept me returning: My concentration returned. My imagination awoke. And my emotions surfaced (scary stuff for a head-heavy guy).
As I deepened my yoga journey and eventual trainings, I experimented with ways to weave yoga moves with my writing process and writing life. And suddenly I had a meaningful, enjoyable, creative way to take care of my body and my mind - really part and parcel of the same stuff.
So, try asking yourself these questions:
• How is concentration important to what matters most to me?
• How is flexible, inventive thinking and imagination important to what matters most to me?
• How is witnessing my thoughts and emotions as they surface important to what matters most to me?
• How is vitality important to what matters most to me?
• How is an optimal outlook important to what matters most to me?
Because here's the deal: I can't vouch for all forms of exercise, but many of them contribute to all of the above. And a steady, mindful practice of some forms of yoga certainly does. And for the record, yoga is a series of tools and techniques that together make up something far more meaningful and profoundly effective than a method of exercise.
The research is impressive. Thirty years' worth of research related to how meditation and yoga contribute concentration and focus (recent study, , classic study). And in the past ten years, research has shown how specific yoga tools and some forms of exercise contribute to increased accounts of happiness and optimism and flexible thinking and emotional intelligence. Since 1999, the work of Fred Gage and other neuroscientists has demonstrated exercise's correlation with neurogenesis and neuroplasticity - so while you might be shedding pounds you're gaining brain cells. Not a bad trade-off. And my own experiments keep validating the links over and over again.
It's no coincidence that prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates kept up her writing habit in her earlier years while maintaining the running one. Or that Tom Robbins' words fly off the page while keeping up a yoga practice.
And here are an essential pair of questions to motivate creatives to care for their bodies:
• What is calling me to act well in the world this year?
• What quality of body do I need to fulfill that calling?
Putting the answers into a context of your life purpose might give you a far more poignant and potentially mobilizing force than "Drop ten pounds" or "Keep my buns firm."
Remember this bit, too: Inspired action. Surrendered outcome. Give it all you have. Enjoy the moment framed in a meaningful context. And stop measuring success by the scales.
What do you think? What meaningful motivation inspires you to engage your body?
See you in the woods,
Jeffrey Davis is author of The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing. He teaches at Western Connecticut State University's MFA in Professional & Creative Writing and consults with scholars, writers, and other creatives around the world.
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Author of The Journey from the Center to the Page (Penguin 2004; Monkfish Pub., revised & updated ed. 2008)