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Does exercise count as meditation?

[Editor’s Note: For International Women’s Day, we wanted to feature one of our favorite women athletes, pro mountain biker Sonya Looney. Below is her story of finding calm, on and off the trails.]

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I have an unusual job title: Professional Ultra-Endurance Mountain Biker. It’s my dream job: I travel the world racing my bike to some of the most extreme and hardest events on the planet, and I photograph and tell stories about it.

Most of my races last five to seven days across regions of countries like Nepal, Haiti, Morocco, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Brazil and more. I was even crowned the World Champion in 2015. I love the whirlwind of training, planning, traveling, racing, speaking, and writing, but I’m prone to over-scheduling myself. It’s easy to be addicted to being busy, and at times, I felt overwhelmed, like life was accelerating and I could barely hang on. I desperately wanted to feel more calm and grounded—so I decided to try meditation. I had a breath-body practice, but it was centered in yoga. The fundamentals taught in yoga were helpful in my daily life. I learned to breathe through stressful or unexpected situations, but I felt like there was more to discover. I had always considered exercise my meditation, but after reading more about the actual practice, I realized I was doing just the opposite during exercise.

My mind would kick into overdrive on bike rides with each thought carrying me along an infinite spiral. Sometimes I would be so lost in thought that I was completely unaware of my surroundings for several minutes, even while flying over rocks and roots down a trail on my mountain bike. I was cynical and intimidated about sitting in silence, but it was time to make a commitment. I downloaded Headspace in the fall of 2016, and the first five days of the Take10 program were the hardest. I’d peek at my phone several times over the course of ten minutes to see how much longer I had to sit still and was frustrated with my frantic mind. Aspirations, to-do lists, and an influx of thoughts crushed down on my brain. It was important to me to find a spot in my house that made meditation easier. Eventually, I settled on sitting at my kitchen table—no distractions, not too comfortable. (Visualizations of a blue sky or a starry night helped me.)

Using some of the concepts from yoga helped me with the initial scans of my body. And in time, I started to change my relationship with my thoughts and feelings. While those thoughts and feelings were still there, I didn’t have to engage with them. If I started going down the storyline of a thought, I would simply stop the story with the word “thought” and move on. It helped me become a better listener and more focused in my daily life. I’ve started using the principles of meditation in my races and areas of my life that require more energy and awareness, too. Some would call them “stressful situations” but I don’t like to use the word “stress” because it implies negativity. Stress is a word we use to label a reaction to an event that creates tension. Stress doesn’t have to be bad; it just requires more awareness to the emotions attached to the event—an opportunity to become a better person. Stress can cause anxiety, which is often a product of fear and worries about things out of our control. When I feel an uneasy feeling creep into my body now, I simply pause my brain’s storyline and meditate for one minute. Our daily lives are full of variables; from frustrating rush hour traffic to dealing with challenging personalities, meditation helps manage how you respond to the things happening around you. It’s immensely helpful in my races and travel where there are many unknowns. That unknown is what makes life an adventure. Meditation has helped make me not only a more successful athlete, but a more calm, patient, and self-aware human being.

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Meditation is immensely helpful in my races and travel where there are many unknowns. That unknown is what makes life an adventure.

Sonya Looney

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