Mind. Body. Soul. Three individual parts of self that make up our whole. Though we often care for this triad separately, the mindfulness and fitness worlds are ripe with opportunities for integration.
I began noticing the opportunities when The Mind-Body Project opened in NYC in Spring 2021. TMB Project integrates mindfulness into their high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and user experience with each class consisting of three parts: Breath (prepare the body for movement by utilizing breathwork), Burn (warm-up, HIIT, cooldown), and Calm (breathe, listen, absorb). Inspired by the mindfulness practices in their workout sessions, I created a similar method for myself at the gym by finding a quiet corner to sit and meditate in post-workout. Taking this moment helps me physically wind down, give thanks for the session, and mentally prep for the rest of the day. It's a five to ten-minute break in between doing things. It's an exercise for my mind and soul after giving my physical body TLC.
As some of us can attest, loving and caring for our mind and soul is an ongoing practice. Enter Coa, a new emotional fitness gym, launched last year to create a home for mental health. Their curriculum is designed to keep our mental health in tip-top shape by focusing on self-awareness, play, curiosity, empathy, resilience, communication, and mindfulness. Having gone through my own mental exercises with the guide of books, podcasts, and journaling (and continuing the practices), I recognize the power of learning to identify and strengthen our mental/emotional muscles. It's a form of prevention vs. treatment; when looked at holistically, so much of what ails us (including physically) starts with our mind.
Physical exercise works our body and makes us feel good through endorphins. Movement can also place us firmly in the moment. The activity can lead to stillness in our mind (to-do lists disappear when the focus shifts to which repetition you're on, for example), or at the very least, create room for clarity and creativity. This active stillness is where I'm diving in to explore.
While working out at the gym, I got into a rhythm on a rowing machine that faces a raised track and lower-level basketball courts. People walked by, and I could hear all of the activity from the courts. It felt busy, so I closed my eyes and mentally transported myself to a body of water. After running a few scenes in my head, I settled into a foggy morning on a lake, surrounded by tall trees and the sound of the paddles splashing in and out of the water's surface. It was a state of active zen.
My physical activity opened up room for free creative thinking. I began envisioning what a fully immersive experience could look like with augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR), like closing my eyes but as a program and service. What might it look like to pair these technologies with our physical workouts to foster mindfulness?
I'm not a gamer, so this thought felt new to me. But it's not a new concept at all. Virtual Reality Fitness saw a boon during Pandemic times thanks to Facebook's Oculus Quest, an all-in-one stand-alone VR gaming headset. The gamification of fitness offers people new ways to move, find a flow-state, and at long last, for some, enjoy working out. From what I can tell through a bit of research, the bulk of VR Fitness is high-intensity or highly gamified — think competitive points systems, high energy music, cartoonish real-world and other-world graphics.
I'm presenting mindfulness integrated into physical exercise, likely resulting in slower-paced music and visuals. Using a rowing machine as an example, imagine stepping into a studio or gym, checking out (or bringing your own) VR goggles, selecting your scene, and rowing along to a synchronized program with an instructor as your guide. The instructor has yoga-like energy and tone and is present to assist with body form, breathwork, and present-moment focus. The imagery is either hyper-realistic to place you in a "physical" destination like a lake or abstract or cosmic to guide your mind into a different dimension. Sounds range from nature to whatever the physically active equal for music shared in spas and yoga classes. A mixed-reality version could be accomplished with augmented reality glasses like Spectacles by Snap that overlay digital graphics and computing on the world.
With the emergence of techceuticals, where doctors prescribe patients video games and VR to treat conditions like brain fog, ADHD, depression, and PTSD, the path for mainstream adaptation of a modern triad (mindfulness, fitness, and VR) is being paved. There are countless personal testimonials of the positive benefits of VR Fitness, yet the Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise is helping to "provide concrete, objective data for the discussion of video games as a source of healthy physical activity."
Augmented and virtual reality fitness can easily be experienced at home, by yourself, at any time. Where does that leave the physical spaces we call gyms, fitness centers, and studios in the adaptation of VR fitness? They each have fantastic opportunities to integrate the technologies and cater to their clients' psychographics (what they like, dislike, and their goals). Some gyms may play up high-energy competitive VR games, and others may incorporate the active zen approach described above. The latter approach will be a part of a welcoming wave of wellness centers.
I remember the first time I felt like I walked into a wellness center. It was an Equinox gym. I was in college, and my friend's mom had bought her a membership. I was cashing in a guest pass. The interior looked nothing like the cramped and outdated YMCA I grew up going to, and I felt it. The smoothie bar and cafe instantly signaled that this place was not only a place to work your body well but also to nourish your body. Today, Equinox calls itself a "temple of well-being," incorporating spas, virtual offerings, and impeccable placemaking through luxury architecture and interior design.
My new local YMCA, my "gym," is leaps and bounds different than the one I grew up going to. The first time I walked in, I had a similar experience walking into Equinox over a decade prior. There was a cafe on the left, tables and lounge seating on the right, and the design was contemporary and bright with natural light pouring in. While not luxurious like an Equinox, the interiors are incredibly thoughtful. Pops of color, positive messaging on the walls throughout, and a true sense of family and community. My YMCA is not only a place for community, but a thriving place for wellness that embraces and promotes a "healthy spirit, mind and body for all."
Embracing and promoting the magic triad (mind, body, spirit), as I've come to call it, appears to be at the forefront of The Center for Health and Performance. CH+P as described by Cactus, a multi-disclipinary studio developing the center's brand, architecture, and technology is "a new type of wellness destination that combines traditional western medicine with a wide array of alternative therapies, cutting-edge-data driven benchmarking, nutrition, fitness, mindfulness, and personal coaching", further more, it's mixed in with a hotel and residences. Yes, yes, yes. This is a step into integrating the triad at the source.
I may continue finding a quiet corner amidst fitness equipment for a while, but I believe that meditation rooms and mindfulness practices will one day be commonplace in the places we work our physical bodies. Remember when Madonna started doing yoga and people wondered what the heck it was?? Now look at us. Mindfulness seems to be following suit. With the addition of enjoyable and effective virtual technologies, the possibilities for integrating how we care for our mind, body, and soul are looking, quite literally, out of this world.