This month’s Fitness Story is a little different. Instead of interviewing a client who has had an amazing fitness journey, I wanted to interview a fellow fitness professional whose story relates to this month’s theme of Sleep and Stress Reduction. Meet Andre.
I met Andre when he took my Personal Trainer Certification Course. Andre was totally over-qualified for the Foundations of Personal Training course but he approached the course with a great attitude and a ‘learner’s mind’. He had this lovely peaceful yoga-dude vibe but clearly knew his way around the ‘bro’ section at the gym. Curious, I found out that he had been a professional football player in the CFL but now was a yoga teacher and the owner of the Spirit Loft.
I wanted to ask him why a top level athlete would shift to a ‘softer’ physical practice. What were the consequences in his fitness level? What about those of us how only have an hour a day to spend on self-maintenance? Should we be om-ing or jump squatting?
This is what Andre had to say:
Have you always been active? Tell us a bit about your athletic/fitness history:
I grew up in an athletically gifted family, my father and his father were boxers from Ireland, and two of my uncles on my mother’s side were star Canadian university football players. So, athletics, competition and movement are ingrained within my genetic and psychological makeup. I was a very active child and liked to compete in a wide range of sports, like soccer, basketball, badminton, football, hockey, track & field. This wide range of skill development contributed to my overall athleticism as a youth, which I eventually focused at a much higher level of sport at Wilfrid Laurier University as a Wide Receiver/Slotback for the football program. After my second year at WLU a core group of the players decided that we wanted to take our abilities to the next level so we hired ourselves a year round speed and strength coach. This became the catalyst for allowing me to achieve at my highest abilities, becoming a two-time All-Canadian Receiver, Team MVP and after four years of school, drafted by the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. I went on to play for 10 years in the CFL, winning a Grey Cup Championship and earning Team Captain honours. I can say wholeheartedly that my dedication to training and the high quality of strength, speed and positional coaches that I worked with gave me the opportunity for the successes that I had on the field.
Clearly you are not afraid to train HARD and you are someone who likes to move. What made you first sit down and get into stillness and meditation?
Although during my career as a competitive athlete I had many successes, ultimately the game of football is a violent and grueling path, a path that takes its toll on the athlete physically, mentally and emotionally. As any long term competitive athlete knows, leaving the game that you once loved and enjoyed as a child can be very painful and disillusioning. Luckily I had been introduced to yoga early in my CFL days by strength & conditioning coach/guru, Matt Nichol. He incorporated yoga classes in the training programs of his athletes, amateur/professional football and hockey players. I was immediately struck by the strange sense of inner peacefulness and ease that I felt in my body and mind in the final resting posture (savasana – corpse pose) each yoga class that I attended. I was also intrigued by the practices promise of increasing my flexibility. However, it was not until my final year of pro ball that I began to explore the yoga practice more regularly, encouraged by my girlfriend at the time, Catalina (who is now my loving wife), to be more consistent with my yoga practice. After my 10th year in the CFL Catalina and I decided to go traveling together through Mexico, Central & South America. We decided that participating in a yoga teacher training program during our travels would be a great learning experience. So, we spent 30 days living in a tent in the desert of Baja Sur, Mexico at the Yandara Yoga Institute studying our body-minds, cultivating mindfulness and investigating the nature of “self” and reality, through the ancient yoga and meditative practices. It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. After our training we headed to a small hostel in Mexico City to continue on our journey, it was there that I wrote my letter of retirement to the Canadian Football League and my team at the time, the Edmonton Eskimos. I thanked them and let them know that I was on a new path! Yoga, meditation and mindfulness have been an important part of my daily life ever since.
I know a lot of people who value yoga and meditation IN THEORY but only have so much time to devote to self-maintenance and think that getting a good sweat is probably better value for time as far as health results. If someone is strapped for ‘me’ time, how would you suggest they budget it between activity and stillness?
Anything that you give value to, you will find time for. I approach meditation practice the same way I approach other daily tasks like flossing my teeth, I try my best to do it every day, its mental hygiene! We need to tend to and take care of our mind, just the same way we need to tend to and take care of our muscles, joints and movements. Once you have developed an understanding of meditation practice and have been provided with some quality instruction and guidance you soon realize that meditation can be done anywhere, anytime any moment! Start by carving out a special space or corner in your home for a meditation cushion to sit on and keep the cushion there. By creating this special space you have taken the first step. We also don’t need a lot of time, in fact as little as 5-10 minutes a day is a great starting point. Everyone can set aside 5-10 minutes a day. I generally try to commit to 20-25 minutes of meditation practice per day, but this habit has taken me quite some time to develop. Like anything that we try to make a habit in our lives, eating well, movement/exercise, reading time, it’s a process of slowly and progressively increasing your abilities and integrating it into your life. Don’t beat yourself up over a missed day or two, simply set the intention to do the best that you can every day. Make sure you understand the value of why you want to bring meditation/mindfulness into your life, understanding its value will strengthen your motivation to sit.
Has your mindfulness practice changed your physical health at all? Do you find you have additional energy? Or maybe you are less antsy?
Meditation practice and the cultivation of mindfulness has provided me with many benefits, like a greater sense of inner calm and stability, better sleeps, increased self-regulation when in challenging circumstances or when dealing with difficult emotions like anger and anxiety. Meditation has certainly increased my overall sense of well-being and ability to experience moments of happiness and joy too. However, it’s probably important to note here that the first priority of meditation and mindfulness is to increase our self-awareness and lead us to the insights related to the nature of “self” and the nature of the world around us. Through this increased awareness we have the ability to truly meet all of the relationships in our life with greater compassion, creativity and love. So we gain insight about our “self”, then from those insights and transformations we can better serve our communities and the world.
Most people come to the fitness industry looking for weight loss. Do you see any connection between mindfulness and achieving a healthy body composition?
Mindfulness can provide insight into the patterns of our life and the quality of our choices related to eating, exercise, our lifestyle habits and our relationships. In my experience as a trainer and teacher when we approach our life from a wholistic and balanced perspective which includes body, mind and heart, as well as, diet, sleep, movement, and our relationships, things like body composition and aesthetics take care of themselves. However, the reality is, we all need to learn to love our bodies just as they are, then work towards making them more vibrate, healthy and strong. Eventually we will all need to learn how to work through injury and illness too. So start with being compassionate with where you are and who you are, then set the intention to make new habits that will increase your awareness, energy and aliveness!
In your experience, how would you say that meditation compares to exercise in terms of stress reduction? Do you see any relationship between the two?
There certainly has been plenty of medically and scientifically proven benefits to meditation, “stress reduction” being one that seems to come up a lot. Generally the way we are reducing our stress through meditation and mindfulness practice is by changing the way we relate to the things that tend to stress us out. So by changing our relationship to stressors and how we respond to them we literally transform our brain, our minds, our life! There is an incredible amount of research related to neuroplasticity that has shown how meditation and mindfulness practice assists us in increasing our capacity to deal with stress and the challenging aspects of our life. We are rewiring and building the aspects of our brain that provide us with more tools and resilience to manage stress. I think what is also very important to note here is that the body and mind are not two separate elements that make up our being. The body and mind are two very much interconnected and integrated aspects of our whole human experience. So the way we hold stress or anxiety, whether through tension in our body, or through the swirling, difficult stories and thoughts in our minds, has an effect on the whole of our being and how we relate to the world. In my experience when we have a healthy body practice (exercise, movement) and a healthy relationship to our body, this contributes to the quality of our mental and emotional states, and vice versa, when we develop the ability to respond to the things that can cause irritation or anger in our minds with greater ease and equanimity, we inevitably will create a greater sense of calm and peace in our bodies.
Do you find it harder to make time for stillness than movement? Did you ever have to write your letter of resignation to the Edmonton Eskimos? Let us know in the comments below!