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Exercise As A Whole Body Experience Meditation And Visualization Work Mind In Exercise Class

Far from the blaring music, bright lights and hordes fighting for lockers at giant health clubs, there is Zen Fitness, a second-floor oasis on Chicago’s Near North Side. Here, the strains of soothing Native American flute music and the scent of sandalwood incense drift through the workout room. Natural light streams through the French doors and skylight.

Following a rigorous “slide and sculpt” session one recent morning, the women lie down and place gently weighted pillows over their eyes to aid relaxation. Then the instructor lights a candle and leads them in a relaxation and healing visualization. “See yourself healthy, genuinely happy, peaceful, balanced and in sync with the universe,” she says.

This is a fitness center that focuses on the mind as well as the body. Owner Lynn Doody, an aerobics instructor and personal trainer, opened her studio last fall to create a sort of one-stop shopping opportunity for people seeking to exercise their spirit as well as their muscles. In addition to a wide variety of aerobic and weight workouts, Doody offers tai chi, yoga and meditation classes. Every workout includes a visualization and a meditation reading.

In taking this unconventional approach, Doody, 28, is tapping into the fitness industry’s growing emphasis on body-mind wellness, a trend most evident in the burgeoning programs at spas and progressive health clubs across the country.

“The mind and body and spirit cannot be separated,” says Jean Pierre Marques, who created the Spiritual Awareness department at Tucson’s famous Canyon Ranch spa two years ago. Marques, who has taught martial arts, yoga and meditation for 30 years, sees a greatly increased recognition that emotions and spiritual health are an integral part of physical health. “The mind creates the body. Everything starts from the mind,” he says.

While Doody is clearly part of a movement, she did not open Zen Fitness to be trendy. In recovery from eating disorders, she wanted to create a place that fostered the physical and spiritual balance that was crucial to her healing. Her philosophy is a combination of a 12-step recovery movement and Eastern thought. She believes in concentrating on the present moment - not projecting into the future - and focusing on the inner self.

“If you spend your whole life focused on how you look … life is passing you by. Because I focused so much on the outside I didn’t have any clue of who I was on the inside,” Doody says.

In unhealthier days, she felt the sum of her identity was “tall, blond, great body, thin. If that was my identity, I couldn’t lose that … I was overeating, undereating, bingeing, purging. It was a mess.”

She became severely depressed, unable to function and eventually checked herself into an in-patient treatment center. Through treatment and membership in Overeaters Anonymous, she began her difficult recovery and a reordering of her priorities.

“I realized there is so much more in life (than a perfect body). When someone will say ‘I’ve got to lose these last 10 pounds’ I say, ‘So what if you don’t? Are you going to be a worse person? Are you going to lose your job?’ Who cares?”

Doody does not want her clients to get on the scale, project results or compare themselves to others. “You know what’s good for you. You do it and let the rest go. Eat what you are supposed to eat, work out when you are supposed to and everything else will happen.

“The goal is to create mental and physical harmony by working out one day at a time for a lifetime of fitness.”

Here are Lynn Doody’s tips for tuning into spiritual fitness: Create a support system for yourself with a circle of fabulous, funny, loving friends and family (of choice and origin).

At least once a day sit someplace quiet and become aware of your breathing. Start with five seconds and work up to five minutes. Let go into full acceptance of the present moment. Schedule this time in your appointment book.

Read a daily meditation book.

Take time to relax and take care of yourself each day through stretching or napping.

Be mindful of simple daily activities. Mindfulness is getting back in touch with the simplicity of life, really noticing things. If you’re washing dishes, look at the bubbles and the way the drop of oil disperses into the water. In the shower, feel the temperature of the water, smell the soap, feel the softness of the lather on your skin. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness and clarity. It’s opening up all your senses and awareness.

Incorporate a balanced physical exercise regimen and eat a balanced diet.