Form is fundamental to effective exercise. The way you squat, hold a plank, or move through a flow matters. Working out with poor form compromises the benefits of exercise. Proper technique, however, supports balanced strength building and enhanced performance, plus is a vital safeguard against injury. But all too often, we focus only on outer form, or what fitness looks like in front of the vanity mirror at the gym. Inner form—the mindset, thought process, and mindfulness—that we bring to exercise is equally, if not more, important.
“Inner form informs outer form,” says Bethany Lyons, co-founder of Lyons Den Power Yoga in New York City. “Inner form is our own story and personal world; it’s our personal self—how we view and see the world and ourselves. It shapes what we can and cannot do, and it shapes what we can and cannot say. The inner form is the heart and soul of the outer form.”
Pete Egoscue, an anatomical physiologist since 1978 and creator of the Egoscue Method, agrees: “The experts tell you that they know more about you than you do, which is complete nonsense.” Egoscue argues that reaching an ideal level of fitness is all about happiness; if you can reach a place of non-judgment and joy, the physical goals will follow.
Here are six inner form checks to keep in mind throughout a workout to help you benefit physically, mentally, and spiritually from exercise.
1. View exercise as a form of self-care.
“There are different ways to hold exercise,” says Adam Perlman, M.D., an integrative health and wellbeing expert at Duke University. You can feel guilty about it (maybe you’re sacrificing time with your family to work out), feel like it’s a chore (something you have to do to lose weight), or you can view exercise as a part of your self-care routine, he notes. “You deserve to care for yourself and exercise is a part of that,” Perlman says.
Focusing your mind to complete a workout in the way that is best for you, and being grateful that you are able to move in such a way can also help you feel strong and empowered, adds Ariane Machin, Ph.D., a psychologist and co-founder of the Conscious Coaching Collective.
2. Set your intentions before a workout.
Entering into exercise with purpose helps you make the most of your time, says Suze Yalof Schwartz, founder, and CEO of Unplug Meditation. “You have a choice when you go to the gym—you can go hard or go soft. If you want to maximize your workout, inner form helps you be present and intentional, resulting in better results physically and mentally.”
Stepping into your fitness routine with a specific mindset keeps you on track if/when your thoughts start meandering to the others in the room. “You see people running five miles and you think you need to run five miles to ‘get in shape’ even if it is something you don’t enjoy,” says Machin. “This movement is being guided by anxious and tense energy, and will deplete us before we even begin.”
Egoscue echoes this sentiment: “If what you’re doing isn’t something that allows you to put down the rules and have some fun, it’s not of any value.”
Rather than follow this negative energy, stop and ask yourself: Why am I here? The more we understand our own intentions, the more we can make sure that we’re acting in a way that’s consistent with that intention. For example, if your goal is to feel at peace and you consistently return to that intention, then you might realize that running (if you don’t enjoy it) isn’t at all in line with your personal plan. In other words, be clear about what it is that you want from exercise.
3. Notice potential distractions, then ignore them.
“There are many ways to practice mindfulness and exercise is a great opportunity,” says Perlman. But being more present with your workout—and strengthening not just your body but also the mindfulness muscle—requires focus. The more you can train your brain to focus, the more mindful you’ll become. Unplugging from a constant flow of emails, text messages, and news can help you tune into what you’re feeling during the workout. It can also clarify what doesn’t fuel you—maybe comparing yourself to others on social media, notes Machin.
4. Breathe a little deeper—it feels so good.
Your mind is going to drift. That’s normal. “We have between 50,000 and 80,000 thoughts a day,” says Yalof Schwartz. But if you really need to zone in, try a 16-second meditation—easy to do while you’re holding a yoga pose or on a walk.
Breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale audibly for four seconds, then hold for another four seconds. “When you count and breathe, you can’t think at the same time,” she says. “You’re sending a signal to your brain that everything’s okay and you’re also getting present.”
5. Watch your tone and language.
We talk to ourselves internally all day, notes Lyons. Check in with your internal dialogue from time to time. What are you saying? If you notice negative talk or unhelpful commentary, try saying something new. Lyons suggests a mantra or phrase that makes you feel grounded, supported, and fierce. “It can be as simple as ‘breathe in and breathe out’ or it can be a statement about what you are stepping into: ‘I am courageous.’”
6. Listen to your body—it’s talking to you!
Don’t push yourself beyond what feels healthy and gratifying. “We have adopted a rule set in fitness. If you are doing five reps, 10 reps is better. If you have this BMI, it’s not as good as that BMI,” Egoscue says. You berate yourself for not adhering to these so-called rules and expectations, which, in turn, creates a tailspin of self-reproach. “Your instincts are telling you that these rules aren’t in your best interest,” says Egoscue. Bottom line: You know what is best for your body health.