Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how we as a culture spend so much time focused on physical exercise—on our physical bodies and our physical world—and perhaps not as much time as we should on exercising our souls and spirit.
Whether you go to church or not, or even believe in God or have a religious bone in your body, it feels like the whole soul thing is what’s missing from our world. Just as when we exercise our bodies, we can increase our physical strength, if we exercise our souls, it seems logical and reasonable that we can also increase our capacity for peace, kindness, and joy in the world—in the process also increasing our physical pleasure in life.
These 12 soulful exercises are increasingly being shown by scientific research to improve your health and happiness. Try them all!
1. Feel gratitude. You can keep a gratitude journal, or you can just whisper your thanks to yourself as you go to bed at night. Give a little thanks in your heart before you eat a meal, or tell friends, family, coworkers and even acquaintances how grateful you are to them. You will be surprised at how much happiness and peace it brings!
2. Meditate. You don’t have to recite a mantra or empty your brain of all of your thoughts. Just sit. Sit quietly. Visualize something calm. Just stop trying for a bit. Do it for 5 minutes, do it for 20. That will be enough to start to understand the benefits of meditating.
3. Be generous. Being generous doesn’t take a lot of money. In fact, some people believe that the more generous you are, the more money you can attract into your life. Start by giving away a few of your things that you don’t want. Or donate time or a few dollars to help someone in need. Don’t do it because you feel guilty; do it because it feels good. Only do it when it feels good. But do it.
4. Watch wildlife. You don’t have to go far to enjoy watching wildlife. Even in the heart of the city, there are birds and bugs. Just sit for a bit and watch them do their thing. Try to get inside their world for a minute and picture what it would be like to be them. Notice how they play, how they work, and how they have such a focused purpose and an intelligence all their own. Facebook videos also count! What I have noticed from Facebook videos is how easy it is for animals that normally would be enemies to become loving friends when they’re raised together with love. Imagine that!
5. Walk in nature. Try going for a walk in nature that’s not a forced march to get somewhere quickly or a “hike” to exercise, just a relaxed ramble. See what you notice. Observe. Look around you and feel the magic and generosity of nature. It all works perfectly—without any human intervention!
6. Sit in nature. Let your soul guide you to a place to sit quietly. Maybe it’s under a tree or on a rock. Just sit and listen, watch, feel. Let nature absorb your troubles and “mulch” them back into fertile soil. Look up. Look down. Look all around. Express your gratitude (see #1).
7. Pay attention to the present moment. Our heads are constantly buzzing with to-do lists, unspoken conversations, and worries. Try to just stop for a second. Stop and notice how amazing the universe is. How beautiful nature is. How wonderful your family is. I could say, “Put your phone down,” but even the technology of a mobile phone that brings so many people and things right to your hand is amazing. Try to imagine how it all works and visualize all the people in the world in this very moment, being born, dying, eating, making love, longing for something, being deeply satisfied… Breathe into it and realize you are a part of an amazingly complicated and beautiful living world.
8. Write. You don’t have to write anything particularly good or important; you just have to connect your hand to your heart and brain. Write whatever you want. Make a list of all the things you want to do. Write a bad poem. Write a good poem. Write down memories for your friends and family. Write a thank-you note. Write a love letter. (And then send it.) Write a blog! 🙂
9. Sing. Music has been called, “the most accessible and most researched medium of art and healing” in a review of current findings on the connection between art, healing, and public health published in the American Journal of Public Health. And I recently saw a study that showed singing helped boost cancer patients’ immune system. That makes sense to me, since when you sing you are exercising your whole inner body. I love singing, and only now that I’m older, have gotten over my fear of singing in public. I just don’t care anymore how I sound—it just feels good! Of course, this is one of the reasons I love going to see concerts. Singing a Bruce Springsteen song loudly along with 20,000 other people…YES! But it’s just as powerful in the car, in the shower, or in church.
10. Forgive. Oh, this is a big one. This is the most powerful exercise for the soul of all. Forgive others; forgive yourself—let go of the hurt, the pain, the resentment, the anger, the hurt, the sorrow, and the hurt. Let it go. Try to imagine the other person or the situation from a different perspective. It doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t have to be turned into a right or be a definitive wrong. Just forgive. You can share your forgiveness or keep it to yourself, but the only person you hurt by not forgiving is yourself. And forgiveness is transformative.
11. Dream. Do you allow yourself to truly dream? What would a completely happy and joyful life look like and feel like to you? Imagine it before you go to bed. Imagine it when you wake up. Be open to letting dreams come true.
12. Question. Question everything. Question authority. Question yourself. What’s stopping you from living your dream? Why are things the way they are? Why do you feel the way you do? Why do things happen the way they happen? Search for the answers—in books, from teachers, from other people, from nature. But most important of all: Search for the answers in your own soul.