Life is experiential, and exercise should improve our capacity for experience and readiness for living.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
The difference between exercises that are mechanical and exercises that are functional may be as simple as whether they are using some variant of the universal athletic position. Sometimes referred simply as an athletic stance or ready position, it is a position used in nearly all physical activity. Like most children, I was not initially taught this position. It was self-taught through trial and error, in attempts to balance, walk, generate speed, and power. Participation in youth sporting activities only reinforced its importance. This primitive posture is universal in that, we have all done it — and this includes all other primates. It is the first upright position.
I as an able-bodied human being have four limbs connected to my torso. It is the seamless interplay and coordination of these drivers in relation to one another against gravity, where all my movement lie. From the universal athletic position is where sprinters generate their speed, football players make their power, where dancers draw their grace, and where fighters express their technique. It is the stance I adopt when leaping for my life or fleeing from danger.
And what does it mean to be athletic? Is it an identity? No. It is the physical quality of strength, fitness, and agility. Then by taking this stance, I am positioning myself to be athletic to the best of my ability.
As a child of martial arts, it was my first stance. Feet wide, knees bent and supple, and hands at the waist. If all other techniques were branches, this was the root. It is the most amount of power with the least amount of strain. From this position, I am hard and soft, supple and rigid, yin-yang. It is the upright stance of meditation, the resting place of gravity, no different from the lotus.
A hinge of the hips, bending of the knees, legs apart to distribute my balance, and my weight planted to activate all the fibers of my being. From this, I can slide into the outfielder's position in baseball. From here I can ready myself to shoot a basketball. From here I can hand-fight a wrestler. I can split my legs forward and back and look for a knockout in combat. From here I can twist as a dancer. From here I can sit and stand, maintaining my quality of life as I age. I can brace or yield. I can throw and catch. I am ready for anything. From here I am ready for the world.
Readiness is a state of being, expressed through the body, mind, character. That is universal. “In omnia paratis,” old Latin for "ready for all things."
An Extension of Capacity
If the purpose of exercise is to increase capacity for life, then the purpose of the athletic stance during exercise is to increase the capacity of our movements. Exercises that isolate individual body parts in effect isolate our bodies from our minds, weakening coordination and nervous system, never maximizing our versatility and strength — separating activity from life. Then exercise competes against life; it is no wonder then that exercise becomes the first thing we abandon to go on with life. Some will say, "My life is too busy," "I have too many other things going on," and "I don't consider exercise to be a part of my life." And we are told to regard it as something separate from our lives, something that robs time away from our it. An unnecessary chore, a bother, yet when we called it play, we couldn't get enough of it.
If I focus on my biceps rather than my whole being, then exercise becomes abstract. Some part of my mind will say, "What the hell am I doing? I am lifting something with one body part? What next? Will I take selfies of my index finger? What would people from a thousand years ago say about this? What would aliens think?" Expectedly, enthusiasm wanes, and I am left searching for motivation that isn't trite or vain. I think to myself, "Here is this thing I am supposed to do. I don't know why I should, but I am told I should, and I should be excited about it, too. So says all the commercials. Am I being brainwashed?"
I am reducing the self into parts. (This is actually a mental illness known as partialism.) I am a mental butcher hacking away at the slab of meat I call my self-image. The enjoyment is supposed to come from the sculpting of individual pieces rather than the cultivation of the self. That works for some but it doesn't work for me, and it does not seem to work for most.
We focus on isolation in all its forms: we isolate the muscle from the body, the body from the person, and the person from society. The focus should be on integration, not isolation. We should find common ground, a common position. Not reduce and marginalize. (Some of this stems from the idea that you can spot burn fat. But if you could spot burn fat, people who talk the most would have the skinniest faces.)
In Modern Beauty Standards
Beauty standards have grown more unreasonable and hypersexualized. We have become more like peacocks in certain aspects, rather than civilized beings with learned equanimity and a proclivity to live an examined life. As nonsensical as beauty standards have become, at its core is an idealized human form. It still makes sense to exercise in alignment with human design. We have adapted to view "looks" as signals into the inner workings of DNA. Can they protect us, lead us, and produce healthy offspring? The body is a metaphor, what it represents are all the attributes an athletic stance works to strengthen: speed, power, grace, flexibility, vitality, aptitude, and health. Those who look like they possess the ability to run, leap, balance, and adapt — effortlessly — are "attractive."
But since industrialization and assembly line thinking, we have broken that "look" into pieces, learning to work on them independently, like a car manufacturer, rather than doing the activities that the "look" was intended to do. (Look like a swimmer rather than swim.) An assembly line requires little talent, which is why it's so useful. These activities are mechanical; functional are those movements that improve our ability to live life. Life is experiential, what use is it to work on the body if we are not working on increasing the capacity for living? And if we never apply our bodies to experience? Why should and would we maintain such nonsense if there is no utility for it?
We Are Confusing the Cup for the Water
Being "attractive" has become secondary to looking "attractive." When we are dying of thirst, we need water. Water sometimes comes in a cup, yet we confuse the value of water with the value of the cup. It is water that is of value; this is one of the primary lessons of Taoism. It is not about the vessel; it is about the space within the vessel. It is not what we look like; it is what we are capable of that is important. The vitality within should be the primary focus of health. Without that, the "look" cannot exist. It becomes a man dying of thirst, searching for a cup, rather than for water, never to be fulfilled.
Do not disconnect, do those activities that are optimal. Build the whole, not the pieces. Things such as: the squat, deadlift, thruster, push press, clean, snatch, kettlebell swings, box jumps, power jumps, lunges, or going outside and tumbling, playing, and exploring as children and apes do. As free range human beings.
Create a body ready for play. This is not only good for your body, but it is also good for your mind and soul. We feel alive while doing them because they feel like activities we were meant to do.
We exercise because we are still. At the gym, stillness is encouraged. If everyone was moving, the health club could not fill itself with as many paying members. It is not about your capacity, it is about the capacity of the gym and dollars per square inch. Creating exercises that take up the least amount of space. Little space requires stillness. Just as when we were children in school, told to be still and sit at our desks. "Here, you work out in this very small space. Sit on this machine and work out here. Don't run around, don't move anything, pretend you are in a bubble." However, you joined the gym because you were too sedentary. It is self-defeating and the reason why people create no progress and leave. How can you create forward progress in an environment where you cannot move forward? Everyone sits at their station and moves one piece of their body at a time, and then they rotate, like a factory. The hope of the gym is that people will stop coming without canceling their memberships. Money that takes up no space, almost too good to be true. Imagine a restaurant hoping for that, having paying customers who do not eat or come in? Then make a promise to themselves the next year to do it all over again?
The car is a familiar analogy people use in building the body (car building, body building, the similarities are not by accident), yet any analogy that describes an assembly line experience should be instantly terrifying. Why? It implies we are brainless, machine-like slaves. Imagine saying school is like building a car, the kids on a conveyer belt, built exactly the same. We would consider this an insult. (This happens to be the standard parallel people make when fighting for educational reform.) With gym culture, this has become a strange capitalist source of pride. Capitalist for the gym owners, not for us. They have just somehow convinced us, that what makes the most money for them is also good for us, too. Selling us empty cups and convincing us it has quenched our thirst. But some of us realize: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Diversity and Play Is Enjoyable and Essential
When I specialize in one activity, I can fall into the trappings of identity: I am a weightlifter, I do CrossFit, I am a yogi, or I only train jiu-jitsu. Diversity improves productivity. I love Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but to never participate in other activities and play, is like living a life with limited capacity. My jiu-jitsu helps me with other activities, other activities help with my jiu-jitsu. Acute injuries may happen from diverse activity, but it is far more common to suffer from chronic injury and pain from repetitive movements that are sustained and isolated. Like too much sitting, driving, mouse clicking, typing, and use of the phone. In exercise, those who only weightlift, only run, only play tennis, only golf, or any small chronic joint overuse, repeating the same small isolated movement pattern over and over, will likely sustain the most injuries. Like a hamster trapped in a wheel developing arthritis and tendinitis. This is how some people exercise and live their lives.
Life shouldn't be about "onlys," it should be about as many activities as possible. Don't repeat the day, seize it.
It is not about avoiding all isolated movements; that is not practical, but the emphasis should be about doing many movements, especially those that use the whole unit, those that take time to learn, those that challenge you. In focusing on movements rather than parts, I can work every part together in unison, creating a body ready for play. It saves time and makes it more interesting. This is what exercise is supposed to do, engage the whole self.
Dating back over three thousand years, one of the only inscriptions at the Oracle of Delphi reads: “Know Thyself.” I take it to mean, "Know thyself" or you'll surely regret it.
Keeping My Mind-Body Young
There is a cognitive aspect to exercise that requires complexity: lots of moving parts coordinating together. My core connects my posterior chain to my pelvis. It is the activation of my posterior chain that protects me from injury while I move. The universal athletic position has the maximum ability to activate the posterior chain. We focus so much on the core, but it is only the connector, what we need to train are varied movements. It is not, "where should I be feeling this?" but how should I be doing this. How should I be using my body?
We use activities as children to develop the brain, and when we get old enough, we will be taught activities again in an attempt to keep our brains from degenerating. Learning is playing, it always has been. How does one spark an interest in the sciences, for instance, if they have never gotten their hands dirty? How will I understand my world if I have never played with a variety of materials? Creating a body ready for play is building a brain ready to learn. The athletic position is a stance made for play. Play requires it. When an adult attempts to play with a child and they can no longer rely on this position, they stop playing with their children — or hurt themselves in the attempt.
When we looked and felt our best, some time in our youth, we could see a bench and from eyeballing it, know whether we could clear it or not in one jump. That awareness is youthfulness. That ability for our body and mind to communicate dynamically through the nervous system is athleticism. When we get disconnected from our nervous systems and can no longer register our capacity, is when we feel our worst and have our worst body-image. Self-hate can arise when we lose our self-confidence. Seniors lose their confidence when they can no longer trust in their abilities. It is a slippery slope of despair if they are not careful. We often feel "old" prematurely for this very reason. Someone may look at a model and think, "Well, they aren't athletic, and they are confident." Having worked with actors and models, I know, how they look to us is not indicative of their body-image. They too sense something is off when they are disconnected. Self-perceived physical "ugliness" can be a projection of this disconnect. Beauty treatments, validation, and attempts at improving their looks offer no cure. We see something idealized in them, yet sometimes all they see, like in Plato's cave, are their own shadows. What they seek in my opinion, is not more beauty. That is fool's gold. What they seek, what I seek, what you seek, is more capacity.
Over two thousand years ago, Socrates said: “No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” As true now as it was then.
Life is experiential, and exercise should improve our capacity for experience and readiness for living. It is in the chase for better body parts that we miss becoming a better self. We specialize activity when we should be diversifying. We require versatility to meet all the challenges of life.
Live in an athletic stance for as long as you can, and maintain more quality of life for as long as you are able. It is universal not just in physical activities, but in all the ways readiness becomes an important aspect of your life. It is why "stance" becomes a common metaphor for what you are about. What stance will you take?