The zen of fitness is something I have seen discussed throughout the online world in many different contexts. There are articles on how distance running can put you in an enlightened state or how a healthy body makes a calm mind. Maybe it’s just me, but I have found a lot of online reading a little boring, cliched and repetitive. So I’m going to try not to do the same in this article.

The goal of this page is to provide a little insight into how fitness relates to mindfulness and how mindfulness can improve performance.

What is Zen?

First of all, for those of you that don’t know, I felt it necessary to explain what Zen actually is. Many people might see an article titled the Zen of Fitness and think it is religiously slanted. Zen Buddhism is technically a religion but it has also been described as a set of beliefs and practices that are compatible with other religions. Zen practitioners don’t worship a God perse, so it’s not really a religion in the normal context.

Zen Buddhism is the Buddhist sect that emphasises mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness is the concept of attaining complete serenity and enlightenment by living solely in the present moment with no attachment to anything, including the beliefs and practices of Zen. By being mindful a person is able to tap into mental and physical resources that are usually unavailable. The human brain can only take in and use so much awareness at any one time. Mindfulness allows a person focus 100 percent on the task at hand and virtually block out all else.

This is obviously not a complete explanation of Zen, but it gives you an idea of their core belief. Everything in Zen is funnelled towards this one goal, enlightenment or nirvana, characterised by complete mindfulness.

It is believed in Zen that everyone is born with the inherent mindset of enlightenment. Everything that stands in the way and clouds the mind is from the outside, rather than being a part of our true nature. Therefore Zen practice exists to get back to this ‘truth’ and become oneself again. As you will see, this relates very closely to fitness and athletic conditioning.

The Art of Expressing the Human Body

The human body is a vehicle for living life. Without your body you would essentially be nothing but a soul, a mind or whatever you believe. You would not possess the capability to experience anything at all. The body is here as a means for experience. You need to live in it at all times and everything you do has a physical response. This is why stress causes so many health problems.

Knowing this there are so many people that abuse this vehicle. I see so many people that are obese and unhealthy. They take their body for granted because they’re “not really into fitness”. This may sound preachy to some but think about it. If your body is not functioning at its peak then you are really not going to get the best experience of life. If you’re fit and healthy and able jump, run, climb, lift and play then of course you will have a much better experience of life.

I remember when I was a kid I used to love superheroes. I would marvel at their super speed, flying ability or ability to teleport. I used to imagine the freedom it would create in my life. This is probably what influenced my desire to be as fit, nimble, agile, fast and strong as possible. The fitter I got the more free I felt moving and interacting with my environment and with others. My body was able to do things that allowed me to experience more in the physical sense.

The Zen of Fitness relates to the art of expressing the human body. Bruce Lee even wrote a book with this title and he is a Zen Buddhist. This is not the only goal of Zen and is certainly only one small aspect, but it plays a major role. When you are able to move quickly, run a long distance, climb a tree or perform complex dance routines it naturally puts the mind in a totally different space of reality.

Like I have discussed before, a long time ago on this site, emotion is created by motion to a large extent. This means that what you do physically effects what you feel mentally. Being obese and lumbering along down the street with limited mobility and energy is a catalyst for complete misery. The states in which you find yourself physically are a reflection of your mental states and vice versa. Try walking around for a whole day with a depressed look on your face, even when you’re not depressed. I guarantee that you will be depressed by the end of the day.

Possessing physical capabilities allows you to express yourself and experience more through your physical senses. Your physiology interacts with the world in more ways than your other senses. The world is kinaesthetic and human beings are meant to physically experience things and express things with our body. By being able to move in more ways, by possessing the ability run, jump, skip, hurdle, climb and lift you are unlocking a part of your own emotional states that cannot be experienced any other way.

Physical health and vitality is a state of mindfulness in itself. It allows you to fully experience both your external environment and your own inner emotional states.

Learn to use your body in more ways. Learn athletic skills, martial arts, parkour, dance or anything that allows you to develop a diverse range of physical skills. That’s expressing the human body and that’s the Zen of Fitness. Activities such as these open up a whole new world of experience to you.

Lost in the Moment

The Zen of Fitness is often apparent in many athletes that claim to get in “the zone”. This often occurs with endurance athletes during a marathon or a long distance cycling effort. It is explained as being a mental state that allows total freedom and maximum performance. During this time all stresses are blocked out.

Not all fitness training will miraculously allow you to reach the state of complete freedom and absence of worldly problems. This is something that happens to those that get caught up in an event or training session. However it is something that can be trained. A quick Google search on new code NLP and the “know-nothing state” will give you a good idea of what I mean.

So how does it work? During intense and exercise the body’s resources are largely occupied in order to most efficiently get the task done. If you experience stress and distractions during a training session or sporting event then you can be assured that your body is not performing at its peak. Peak performance means total devotion to the task being carried out. This is the Zen of Fitness, a mental state where the body is so occupied that it puts your brain on autopilot to allow the activity to be completed in the most efficient and effective way.

Learn to zone out during training sessions. Focus solely on the present moment. That being the upcoming lift or each individual stride during a run. This will put you in a state of total mindfulness.

Zen of Fitness and how to Perform at Your Peak

Most people attending the gym have very little focus. This is not their fault, it’s just that the outside world is so distracting and contains so many stresses. This causes your mind to wander and the efforts in the gym are reduced. Performance suffers as a result of lack of focus.

Athletes perform at their best when they do it seemingly effortlessly. Many top athletes have reported being in a state of effortlessness during a record breaking event. When Bolt broke the 100 metres world record he seemed to do so easily. He seemed to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would win the race. He knew he was the fastest man on earth.

The Zen of Fitness carries over into every other area of life. This sounds a little cliched, but it’s really accurate. When you are able to do something outside of what is considered ‘normal capabilities’ you wire your brain to get certain on what you’re capable of. If you can be absolutely certain that you can bench press a new personal best then you are essentially training your mind to follow through and actualise what it is certain about.

The Zen of Fitness can be explained many ways and utilised in many different forms. The whole point is to attain a sense of mindfulness. This is complete presence, complete and utter experience of the present moment. This can be seen from both angles as we have discussed here. First of all fitness training itself can be used as a modality to reach expanded awareness. Secondly expanded awareness can be effectively used as a way to improve performance.

Practice the Zen of Fitness any way you see fit. This is just an article to give you some ideas into how fitness and physical states in general effect mental states and experiences outside of the exercise session.

Chris Lyons.
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