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Tao of Exercise (find inspiration & motivation)

A Tao of Exercise!? Really? Do you really want to read yet another article on exercise? Probably not, but if you are looking for inspiration and motivation, read on for some fundamental concepts to:

  • integrate your mind and body

  • make your exercise engrossing and fascinating

  • find yourself healthy, happy and possibly even enlightened!

Tao Te Ching Bold claims indeed, but these observations are inspired by the Tao Te Ching! “Great, but whats the Tao Te Ching and why is it relevant?” you may be thinking. Well, there is only one book in history which has sparked more commentaries/ translations/ arguements/ interpretations/ extrapolations.

With this much interest throughout the ages of human endeavour, maybe we too can find something interesting. (If you want to know which book hit the number 1 spot, read on*!) Anyway, for now lets take a look…

載營魄抱一能無離乎 Thats it. This one phrase from the Tao Te Ching is all we will look at. But this is potent stuff and it contains some hidden gems that we can put into practice with relevance today, more than 2500 years after it was written. Here is one** translation:

Simultaneously hold Body and Mind as one. Have you the skill/ ability to prevent them from Separating?

So what can this tell us in relation to exercise?

Body & Mind as One The idea of detaching our minds completely from our bodies whilst exercising is really quite attractive – and depressingly common. Treadmills in front of TV screens are the ultimate example: drawing awareness away from our physicality even during the most physical of activities we engage in.

But why is our ancient sage is asking us to unite body and mind? Without doing this we end up simply dealing in mindless repetitions. Reps, reps… more reps. We have to somehow find motivation to push through the drudge of an arbitrary number of repetitions. It’s boring!

Skill Instead, when we bring our awareness and attention into the body, each rep has the potential to become fascinating. This is not just an exercise routine to get through. Exercise becomes a Skill. Let me say that again. A Skill! This is true from running (are you running efficiently, and without straining knees/ ankles/ lower back?) to power-lifting and everything between. Athletes are highly skilled… Much like a musician / calligrapher / martial artist.

Motivation Motivation shifts from an end-goal (literally reaching the end of this activity as quickly as possible / wondering how much fat we have lost/ muscle gained) to the enjoyment of honing a fine craft.

We don’t do 20 Reps. We do one Rep. 20 times. That one Rep is all we are doing. And the reason for doing it? To do it as perfectly, smoothly, fluidly as possible. Each rep becomes your friend. Your teacher. And an opportunity to make an ally of gravity – who will otherwise be an ever present and (over time) ever more ruthless adversary.

We are no longer just exercising – We are practising! Developing our muscles/ losing fat, to be sure, but when this “primary goal” is relegated to “side effect” then we know we are getting somewhere – and the difficulty of motivation is a forgotten shadow. We become highly skilled and motivated and the side effect is weight loss/ muscle gain/ fitness – and, more importantly, health.

Physiological On a physiological level, what results is training not only of the muscles, but of the nervous system too. The nervous system is often the true limiting factor on our performance: consider the classic anecdote of a lady lifting a car to save her child. In training, we are not looking to over-ride these natural nervous safeguards, but rather to educate our systems so that their safe operating parameters are wider.

Solo practice of the martial arts Kata (“form”) is not simply a repetition. Rather, the artist brings practice to life by battling an imaginary foe. This brings meaning to the movement, engages the nervous system and induces emotional involvement. The result is a training of far more than merely the physical body. Can we bring the same to our own exercise practices?

Psychological On a psychological level, intimate, engrossing integration in using your body is where the real benefits of exercise in reducing stress are found. This is where we can truly come “out of our minds” and into the present moment. In lives increasingly lived in the virtual, we are becoming ‘disembodied’ – foreigners to our own physicality.

Body as a Single Unit Let’s consider the second part of our phrase Daoist phrase:-

能無離乎 ~ Have you the skill/ ability of non-Separation?

This phrase obviously challenges us to develop the skill of keeping body and mind together. But there is more. Another way to read this is as a reminder not to try to use any one part of our body as an independent unit without integrating the movement.

There is plenty of talk these days about “core” muscles and strength. And many an exercise regimen/ system have been developed and sold specifically to address this. May I dare to suggest we are missing the point here. Our sage was telling us 2500 years back that all exercise and movement is (or should be) ‘core’.

Using the body as a single unit is explored (or should be!) in systems like Yoga and Pilates and of course the martial arts. But somehow this emphasis has a tendency to be lost in other exercise forms – to great detriment. Correct integration spreads the forces on the body over the whole muscular skeletal structure. This reduces the chance of any injury to a single over-stressed part, and develops the oft neglected sinews, tendons, and membranes. It is also highly effective in application (see Float Like a Butterfly, Sting like a Bee.)

Breath The Chinese characters translated above as “body” and “mind” actually contain far more information. 營 is translated above as “mind”, but it also includes a concept of nourishing essences. 魄 is translated above as the “physical body”, but is also related to the lungs (actually more to out-breath than in-breath ). This topic really deserves an article to itself but for now we can at least appreciate the importance of considering the integration of breath in our exercise. Respected strength author, Pavel Tsatouline***, reports that correct use of the breath alone (in creating intra-abdominal pressure at the correct moment of exertion) can increase the power of muscular contraction by as much as 30%!

Tao Even our most basic movements require a fantastic cascade of choreographed muscular and nervous recruitment. How do we achieve this? Like any other skill worth developing – through practice. Through focus. Through intelligence. With the full force of your considerable attention and awareness, physical and mental, merged in the crucible of movement that is now alive. And you thought you were just going to do a quick work-out!

Unlock Your Soft Power The next line in this chapter of the Tao Te Ching extols the virtues of being soft like a baby! I know this sounds pretty far from your exercise goals, but in my next newsletter on this topic I will try to explain why this might just help to unlock your true potential.


* The book at number 1 spot is none other than the Bible. ** Chinese is a complex, rich language and the written characters each convey multiple meanings, nuance and information. This phrase can (and has been) translated in many many different ways. *** I highly recommend Pavel’s books “Power to the People” and “Naked Warrior “. They are very funny and are packed with great, fundamentals widely applicable. **** I chose the surfer image for this newsletter since he embodies many of the ideas discussed. He totally committed – physically, mentally and emotionally in the present moment; his whole self merged into one and interacting with the universe around him. He is also performing the king of exercises – the squat!