The Myth of Fitness

“Fitness” is a highly coveted state. If you want to know what that state entails, never fear: there are plenty of weekend Crossfit warriors and people who have taken two or three Bikram yoga classes in their lifetime who will be happy to tell you in intimate detail that they have arrived at the one true definition of “fitness,” and then proceed to magnanimously climb down from their high horse and explain to you exactly what you need to do to become, like them, “fit.”

But if, like me, you have a sneaking suspicion that “fitness” is meaningless jargon engineered to sell magazines and keep self-dissatisfied people scrambling after an illusory goal, then I have something you might be interested in reading. Here’s a small excerpt from my book, “The Man Who Pulled His Own Leg,” about my experiences, observations and reflections over the past nine years in yoga, and also in bodybuilding.

“This is a good moment to mention something important: ‘Fitness,’ as most people use and understand the term, is a mythic state. Next time someone says something along the lines of ‘I’m really fit,’ treat them like they just said, ‘I’m actually a unicorn.’ It is a state of being that exists only in their imagination, fueled by desperation to be a happy, beautiful immortal. It’s the plasticized, Photoshopped state of a man on the cover of a magazine, whose shaved abs and percent body-fat demand a constant, obsessive maintenance that his cool, suave expression belie. It’s a non-specific athletic mastery of everything, including things we haven’t tried yet. It’s a symbiotic unity of perfect health, dazzling functionality and sculpted physical aesthetics, carried to an expression of perfection where they’ve all hit critical-mass and perpetually sustain themselves, needing only air and good cheer for fuel—leaving the Fit Superhuman with nothing to do but engage effortlessly in rigorous recreational activities, bask in their own classical beauty and have terrific sex, on and on forever.

The reality is, fitness is always specific. It’s always fitness to do something. It makes no difference if that thing is running or pole-vaulting or lifting weights or doing yoga. By doing that thing, you increase your fitness for it—your body continually adapts to that specific thing, to the detriment of your fitness for other things. A champion Strongman athlete looks and performs nothing like a champion Marathoner—they are both ‘fit’ to the highest degree in their particular sport, but the adaptations that brought their bodies to that high level of fitness were drastically different. This doesn’t mean you can’t be in generally good shape—defining ‘good shape’ as having the strength, stamina and natural mobility to engage in a wide array of activities, enjoy a great quality of life and maintain a high level of activeness for years to come. That is immanently feasible—that’s primal human heritage. That’s how the body evolved to work. But something people don’t acknowledge when they think about fitness, is that such a general state as being ‘in good shape’ necessarily doesn’t veer to any extremes. If you want to engage in specific activities—say, yoga—to a point where your abilities are truly exceptional, you’re inevitably going to take away from your ability to do other things exceptionally. Your body will adapt to yoga so heavily that there’s no room left for adaption to other activities—if you want to shift your adaptation in another direction, you can, but it’s going to come at the cost of your previous extreme adaptation.

Being ‘in good shape’ doesn’t require anything more than a novice-to-intermediate level of ability in any particular thing. For instance, you can progress from being completely sedentary to being pretty good at yoga and see a massive corresponding increase in your general quality of life. But that’s as far as the principle extends, before the returns for your effort start diminishing. After that point, the shifts from intermediate-to-advanced-to-elite will have absolutely no corresponding increase in your general quality of life, because at that point the training you’re doing is specialized. It’s yoga-specific (or anything-else-specific) adaptation that has no practical overlap with the outside world.

Nothing in excess, everything in balance. You know what that is? It’s the fucking slogan of  ‘Core’ dog-food company. Who cares where wisdom comes from. Learn it by heart.”

If you’re interested in reading some more excerpts, here’s my book’s Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/BikramYogaMemoir/timeline



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