What’s at the center of your being right now? Right this second.
That’s a question my coach asked me once during a conversation, and I froze in my tracks to puzzle it over. I considered possible weighty, metaphysical responses—deep, profound, disingenuous and ultimately without meaning. I also considered broad, simple answers: mind, consciousness, awareness. Accurate, but vague enough that there would be no actual substance to the response.
After I had spent a few moments wondering what the “right” answer was, my coach said, “Well, I would hope that right now ‘listening’ is at the center of your being.” He went on to explain that he didn’t mean anything mystical or mysterious by the question: it was a literal cue to stop and consider what was my current prevalent focus, mood or internal atmosphere. He said we’re often tempted to think “the center of our being” is something set in stone—some completely inflexible core around which everything we are is built layer by layer. But actually, he said, it doesn’t work like that. The center of our being is constantly shifting—being swapped out and renewed day by day, moment by moment. Right now you’re focused on reading, and that is the center of your being. The act and process of reading is central in your mind; your body and attention are aligned towards the text. As long as you’re so aligned, reading is the center of everything you are. Your heart is beating in service of reading. In five minutes, maybe “hungry” will be the center of everything you are, and then you’ll shift “making a sandwich” to the center, because, body and brain, you will turn yourself towards that task.
Staying updated on this, knowing “what’s at the center” at any given moment, is not only a vital part of coaching, it is a vital part of powerful, effective, self-aware action. A coach needs to be aware what’s at the center of others, athletes needs to be aware of what’s at the center of themselves. And it’s not a one-time revelation: it’s an ongoing study.
Think of the first time you ever walked into the gym. What impelled you? Why, deep down, did you decide to step through the door? That’s not in any way a rhetorical question. It demands a specific, direct answer. Being transparent to yourself and commanding deep knowledge of what motivates you would put you in a position to benefit fully from every available resource—both your own internal resources, and the external opportunities that come along to move further towards your goals.
But it isn’t just a one-time revaluation exactly because of the shifting, transforming nature of our motivations and aspirations. Whatever was at the center of your being the first time you walked into a gym, it may not be—in fact, almost certainly isn’t—the center anymore. Your perspective has changed, your knowledge has deepened, your resources have expanded, and you’re aligned towards something new now. Staying up to date on what’s at the center now vs. what was at the center then is the difference between subscribing to a narrative about yourself and having knowledge of yourself.
If you take out all the specifics, every hero’s journey comes down to the same fundamental arc. The hero moves out of familiar surroundings, into the realm of adventure. After trials and striving, the hero arrives at some kind of symbolic revelation; he or she returns to the normal world, but now everything looks different.
Whether you’re a bodybuilder, a weightlifter or just someone who generally aspires to “fitness,” your training can follow a hero arc. Every workout can be a heroic journey. You move out of the common, everyday concerns of life, into a realm where all different values, all different motivations are brought into the center of your being. Strength, power, poise; health, self-care, high aesthetics; self-revolution. Undertaking to lift a heavy thing represents a will to undertake exceptional tasks, a burning fervor to challenge and stimulate your mind and body in a way that perhaps no other sphere of your life enables. Passing out of ordinary life into this realm, you arrive at revelations about your own strength, beauty or steadfastness, and you return to the ordinary world changed.
But to really reap the deepest benefits of this arc, you can’t go through the motions like an automaton. It requires ongoing self-knowledge. It requires you to be transparent to yourself. Just like you become leaner and stronger little by little, you need to become more self-aware, little by little.
[A short snippet from my book The Man Who Pulled His Own Leg, describing the beautiful moment of lifting a heavy thing.]
You should see my Olympic weightlifter friend in action. First, she steps onto the mat and approaches the barbell—for a few moments she’s merely the friendly, cheerful person I know, walking casually along, a familiar smile on her face. Coming to a stop standing with her toes below the steel bar (which is elevated by the weight-plates at either end) she squats down and takes hold with a wide grip—hands pronated, elbows locked, spine straight, chin raised. Already a transformation is taking place. I’m not simply seeing a friend of mine anymore: I’m now seeing a physiological machine poised to explode into intense action—a kinetic sculpture; an artistic exploration of human capability. Somatic and mental evolution expressing themselves in a playful manipulation of force and matter. Chemical, cellular, musculoskeletal, nervous—every level of physical and psychological organization coming into a finely-tuned, automatically consolidated functional balance.
From this meticulously disciplined starting position (because the lift has already succeeded or failed in its preparation) she takes a deep breath, holds it (making her core a more solid base for what’s to follow by the increase of intra-abdominal pressure) and launches into motion. The muscles of the lower body supply the initial drive; legs extending, hips moving upwards and forwards; simultaneously, her tightened trunk draws backward, pulling her body towards a natural standing posture, very nearly “the anatomical position.” Agonist and antagonist muscles are precisely contracting isometrically and isotonically, locked in a seamless, reciprocal integration of movement—like members of an orchestra upholding their individual parts of a rigidly structured kinetic melody. The bar, rising in her grip as her body rises, slides first up her shins, past her knees as they lock, then to her waist; without the slightest break in the continuity of the movement, she makes a small hop off the ground—a fast-twitch muscle flourish, a subtle, easily-missed token of complete technical mastery of the physics at play—before dropping into a deep squatting position; knees fully flexed and tracking over the line of her toes, weight on heels, crease of hip below parallel to the floor; lumbar region of her back strong and active. Meanwhile, while she made her hop, her upper body was far from passive; shoulders shrugging upwards powerfully, she launched the barbell at the ends of her locked arms; bringing it up from her waist, she takes control of its rise and stops its motion as it comes directly overhead.
By this point, you have already witnessed a dazzling display of neurological communication and control—to say nothing of the counterbalanced muscular strength and diarthrotic joint flexibility involved. But you feel as though you haven’t only seen the movement performed once: rather, you’ve seen the culmination of a thousand (or more) repetitions. Over the course of long practice and entrainment, the complexities inherent have been internalized; their execution is, to a degree, automatic and unconscious, in the sense that they could not be properly performed in all their simultaneous aspects by the conscious mind alone. The brain as a whole, the central and peripheral nervous systems in their entirety, must be recruited. The lifter, for a fleeting instant of powerful motion, is displaying a human brain and body operating at functional capacity; motor cortex output traveling along efferent neurons, winding smoothly into an opposite stream of sensory input, as millions of afferent neurons carry the somatosensory signatures of every muscle’s position in space to a central executive will, a unifying cognition.
Ludwig Wittgenstein said that our first and foremost certainty is of our body. Immersed in a universe of mysterious and metagnostic dubiety, we are grounded throughout our lives by the continuity of our somatic experience. The body is the base of all our experiences—we are viscerally certain of it even when we are certain of nothing else. And so it is only natural that in moments where the body and the mind lock into the operational oneness they were born to enjoy, when every cell is working to a common goal—when the spontaneous and intermeshed expression of the body dominates the entire mind and has the whole attention rapt—it is only natural that everything should make sense. Everything is certain, because this moment is certain, and this moment is everything. In the subjective experience of complete functional integration, nothing falls outside the perfection of the execution.
We don’t ask anyone why they want to be happy; happiness justifies itself. In the same way, immersed in the optimality of integrated movement, the movement justifies itself; the experience, the moment, the body, all justify themselves through the expression of their perfection.
I doubt these are the thoughts going through the lifter’s mind, in the instant she’s coiled at the bottom of the squat, back tight, head raised, the barbell held above by perfectly straight arms. The experience of optimality is too complete, too focused, to allow for such meandering thoughts; it’s alive, and it only lives in motion; doesn’t stop to put itself in words. It can only be put in words after it’s already over; and even then, the words are always inadequate.
But the lift hasn’t ended yet. Extending her legs once again—as if attempting to press the floor beneath her away—she rises into a standing posture, the barbell high aloft, the very picture of triumph. Completion. The end of the kinetic score. The orchestra falls silent and only the reverberations remain to tell what has just occurred. Dumping it forward, she drops the dead weight of the barbell from its height to the floor. A quick bounce, a slight roll across the mat, and it is still: disengaged from the hands of the lifter, it has lost its living motion. It, which seemed such an active character in the preceding performance, is revealed to be lifeless without its connection to the honed proprioception of the athlete.
Turning away, she walks from the mat, a wide smile crossing her face. The barbell has returned, essentially, to the spot where it started. Nothing has been changed. But everything has changed. The lifter’s smile shows that she understands this; she, immersed in the motion, conducting the band, felt its relevance, its absolute self-justification. She has acted out the lyrics “Do not die without knowing what your limits were.”
My girlfriend & I have joined forces on an ebook geared towards providing anyone walking into a Bikram yoga class, whether newbie or veteran, with basic information about how their body functions when exercising in intense conditions, and what they need to know to take proper care of themselves.
(My girlfriend is a professional Bikram yoga instructor, and blogs here: http://yogamattes.com.)
You can see other sample chapters from the ebook about sweating, hydration, electrolytes and nerves either here on Planet Beast or over at her blog. Most of the chapters we’ve put up have been in order, but now we’re taking it out of order to share some basic information about the role of stretching in health and fitness. Again, the ebook is geared towards Bikram yoga students, but any kind of athlete could benefit from the info.
Proper stretching has a host of benefits for the body. When done regularly, stretching can help to improve range of motion (ROM,) can help prevent injuries and arthritis, relaxes the muscles, can increase flexibility, improve posture, help prevent hardening of arteries and increases blood-flow. Those who stretch regularly benefit more than those who stretch occasionally, and those who perform a variety of stretching exercises benefit more than those who only perform only one or two. By both those criteria, a regular yoga practice is just the ticket.
Types of stretching
There are actually four different types of stretching: ballistic, dynamic, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, and static. Static stretching is the only kind we do in Bikram yoga class. As the name implies, static stretching is performed by stretching the muscle until a gentle tension is felt and held for a certain amount of time, or until muscular release is felt, without any movement or bouncing. The hold is static. This is an important distinction, because bouncing and moving “to get farther into the pose” is a common mistake made by beginners. This is ballistic stretching, which is an entirely different animal. Ballistic stretching exercises are a thing, but they are not at all like yoga exercises. Yoga poses are not designed to be performed ballistically, hence it is not safe, biomechanically, to treat them that way.
Physiology of Stretching
To understand the tight, pulling sensation experienced during stretching (called passive muscle tension,) it is necessary to look at the physiology of the muscles themselves, simplified to the aspects most relevant to our discussion. An individual muscle is made up of bundles of individual muscle cells. When you think of a body cell, you might imagine a little round glob with a single nucleus. Muscle cells, however, are different than other body cells. They are long threadlike things, which is why they are also called muscle fibers. They are incredibly thin—10 to 100 nanometers—but they generally run the entire length of the muscle they comprise, and can contain multiple nuclei. So, for instance, the individual threadlike muscle fibers that make up your biceps run the whole length of your upper arm; those that make up your hamstrings run the whole length of the back of your thigh, etc. We’ll see why in a moment.
Inside the outer membrane of the threadlike fiber is an even thinner fiber. This tiny inner fiber is called the myofibril. The myofibril, in turn, is made up of individual microscopic contractile filaments called sarcomeres. These sarcomeres facilitate the movement of skeletal muscles (the muscles that move your skeleton; the ones you use all day every day, whenever you do literally anything.) When the muscle fiber is stimulated to contract, these tiny overlapping filaments pull together. On and on down the chain, they pull together, causing the entire muscle to contract towards its origin point and pull against its insertion point. And because the skeletal muscle is anchored to a freely moving joint, the contraction pulls on the joint and causes its angle to be either increased or decreased, depending on what that particular muscle’s “job” is.
Think of a bodybuilder flexing his biceps. As his elbow bends, the biceps muscle suddenly looks larger and rounder. What’s happening? The microscopic sarcomeres inside the muscle fibers are pulling together and overlapping—rather than resting laid out along the upper arm in a long chain, they are piling up: the muscle is contracting. That same contraction is what causes the elbow to bend. Contracting towards its origin point in the shoulder, the muscle pulls on the opposite end—it exerts leverage against its insertion point in the elbow and causes the straight arm to bend. That’s why each muscle fiber runs the full length of the muscle—so they can exert a pull all the way from origin to insertion.
The cause of the passive resistance felt during stretching was once supposed to be extracellular (in the connective tissues,) but a study by Magid and Law demonstrated that it actually comes from within the myofibrils themselves.
What this means is, when you’re stretching, you’re stretching against the elastic resistance of those microscopic sarcomeres. And due to neurological safeguards against injury, it is normally impossible for adults to stretch most muscle groups to their fullest possible length without extensive training, due to muscle activation of antagonists as the stretched muscle reaches the limit of its normal range of motion. While stretching is highly beneficial to the body, over-stretching is detrimental. The body is wired to protect itself against over-stretching injury, and the upper limits we experience in our flexibility are often not mechanical limits at all but rather due our body’s hardwired resistance to the stretch itself.
Stated another way, some of the increases we see in our ability to stretch with practice are not due to increased capacity to stretch but rather increased neurological stretch-tolerance in muscles. Safe, effective stretching increases stretch-tolerance within a healthy, biomechanically sound range, thereby improving range of motion, better aligning joints and relieving chronic muscle tension. Another benefit of stretching is that it stimulates the production of synovial fluid (the fluid that pads and lubricates freely moving joints.)
Understanding that the passive resistance felt during a stretch comes from within the muscle itself illustrates an important principle in safe stretching: when stretching a muscle, it should be relaxed. Contracting the muscle, as we’ve seen, pulls the sarcomeres together, whereas stretching pulls against those sarcomeres. Thus, attempting to stretch a contracted muscle is physiologically unsound, because the muscle will be physically unable to stretch and the tension will be transferred to surrounding connective tissues. Ligaments and tendons do benefit from gentle stretching, but yoga poses are not designed to safely allow connective tissue to bear the full brunt of the stretch. That is not the intended effect of any pose. And yet, stretching against tight, contracted muscles tends to transfer the brunt of the stretch in exactly that way, potentially making the pose more conducive to causing soft-tissue injury. In short, you’re doing it wrong.
First of all, let me just get this off my chest:
WEIGHT IS SUCH A FUCKING STUPID METRIC TO MEASURE A HUMAN BEING WITH, HOW DID THE IDEA CATCH ON IN THE FIRST PLACE.
Don’t think I’m starting off on a moral note or being anti-vanity. I’m making a neutral statement, there. I’m not saying “It’s wrong to aspire to certain physical aesthetics,” I’m just saying that thinking only about weight is a fundamentally misguided way of approaching those aesthetics. Even in completely vain terms—purely as a means working on one’s appearance—weight is a stupid absolute metric to be following. What I’m saying is, there are more effective ways of being vain—worrying exclusively and obsessively about weight is a clumsy method.
As a bodybuilder, I recognize that my relationship to my weight is literally inverted from the average person’s. Most people want to lose a few pounds and keep them off—whereas I want to gain twenty-eight pounds and keep them on. Most people would get depressed if they realized they’ve “outgrown” their clothes and need to shop for a new wardrobe. I, one the other hand, get wicked excited when I can no longer squeeze into a pair of jeans, and feel like we should go out to dinner and celebrate whenever it becomes impossible to fasten the top button on one of my dress shirts.
But the inversion of my value system around weight doesn’t change the fact that it is a stupid metric to attach absolute meaning to. Still looking at this purely in terms of vanity, there are too many other variables involved in physical aesthetics for weight to be really useful as the be-all-and-end-all measurement. Muscularity, symmetry, etc., etc. If my concern is creating a certain physical image, I need to be thinking about a whole slew of other things besides my weight—including qualitative rather than qualitative things, like posture and movement. Those all factor into appearance—most of them are vastly more significant than weight.
Weight is the sole measurement by which a farmer determines the value of a pumpkin. If you judge yourself primarily according to weight, you are cultivating yourself like a farmer cultivates a champion pumpkin. (That goes whether you’re trying to lose weight like most people, or trying to gain weight, like a bodybuilder. Whichever change on the scale you attach value to, the scale is fundamentally the same, and fundamentally lacking as a real measurement of what you’re trying to achieve.)
If we take the pursuit of an “ideal weight” out of the context of vanity and place it in the context of “health” or “fitness,” it becomes an even more wildly misguided and fundamentally absurd, abortive fiasco. Muscle weighs more than fat. Bone and cartilage weigh something, too—and since the process of getting “more fit” involves getting more muscle, denser bones and stronger joints, changes in weight associated with increased fitness are influenced by many more variables than just fat loss.
(I can’t stress this enough to anybody lifting weights or building strength in any way: even if you’re not trying to “get bulky,” you’re still building more muscle as you get more fit. Touching very briefly on the subject, literally every body movement is facilitated by little contractile proteins in the core of each muscle fiber—getting stronger is a measurable mechanical effect of new proteins being added inside the fiber. That translates to weight. A stronger muscles weighs more, even if it isn’t visibly “bulkier.”)
And as you get more fit, no matter what kind of training you’re doing, nine times out of ten you’re perforce going to start adhering to better habits of hydration. BAM, more water in your body, more weight to your body. Think about that. It obviously doesn’t mean chronic dehydration is a healthier option because you’ll weigh less. It means weight is, for yet another reason, fucking flawed as a measurement of health or fitness.
Imagine for a second that you’re a sedentary guy, on the hefty side. You work a desk job, and have decided that your New Year’s Resolution is to become more active. You start a new fitness routine.
When you tell somebody that you want to get in shape, you say, “I want to lose weight.” That’s shorthand for what you mean, which is “I want to alter my body composition and increase my level of general physical conditioning in order to enjoy improved health and quality of life, and potentially greater longevity, and, coincidentally, enhance my physical aesthetics.”
That’s a mouthful; of course you go for the weight-loss shorthand. But here’s the kicker: that’s absolutely not an accurate or acceptable summation of your objectives, because even though a corollary of your overall goal is to lose fat, fat loss is not what you’re measuring—the only thing you’re measuring is your weight. If you’re judging the success or failure of your new routine by changes in weight, and that means you’re judging it wrong.
Perhaps, after a few weeks, no significant reduction in weight causes you to become frustrated, lose motivation and give up on your resolution.
This isn’t a gray area. If you’re just going by weight, you’re doing it wrong.
If you instead judged your new fitness routine—which we’re just assuming is being done well and intelligently, so it carries the maximum possible benefit for your work—by the fact that your back and joints no longer hurt all the time, you can walk up a flight of stairs without having to pause at the top and catch your breath, you can actually enjoy playing outside with your kids; your mood is generally staying in a more positive emotional range day-to-day, you’re happier with how your body looks than you’ve been in years; your sex life is better than it’s been in years; you’re more energetic and more interested in life and engaged with the world than you’ve been in years—and I’ll stop there, because this list could still keep going on for a while—if you judged your success by all these things instead of weight, maybe weight would be fucking ousted from it’s central position in your view of “health.”
Last night, a friend of mine asked me why I lift weights and build my body. She wasn’t being flip—she was actually intrigued by it, and wanted to understand what motivates me in the kind of training I do. I replied—and here’s what I said.
“HEY! So, why the training? Sorry in advance for writing a really long thing, but I’m getting pretty fascinated by trying to answer the question, because it forces me to step back and take a fresh look at why I do what I do, getting it clear enough to communicate it to someone else.
Really, the WHY varies from person to person, and there are as many different drives finding an outlet in bodybuilding as there are bodybuilders (and many, many different drives finding an outlet EVEN IN ONE bodybuilder, haha). But I can only get into my own stuff, and what I’ve talked about with my coach. (Did you read The Man Who Pulled HIs Own Leg? I don’t want to just rehash stuff from the book to answer your question, but a lot of the basic personal reasons I transitioned from yoga to bodybuilding are in there.)
One of the big things that keeps me with the training is that I JUST LOVE IT. Like, I love the actual moment of lifting a heavy thing. Since I take a lot of joy in the training itself, even if I made little or no ‘gains’ I would still be lifting. I do it because I find it amazing that my body is capable of it, and that keeps me intrigued by progressively discovering just how MUCH MORE my body is capable of. That, and feeling good physically as a result of it—so on a bodily level, basically the same exact two things that kept me with yoga for the past decade, and with martial arts for even longer than that.
I authentically enjoy the physical activity of hard, manual labor, even if that’s something as simple as having to move a pile of boulders from one place to another for some practical reason. Weightlifting is a way to enjoy that kind of thing systematically, for it’s own sake, while developing the ability to do more and more of the work as time goes on.
As for bodybuilding, WHY build bigger muscles and aspire to certain physical aesthetics, for their own sake, distinct from any actual application in physical or athletic work—that’s harder to answer because it has a lot of different motivations simultaneously. I’m not kidding when I say, for me, it is basically sarcastic. I do it with a wink. But at the same time, even though I’m doing it sarcastically, it’s very, very much NOT a joke (I don’t know if that contradiction makes much sense, but the fact that my coach instantly understood what I meant by it is one of the big reasons we get along so well, haha.) What I mean is, I don’t take it that seriously because I don’t derive my sense of self from, say, my biceps, but at the same time, it’s the outlet of a very serious artistic impulse. It’s not any different from the impulse to paint something or sculpt something. Except instead of working with canvass or marble, I’m working with my own genetics and physiology.
My left brain is intrigued because it’s a way to delve into how the body works and explore it on a practical level—practical, because it’s aimed at actually making observable changes—and my right brain is satisfied because the work-in-progress is something deeply artistic, aiming for the creation of a pretty damn powerful symbol. It’s the archetypes that are represented by a jacked body-as-a-symbol that make it compelling to work towards. Just ask ancient Greek sculptors. That’s why bodybuilding poses exist. They’re tools to express an ideal, and since they’re all about being seen, they’re about communicating something with other people.
And on the subject of being seen, the attention that comes with creating an imposing or impressive physique is also satisfying on some vain level, haha. I admitted to Dev a while ago that the bodybuilding progress-shots I was uploading to Facebook all the time while she was far away weren’t coincidence—they were almost entirely for her benefit. 😉
Lastly, for me, bodybuilding is kind of a mental deprogramming from a lot of stuff I’ve worked through in the past, where I glorified feeling shut-down and inadequate by justifying it with deconstructive philosophies—destroy the ego, abandon identification with the body, surrender all attachments, remain emotionally aloof from worldly things, etc, etc. I’m not knocking Eastern religions, I’m just saying I related to those ideas in a way that was basically negative.
And bodybuilding is a way of continuing to turn around from that, because what’s more body-positive, constructive and creative than directly working to get physically bigger? Hahaha.”