I go to church, but I meet Jesus at the gym. I don’t hate religion, it’s just that pumping iron is how I meditate.
Things get messy at my gym. It’s a place of honesty: I can’t hide my belly, my body hair or my sweaty man tears. It’s also the place where I become a better person because I have to push at my limits. Exercise is where I meet Jesus.
I understand that mentioning Jesus risks you thinking that I’m getting touchy-feely-religious. The goal of this piece is to leave you wanting more than muscle and sweat from your workout. I hope that you realize that the essence of your spirit is greater than any gym, or any religion can contain.
The Day I Met Jesus in the Gym
I met Jesus at the gym in January, 2009. For a few years, I just worked out hard. Exercise was about weight, weights and sweat… Go hard and go home. I exercised my body, but my mind and my spirit were flabby.
Then I decided to train harder. So for about eight months, I trained eleven times a week. Yes, I might be a tad obsessive. Over training combined with not under-recovery caught up to me. I became injured and I had to back off on my exercise. The break in routine seemed to kill my motivation and getting back to it was a struggle. As I slowly recovered my body and my motivation, I knew I needed to make a change. I made peace with not having a six pack and I learned to relax into the experience of exercise.
Learning the difference between exercise and fitness can change you
Fitness has some baggage, courtesy of a media that exploits lean, sexy, yoga-pants clad bodies to sell nearly every every product on earth. For me, the six pack-lean-sexy body became an unhealthy vision that evolved into compulsive exercise behavior. Letting go of fitness (and the baggage) and committing to healthy exercise has made a huge difference.
That was the day when exercise changed me. It is as if exercise opened a door and moved into my soul. When you bring your soul to the gym, your work outs will work their way in.
Exercise will expand you
Most times when I exercise, I don’t really go Ninja-Zen all over the place. I just sweat, complain a little and make weird noises. When you push a little beyond your limits, it will open you up to the world. This is why I exercise. Rather than my world shrinking because of the effects of stress, anxiety, pain or other problems, exercise cuts through all of that.
The Greeks had something to say about how exercise can expand you. They believed that fitness was exercise for the body and music for the soul. Their philosophy is summed up as, “Higher body, higher mind.” If our thing is to lift heavy things, we will miss out on the other 2/3 of what exercise can do in us.
I asked a group of exercise specialists, recovering addicts, business professionals and Good Men Project writers to weigh in on the subject of exercise and spirituality. I cannot include all of the responses, but here are the most powerful:
- “Exercise is my serenity.”
- “Exercise is intense, a kind of meditating, a way to stop thinking too much… it helps with my depression.”
- “As a martial artist, a great deal of my physical work was done with the timing of breath. When I can begin to time moves or motions in cycle with the breath a weird thing happens: I stop being just a body doing the moves. I can be the movements themselves. I’m no longer “just me”. “
- “Sunday morning the gym is my church…I walk in and sigh…yes, I am an outgoing high energy person, but I love to train alone in solitude, breathe, and focus on every rep…putting together my workout like a puzzle, visualizing it when it is complete. It is my therapy…”
- “I was addicted to exercise in my using days and that was part of my eating disorder. It was a form of self-punishment. I learned to care for and love myself, therefore all my actions towards myself became loving and kind as opposed to damaging and punishing. Today I exercise as a way to nurture myself.”
“Our material bodies are gifts and we have the responsibility to care for the body which includes regular exercise. We are spiritual beings, souls, and we have to care for our true identity as well.”
Notice that not one person said that what they love about exercise is their six pack. Exercise can teach you about who you are and about your potential. That is worth the price of admission, even if a six pack never makes it’s way to your midsection.
Exercise can move your body and your spirit.
Let’s say that riding is your thing. When you go hard, your body releases serotonin and endorphins, boosts your emotions, and makes your brain fire in all the right ways. Riding hard will also release what Dr. John Ratey calls “Miracle Gro for your brain” (BDNF or Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor). Your entire being surges when you push your body hard.
Hard exercise is like a Spark that ignites every part of us:
- It is one of the best treatments for many psychiatric problems like anxiety, depression and ADHD
- It conditions our brain to learn, to concentrate and to remember
- It makes a person more resilient to stress
- It gives inner strength to reclaim ourselves from the effects of addiction
- It pulls us more into the moment, enriching the time that we have, and it can extend our lives by as much as 4.5 years.
- It provides a “side door” to spirituality. It is not a directly spiritual practice like meditation or prayer, however, it provides similar benefits. We do the work and trust the outcome to our recovery time, our nutrition and the support that we get from our community.
- It links the mind, the emotions and the body. When combined with honest reflection, exercise can build emotional awareness and resiliency. Trauma (both physical and emotional trauma) is stored simultaneously in our memories as well as in our body tissues. Exercise is part of gently working through these physically stored emotions. In this way, exercise can help to rewrite our story.
Seven ways to bring your soul to the gym
I don’t recommend all seven at one time. Try one at a time and see what fits you.
- Occasionally leave your heart rate monitor at home and just exercise.
- When you exercise, breathe and concentrate on the moment. Relax into your movements. It may help to leave your iPod at home sometimes and make the quiet your workout partner.
- Listen to your body, notice any emotion, attend to any visual images that play in your mind.
- Ask yourself, where did you experience joy in this workout session?
- Take it in. When you finish your routine practice this one minute routine: Close you eyes and breathe normally. Listen to your breaths. Notice one thing you are grateful for.
- Use a journal to record any ideas, impressions or images that came up. Taking a few minutes to reflect is key to engaging your spirit as you exercise.
- Share what you learn: with a friend, with your trainer, or with the Good Men Project because we are your tribe.
One last thing, Jesus shared something he wants me to pass on to you, “Get up and walk.” If you enjoyed this piece, you will enjoy my article “7 Ways that Jesus Likes to Heal Nasty People.”
Until next week, Keep it Real.
If you are in need of a trainer, local trainers are available in your area through most fitness centers. Online, I can recommend three because I personally know what they have to offer: Jay Scott, Scott Tousignant and Michele Trainer.
Dalleck, L. C. & Kravitz, L. (2002, January). The history of fitness and lessons learned. Idea Health and Fitness Source. P. 26-31. http://hbisa.org/upfiles/168875376.pdf
Rately, J.J. (2008.) Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. Little, Brown and Company, New York.
Trainer, M. (2015). Unpublished comments. Visit www.michelethetrainer.com to contact Michele about her training and www.michelethetrainerwellness.com provides information about how Michele empowers corporate wellness.