Fitness is not health

A major part of my awakening process happened when I learned techniques for mental or emotional growth… and recognized a parallel to something I’d learned in martial arts, Tai Chi, or yoga. The cross-reference between emotional and physiological experiences was mind-blowing, and helped me find a “center” that cannot be taught from a book or lecture… you have to actually experience it.

There are faster ways to “get” this than the decades of training I went through, and one of them is the Five Tibetans, which I’ve discussed many times. While not a complete exercise system (they don’t really touch aerobic capacity, nor do they take you through all six “degrees of freedom”) they are seriously excellent, scalable (at the beginning you do no more than three reps), require little time, no equipment, can be learned from a book (in fact, ALL there really is as “authority” is a book, the “Eye of Revelation” written by a mystery man named Peter Kelder and published in 1939) and provide a pretty darned solid base for fitness/health. Seek it out—we’ll discuss it more later. Here’s an article on them, and you can find plenty of free resources on the Web.

But one thing I wanted to discuss is the place that the “family” of exercises like the Tibetans, yoga, chi gong, joint recovery and so forth occupies. Basically, they are “health” activities, not strictly “fitness” activities.

Just recently a friend and advanced martial artist passed away. In conversation with one of his students, I was dismayed that they were confused about how this could have happened. He was so strong and skilled! How could he die like that?

I wanted to shake her. The teacher chain-smoked, ate for pleasure rather than health, kept bizarre night-owl hours, and practiced his martial art at an intensity that would cripple a teenager, let alone a man in his later years. It was only a matter of time.

Fit? Sure. Healthy? Not at all, and if you don’t understand the difference, you are in trouble.

Fit means the ability to perform. Usually to throw something of X weight Y distance. Or to repeat a movement Y times with Z weight. Or jump so high. Or run so fast for so long. It is the external “yang” world of quantifiable activity. And BECAUSE it is quantifiable, people flock to it.

Health is far subtler. While there are certainly medical markers, most of it is far more subjective. How do you feel when you wake up in the morning? How do your joints feel? Your back? Is your mood high and positive and balanced? Do you face life with a sense of optimism? To get a touch “woo-woo”, does your chi flow smoothly through your body and life? Sleep well and deeply? Have a joyous, spontaneous and powerful sexual expression? Experience orgasm deeply and fully? How’s your posture? Skin tone?

Most of these are subjective. Fitness and health are different things that overlap. But it is possible to be very fit or even a champion athlete but suffer degenerative disks, deteriorated joints, liver damage from performance drug use, chronic pain or headaches, a bad back, sleep disruption, violent mood swings, frequent colds and flues, and more.

But man! They can fight, or run, or lift, or tie their bodies into knots like nobody’s business. I’ll never forget “Jimmy” the young black belt who asked me: “When will I stop being afraid? When will I stop feeling like a fraud?”

God knows I wish I had known then what I know now. When, about six months later I heard he’d shot himself, I realized the depths of his pain and anguish, and cursed that I hadn’t listened more deeply. Wished I’d had greater wisdom, and pledged to find the answer I would have given him, had I been a wiser person.

The problem with “Jimmy” was that he had put martial skills AROUND his pain and fear, like armor, like a shell. But although people might oohh! and ahh! as he performed martial ballet, inside he was unchanged. If he hadn’t been so wounded, then over time the shell would be absorbed into his bones, shifting his core identity by anchoring performance to honest perception, allowing him to express more powerfully the more authentically he behaved and the more calmly he thought and felt. That feedback loop is incredibly powerful, and has worked for thousands of years: first the outer world changes, and then the inner.

“Jimmy” didn’t have time for that. Athletes who seek approval, or riches, or scholarships, or community, or self-expression by tearing their bodies apart in their teens have time to learn and grow and evolve. But if you work out in the same way in your 30’s or 40’s, you may be asking for trouble.

Coach Scott Sonnon’s “Performance Pyramid” is a beautiful model: you start with health, then atop that put fitness, then skill, and then competition. I like to add another foundational aspect: mental/emotional health.

So: mental/emotional health is your foundation. Exercises like heartbeat meditation, the “Ancient Child”, the “glitter in water” technique, dream journaling and so forth.

Then: physical health. This is stretching, joint recovery, daily motion (like walking) and enough weight-bearing exercise to stimulate basic muscle tone.

If you choose a discipline like yoga, the Tibetans, or Tai Chi, it is possible for this to shade into the realm of fitness in an elegant way, and nothing more is necessary.

But if you want to perform in a sport it may be a good idea to add fitness activities: how far, how fast, how many, how long, how heavy, etc. If you don’t add fitness, and create a foundation of health, you “weekend athletes” will tear your bodies to pieces, and call it age. No, it’s ignorance.

Once emotional health, physical health, and fitness are in place, you should acquire skill—efficiency and effectiveness in motion. This is very important in any activity, but especially those where you must perform under stress or resistance (grappling), encounter random variables (hiking, rock climbing) or attempt to generate force against an obstacle (racquet sports). All of these things create wear and tear, and the only solution is committing to higher and higher levels of flow and efficiency. Sports where you translate rotary to linear momentum create shearing forces on the joints that lead to surgery down the road. Be careful!

Now then… if you have all of these pieces: psychological health, physical health, fitness, and skill… then you enter the realm of performance and competition.

This may sound like a lot, but if you choose your activities with care, and really think it through, health and basic fitness can be acquired in about an hour a week if you are very sly about it (say by combining Five Tibetans and a basic breathing meditation, plus dream journaling). More advanced fitness can be gained in another hour a week (say by integrating/adding three TacFit sessions).

The smarter you are, the more educated you are, the most honest you are about the fact that you aren’t a teenager any more, and the more disciplined and focused you are, the less time it takes and the more bang you get for your buck.

So… there you are, a critical piece of the body-mind question. “Jimmy” was missing the first piece: psychological/emotional health. If I’d known then what I know now, I could have zeroed in and given him specific recommendations. True, he might still have been unable to cope… he might still have ended up destroying himself…

But I believe he would have had a fighting chance.

-Steve Barnes


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