Why is it that in gyms, the yoga and stretching classes are always grouped under the banner of “mind and body”, while high intensity cardio, circuit or weightlifting classes are not? Weightlifting is all about the mind, strength is about the mind. I guess it’s because “regular exercise” is something we’re used to doing mindlessly. This is a shame. There is no way you can progress without mindfulness. It’s not religious, it doesn’t have to be serene or disciplined. Instead it’s quite simple. If you wish to progress your training in any way at all, you must think about it. You must reflect on what you’re doing, and bring your awareness and attentiveness to the task.
I think this is what they’re trying to tap into when they use the passive-aggressive phrasing of “go hard or go home” – for my money, this is not how to approach training. Instead, and I think this is the good sentiment – you should give yourself the opportunity to have a proper experience of training. Sometimes this will mean going hard, and sometimes it will mean going home. But it is not random, it’s not chaotic, you work hard at certain things when it’s appropriate to work hard. Nobody works hard at a warm-up, that’s not the purpose of a good warm-up. And your preparatory sets are not work sets, they’re sets you use to direct your focus and prepare your body and mind. Then when you do get to your work sets, those are the sets you work hard at. But not in a stupid way. It’s about specificity, and that means bringing your focus and attention to the task.
There’s no other pursuit I can think of, in life, where we are told not to think about it, not to use our brains, as if that will help us to progress? Everything else you do, you bring your intelligence to the fore, and you maximise your chance for success!
And your strength training does not need to be high intensity cardio at the same time. It will be, if you’re training squats, because they’re so demanding. But you don’t do everything all at once. If you compete at a sport, much will be required of you all at once, and your training must prepare you for that in some way, but your training is not the competitive event. The event is the test, your training is a process. The event tests whether or not the process was effective.
So when you’re training strength, train your strength. Challenge your muscles, rest and recover. When you’re training skills, train your coordination, practice the technique specifically. Practice good movements, and remember that fatigue will damage movement quality. Practice attentively, and learn how much practice is appropriate. When you’re training for endurance, or to increase your conditioning, be specific. And be specific about how you combine your efforts. Work hard at the things you need to work hard at, but don’t try to do everything all the time, that’s no way to progress.
Bring your mind and body together to the task. Train cardio when you’re training cardio. Use your breath. Harmonise your body and mind through the “kung” if you will, the “kung” of “kung fu”. “Kung” means work. It may be hard, but it is also meditative in nature, focused, specific, it is not random or chaotic. It is practice. It may be monotonous, but the essence of “kung” is to be found when you train the mind by training the body. It looks like physical exercise but it is not. It is mind-training.
But this too, is not rigid. It is not necessarily hard, it does not need to be forceful. It’s not about self-oppression, if anything it’s about liberation. Freedom achieved through work. You don’t use discipline in order to oppress yourself, if you apply discipline to a task, you use it to stimulate development and growth. This is quite different from applying discipline in an attempt to make yourself eat less food, no. Discipline is not about self-oppression, or even denial or hardship. It is about work and freedom. This may seem strange or vague, but it is not. Training the mind frees the mind.
You don’t discipline yourself to practice a task to the point where it becomes hurtful, that is ridiculous – no, discipline brings you to the activity at hand with an open and dedicated mindset, and intelligence and self-compassion temper your discipline. Work in a way that is appropriate to your condition, your temperament, and your goals. Do nothing that harms your body or mind.
People write a lot about the importance of discipline. I have spoken about it at some length. It gets deified or vilified, but it is no solid thing, merely a concept. Like all other things, you get better at it the more you practice, so make sure you’re practicing things that are good for you. Because you don’t want to get better at things that are bad for you – self-hatred, self-oppression. Being able to endure hardship is a good skill to have, because hardship exists. It can be a shitty world – when it comes to hardship, there’s enough out there already. You don’t need to bring more onto your own shoulders. No, be on your own side. Be the one in your own corner. Treat yourself with compassion, bring an intelligent mindset to your training, and you will find that you are capable of a tremendous amount of growth. Training is not just about beating your head against a wall.
Putting yourself through hardship is only one way to learn to endure hardship. The other way is via kindness: remembering that you’ve got your own back. You’re on your own side. Then you know there’s a total badass on your side and who can fuck with you then?
You don’t always need to rely on masochism. Sometimes you just need to feel like someone’s got your back. And you can always be that someone for yourself.
That’s where discipline comes in real handy. It gives you the strength to reject the pressure to hate. You can discipline yourself to kindness. It’s a strange irony, but it makes sense. Discipline is used to protect your vulnerabilities from the slings and arrows of this world, it need not be used in an attempt to eradicate your vulnerabilities. That is futile.
The essence of training is in kindness, not cruelty. We train, because we want our lot to be improved in some way. We want things to be better. So discipline need not be rigid, instead it can be soft, inquisitive, eager. Give yourself the generous opportunity to have a real experience of training by bringing your mind to the task of training your body. Or do you bring your body to the task of training your mind?