“I practice yoga.”
As a personal trainer, I hear people express (or accept) this popular concept without a second thought. But if you said “I practice working out,” people would be very confused.
There is something about yoga that allows us to approach it as a lifelong practice; we somehow know we can continue to improve ourselves through yoga forever, without reaching an end or conclusion. I think this has something to do with yoga’s origins in Eastern traditions. Yoga's ancient spiritual roots seem to make people more forgiving of some of its less tangible aspects. For example, if a yoga instructor tells us that we store a lot of emotion in our hips, it may not occur to us to ask what that means or how anyone could know that. By contrast however, if a Western medical doctor shared some of the physiological specifics of running intervals or doing deadlifts, you might be tempted to ask for evidence—like solid research—that backs the claim.
I propose we start thinking about our workouts the way we think about yoga. Why? I’m glad you asked.
Internal Motivation vs. External Goals
For many people, practicing yoga has as much to do with mental and emotional goals as physical ones. Because yoga encourages the practitioner to remain present, pay attention to her or his breath, and check in with her- or him- self, yoga provides a workout for the mind as well as the body. In short, for many people, the purpose of doing yoga is doing yoga.
"There’s nothing wrong with having external or aesthetic goals, but in my experience, most clients who find true, long-term success also tend to fall in love with the process itself."
In stark contrast to this "the-process-is-the-product" understanding of yoga, we tend to view traditional ways of working out as a means to some other specific end. Being a trainer, I can tell you that most people work out to see aesthetic or performance improvements (and those goals are usually about creating body composition changes). Just as often, fitness is seen as a way to improve the quality of another aspect of life, like lifting luggage, playing with kids, walking up stairs, or carrying groceries. Very rarely does someone improve their fitness in order to be better at the experience of fitness.
Placing the fitness focus on external goals, as opposed to the internal experience of exercise, makes working out seem more like a chore—a step that must be accomplished to get what we really want, as opposed to an experience or a reward in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with having external or aesthetic goals, but in my experience, most clients who are able to find true, long-term success also tend to fall in love with the process itself.
The "About-to-Die" Factor
Yoga encourages practitioners to check in with their bodies' limitations so that poses, though potentially challenging, remain physically attainable for the practitioner without causing injury or strain. Good, old fashioned fitness, on the other hand, currently has a terrible (and inaccurate!) rap for being so hard.
I've had clients complain to me after a great and productive workout that they didn’t feel like they were going to puke—as if that’s a bad thing! Marketing, media, and sports folklore would have us believe that if a workout doesn’t make us feel like we're about to die, then we aren’t working hard enough. Aside from the fact that this is absolutely not true, it also makes the idea of working out extremely daunting and unmotivating.
There's No Such Thing as "Right"
Add to the equation the fact that fitness has relatively recent Western roots, and you can see why we tend to be more exacting in our desire to do fitness “right.” It seems like we're more forgiving with yoga. In fact, part of yoga’s appeal might be that because we don’t fully understand how it affects us, we can’t pursue doing it “correctly.” All we know is it's been around for thousands of years, it challenges our bodies and minds, and it feels darn good.
"All my clients want to know the exact right way to do things, the exact right combination of exercises, and the exact right eating plan. I assure you: There is no such thing."
But in Western science and medicine, we are taught to expect black and white answers. All my clients want to know the exact right way to do things, the exact right combination of exercises, and the exact right eating plan. I assure you: There is no such thing. But that doesn't stop marketing and media from inundating us with claims of “scientifically proven” ways to lose weight or get shredded fast. (Insert eye roll here.)
Bonus: Meet Your Goals and Maintain Your Gains
If your goal is to get stronger, protect your joints, maintain fat loss, build lean muscle mass, increase balance and mobility, and improve your cardiovascular system, then consistency over the long term is much more important than intensity in the short term. Going really hard and then quitting for a while is the opposite of what you need.
Approaching fitness as a lifelong habit—a continuous, fluid practice—will not only protect you from things like overuse injuries and other ailments that come with doing too much too soon. It will also bring you closer to your goals and allow you to maintain the results you work so hard to achieve
Practice Makes... Even Better Practice
So why does any of this matter? Would approaching fitness as a practice actually improve anything?
I think so.
For one, calling something a practice takes the pressure off doing it perfectly. What if not doing it "right," (missing a lift, having an unexpectedly slow and difficult run, etc.) was just part of getting better at fitness? Thinking you have to do something perfectly makes it more likely you won't do it at all. I often see clients approaching fitness with the idea that they must succeed in a specific way, and it inevitably leads to them feeling like failures—all it takes is one not-so-great workout to leave people unmotivated to try it again. On the other hand, “practicing” something seems harmless. Fun, even! I think approaching fitness as a skill to be developed and improved would increase the likelihood of people getting started, while increasing motivation for continuing.
"The future of the fitness industry should be anti-fast results and anti-instant gratification."
The future of the fitness industry should be anti- fast results and anti- instant gratification. We should be approaching the weight room as a place to learn skills that we can practice and improve, month after month, year after year, forever. There is so much joy to be had in fitness, so many different ways to progress, and so much pleasure in movement and overcoming obstacles.
So, let's start approaching fitness like we approach yoga. Let's take our time to learn the basics before moving on to the hard stuff. Let’s aim to be constantly improving and taking on new challenges, and pushing our limits. Let's celebrate our victories in the gym, not just on the scale, and let's do it for the simple reward of using our bodies for something challenging and wonderful.
Jessi Kneeland is a New York City-based certified personal trainer, strength coach, fitness writer, and founder of Remodel Fitness with more than six years of one-on-one training experience. She's a secret superhero on a mission to save the world from negative body image. Read her blog, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.