When I was wild little 7 years old I had a truly radical experience in Karate class. It was a defining moment that changed the course of my life for sure and led me many years later to coin the term “exercise alchemy”.
I had a passionate hatred for authority as a little boy, but started taking Karate after having my mind blown by “The Karate Kid”. Our Sensei, who I loved and respected deeply – and who might have been the only person in existence that I had never disobeyed – told us with absolute confidence and without any warning that today, yes today as in right now, we’d all hold a horse stance. With our arms held out to the side. For twenty minutes straight!
I remember the feeling of shock and fear that rose up from inside my skinny little body and seemed to overpower every other thought or perception. The terror threatened to swallow me whole. “This is impossible” my mind whispered as we all dropped down into position. “Just fake it as long as you can”, I reassured myself.
It only took about 2 minutes for the whisper to become a full-blown scream and panic attack. My body was literally trembling and I started to worry I’d pass out or fall and hit my head. “Just give up, it’s not a big deal. There’s no way you can do it. Sensei won’t be mad at you.” An unstoppable flood of self-defeating thoughts washed over me like a raging ocean storm, threatening to drown me into oblivion.
“Ok, time’s up, you did it!” shouted Sensei.
Wait, what!?!? WTF just happened? I was equal amounts confused and relieved, an emotional combo I’d never experienced before. In a daze, I looked at the clock and sure enough, twenty minutes had passed. Seriously, what the fkkk just happened? My legs hurt so much I couldn’t think straight, never mind beginning to process what I’d just experienced.
The Power of Surrender
That defining moment – of having tasted eternity and of doing the impossible – has lived with me ever since that fateful day. It has been a major source of comfort and inspiration as I faced other seemingly impossible obstacles: physical ones like training for American Ninja Warrior or recovering from a herniated disc in my neck, emotional challenges like drug addiction, and to spiritual ones like my vision quest.
Instead of giving in to the panicked, undermining thoughts, I just witnessed them and surrendered to oblivion, accepting my fate. I committed so completely to that moment and all of its torture that I accepted it totally. And that caused me to go into some kind of trance state where time didn’t exist. Once I entered that timeless state, it was all of a sudden over “instantly”.
This is what I now call exercise alchemy, doing the physically impossible by transforming the negative into a positive, just like how snake venom can be used to create an antidote. I transcended my own perceived limitations and turned a moment of pure agony into total triumph!
Flowing Into the Unknown
One of the most famous quotes about the experience of exercise alchemy comes from the first man to run a mile in less than 4 minutes in human history. Many, many people had been gunning for this achievement for decades before it was finally realized by a guy named Roger in 1954.
After achieving the impossible, he said the following about his experience:
“No longer conscious of my movement, I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed.” Roger Bannister
This lack of consciousness can be better understood as a lack of self-consciousness, a state of flow where the doer and the deed merge and become one. If it sounds mysterious and incomprehensible, well, it is; our normal mode of understanding things through reason and logic are ill-equipped to comprehend such transcendental states. And yet, every night when you sleep you enter this magical world easily, though you may not be aware of it when you do.
Interestingly enough, it wasn’t long before other runners were able to replicate Roger’s success! The mystique of the 4-minute mile had been broken and it was now considered to be in the realm of possibility, and so it was possible for more people!
So I wonder, what things do you assume are impossible that are actually totally possible?
The #1 Obstacle = Self-Imposed Limitations
“I’m too clumsy. I’m too fat. I’m too lazy. I could never do 10 pullups. I’m just not built to run a sub 6-minute mile. I’ll never be able to heal my lower back pain. I’m just not good at sports.” And on and on.
These cancerous thoughts are the real “resistance”, not the weights in the gym. Learning to recognize and overcome this internal resistance is the key to a sustainable and empowering movement practice.
Perhaps they were planted inside of us by a mean kid from our childhood, or (even more destructively) a well-meaning yet unwise parent. Or maybe it’s just the impossible destructive cultural ideas of beauty, power, and elite athleticism that we are forced to consume through movies, commercials, advertisements, and TV?
But wherever they come from, there is only one way to truly overcome them, and that is directly experiencing them as false. This requires that you commit to doing the impossible, and it’s that commitment that allows you to show up consistently, train hard, and learn about how truly powerful you are.
Because these thoughts are truly just that, thoughts that we continue to impose on ourselves. You may have ingested them when you were little and didn’t know any better, but now you have a choice. Many of us cling to these thoughts because they are familiar, just because it feels safe, when in fact it’s the addiction to comfort and security that leads many to live “lives of quiet desperation”.
Instead of living by the wisdom of “follow the fear“, we become insulated by it. Never attempting to do the impossible, we never find out who we truly are and what we’re actually capable of.
You Were Designed to Be a Bad Ass
Yup, that’s your destiny.
Over the course of millions of years of research and design (i.e. evolution), you were made to dance with the unknown, go on adventures, be as powerful and flexible as a gymnast, to be able to handle real pain, suffering, weeks without food, and uncertainty. This is your “ancestral inheritance” – the countless generations that died before you lived to pass on what works in such a harsh reality in your DNA, while the superfluous gets lost in the sands of time. And your ancestral super powers are just waiting to be reclaimed!
There are only two things that are actually holding you back:
The first is the stories you tell yourself about who you are. These stories create our own personal mythology and identity, which then directs how we behave in the world, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is why so many people fail at reaching their goals: they only focus on the behavior, and not on the intrinsic motivation and story that drives the behavior, so they never experience a real transformation and a sense of self-mastery.
And the second thing holding you back is our “civilization”, which has been designed to keep you weak, sick, fat, dependent on drugs, addicted to comfort, stimulation, and thinking – and separated from your inner source of power and feelings. Many people living in the the western world are just human robots. Sure, it’s sad. The ninja doesn’t ask “why”, but rather asks “How can I make this information useful?”
In our last Ninja Fitness Academy (the holistic lifestyle design course I created), one of the students had this exact experience; changing his story changed everything.
Evan was a college level Lacrosse player over a decade ago, and was applying the “no pain no gain” mentality (one of the 7 exercise myths) that worked when he was a young athlete to his current workout program. Nevermind that he woke up at 4:30am to go to work every day where he has to sit in at a chair, only to come home to two high-energy sons and a newborn baby. The pattern that developed over the last few years was predictable but felt inescapable – but is common for many people:
- Resist working out.
- Finally find the motivation to workout.
- Push too hard, do too much too fast – and tweak the body.
- Become demotivated.
- Stop working out for a long period of time
And the story was “Man, I’m not in shape like I used to be, and I constantly get hurt when I try to get there again.”
I shared with Evan the idea that “no pain no gain” is the most common of the 7 exercise myths, and gave him some simple tools for learning how to listen to his body and know how hard to push. Here’s what he writes about his experience with Ninja Fitness Academy:
“On the tangible side I achieved my physical strength test goals of increasing my pull up max to 10 from 5, my push up max from 25 to 40. But more important for me was that I made movement a bigger part of my daily routine and I learned a ton about what it means to be fit. When I first started on this journey I was excited to get motivated to workout again. I never expected what came next. My knowledge about fitness, health, movement principles, exercise myths increased dramatically. I learned what it meant to become aware of my body, its signals, my routines, strengths and faults, and coping mechanisms. I became excited about being fit and healthy again. The main goal became to feel good, not about losing weight or attaining specific strength benchmarks although both also followed. Then the most surprising thing happened. The combination of this new found knowledge and awareness lead to a huge sense of freedom. No longer did I feel constrained to old exercise myths or routines or overly burdensome and rigid schedules or the oppressive goals of losing X amounts of pounds. Movement and exercise started to become less of a challenge and more a natural part of my daily life.” Evan B.
Switching from extrinsic motivation – “I should do this” – to intrinsic motivation – “I want to do this” – is THE total game changer that makes it easy to consistently practice movement. And not matter what your goals are, they all require consistent efforts.
So how can YOU take control of your story, purge yourself of self-defeating thoughts, and experience the power of exercise alchemy? Well, you actually have to go on a quest! And it won’t be easy, but it will be more than worth it, and you don’t have to go alone.
In fact, it’s almost impossible to do it all by yourself.
Meeting the Mentor
Evan was willing to step out of the comfort zone of his habits because he knows me personally and respects me as a holistic health coach.
And the only reason I committed so completely to holding a parallel squat for 20 minutes was my deep respect for my Sensei. He really believed in me, cared about me, and made Karate fun and engaging in a way that I was not used too. Although I went to a great grade school, it still felt like a prison to a high energy little boy such as myself.
This is the power of the mentor, and it is truly awesome. They don’t do it for you, they just create an environment where you feel safe enough to step into the danger zone. And mind you, he didn’t ask us to do this in our first class, I would have walked out and never gotten my black belt – he waited years and trained us, preparing us for this moment.
Because ultimately, my Sensei was a little bit like the “magic feather” in the movie Dumbo. My belief and respect for him allowed me to believe and respect myself – more than was previously possible. And that allowed me to fly into the heavens and breeze through the impossible in a cosmic trance. And that’s why it’s so important to find a mentor that you really admire and respect.
Meeting the mentor gives you the courage to take a leap of faith and transform the darkness into light!
Mentors come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. Who you pick is a deeply personal choice. Clearly, it should be someone that inspires you, but they don’t have to be a “master”. They just have to have more mastery and experience in your field of interest. If you like their style and feel both humble and powerful in their presence, then you know you’ve chosen your mentor wisely.
And of course, as your goals will evolve and change, so it is with your mentor.
“When the student is ready, the teacher appears. And together, they create the teaching.” Chinese Proverb
Doing the Physically Impossible Reshapes Your Identity and Psyche
Because shit, if even things that seem to be solid and set in stone and feel impossible to change, physical things like…
- how fast you can run
- how much you weigh
- how many pullups you can do
- how much weight you can lift over your head
… if even these seemingly physical and static things are truly fluid and dynamic, then how can ANYTHING be impossible?
Could something emotional, conceptual, spiritual, or philosophical be truly unchangeable?
“The changing of bodies into light and light into bodies, is very comfortable to the course of nature, which seems delighted with transmutations.” ~ Opticks, Sir Isaac Newton
This is the “way of transformation”, the true path of the ninja, and it requires that you get comfortable with a little discomfort, attempt to do the impossible, and find out what you’re really made of.
Of course, reading about the experience of Exercise Alchemy isn’t the same thing as having it. You can read about what having an orgasm feels like all day, but if you’ve never had one, you wouldn’t have a clue as to what it truly feels like.
“My words are like fingers pointing at the moon. Don’t stare at the finger or you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.” Bruce Lee
And yet, a finger pointing the way is still valuable, as long as we don’t get fixated on the finger.
And Here’s Where It Gets Wild
When you experience yourself “doing the impossible”, it automatically forces you to change your story – and changing your story changes your relationship to the world completely!
And I’d like nothing more for you than to have a relationship to the world that is skillful, beautiful, powerful, and radically self-reliant. It will require you to follow the fear, step way outside of your comfort zones, and embrace the impossible.
As some of you know, last season I auditioned for American Ninja Warrior, the TV show with awesome obstacles that for 6 seasons nobody had beaten! For 6 years, this goal – and the million dollar cash prize – was just sitting there, waiting for someone to claim it.
Many of the top competitors who had gotten closest to achieving the goal had claimed this was their destiny. But only one succeeded, a truly humble ninja. And when asked why he wanted to achieve the goal, he replied:
“I want to do the impossible. And now that that’s happened, I want to inspire the world and everyone around me, to find your impossible and do it.” Isaac Caldiero – 1st American Ninja Warrior Champion
And in my humble opinion, that is why he won. Completing the goal was its own reward and had nothing to do with fame, money, or ego. It was true intrinsic motivation that allowed Isaac to rise above the other amazing competitors to do the impossible.
So if you’re happy with your reality, by all means keep doing what you’re doing. But if you know you’re not living up to your potential, and are willing to train deep, suspend disbelief, and find the right mentor to guide you, there is nothing you can’t achieve! It’s a fact.
P.S. If you’re ready to take the plunge and would like me and 7 other ninjas to be your mentor, sign up for the next session of Ninja Fitness Academy. You’ll become a part of an awesome community that supports each other. Take it from one of our graduates, Lucia, who says:
“Think of this program as an adventurous expedition within yourself. Jonathan is an amazing soul and teacher. He makes everything feel so doable that you can almost feel your Ninja spirit fill you up and energize your whole body. The calls are very good reminders that I am not alone, that everyone in the group goes through stuff every day and hearing everybody share their challenges and successes has helped me greatly.”
Photo Credit: Carolyn Francis