My ninja-

As you know, I’ve decided to participate in the American Ninja Warrior, the spectacular obstacle course competition show on NBC. In my previous post, I shared some very powerful childhood experiences of overcoming personal obstacles through movement. These experiences ultimately shaped who I am today and why I’ve taken the huge mission of transforming the education system through movement.

My American Ninja Warrior Audition Video

Living My Hero’s Journey

In this post, I will continue my story down the Hero’s Journey and explain how I’ve learned to heal my mind and body through movement.

As I said, I had a very privileged upbringing with everything I could possibly need: two loving parents, three awesome sisters, a black lab, guitar lessons and 7 years of karate training. I attended one of the most prestigious and expensive private schools in Long Island.

But school made me deeply unhappy. It disturbed me, even at a very young age. My individual needs, passions and abilities were sacrificed in the name of over-developing my left brain: reading, writing, math, science. But my favorite things were playing outside and drawing comic book characters.

a whole mind

Both left and right are needed for balance and depth of perspective.

This left me feeling emotionally starved and invaluable, like I didn’t belong. And that feeling of “not belonging” created the crack in my psyche from which my dark side emerged.

At age fifteen, my inner demons led me on a powerful – and terrifying – rite of passage through self-destruction, violence and drug addiction. My salvation, after years of suffering, took me back to my simple roots. Back to that beautiful little child inside of me that was fed by physical activity, but had been starving for so many years.

My path first led me to AA-type meetings and more therapy than I can count. None of it helped. Movement and meditation were the real keys to my transformation and they allowed me to not only get sober and pick up the pieces of my life, but actually helped me use those very same pieces to create a beautiful work of art.

Movement allowed me to use the adversity I experienced as a massive opportunity:

  • to build confidence
  • to overcome fears
  • to serve others
  • to harness my potential
  • to achieve greatness

Through fitness, I was able to take back my life from the brink of total self-destruction. And then the shit hit the fan, again…

Haven’t I Been Here Before

When I was twenty-five years old, I went through another extremely humbling rite of passage: I fell badly while doing a rail slide in a snowboard park in Vermont and herniated a disc in my neck. Bad. Real bad. I felt like I had the neck of a ninety-year old.

For  two years, I struggled with my injury, hoping it would go away, while vainly trying to maintain a facade of being strong to inspire my clients. But on the inside, I felt more fragile than ever, like my entire life was a lie. All the doctors said I needed surgery, but it just didn’t feel right to me. Then I re-injured my neck while drying my hair with a towel after taking a shower. The pain brought me to my knees instantly.

I had already had the experience of turning the worst thing in the world (a violent drug addiction) into an opportunity to create something great (a passion for serving others through movement). So perhaps there was a way for me to “own” this new obstacle and turn it into a new opportunity for self-growth!

Giving my power away to a surgeon or any other authority figure didn’t feel right. (Wasn’t giving away my power exactly what I was forced to do in grade school?)


jonathan angelilli -

Practicing Tai Chi and yoga helped me learn from my injuries.

Well, after four years working with all kinds of body workers, cranio-sacral therapists, osteopaths and physical therapists and healers – and practicing new kinds of movement I hadn’t focused on previously – I managed to heal my neck injury completely!

It wasn’t an instant result, like surgery, but it was a real result, a hard fought sacred battle. I myself earned the victory and developed real super powers in the process. I had again used adversity to create real inner strength and self-mastery.

And that, my friends, is the way of the ninja, which is actually the Japanese word for perseverance. To become radically self-reliant and live life with tremendous skill, we must use everything that life brings us, especially the challenges. There is no better fertilizer than shit, and no greater catalyst than suffering.

The Pain Teacher

In order to harness the power of my injuries and use them as a catalyst, I had to listen to them with my whole heart.

Always listen to your body, because it never lies. Lying is a purely mental process. So instead of cursing my body, I learned to listen to its pain and discomfort, to let it guide and teach me. Movement develops this “inner listening” and feeling skill better than anything else.

Through my neck rehab, I was forced to learn new movement skills like Tai Chi, qigong, yoga and swimming, which allowed me to develop a wonderful sensitivity to my body, what I now refer to as “super health”.

I’ve all but completely mastered my immune system and health. I’ve only gotten sick once in the last 13 years, no small feat for someone who lives in one of the most toxic cities on the planet. The one exception was when my aunt passed away earlier this year, my deep sadness weakened my immune system enough to let some sickness take hold of me. And now, because of it, I’m sure my immune system is stronger than ever.

I can sense when my body drops from 100% to 95% and I know exactly what to do to bring it back to full power. Thanks to my pain teacher. Thanks to my injury. Thanks to “owning” my suffering.

These collateral benefits would have never manifested if I had just abdicated my power to some authority figure or pill. To turn the negative into a positive, I had to find the power from within. And again, it was movement that allowed me to tap into that internal resource.

Ninja Vitamins -

Ninja’s don’t abdicate their power.

Movement is Medicine

Twice in my life, first with drug addiction and then later with my snowboarding accident, movement has helped me overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Could it be that the only real obstacles are the ones we create in our own minds? And that mastering movement is a form of high level intelligence, not just a tool to compulsively destroy our body thanks to our militarized social programming? Perhaps exercise is a method for developing every aspect of oneself completely, so much more than just a means to “look hot”. Isn’t this what the Hindu yogi’s and Taoist martial artists have been saying for at least two thousand years?

This is the message that I want to bring to American Ninja Warrior’s massive audience: that suffering can be used as a tremendous opportunity for creating self-mastery.

Instead of my past mistakes becoming a burden, they became a catalyst for my life’s work: helping others empower themselves through movement. What an awesome privilege, to become the medicine for others who suffer from the same issues as I did. And after fifteen years of being a holistic personal trainer – what I call an “exercise alchemist” – I’ve seen movement empower all kinds of people with all kinds of problems, on a very deep level.

But it wasn’t until about 2006 though, when I read “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”, that the reasons why movement is so empowering began to make more than intuitive sense to me. In the book, John Ratey – a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School – explains how movement is absolutely integral to the development of the brain.

He shows that schools that start their day with physical exercise have students whose test scores are off the charts (and more importantly, are well behaved, satisfied, able to focus and confident). The research he summarizes also indicates that movement has a profound impact on the areas of the brain that deal with survival, the same area that lights up in addicts.

 “The real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best, and in my view, this benefit of physical activity is far more important − and fascinating − than what it does for the body. Building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are essentially side effects… the point of exercise is to build and condition the brain.” John Ratey, M.D. Harvard Medical School

And that is why the “body-mind are two sides of the same coin” is one of the core ninja principles of TrainDeep. You can’t separate one from the other.



Your body is your subconscious mind.

Systematic Disease Creation

It’s clear that movement is an integral part of learning; evolutionary speaking, this makes perfect sense. We had to move to survive. And when we move, our brains light up and our entire body becomes engaged. And yet our school system has separated movement from learning and all but removed it from the schedule.

According to the American Diabetes Association, less than 4% of elementary students have daily physical education. Is this a form of torture? It’s sure as hell not setting them up for health and happiness.

Our massive education system was built on a very narrow-minded understanding of education: it placed too much emphasis on left-brain abilities and sacrificed the rest of our humanity: right-brain activities like arts, creativity, holistic thinking, pattern recognition, not to mention the heart and the rest of the physical body.

In other words, our education system is literally “inhumane” and systematically produces unhealthy and imbalanced people who can’t even feed themselves properly and strengthen themselves, let alone intentionally use movement and obstacles to achieve their full potential and become the person they were destined to be.

Our schools, even the “best” and most expensive ones, are setting little people up to fail in very predictable, albeit horrific, ways. It’s not intentional. There is no one to blame. When we pull back the curtain, there’s no evil mastermind to be found, just a mirror starring back at us.

 “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” John F. Kennedy

Avoiding looking in this mirror perpetuates destructive myths like nature is scary, unpredictable and separate from our humanity.  This illusion compels us to reduce our humanity to left-brain activities (logic, math, science) and vainly attempt to control nature and our body through our brain, but this method is totally imbalanced.

How Would A Humane School Be?

Definitely not like one that embodies the “American Dream” myth that tells you to work hard, master rational thinking, sacrifice passion, imagination, health and then use your hard earned money to buy those things back!

That formula is completely insane. It’s not only sets people up for disease, but also makes them obsolete in our new economy. We’ve moved from the agricultural age to industrial, to information and are now stepping into the conceptual age.


conceptual age

Creativity, empathy, collaboration, and play will form the path to success in the conceptual age.

 “My generation’s parents told their children, “Become an accountant, a lawyer, or an engineer; that will give you a solid foothold in the middle class“. But these jobs are now being sent overseas (or automated by computers). So in order to make it today, you have to do work that’s hard to outsource, hard to automate.” Daniel H. Pink (business and management best-selling author)

So using school to develop a “whole mind” – right brain, left brain, body and heart – doesn’t just make health sense, it makes economical sense. The world doesn’t need more human robots who are imbalanced (mentally and physically) because they’ve developed only one aspect of themselves.

Yes, it’s true that USA’s education system is – in some ways – better than many other countries. Things could be worse. But should that stop us from getting better?

Even though I’m grateful for my privileged upbringing, I’ve experienced increased dissatisfaction with school as I’ve grown older, reflected more on my past experiences and watched as the next generation gets fatter, more diseased and disempowered, with less and less quality of life.

Last summer, I attended a conference at Boston University and just walking into one of the administrative buildings set a wave of nausea and self-righteous disgust through my body, remnants of the former teenage rebel inside my mind. Why is it that all university buildings smell the same? It probably has something to do with the toxic materials used in the buildings’ construction (yet another example of schools being inhumane).

Funny thing is, I love learning! Most people do, until learning things we don’t care about gets shoved down our throats. Learning is natural and everyone starts out loving and exploring as kids, but instead of schools nurturing those innate curiosities and talents and turning kids into passionate lifelong learners, they turn them off to education. Another sad reality, since people who continue to learn over their lifetime are generally happier.

Why is Conquering American Ninja Warrior My Quest?

Because honestly, this goal scares the crap out of me. I know what it’s like to one hundred percent commit to something that truly feels impossible. (So far, no one has beat the entire course and won the cash prize, which this year has been doubled to one million dollars!)


I'll use the $1,000,000 to create a non-profit that empowers inner city kids through movement.

I’ll use the $1,000,000 to create a non-profit that empowers inner city kids through movement.


So here’s my big reason to why I’ve decided to participate in the American Ninja Warrior on NBC: to send out my message, especially to kids, that if you strengthen your body through movement, then all the other areas in your life will be affected: your mental focus, learning, appearance, self-esteem and you’ll have a lot more energy left to empower others, too!

  • You won’t feel weak, mentally nor physically.
  • You’ll be better at assessing risk.
  • You’ll find more meaning and satisfaction in life.
  • You’ll enjoy a healthy body that can serve as your teacher, temple, mentor and guide.

Thanks to my past experiences with larger than life obstacles, I have no doubt I will learn so much from my commitment to emerging victorious on the course.

Please Help Me Get On the Show

The casting company is called A. Deign & Co: they are on Facebook and Twitter. With tens of thousands of applications, they’re trying to find a needle in a haystack. Help them by telling them to cast me for the show!

Here are some sample tweets you just might want to send them:

My next post in this series will reveal the 10 essential life skills kids develop through movement, my blueprint for the ninja temple of movement and how anyone can use obstacles to develop their potential and become a real ninja warrior!

As always, TrainDeep.



Photo: Layla Studio

Photo: Carolyn Francis

Photo: NBC Universal


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