Counterculture Practices: Fitness as a Byproduct
Updated: Jan 26
"Wanting to get out of the pain is the pain."
It is a challenging time to have a practice. Happiness, pleasure, and convenience appear to be the only products on the market. We have devolved into creatures of comfort. As creatures hellbent on avoiding discomfort we struggle to begin, let alone maintain, a practice. Why? Because a practice is painful. Practices are built on skill acquisition, and therefore require a great deal of failure to develop. This process is not instantly fun, pleasurable, or comfortable. It is for this reason that failure is not mainstream, and physical practices are counterculture.
With the rise of comfort culture, we've seen the growth of fitness and the fitness industry. Fitness is mainstream. It has a low barrier to entry and little failure to overcome. It is linear, objective, filled with words and definitions, and often utilizes low level movements designed to separate the mind from the body. People enter the fitness sphere desiring to look and feel a certain way.
Counterculture practices are the contrary to the mainstream and, as I stated above, are skill based disciplines which require education and layers of failure to develop. These practices often have spontaneous and organic elements, thus fostering curiosity, problem solving skills, and adaptability. They are artistic endeavors. Some examples include; skateboarding, surfing, rock climbing, parkour, dance, circus, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and, of course, movement. People enter the counterculture realm desiring to learn.
Some will argue that their fitness workouts are hard and painful, and I do not lack respect for the power of will expressed in these scenarios. However, I argue that the strain of the stair master, the burn of the bicep curls, and the fight for one...more...burpee are hurdles with less emotional depth when compared to the discomfort of being uncoordinated in a dance class, the checking of the ego when you get submitted doing BJJ, or the frustration from falling over and over on a skateboard while trying to kick flip. These are pains of embarrassment, defeat, and failure. I also don't want to take anything away from the new fitness goer who has fought through their own unique challenges to finally get in the gym door and start something, because this is extremely admirable. I simply offer the suggestion of a paradigm shift; develop fitness through a practice rather than practice fitness.
Humans are learning machines. We have a high capacity for information. However, we've become a society that has collectively decided that learning stops in our early 20's, and, when it comes to physical learning, potentially in our teens. Likely because learning involves failure, and as I stated earlier, we are in the business of failure avoidance. Mark Manson, in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life said, "We can be truly successful only at something we're willing to fail at. If we're unwilling to fail, then we're unwilling to succeed." I believe we are missing out on connecting to our human potential by depriving ourselves of this experience. We can develop new skills and abilities our entire lives. It is said that learning new physical skills and experiencing brain scramble, as discussed in a previous post, can improve ones brain function and cognition, as well as address issues such as anxiety and depression. Counterculture practices demand learning and education at all skill levels, thus fostering this layer of the human experience.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig talks about the idea of "quality" being the collaboration of the classical and romantic. Our society has drifted closer to the classical thinking, and further from the romantic thinking. Classical thinking is objective, logical, systematic, linear and defined. Romantic thinking is subjective, spontaneous, organic, creative, and undefined. As our society becomes more classical, opportunities for creativity diminish. While classical thinking is a valuable mindset, it is supposed to be balanced by the romantic.
Fitness is classical as it is highly systematized and linear; full of words and definitions. Take the "squat" for example. Fitness has decided exactly what a squat is with specific movement standards. However, there are an infinite number of ways the body can go up and down in space (watch any contemporary dancer and you'll see what I mean), and giving a word, definition, or movement standard to each of these infinite techniques would be impossible. And, without a word or definition, it isn't explored in fitness. If our body can create these shapes, shouldn't they be researched? Fitness is the exploration of movement standards, not life standards, and offers little room for creativity.
While counterculture practices have classical layers, they also require a great deal of romantic layers. There is a collaboration. Let's look at rock climbing for example. Many climbers follow linear protocols (pull-ups, pushups, etc.) to supplement their practice by developing strength and bulletproof their bodies. However, once they're on the mountain, unlike the pull-up bar, no two routes are the same. They're now forced to problem solve, often creating new, undefined, and unorthodox body shapes while maintaining strength in those positions, to creatively accomplish the task of getting to the top of the mountain.
I realize I sound like a fitness hater. However, I wouldn't be where I am today without fitness. I spent a number of years teaching group fitness and personal training. I look back on these years fondly. It was rewarding to have a small following of incredible people who became a tight knit group during that time. I met my wife Alexa teaching these classes. Looking to take the next step, I found myself teaching at Crossfit Virtuosity after Matt Bernstein, my movement coach at the time, suggested I enter their coaching program. To this day, one of my proudest achievements is being hired to teach alongside that group of gifted coaches. I loved fitness. However, as I explored movement, I realized I could allow fitness to be the byproduct rather than the goal. The goals could instead be exploration, research, discovery, discipline, and growth. Fitness could be a part of the journey, not the journey.