Mind-body training has a looooong history, and one rich with insight. And today, the world populated with gurus and experts of all kinds, lessons of old are going largely overlooked, to the detriment of student development and comprehension.
At it’s core, mind-body training refers to the practice of using physical movements and mental focus to improve overall health and well-being. I realize that’s extremely general, but it’s important to see just how broad this umbrella can be, before we start to filter good from bad, effective from ineffective approaches.
With Weightlessness Training, I’ve always kept the histories I’m about to share with you front of mind, aware that before we had the extensive research on neurology, physiology, and biomechanics that make up university degrees today, there were ancients consumed with transcending the pains of this world, teaching others to do the same, and willing to conduct empirical, scientific experiments over generations to fine-tune approach, and optimize body and mind.
But let’s start at the beginning. Did you know that the roots of mind-body training can be traced back centuries to ancient meditation practices? Shaolin monks and yogis of old were using these techniques to enhance their spiritual development long before it became a trendy fitness trend (literally thousands of years ago).
Understanding the history of mind-body training is key to developing an effective, modern day practice. By studying the evolution of these practices, we can gain insights into what works and what doesn't. So let's take a journey through time and explore the origins of Shaolin Kung Fu and Yoga, two of the most well-known mind-body practices.
The Origins of Shaolin Kung Fu
Legend has it that Shaolin Kung Fu was developed by a monk named Bodhidharma, who also happened to be the founder of Zen Buddhism in China. Bodhidharma realized that the monks at the Shaolin Temple needed to strengthen their bodies in order to withstand the long hours of sitting and meditation that were part of their daily routine. So he developed a series of exercises and movements that not only helped them physically, but also aided in their spiritual development.
Over time, Shaolin Kung Fu evolved into a martial art, but the original focus on meditation and spiritual development remained an integral part of the practice. Hierarchically, however, qigong energy work and deeper spiritual training is relegated to later stages of training, often after eight to ten years of physical conditioning.
Today, there are many different styles of Kung Fu, each with its own unique techniques and philosophies, but nearly all draw lineage from Shaolin, and all follow a similar path - physical development precedes spiritual development.
The Origins of Yoga
The earliest mention of yoga dates back to the Rigveda, an ancient Indian text that is over 5,000 years old. But it wasn't until the second century BCE that yoga began to take on its modern form. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a collection of 196 aphorisms, outlined the eight limbs of yoga, which included physical postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), and meditation (dhyana).
Like Shaolin Kung Fu, yoga was originally a spiritual practice that focused on achieving enlightenment. But over time, it too evolved into a physical practice (or shall we say, an integrated practice), with the postures and breathing exercises being used to improve physical health and well-being. Today, there are countless styles of yoga, each with its own unique approach to the practice.
So it begs the question: Is this evolution on both mind-body lineages coincidental, or a necessary prerequisite to holistic personal development (if not peak performance).
And, just as importantly, why should you care?
By understanding the original focus and evolution of these practices, we can better filter out ineffective methods and develop our own modern mind-body training practice that follows a similar, and perhaps necessary, path of development.
Constructing a Modern Mind-Body Practice
If we were to construct a modern mind-body practice based on the histories and processes of Shaolin Kung Fu and yoga, what insights can we draw from, what filters would we use, and what would be a good way to approach formalizing a process?
First, it’s all about meditation. I’ve been saying for years that the means and the end of Weightlessness Training is meditation - unencumbered union with present, fleeting moments in life. To those who practice, this is often synonymous with spirituality, but we need not apply that word. Let’s just say it’s the realization of, and commitment to, experiencing real life as it is, rather than through the copious filters we place on it - personal desires, beliefs, expectations, fears, etc.
Mindfulness practices - seated or moving - are critical for developing these sensitivities and perceptions. At higher levels, breath and energy work (qigong) can provide a leveling up into the ‘spiritual’ domain.
Second, meditation fails without physical training, and ideally, as per our ancient references, physical training that prioritizes strength, balance, and structure in the body. Whether we look to the animal forms of Shaolin or the early asanas of yoga, we see universal postures and stances that speak to sound human biomechanics - the long lunge or warrior pose, the horse stance, and the forward and back bends, to name a few.
This is a staunch rebuke to those who like to ‘wing it’, and take a more free form approach to mind-body training. Placing these postures side by side, or better, practicing them, its evident that there are certain requisite movements in the development of the body, and the facilitation of mind-body connection. Together, these build tensional integrity in the body by building strength and length simultaneously, increasing stamina and resilience, and improving mental concentration.
Third, we don’t get to cherry pick practices and still expect exceptional results. There are all kinds of crazy out there, with delusional gurus selling the secret (in some cases, they literally call in The Secret) to peace and longevity in life. They can do so only because their ideas and processes are not exposed to ‘market’ feedback in a meaningful way. They may not test their assumptions against known science, measure real client outcomes and causal factors therein, or back test it against ancient anecdote as we’re doing here.
Approaches that deviate from these well articulated templates are bankrupt.
Physical training without meditation is an error, generating tension and grit without a counterforce. As is meditation without physical training, which can lead to hypersensitivity, if not fragile states of presence that fail under stress.
For the ancients, there was no mind-body problem or disconnect. There may be some debate as to how to best structure a process that designs elite mind-body connection, but the core components of said cultivation haven’t changed in thousands of years. Nor, for that matter, has order flow - the body was and is the gateway to the mind.
In a perfect world one’s mind-body training practice is not only tailored to their current level of performance, but also somewhat enjoyable. I say in a perfect world, because outside of the experienced mind-body athlete, this is rarely the case. I wish I could sugarcoat it, but as someone with decades in the game, there are indeed uncomfortable hurdles we all must overcome before mind-body training feels like ‘our process’ and not ‘that method.’
This is due to decades of habit and mind-body patterning that greased the grooves for certain modes of being, thinking, feeling, and not others. What we often perceive as personality is often the byproduct of decades of practiced habit. But those grooves that haven’t been greased, those practices that have been neglected, can feel wholly ‘other’, awkward, uncomfortable, and perhaps even painful… for a time.
There are still, as we’ve seen from the ancients, things we humans must do to access higher planes of experience, and tap our deepest potentials. We must start there. And such practices may reveal fears and insecurities long held, for which the same practices are not only the poison, but the cure. There’s a relinquishing of personal wants, of the need for control, in order to open the door to what can be. And it’s almost guaranteed to be behind the door we want to avoid.
“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” - Joseph Campbell
To create a modern mind-body practice that follows in the footsteps of these ancient traditions we should focus on mindfulness, strength and structural development, and a holistic approach that organizes nutrition, strength, flexibility, and meditation into a coherent a progressive framework. By prioritizing these elements, at the right times and in the right degrees, we can custom tailor paths to peak performance, as well as unlock deep mind-body wisdoms.
It's important to remember that mind-body training is a personal journey, and there is no one "right" way to practice, BUT… we can clearly filter out many wrong approaches along the concrete processual lines drawn by the ancients.
One must prioritize the mind, but the mind cannot grow/change without the body. So one must prioritize the body.
Go forth and explore the histories and processes of Shaolin Kung Fu and yoga, and use that knowledge to inform a modern mind-body practice that is uniquely yours. With dedication, perseverance, and an open mind, you can create a practice that supports your physical, mental, and emotional health and helps you to achieve your fullest potential.
For those who want the results without the decades of research, trial and error on self and others it takes to clearly define that process and those key filters, don’t worry… I’ve done it for you. And it’s glorious.