Reviving a Lost Mind-Body Performance Craft
I tore through the jungle, leaping shrubs and dodging coconut trees with the same exhilaration of unbridled speed one feels at 2am racing past streetlights, with a glow illuminating the horizon, a sparkling dazzle of city, suburb, and more city. It was the feeling of committed action and freedom. Three months into my island reclusion on Koh Phangan, I’d long relinquished my inhibition and fear of jungle threats, the massive python nestled behind the next bush, the softball-sized tarantulas, the harmless but ugly geckos on steroids, and let it all go. Now it was just another morning run. The lead weight burdening each of my ankles had become imperceptible and the heaviness of life was all but gone. And with every breath, a taste of pure life.
A few months prior I had been drifting in the precarious void of aimlessness that exists after graduation and before career. After four years of studying philosophy and religion, and with a genuine lack of practical skills, I saw only two paths. I could either tame my wanderlust and join the rat race, or take the road less traveled. I wanted to follow in the paths of men and women who lived their beliefs with unwavering commitment, and not those who pontificated universal truisms while smoking a pipe in a cozy armchair.
I was hearing two contradictory voices. The first, a quote from Henry David Thoreau, resonated deep within me:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,
to front only the essential facts of life,
and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,
and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived.
It was a haunting call to life that I could not shake off and ignore, spoken by a man of integrity, a man with skin in the game, who risked a bit of life to test his values.
The other voice was that of my father, who summed up Thoreau’s Walden in three New York words: “Guy’s a bum.”
“He’s not a bum,” I objected. “He’s living off the land, living life, developing himself. Isn’t it cool?”
“Did he have a job?” my father inquired.
“Well he grew beans and shit,” I explained. “I think he sold some. But most of his time was spent reading, writing, and walking through the woods for several hours a day.”
“Anyone who walks in the woods all day and doesn’t have a job is a bum,” he confirmed, putting an end to the conversation.
But I couldn’t shirk that voice, that call to life, to test myself, my principles, and seize the day. I have today, only today. I knew that. The past was dead, the future a mere abstraction. So I left the world I knew behind, reduced all expenses to under $100 a month, and sojourned to the jungle of Koh Phangan, Thailand. I was armed with only a pair of ankle weights, a few changes of clothes, the collections of Krishnamurti and Chopra, some Qigong texts for secular and martial practices (authored mostly by Yang Jwing Ming), a few pocket readers on meditation, Taoism, and Zen, and a handful of martial arts classics, including The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and The Art of Peace by Morihei Eushiba, founder of aikido.
The one book I did not bring, regrettably, was the laughably simplistic, cartoon-laden summary of ancient Chinese martial arts energy practices that I’d stolen from a local Fort Collins library and then misplaced. This book changed my life. I can’t recall the name, and despite countless attempts over the last decade, I have failed to find another copy of it. I believe it’s long out of print, and for good reason. It smacked of bullshit: monks so light they can leap ten feet in the air, sprint ten miles with ease, run on water, and endure strikes to vital targets and razor-sharp sword slashes on naked skin. It was a fun fifteen-minute read and excellent toilet paper.
There was, however, one line in the chapter on speed running (which I thought was at first a silly translation of sprinting – I know now that it refers to a type of training that allows the extension of anaerobic performance into the realm of endurance training) that was so subtle that had I not already been using ankle weights periodically for ten years, I would have breezed over it like all the rest. It connected all the gaps for me. It made sense of the disparate training elements that are taught in isolation today but once defined the whole, undivided god-man: “Before sprinting, begin with five minutes of stationary jogging, concentrating on deep abdominal breathing.”
Why did this matter so much to me? Because athletic performance requires copious amounts of oxygen to fuel muscle contraction and recovery. Oxygen delivery demands an elevated heart rate, which typically requires heavy, upper chest breathing. Deep abdominal breathing, on the other hand, most typically found in traditional meditative and internal martial arts practices like tai chi, is energy-enhancing, yet relaxing. It relieves tension and stress, concentrates energy, and stills the mind.
In yoga and various external martial arts that also incorporate qigong, a technique called reverse abdominal breathing is sometimes employed, in which the lower abdomen draws in upon inhalation, and expands slightly upon exhalation. This type of breathing, in theory, massages the internal organs for improved digestion and adrenaline production. It is a difficult practice at first, but seems far less mystical once you examine how your own breath functions before giving a speech or trying to talk to the girl or boy you’ve been eyeing at the local coffee house. You’ll notice that your breath creeps into the upper chest and the lower abdomen draws in, causing a slightly unsettled stomach (butterflies in the stomach). This is our natural power breath, your biological fight-or-flight response. Digestion is shutting down, adrenaline is being released, and blood and oxygen are filling skeletal muscles.
Watch full contact fighters and American football players do their thing. They are huffing and puffing, their chests heaving, shoulders slouched to protect the vitals throughout the torso. Admittedly, a full-contact fight is more dangerous than starting a chat with someone attractive, but your body doesn’t know the difference until you’re skilled at both. Stress, whether it emerges from real physical danger or personal insecurities and fear, elicits the same biological response.
Upper chest breathing is exciting, and it prepares the body for high-stress situations. So why in the world were elite warrior monks, masters of breath control and physical specimens bar none, dropping their breath to the lower abdomen during maximum effort exertions, a technique long relegated to static or slow- moving meditation?
The loudest sound arises from the deepest silence. A contracted muscle cannot contract. A tense muscle is incapable of generating power. It’s encumbered by its own tension. Tension and relaxation are necessary correlates. Without one, the other cannot exist. The Tao of extreme physical power lies in one’s capacity to actualize deep relaxation. From the stillness explodes a scream of power, committed and holistic as a newborn’s cry or a lion’s roar before battle.
It has long been known that few individuals actualize their immediate physical potential. Most people call on less than 30 percent of their muscular capability when performing physical feats like lifting weights or playing sports. Elite athletes are able to activate a much greater potential, upward of 80 percent. This higher level of activation is in theory enough to tear your body apart from the force of conscious muscular contraction alone.
Why do you think Olympic sprinters pull hamstrings and tear tendons?
What if we could activate all this untapped potential, and more importantly, control it? If this potential is present and no additional muscle fiber is required to tap into it, then how can we activate it safely? The answer is three-fold. First, as explained above, we can maximize relaxation, the emptiness from which maximum contraction comes. If water is the substance of power, then the cup that holds it is relaxation. The larger the cup, the more water can be held. The greater the state of relaxation, the greater one’s power potential.
The second key lies in dynamic stretching, which is essential for controlling your body’s extreme capabilities and protecting muscle and connective tissues from being torn apart by your own physical power. The third is mental focus and awareness, which work on the control centers of physical power.
Deconditioning the stretch reflex through dynamic stretching preserves the integrity of your tissue by eliminating the panic button. It removes your body’s impulse to pull back, tighten, and freeze when reaching its known limits. Generally speaking, the stretch reflex is a natural protection mechanism that keeps us from performing beyond safe limits. It also prevents us from reaching our fullest potential.
Relaxation, the release of tension, the empty cup, the ebb of an ocean that gives rise to a tsunami, the deepest valley that bows before the highest summit, the calm before the storm. Warrior monks discovered the path to weightlessness – not by becoming the strongest men on Earth (though pound-for-pound they are formidable), but by emptying their cups. It was through the vehicles of relaxation and deep abdominal breathing within the context of anaerobic, maximum-effort exercise that legendary skills were born. It is in this same context that you and I can become god-men, as our warrior-monk predecessors were before us.
Or was this all astrology based on a puerile comic book?
This was the question I asked myself in the fall of 2003, at the age of 23, prior to beginning my experiment with Weightlessness. I was determined to find answers, to live boldly. If I could not find and study under these men of legend and learn their secret methods for elite mind-body living, perhaps I could be bold enough to risk everything and become one of them.
I remained in my secluded jungle hut on Koh Phangan for three months, resolved to test my theories in full. I awoke with the sun every morning, strapped eight pounds to each ankle, and jogged through the jungle to the beach with a relaxed, long stride, focusing on sinking my breath and releasing tension throughout my body. I stood before the clear azure of quiet waters and breathed deeply for fifteen to twenty minutes, hugging an imaginary golden bell, concentrating qi in my dantian. As I did this, I sensed the extended energetic strings that connected my parted fingers, which were slowly oscillating six inches apart from one another.
On my way back, I sprinted as if being chased, leaping fallen coconuts, twisting and drifting past low-hanging branches, holding nothing back. Relaxed, focused, the fresh and humid jungle air fueling my speed, I felt the weight on my ankles hit my core like the most focused abdominal machine, burning and tearing muscle fibers from thighs to chest. The threshold to my domicile was marked by a thirty-foot tall coconut tree that grew at a forty-five degree angle until it discovered a small clearing of open blue sky amid its stronger brothers and sisters, at which point it straightened into a vertical ascent. It found a way. It reminded me every morning that there is great strength in yielding, great power in non-resistance.
After a minute or two of pacing and breathing while my heartbeat returned to normal, I threw on my backpack, weighted with some thirty pounds of books, and fell into my leaping hole (initially three feet deep, the first stage of the cartoon prescription for extreme leaping skills). I sank my breath, released all identifiable points of tension in my shoulders and back, and leapt in and out, with patient repetitions until the onset of fatigue. Never failure. Each effort was 100 percent, and each rest was sufficient to release all tension. I then performed a few sets of dynamic stretching, swinging my legs aggressively to full height, ankle weights still attached, before scrambling a few eggs on a makeshift gas stove and adding a bit of leftover rice for breakfast.
My days perhaps sound a bit monotonous. I followed breakfast with a couple of hours of martial arts training, leaping, kicking, bodyweight calisthenics, and plyometrics. I conditioned my hands and shins by striking young trees and planks of dead wood.
Training left me covered with itchiness. Suffering hours of mosquito bites is a genuine exercise in mindfulness and a challenge in non-attach- ment. But this was a small price to pay for paradise, and I could remove the sting in the clear blue salt water every afternoon.
Afternoons were slow and reflective, filled with small bouts of medita- tion, ruminations on martial and spiritual classics, and sporadic technique training until the early evening. At that point, the ankle weights were fastened on again, the backpack thrown on, and I fell into my leaping hole one more time before dinner. A lack of electricity dictated early slumber and therefore early, well-rested waking with the subtle glow of a new day.
Before weighting my ankles for my morning run, I’d scrape a bit of earth from the bottom of my leaping hole, making it imperceptibly deeper than the day before, yet deeper nonetheless. My performance the day before determined whether more books would be added to my pack come leaping time.
After three months in the jungle, I was a different man. My energy was abundant and flowing. I felt a constant sensation of cool fire in my abdomen, accompanied by an energetic tingling throughout my forearms. My mind was exceedingly clear, calm, and alert. I felt at once prepared to die, yet ready to live with every ounce of my being. Sunrise brought the joy of a new limitless day, and sunset the release of all tension. All things of importance were well done that day. Life was good, and rest was full, well-deserved, and meaningful.
In the beginning, coming home to find a large, menacing snake waiting in bed for me was a real temptation to throw in the towel and return to normalcy. After three months, I could take it in stride and leave the snake in peace until it moved on to a more comfortable bed. It was just passing by.
So often in life we take on tools and practices that help us deal with uncertainty – that snake in the bed, that tiger lurking in the forest, that unforeseen stressor that challenges our assumptions of the way things should be. But there in the jungle I learned that unburdening, not accumulating, was the path to freedom. I learned that relinquishing my sense of control, my emotional attachment to desired outcomes, was the path to peace.
And I learned that this process of unburdening is best adorned by adding weight.
My body had become balanced, strong, flexible, and relaxed. My heart rate was exceedingly low, my confidence exceedingly high. Training was always challenging – it was training, after all – but life outside of training became effortless. Like an institutionalized prisoner, I began to crave the confines of my weights. Without them, I felt too light. Walking became complicated and it required a conscious effort not to sprint everywhere. At that point, I could sprint full-speed for minutes on end without losing my breath.
My energy was so high, my limbs so light, that I needed something to hold me back, to make me feel normal. I no longer needed to warm up or stretch before full exertions. I could swing my leg straight overhead first thing in the morning and do a standing jump of four-and-a-half feet with ease. At all times I was relaxed, yet ready and able to move at 100 percent without inhibition or injury. I felt superhuman. I felt weightless.
Meditation; high-speed resistance training; dynamic flexibility; and low-volume, high-intensity resistance training – the four pillars of Weightlessness training – should be considered on the basis of their rapid effects on mental and physical performance independently. But their symbiosis was magical.
My ability to adapt to progressive stress seemed limitless, assuming it was of an appropriate degree. My antifragile nature (expounded upon in Book 2, Enso Temple) – of my muscles post-effort, of my bones when tested against unforgiving trees, of my connective tissues when rapidly stretched to their limits – became an intimate badge of honor that I could rely on. I learned to trust my body.
In releasing my attachments to fixed ideas and egocentric desires (the essence of Book 3, The Unfettered Mind) I realized in their wake a world of beauty and peace that was always there, suppressed beneath the surface of my experience. My conflicts of self were carried away with the tide every morning; my damaged tissue restored itself every night. My body was light, my mind free.
But this is not the end of the story.
At the end of fall, the heavy rains came and flooded me out, ending my time in the jungle. I moved to Chiang Mai to practice a bit of Thai boxing and acclimate myself to the real world again. What demonstrated the revolutionary impact of this training protocol was not only my heightened mental and physical state on Koh Phangan, but the fact that three months after leaving, and consequently discontinuing my program, I had not regressed. My body and mind had changed in substantial ways, reprogrammed if you will.
Despite re-entering the world of normal responsibilities, normal concerns, and distractions that define modern life, I noticed a striking disconnect between events in real time and my emotional attachment to them. Previously I’d get frustrated, impatient, or merely judge harshly (and impulsively) things that did not conform to my expectations. I was disheartened or upset every time something didn’t go as I wished, to varying degrees. I was the center of my own world, and my world was burdensome. Those judgments were a pillow pressing me down, a constant heaviness preventing me from taking a full breath.
Now, despite the stark contrast in lifestyle to that of my reclusion, my mind had sustained the clarity, focus, and non-attachment cultivated in the jungle. I wasn’t weighed down or blinded with common frustrations. I was free to engage and adapt, to act and innovate. It didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing, I discovered, the tools I’d developed were a significant upgrade to my mind-body hardware – and that goes everywhere with me – permeating every experience I had and every decision I made. I hadn’t just been training to build capacity and resilience in my body or separate my mind from the things of this world, it turned out. I had been training for life.
This was the first type of training I’d encountered where the results did not rapidly evaporate after ceasing the program. One may maintain high levels of strength, but any athlete can tell you how quickly the ‘feeling’ dies. Stiffness creeps into the limbs, the mind loses focus, and warm-ups become increasingly important to prevent injury and regain speed and range of movement. So too can anyone returning from a vipassana retreat tell you how quickly the serenity and clarity accessed in silence fade away when returning to normalcy. That had always been the case for me as well... until now.
In harmonizing the breath (via deep abdominal breathing) with explosive movement (burdened with added resistance), intuition and sensitivity become alive.
You begin to feel the interconnectedness of fractured body parts. You begin to feel points of tension that, when released, release blinding speed and explosive power. This heightened sensitivity, this intuitive coordination and power, and the waves of relaxation and tension that comprise complex, gross motor movements – this does not die when training ceases. It reprograms your nervous system, which, when accompanied by a calm, concentrated mind, unleashes a power within that angels and demons fear.
Weightlessness was born.
Thanks for reading!
Truly hope this story provided a little entertainment and inspiration. If you'd like another free chapter from In Pursuit of Weightlessness, you can read the story of Michael's awesome physical transformation from the chapter From Businessman to Beast, including the tools and principles needed for you to build 20 lbs of lean muscle in 6 weeks!
Tom Fazio | Owner & Performance Coach @ Weightlessness | Mind Body Performance Coaching