Where Faith Meets Fitness
A disclaimer before I begin: This article is not meant to be exclusionary, judgmental, or narrowminded. It is simply food for thought for those who are spiritually curious, choose to live their life with a faith-based foundation, or live in acknowledgement of a higher power. Faith means something different to everyone, from prayer and worship, to seeking flow and purpose, to a desire for deeper connection with nature or community. Whether you’re Hindu, Christian, or Buddhist; whether you’re a believer, skeptic, or atheist, faith in something beyond your physicality may help you find deeper meaning in your fitness pursuits.
While many of the references in this article are verses from the Bible, the discussion is not limited to Judeo-Christian principles. Faith is faith, and however you might define it, this article seeks to explore the connection between faith and fitness, and how having it can help you find meaning and motivation.
Where Faith Meets Physicality
At the end of many professional sporting events, it’s not uncommon for groups of players to huddle up, take a knee and give thanks to God. In postgame interviews, many athletes express a similar sentiment. Personally, I find the acknowledgement to be both touching and at times, a tad irritating. Touching, in the sense that the athlete directs the praise away from themselves and recognizes something greater than their own physical achievements. It’s also perhaps a little puzzling or even irritating that the insinuation seems to be that somehow God, Jesus, or Allah is rooting for them to win, and therefore someone else to lose.
Opinions on public demonstrations of faith aside, the relationship of faith to our physical lives is an interesting phenomenon, and one that clearly resonates with many. Our body and mind can propel us to achieve great heights, but who or what is propelling our body and mind? Said another way, when you’ve reached your maximum physical and mental capacity, what allows you to dig deeper and keep going, or even push beyond your human limits? The answer, for many, is something bigger, broader, and beyond what is within us.
According to a 2016 Gallup poll, roughly 9 out of every 10 Americans believe in God or a universal spirit. Essentially, 90% of people believe there is something incorporeal and spiritual that is interconnected to the material and physical. We sum up this belief in one word: faith. For those that profess faith, it tends to be woven into the existence of our daily lives, at work, home, church, and the other place many of us go daily—the gym. With that in mind, here’s how faith helps you make the most of your life at the gym on the field:
Faith Brings Together the Pillars of Health and Longevity
According to the book Blue Zones, communities that have the longest-living people (such as Okinawa, Loma Linda, CA, and Sardinia, Italy) have certain things in common: a focus on family, socially engaged communities, active lifestyle, and of course, healthy diet. While all three regions represent different faiths, those faiths each help bring these variables of food, fitness, and community together.
Granted, it is possible for these independent variables to be individually addressed without the necessity of faith. But instead of a fragmented approach to wellness, faith naturally and holistically integrates the pillars of wellness. I don’t know of a faith from Judaism to Hinduism to Christianity that doesn’t address the importance of healthful, clean eating, community, and a sound mind and body. All of the ancient religions focus on discipline in the name of health, such as the practice of fasting. In essence, faith can form the foundation for how we move, how we think, and how we eat.
Faith Inspires and Motivates
Much of fitness tends to be predicated on extrinsic motivators. We all work to become bigger, faster, stronger, leaner. Inevitably though, the question arises, “then what?” How do you stay motivated when you’ve lost that 20 pounds, or if you don’t lose any weight? The reason over 50% of people drop out of an exercise program in the first six months is, in large part, the inability to answer the “then what” question.
Ultimately, success in fitness requires a deeper motivation beyond the exterior, and a focus on the interior. The most powerful intrinsic motivators on the planet are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Self-direction, creativity, and the ability to make a meaningful difference require the right foundation. That purpose may be sparked through the inspiration of others, or honed through deep-rooted self will, but even such motivators like being a better mother or a healthier husband have limitations. But faith isn’t confined by human and physical barriers. Boundless inspiration is found in the all-ness of God.
Faith Keeps You Going When the Going Gets Tough
I’ve had two knee surgeries, a torn my rotator cuff, ruptured two ear drums, battled sciatica, a severe SI strain, and have had more bumps, bruises, and battle scars than I can count. And those are just my physical setbacks. The reality of a life in sport and fitness is fraught with obstacles, from injuries to plateaus to flat out losing your mojo.
In my personal life, I’ve suffered setbacks from being downsized to getting divorced. The common theme in all trauma, whether physical, emotional, or professional, is the opportunity to test your resolve and your faith. Faith brings you back to what is truly important. You are here for something greater than winning your next race or getting those ripped biceps.
There are days you don’t have it, there are slumps you will go through, and there are injuries to contend with. Faith is what keeps you going. After my rotator cuff surgery, I got a stack of 3x5 index cards and wrote daily affirmations and Bible versus. There’s no way to prove that this practice helped me heal, but doing so certainly strengthened my courage, and my faith.
Faith Conquers Your Self
One of the greatest lessons I have learned in boxing and the martial arts is that my biggest adversary is always me. You can have an iron will, abs of steel, and the tenacity of a pit bull, but failure remains an inherent part of process where it comes to sport and fitness. How you face failure has everything to do with conquering self. The process starts by facing your fears, finding the capacity to listen (to yourself, to others, and for God’s voice), and the introspective ability to look honestly at your own shortcomings.
Whether you practice Buddhist meditation or Christian centering prayer, faith provides an optimal blueprint to see yourself as you truly are. Faith calls you to seek humility and to lessen your ego. Faith calls you practice a heightened awareness and a sense of non-judgment. To conquer self is to surrender to the inevitability of something bigger and broader than the limited confines of your own ego. Faith-based fitness makes you realize that it’s not about you, but about releasing your ego and expressing your true glorious nature.
Faith Enables Flow
“We flow into God—and God into us—because it is the nature of love to flow.”
The are many reasons to exercise, from better health to better physical functionality, but what many of us are seeking more than anything is a feeling of oneness with our bodies. To feel purpose and passion in how we express ourselves physically. To access a feeling where time almost stands still as our bodies move effortlessly in a seamless state of joy and grace. This feeling is often described as ‘flow state’ or ‘the zone’ by athletes and artists, but flow is also the holy grail of faith-based fitness.
There are many triggers to flow, but the commonalities include loss of self, an expansion of meaning and purpose, and a source of intrinsic motivation. Flow is the transcendental state of being truly present by being at one with the moment, with your source, and with your essence.
Perhaps flow is what athletes are referring to when they give praise to their higher power for performing. Our bodies are just instruments, but the harmonious flow of the movements we make comes about through tapping in to the omniscient nature of the universe. Faith and spirituality has everything to do with this sense of giving and taking, asking and receiving, and obtaining mercy through our acts of mercy.
Faith Can Be Your Foundation
Faith is not a solo sport, and ultimately, neither is fitness. As our bodies age, many cling to the notion of holding onto youth at all costs. But evolving in fitness means moving beyond what our bodies look like, to express our innate, natural, and God-like qualities: grace, power, joy, rhythm, harmony, and strength.
The cornerstones to an ongoing successful path in fitness are self-actualization, a supportive community, and sense of purpose. Very few if any fitness programs seamlessly bring all these necessary elements together in a holistic fashion, but faith does. Whether you write affirmations on cards for inspiration, pray before and after each successful workout or competition, or simply listen for divine wisdom with your breath, faith can be your foundation for abundance with fitness.