How I Went From the External to the Internal: My Journey in “Fitness”

At first glance, there seems to be two major constants in my life:

  1. I’ve always been into ‘fitness’
  2. What I consider to be ‘fitness’ keeps changing

Taking a closer look, I find that I’m actually into setting ideals, and pushing myself towards achieving them. Fitness has served as a platform for just that – it’s a fun, healthy, and straightforward way of setting measurable goals, with a clear, systematic process to reach them.

While once I may have wanted to dunk with authority, become 70s big strong, get a black belt, or get to 6% body fat, I believe what I really wanted was the experience of wholeheartedly directing all of my faculties towards evolving.

Doug Young is the epitome of 70s big.

In a way, the spiritual path is the epitome of fulfillment for such an endeavor; every second of the day, even when sleeping, becomes an opportunity to practice.

Even if caterpillars know they will become butterflies1, they’ll never know what flying is like until they metamorphose. Similarly, we may have ideas and fantasies about where meditation practice will take us, but any awakening of consciousness far transcends our imagined projection of it. This is in opposition to fitness, where the effects of continued practice are accurately predicted.

For example, I’ve taken on a number of different physical conditions through each “stage” of being in the fitness game. For years I did heavy sprinting and explosive training, and was light and springy. Then for years I focused on low-rep, compound barbell lifts, filling out my frame and becoming very strong. Then for years I did higher volume isolation lifts and became very lean and muscular.

At every point the feeling came as no surprise. Carving a couple seconds off the 100m sprint felt similar to when I was a couple seconds slower. Having 15” arms felt more or less like having 13” arms. The “yoga of daily life” (normal day-to-day activities) felt the same inhabiting a body that was able to squat 450lbs as it did inhabiting a body that was able to squat 225lbs. It is really only in sport or the rare time you need to move furniture that any internal felt-sense difference from being stronger presented itself. And in those moments the feeling of being strong was more or less how I imagined it to feel.

I was a caterpillar becoming a stronger, faster, leaner caterpillar. It wasn’t until I discovered the internal arts and pursued the spiritual path that I began to spin the cocoon.2

Gnarly. But we, too, are “born in the funk,” as Cornel West puts it, “between urine and feces whose bodies will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms.”

Fitness gains will feel more or less how we anticipated them to feel, and we have a good sense of what results we will achieve given time put in. Internal and meditation practice, however, is far less predictable in terms of:

  • what the effects of the practice will be,
  • what the results will actually feel like when you achieve them, and
  • what effects you will get out of it for the amount of time invested, or how much time is required to reach each “stage”.

Fitness concerns measurable variables like speed, strength, muscle size, body fat, etc. and are more tangible than the abstract qualities we seek to cultivate on the Way, such as presence, concentration, sensory clarity, feeling, uniting, groundedness, energy, and awareness.

Gaining enlightenment is an accident. Spiritual practice simply makes us accident-prone.Suzuki Roshi

Working on the level of consciousness and energetics is mysterious. I don’t know when or what insights will come up. I don’t know how my reality will be affected. I might see something new I never noticed before, perceive familiar things in a new light, or notice changes in my relationships. Certain meridians of the body could spontaneously wake up having been dormant. And when they do, I don’t know what the physical sensations will feel like. Or how the intensity and quality of areas I am already energetically aware of will change. I don’t know if any of these changes will be incredibly subtle or overwhelmingly gross.

As a matter of fact, holding fantasies or ideas about what results meditation will bring actually puts the brake on any progress! Bringing no expectations – a beginners mind – to your practice is crucial for evolution.

Meridians, qi, and acupuncture points exist beyond mental theory and become real, embodied experiences through continued internal practice. Feeling energy is incredible!

Walking the Way is a trip. Sort of like taking a psychedelic for the first time. While coming up, you have no idea what to expect next. As you continue to come up, you get glimpses into what the peak will be like, but the best you can do is surrender and enjoy the ride.

Dave Wardman of Physical Alchemy captures my sentiments perfectly in the Transmutation section of his syllabus:

[*] Transmutation [Re-enchantment]

If one changes profoundly enough in an auspicious direction the experience is that the view of [one’s] previous incarnation (our self before the change) as only being partially alive – embryonic.

Unlike an embryo in utero that experience one birth the human being in the world can undergo multiple births and deaths – cycles of solve et coagula. After each step has stabilised the reality one is in is so radically different that one is forced to re-evaluate what was essentially (essence-tially) ‘me’ and what was simply unconscious patterning and habit. Often difficult, sometimes painful – nevertheless what is happening each time is alchemical. Transmutation. More than a ‘gaining’ it is an incineration within the flame of training and awareness.

Before I go into more detail on the internal arts in future posts, I want to first give some background by sharing the almost fairy tale way of how the path of fitness brought me from the external to the internal. An explanation of the difference deserves its own post, but to simplify for now, internal implies an equal amount of time spent cultivating the mind, body, and breath.

The Golden Gate Bridge during its construction in the 1930s.

External is generally training only the body, to the exclusion of direct work on the other two aspects that constitute an integrated human being. Also, usually external work on the body cultivates separate physical qualities than internal work on the body does. While this is mainly due to the intention brought to the exercise – “external” exercises can become “internal” – some exercises or forms are indeed much more conducive to internal training than others.

Throughout my journey of advancing in “fitness” and overcoming injuries, I’ve experienced the brilliance as well as the shortcomings and ignorance of Western medicine. In becoming my own healer, I’ve discovered practices most people and professionals have never heard of. I’ve been awestruck by the simplicity and efficacy of Eastern contributions.

In telling my story, I hope to show others a bridge between two worlds, and should they show up to the door bringing curiosity, help enable them to take the first step inside.

The Titanic Sails Off: An Era of Glory

Youth

My favorite sports were soccer and basketball, so my training was only explosive in nature – a ton of sprinting, and because I was obsessed with dunking, a ton of plyometrics in order to increase my vertical jump. This, combined with the stress of back-to-back basketball seasons (school and community), caused spondylolysis (a stress fracture in my lower back). It sucked, but at least it led to dunking a volleyball in 8th grade.

For as long as I played basketball, I was the center – the “big man” on the court. I was tall, but a toothpick; it wasn’t until I played on the school team that my coach told me to “do some pushups” to get bigger. I took it one step further, and joined a gym when I was 13 to get stronger.

As a center, I got fouled a lot. The instinct of small, weak, inexperienced and barely pubescent boys, when confronted with a significantly bigger center in possession of the ball, was to swarm around him and swat, grab, and pull his arms as he went to shoot. When fouls were actually called, the compensation of two free throws did little to relieve the frustration I felt; I wanted to aggress back when these little mosquitoes were biting.

High School

The gym started as a supplement to basketball, but soon basketball became a supplement to the gym. Mixed martial arts (MMA) became my new favorite sport.

At 14, I joined a local Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) academy and began grappling with grown-ass men. All I cared about was being as strong as possible while having only enough endurance to roll on the mats. Starting Strength; Westside for Skinny Bastards; a lot of sprinting; programs only containing compound lifts (pull-ups, bench, dead, squat, dips, power cleans). I didn’t do a single curl at the gym those entire four years.

College

No longer practice BJJ, and now at college, priorities change. Here was the first forming of my bodybuilding training, as I had begun to do some isolation work here and there, but I hadn’t tapered off my strength ways – I was doing Madcow’s 5×5, Wendler’s 5/3/1, etc.

I was one of the few, disciplined souls who can proudly say they were in the “Freshman 35” club… I ballooned my 6’2″ frame up to 240 lb, and was never stronger in my life, squatting and deadlifting over four plates at 19. Eating five to six thousand calories daily was the hardest fucking part.

With each successive year, my training grows more and more bodybuilding-oriented. Come senior year, I was doing 6-day splits like some random bodybuilder in the latest issue of Flex (a magazine subscription I admittedly paid for); lots of isolation movements, high volume, aiming for maximal pump, baby! If it wasn’t going to add hypertrophy or burn fat, I probably wasn’t doing it. I was however into mobility3, following Kelly Starrett’s work since 2008.

Here I am in full glory at the ripe age of 21, about 200 lb, before my first shoulder surgery:

I never intended on these being public, but here I am five years later – paler, hairier, with 10-15 lb less muscle and 5-10 lb more fat – posting pictures of my aesthetic prime (at least thus far).

Post-College (2013-2015)

Two shoulder surgeries later, priorities change again. I went from lifting weights three to six times a week consistently for about a decade straight, to taking over a year off from the weights. My ego easily survives the muscular atrophy. The temple I worked so hard to build… I let topple without any worry. This is when I knew I was doing it for the right reasons; I could fulfill the underlying pattern (of evolving) elsewhere.

I try yoga for the first time and, humbled, begin to practice Bikram.

Friends who saw me for the first time since college were sure to bust my balls for being so “small” now and for espousing the yogi lifestyle. Here I found a deep respect for yoga, a vantage point College Alex was far from reaching. All I cared about was bulletproofing my shoulders and eventually being able to hand balance. College Alex was on a relentless pursuit of muscle; all Post-College Alex wanted was the ability to put on a perfect performance of ardha-chandrasana.

Ardha-chandrasana or half moon pose.4
I became most concerned with “functional,” bodyweight training. I start looking at gymnasts, calisthenic playground athletes (e.g. ex-cons), yogis, and movers as sources of inspiration.

Stuck in my yang headspace, I buy parallettes thinking the bodyweight training would be good for balancing out my structure, and end up with overstrained wrists, an injury that takes over a year to heal. I was still stuck in the external world, yet to venture into the internal, the yin practices I so badly needed. It was actually a desire to play again that ultimately led me back on track…

Some of my friends started playing basketball fairly regularly and I wanted to join in on the fun. Basketball was a huge part of my life leading into my teenage years, and I wanted to play again. Knowing it’s been years since I last played, I spent a few weeks progressively conditioning myself with plyometrics before jumping straight back into it. When I finally felt ready to return, I made a foray of a comeback, playing for an hour and going hard in the paint. I felt great walking off the court, but a few minutes later I felt a pain in my knee. What the fuck, I thought, I spent weeks making sure my body would welcome the return. My knees had never been a problem for me. And when everyone around me seemed to have a knee injury in their history, I never thought I’d be joining the camp…

Encounters With a Greater Power: The Iceberg Era

Titanic Crashed

Weightlifting and gym work – despite doing dozens of different exercises and variations – is all very rigid. Sure, you may be moving in multiple planes, but the movement is extremely linear. My body was patterned like an industrial factory machine: up/down, left/right. Abduction, adduction. Flexion, extension. Where’s the fluidity, circularity, chaos? Where is the dance?

The iceberg is symbolic of internal work because its appearance belies its power. 90% of an iceberg is invisible, below sea level.5
While I have yet to pick up dancing, I learned other practices which encourage an exploration of space, which allow a greater degree of freedom in moving the body in as many ways as possible… spiraling, whipping, rotating, wave-like flowing, shaking, figure 8s, even amoeba-like movement. In trying to heal my knee, I re-pattern the factory machine into a fluid body.

I learned incredible ways of strengthening the soft tissue matrix – the fascia, tendons, and ligaments – which really helped balance out my over-dominant muscles.

I know way more about mobility training. I treat balance as a serious endeavor, as do I the core, and stretching. I become more mobile, flexible, and stable than ever before. And it feels absolutely delicious. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the pump was like cumming – and yes, getting a pump feels amazing – but you only feel it in the hour at the gym. The gains I am making now permeate every minute of the “yoga of daily life.”

It was my original pursuit of wanting to play as I did when I was a kid that led me to this stage, to meeting absolutely fascinating people who would introduce me to an ancient Taoist tradition. Coincidentally, Taoism is about returning to our true nature, in part by removing all the blockages we’ve accumulated in the subconscious of our bodies and minds. From the tradition I start meditating a lot, training the breath, practicing Internal Martial Arts, and internal alchemy, among many other things.

Am I done with the external? For at least a couple more years, but certainly not forever. It’s fun moving weight, having muscles, and being jacked. “External” strength still has practical applications. But more importantly, it’s about having a balance. Oh, and also, internal power is really, really cool, and doesn’t require you to touch a weight. Anytime I experience internal power from advanced practitioners, I’m scared. It fucking blows my mind.

  1. relevant:  and 
  2. To be technically correct in my metaphor on becoming a butterfly, I began to shed old skin to reveal my chrysalis. Moth caterpillars spin a cocoon around their pupa for protective covering, whereas butterfly caterpillars harden into a chrysalis (i.e. shell) during their pupal stage.
  3. at least, what I thought was mobility training at the time
  4. image source: Silas Jackson
  5. image source: Gerhard Richter, Eisberg Im Nebel (Iceberg in Mist, 1982)

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