Zen and the Art of Exercise
Here’s an enlightening Zen story. A European was trying to learn the art of Zen archery under the harsh guidance of a Master archer. It is not an easy art to perfect. The traditional Japanese bow, an ancient weapon, is very stiff and takes a unique combination of technique and strength to bend it, much less aim and hit a target. Master archers make it appear easy because their shots seem so natural and relaxed, but it takes years of training to learn how to do this.
In the early stage of his training, the European student was focused so intently on trying to hit the target that he was holding his breath, huffing and puffing, and his arms so wobbly that his arrows were flying all over the place.
After watching the frustrated student struggle almost to the point of quitting for a couple of weeks, one day the Master approached and told him to stop shooting. The Master then moved the target and placed it just a few feet in front of the student.
“There, you can’t miss,” said the Master. “Now you can concentrate on learning how to shoot the bow.” In other words, develop the proper technique that almost seemed to let the bow itself shoot the arrow to the target by focusing on the process, not the goal.
This Zen anecdote is applicable to many people as they learn new exercises in the Younger Games. They try too hard. They will choose a weight that is too heavy for them (males and females are equally prone to this) or hurry through without first paying mindful attention to mastering the right posture or movement to execute the exercise effectively (develop the muscles and neuro-motor patterns for which the exercise is designed) or safely.
Recently, we saw this Zen story played out in a Younger Games. There’s a circuit station called Wall Ball. It involves throwing a weighted medicine ball against a concrete wall via a powerful rotation of the hips while maintaining an erect posture, then turning rapidly to catch the rebounding ball and letting it pull the body in a rotation away from the wall before launching it back onto the wall. Somebody picked up the heaviest medicine ball, as if the weight of the device, not good form, was what mattered. As a result, s/he ended up tossing it weakly with her arms, not her hips and torso, and as she fatigued, started to bend over further and further, inviting a lower back strain.
We stopped her and suggested she try a ball that had almost no weight at all to let her body get the feeling of the movement first, then as she got the right posture and sequence burned into muscle memory, she could start with a light medicine ball and go up from there. After that she got it right and found it more doable and fun.
Remember this Zen story when you learn a new exercise in the Younger Games, it’s not how much weight or how fast or how far. Those are just targets. Concentrate on letting your body learn good form.
Like the Master said, learn first to shoot the bow.