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Should All Buddhists Be Physically Fit?

As I practiced mindfulness of my body recently in preparation for my morning practice, I experienced a profound wave of gratitude for sensation - what felt good, what felt "not good", the ability to stand there at all and feel my body.

Later I got to thinking - if Buddhism is about revealing the beautiful inborn Buddha-nature that is within each of us, what is the Buddhist approach to fitness?

 

 

There is no question - scientifically or energetically - that a healthy, fit, flexible body is a great complement and support to the pursuit of a healthy, fit, flexible mind.  I know many peple in great shape who are far from revealing their true Buddha nature, and I know many dedicated Buddhists who are not physically fit.  And of course, there's folks on every end of that spectrum.

 

My definition of physical fitness may not be politically correct, but it is this : putting healthy things in your body, drinking more water than not water, getting enough sleep, moving on a regular basis, lifting heavy things, stretching, being able to go on a long walk at a moments notice without worrying about whether you're "in shape" for it.  It's less about body size and shape than body ability, though there is frequently (not always) a correlation between the two. I know "bigger sized" people who could kick the ass of some skinny folks on any walk or physical challenge, and vice-versa

So what does the Buddhist community feel about fitness? Since Buddhism itself is largely a "mind training", it doesn't really have a physical aspect. But without physical aspect, you're not experiencing the vibrant fullness of being a human being walking this planet right now.

Some traditonal Buddha statues are fat, some are skinny, some are toned, some are almost feminine appearing in their graceful hand-on-hip poses.  Some Tara statues are downright sexy. 

But what do my contemporary Buddhist buddies think about this? What does Buddhism have to say about being physically fit and ready for action?

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Comments

It just don't think it's

It just don't think it's beneficial for someone outside someone else to take that perspective of them more than I discover it beneficial for spiritual individuals who are involved for it because, according to them, I'm residing in sin and am going to hell...

Des Moines Fitness

evil and enlightment

some of the crazies who do wrongs still have glimmers of this taught by buddhism are they on right yes and no we cant judge. short answer no. i myself as much evil of hate,pettyness,self destruction, well i have the buddha heart and mind and soul. not saying i am a saint deity or equal to monkk or buddha just glimmers. um i fall into delsuions and mental wrong thoughts i have western mental illness. but remmber buddha taught were all mentally ill.

you're not always gonna be 30, ya know

I love this discussion, esp where it is going in the dialogue between Jerry and dennishunter. That's where I am with mindfulness of body these days, thinking about alaya, storehouse consciousness, karma, etc.

But when I first read this post, I had to laugh. Ask Jeff Rubin, or some of the teachers who work with disease, aging, and death as part of the path, if "physical fitness" is necessary for practice. Ask teachers with a hospice practice or who work with AIDS patients if all Buddhists should be physically fit.

Sickness and death is going to happen to each and everyone of us. No matter how "good" we are, how much water we drink, how mindfully we exercise, everybody's body stops working. And I think some of us will still be Buddhists when physical fitness is long past.

Yes, mindfulness of body is part of practice, but that's not what this post was titled. "Physical fitness" is in the title, not "mindfulness of body." And I do not agree that physical fitness is necessary to be a Buddhist.

I'm sure there are a probably a few Buddhists who can't walk when and where they want, or lift heavy things. A few with multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's or AIDS out there, for instance. Probably more than a few, in fact.

The only thing wrong with the title of my post is...

That I should have added the words "if they are able to be" - of COURSE people can practice in whatever shape they are, whether or not they would be able to be more "fit" - nothing other than that is ever implied or stated in my post or discussion -  physical fitness is by no means a pre-requisite for Buddhist practice.

My question was, and still is, does having a Buddhist practice include the imperative to strive to make your body as fit as possible, just as it seems to apply to making your mind more fit  ?

There is no question whatsoever that mindfulness of body is part of the Buddhist path.  That's included in "mindfulness" in general.

Specifically my question is about whether or not there should be focus on improving the physical body in a Buddhist path, because there's a great deal of focus on improving the presence of (or, of revealing) the inherent beauty of the mind.

To ask a provocative question: if you can practice Buddhism with whatever body you have, be it a result of choice, age, disease, or whatever - can you practice Buddhism with whatever mind you have? Can  a person with a failing mind, or a mind unable to grasp concepts, be a  Buddha?

I think the answer to that question contains the seed that reveals my own bias towards preferring mind over body, or body over mind.

If I say "we live in a country too preoccupied with youthful bodies, health, the chase for physical perfection" and use that as a reason to be okay with being 50% as fit as I can be, but then I spend a 1/2 hour every day on my cushion, time writing and thinking about Buddhism, and 1/2 hour or more reading or studying or attending class, haven't I simply expressed a preference/comfort for mind over body?  Wouldn't someone with a great body and no Buddhist practice be able to point to me and say "You're too pre-occupied with your mind?"

I think it all points to the middle path - being as fit as you can without being obsessed, within your own physical limits, being as present in your own body as you can, and enjoying as much health as you can.

If anything in my post was taken as a disservice to people who are in bodies dealing with age, AIDS, or disability I apologize, because that's the furthest thing from what I meant.  I know old people who are in great shape - for their age and ability - and I know older people who kind of "give up" trying to stay in shape.  I hope I'm the former when I get there, and plan to be, but who knows what calculus we each make about time, health, love, and pleasure.

The Body Is a Map

To Dennis....

I took pains to define physical fitness in my original post, which I define as:

" putting healthy things in your body, drinking more water than not water, getting enough sleep, moving on a regular basis, lifting heavy things, stretching, being able to go on a long walk at a moments notice without worrying about whether you're "in shape" for it.  It's less about body size and shape than body ability"

For me that is a more "unpacked" definition of mindfulness of body. But I can also appreciate the term mindful of body here in a different perspective - if the body is a physical expression of the choices our mind has mind (which it almost always is, barring disease, genetic rarities, or phsyical disability), then Reggie Ray is correct in saying it is the unconscous.

Since getting into some esoteric bodywork and body scanning early in my 20's I've been unable to shake the idea that the body is a map, of who my parents and their parents and their parents were, of the choices I've made about what parts of the world to put inside me, the emotions I've held onto in tension and where and why, the scars of encounter with other parts of the world.

Using Reggie's idea of the body as unsconscious, if you are deeply mindful of your body, I suppose if you really unpacked all the deep layers of what was happening in your skin and nerves and bones and really deeply paid attention to it, and accepted that you could not change this moment but could change the next moment, you would have a great starting point from which to build your own idea of physical fitness.

Yes

Well said. Regarding the idea of the body as the unconscious, or, in a more traditional Buddhist context, the alaya-vijnana/storehouse, or the expression/manifestation of one's karma (all different ways of saying more or less the same thing), I would just add that the doctrinal view of karma would probably hold that those other things you mentioned (disease, genetic rarities, physical disability) are also aspects/manifestations of that. In other words, not just this body, but the whole series of bodies inhabited by a particular mindstream, is the unconscious. And not just the choices we make now about what to do with our bodies, but the choices we don't remember making in the past which made us what we are now. But that's getting into a metaphysical level of karmic cause and effect that makes many contemporary Western Buddhists get their knickers all in a twist.

twisty knickers

Dennis I think I may take the screen name "twisty knickers".

I feel you about the karma/manfiestation and thougth it about when I was writing my original post.

For me the only problem with laying disease/genetic/disability issues at the feet of karma, as expressions of something that happened somewhere in a long line of bodies that is currently expressed in this body, is that for most people it's either going to a) give them a feeling of hopelessness and lack of control or b) make them feel like we are blaming "them" or some past version of "them" for their pain.

I think that particular definition/understanding of karma is best reserved for people who deeply believe in it - and not for those who believe it to tell other people its how things are.

I find Buddhism enormously spiritual and enormously practical.  If someone finds it helpful/useful to view disease in their own body as a karmic manfiestation of their own history, godspeed.

I just don't think it's helpful for someone outside someone else to take that view of them, any more than I find it helpful for religious people who are concerned for me because, according to them, I'm living in sin and am going to hell - my attitude is I don't have to believe in your spiritual path for your spiritual path to be perfectly valid, but when you use your path to tell me how to approach my life (especially around health, disease, or lifestyle choice) then you've crossed the line of spirit and entered the world of ego-delusion.

Not that I'm saying YOU were doing that - just by way of explanation of why I didnt even mention karma/manfiestation in my first post. That and I don't fully understand it.

Karma and delusions and the body

Yes, it's very tricky. Personally I find it empowering (and scary) to think that this mindstream that thinks of itself as a self (or that "I" think of as "me") is responsible for its own manifestations -- i.e., that the particular causes and conditions that appear here in my body and mind are neither random/accidental in an existential sense nor are they divinely created by someone else, but that "I" have been participating all along in creating whatever this is. That puts a huge responsibility on me for what I do with my body and mind now, realizing that my actions (if the doctrine of karma is correct) are creating the causes and conditions for whatever will come next. But you're right that it's a very personal way of looking at our human experience, and it's dangerous and simplistic to direct this interpretation outwards. Certain traditional Buddhist texts and teachers sometimes get almost ludicrously specific: if you are born with X condition, it's because you committed Y action in a previous life. That kind of specificity (which starts to sound God-given and childishly simplistic) gets MY knickers in a twist, but I can let that go and still find some sense of trust in the basic principle that karma might well operate across the whole continuum of embodied (and disembodied) experience.

Yes with a but

In my opinion, yes, generally, good to stay fit, you will live longer, it will help make you more aware of your feelings and stuff beyond discursive thoughts.

Isn't it also important to consider the cultural context? Buddhism now, Western Buddhism now? I think there is a dance, and not always a nice one, between culture and the Buddhist path.

What about perfectionism? I'm very guilty of this. I had a roommate who complained that Buddhists were perfectionists. I think this is often true. Is that ok? Maybe being a perfectionist and working towards realization are the same thing.

Jake

Dancing....

"I think there is a dance, and not always a nice one, between culture and the Buddhist path."

This made me smile. Maybe it's like that scene in West Side Story, dancing around with knives....

Buddhist perfectionists?

Jake,

Regarding Buddhism and perfecitonism. I would say that since Buddhism is a path that you are likely to be on because you desire to unfold your deepest nature, Buddhists are likely to be both ambitious and also ambivalent about their ambition and its effect on themselves and those around them.  It's easy to see enlightenment as a goal rather than something I already have, which can lead to striving, self-competition, and some form of claustrophic, astringent perfectionism.

I can't remember who said it and I am probably quoting it wrong, but some Buddhist teacher said something like "Don't start down this path without careful consideration, because once you do, no matter what, you'll never be able to leave it".

Is it okay to be a perfectionist? That's such a subjective word. As a recovering semi-perfectionist, I just weigh all of my own thoughts against the idea that if, as a Buddhist I am meant to be practicing non-violence, how can I start by practicing non-violence on my self and my own mind? Works pretty good for me 80% of the time I'd say. ;)

 

Jerry

Fit or mindful of body?

I would say that being physically fit is not necessarily the same thing as being mindful of body. There are lots of gym rats with beautiful, fit bodies who probably are fairly clueless about the deeper layers of embodied experience. For the Buddhist practitioner, being fit is fine and good, but mindfulness of body is one of the keys to experience and realization. The two (fitness and mindfulness of body) don't have to be separate (maybe it's better if they're not separate) -- but it's good to realize they're not the same thing.

Reggie Ray says that the body *is* the unconscious, and it *is* the buddha nature. Opening to the layers of being and experience hidden within the body is discovering our deepest source of being. The more I work with mindfulness of body practices, the more I am inclined to agree with him on that.

Not indulging, not fetishizing

As others are pointing out, the issue is not at all fitness or even bodily health. How we care for our bodies, approach and react to them is the important thing.

Buddhism teaches that all things are impermament and that our bodies inevitably decay. Didn't the Buddha always ask people to contemplate the decay of their organs and bodies as a way of loosening our attachment? There's no avoiding suffering, especially of the physical variety. What is in our control is how we experience and respond to it.

Our culture is run through with neurotic fears of disease and death and is consumed with illusions of health and bodily perfection. We equate a long life with a happy one, without much thought given to the character and content of that life. (Funny thing that one of the literally sickest societies praises youth, vitality, and bodily health all the more intensely). I think this relates to the wide popularity of various yoga practices over meditation, in the former's near exclusive focus on the body and exclusion of non-physical mindfulness practices. What would Sid say about the number of people sweating on the treadmills in our expensive gyms, compared to the number minding their breath in the meditation hall?

If bodily health were necessary for practicing the path to enlightenment, are diabetics, people with cancer, or "overweight" people excluded from the path?

It's try we are overwhelmingly ill as a society. Our unhealthy bodies can make us tired, lazy and cloudy-minded. But it's also true that we are captivated by false images of youth and vigor and beauty and healthiness. There's a deep-seated materialist prejudice in our society that a well-tuned and disease-free body is essential for happiness. Tell that the old, blind, arthritic mountain sages of China and see what they'd say!

More mindfulness and committed spiritual practice WOULD make us healthier, as others here point out. It would also wean us away from neurotic obsession with our bodies, healthy or ill, and open up the path of wisdom.

Appreciation

Appreciation of what is happening in my body in the "now" moment has led me to feeling compassion and understanding to my body image.

During a certain time in my life I was swimming 6 miles a day, but on the days I didn't, I had no practice to channel my excess energy into skillful and wholesome actions.

During a certain time in my life I was 25 pounds overweight and smoking, but I was beginning a meditation practice and what I chose to do with my less energy was progressively more skillful and wholesome.

Currently, I'm at a normal weight and eating less, exercising about twice a week with a daily morning practice and I'm now involved work that reflects my heart.

Jerry's question," if our hope and effort is that all sentient beings reveal their buddha nature, is being attached to (and having) a fit body a help, hindrance or neutral on that journey?" is an important question for me.

 I ask myself this question and notice whether I'm using exercise to hide from myself and others, or whether I'm using exercise to build myself up in some false way or whether I'm giving myself exercise as self-care, so my energy and space will hold more ease and less anxiety.

 The sense of calm that comes when I exercise gives me space when challenging situations arise in my reality and gives me more room so I won't act habitually, unskillfully and in a selfish way.

Yet if I haven't had my exercise that day and the same challenging situation arises in my reality, I'm still responsible for acting, thinking and speaking in a non-habitual, skillful and loving way.

Some great lamas and teachers, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche being one, who was burned with boiling water on his legs when he was ten years old and almost died, may never have been able to exercise or excercised in a conventional manner.

Even though I'm at a normal weight, exercise and have a daily practice, my family has a history of early high blood pressure and its something I've noticed in me and my awareness helps me take loving actions towards limiting its effect, but I can’t change my heredity.

My lasting transformations have been based on conditions where my mind listened to my body and was humble to its wisdom.  When I could really listen, I gently shifted my attention towards an aspiration and actions that were inspired from this wisdom.  With patience and gratitude, my loving heart has opened for myself and others and the energy to move within my flesh form appeared.

Peace

the body is a difficult sister

"the body is a difficult sister/ and she loves her"." (the weakerthans)
removing "should" from the question, living mindfully spills over into my relationship with my body, no question. taking care of the body falls under metta, and accepting some things about it falls under reduction of suffering, if you consider that suffering is a pervasive dissatisfaction with how things are (or appear).
my yoga and meditation practice and my ability to be present are inextricably bound up together. and bodywork is important in my life -- I wouldn't be able to move my joints if I didn't exercise.
but meditation has helped me to accept the limitations of my body.
I don't judge other people's appearance, buddhist or not. causes and conditions we can't imagine and those people may not be aware of play in.
mindfulness of body offers many fields of inquiry.

4 truths of the healthy noble ones.

I think practicing Buddhist should be strive to be as physically fit as they can. I think that if you aren't physically fit it's because of your strong clinging and attachment. So yes I think if you are actually practicing compassion for all sentient beings then being physically fit is vital component. We're attached to food always tasting as good, we're attached to being lazy and thinking we don't have enough time to exercise. Your body is literally the car you drive to Enlightenment. And you can't drive a car with; a flat tire, (being over weight) no gas (poor nutrition based on your caloric needs) or without regularly changing the oil (exercise). Exercise didn't used to be a chore, we had to do it, cause we weren't living in a time and place that we could get any kind of food we want, and as much of it as we desire in 15 min. We had to exert a lot more energy in order to take in energy. So all of a sudden these modern times of abundance are working against the causes and conditions of evolution. Poor exercise and nutrition habits are the number one killer of people in America. So continuing to perpetuate the problem is antithetical to Buddhist ideals, in my opinion.

Phakchok Rinpoche says "In trying to be healthy and happy we never look to the cause of suffering"
Our society is epidemically suffering from self imposed ill health. Our bodies are confused and suffering, and in turn so are our minds. Regular exercise lowers stress, anxiety, and depression. Just like meditation. So why do one without the other?

Not exercising is clearly like the analogy of holding the hot coal and then wondering why you are being burned. We all know exercise and eating well is incredibly good for us, but we ignorantly turn the other cheek, cause damn! those fries taste good and that couch is comfortable.

These are my Four Noble truths applied to being physically fit.

1.) Our bodies are clearly suffering. We're fat, we're weak, we injure ourselves often, and we're destroying the planet b/c of these habits.
2.) There is a cause. The causes are the delusions of; Ignorance (poor nutrition and exercise habits even though we know it's helpful) Desire (indulgently eating food that is killing us because it tastes good, or we'd rather watch Glee than do yoga) Anger (we often over indulge out of self loathing, we might not even go to the gym because we see our bodies as an unpleasant form or appearance and they therefore become our enemies. So we become angry at ourselves and continue to not improve because we think it's hopeless) Pride (we think that the success that "I" am always striving for (money, sex, reputation) is more important than taking care of our bodies, and in turn our minds. Some people think gyms are stupid, or that people that exercise are just doing it for the sake of vanity.)
3.) It doesn't have to be like this, a nirvana of physical health does in fact exist. (people run 100 mile ultra marathons, climb mountains, get cast in cirque de soleil) just check this stuff out.

) We can be healthy and physically fit beyond limitation, we can put more time and energy into taking care of ourselves, instead of saying stuck in this perpetuating overweight/unhealthy samsara. So we should abandon the habits that harm us. "you yourself need to be in control, not the emotions" -p.rinpoche.
4.) There is a path to follow to wake yourself from the sleep of laziness and overindulgence. First resolve the view. The view is your body is your only vessel and the more you better you take care of it, the better it will take care of you. Second, you must gain certainty through becoming familiar with exercising regularly, and eating intelligently based on your needs. Just as agitated water can't reflect the moon clearly, an overweight or unhealthy body can't function at it's optimal potential. Third is conduct, and the first and most important aspect is not harming. So stop harming yourself! Learn about the helpful ways to improve the quality of your intake, hire a personal trainer to inform yourself of ways to establish healthy exercise and nutrition habits, join a yoga studio or a gym, and if you can't afford it like me, you can learn everything you'll ever need to know from credible sources on the internet (www.yogayak.com), you can go to yoga for the people, buy a healthy cook book, find some friends to exercise with. Use your creativity for something other than finding excuses.

I think we often over eat because we're trying to be compassionate towards ourselves, because it releases the same chemicals in your brain that make you feel at ease and connected. We're fat because of fundamentally misunderstanding compassion.
It's a lot easier to become physically fit than enlightened. So maybe it's a lot more realistic/applicable goal to get in shape. Because, If you can't cut through the obstacles stopping you from being healthy and compassionate towards yourself, you're never going to be able to send your compassion to infinite sentient beings. So get up and exercise, learn to cook healthy, and stop eating shitty fast food. It's the compassionate thing to do for yourself and in turn everyone else.

I appolgize for my gramatical

I appolgize for my gramatical errors. and if anyone is interested in Neil's Intigrated Personal Training, based on the four noble truths, feel free to send me an email at [email protected]

Thanks for all the responses -

I have the same experience - have been fit at times as a result of work or life, or just being young - but for the last five or six years have always had some sort of regular amateur practice ranging from yoga, to marathon training, to just running or lifting weights.

I've found it feels nicer and more spacious to live in a fit body than an unfit one, and that being fit lets me sit longer and more comfortably.

I can see why "should" is a problematic word Eth, but at the same time, I wonder this: if our hope and effort is that all sentient beings reveal their buddha nature, is being attached to (and having) a  fit body a help, hindrance or neutral on that journey.

I think it is an attachment but as rayfield says, a not unwholesome one.

i'm curious to hear from someone for whom Buddhist practice is important but physical fitness isn't.

 

Fitness

Through meditation one becomes aware of several issues...Unconscious eating (over-eating, eating to combat boredom, depression,etc.) will be examined, and eventually minimized...Alot of America's obesity comes from unconsciuous eating...

mind = body

My mind becomes a fuzzy, sluggish place without exercise. When I'm able to "shake-off the dust" of my mind with some physical exertion, my meditation and mindfulness benefit. I think this is somewhat universally true for everyone, however in varying degrees. For some, a walk in the park will do it, others really need to sweat and get the heart-rate up. Either way, maybe a lack of a fitness program can lead to sloth or torpor? Or, at least can make our mind somewhat less clear or sharp.

I never thought of the elated feeling I get after exercise as an attachement. Food for thought...

Well, "Should" is a problematic word

However, I do think that my yoga practice has been indispensible to deepening meditation and embodying to whatever level I am able a physical understanding of mindfulness and vitality.

I do feel too many Buddhists practice from the neck up, and that's a problem to go deeper experientially.

Okay, I'll bite... I've

Okay, I'll bite...

I've been athletic in an amateurish sort of way for all of my adult life (~25 years); long distance bicycling, running, and backpacking. I've done it because it made me happy on 2 counts:

1)I set some goals over those years, to run a marathon, complete 100-mile bike ride, etc, and the feeling of accomplishment is fantastic!

2)I enjoy the "feel" of a fit body.

It's an attachment of sorts, but I've never viewed it as an unwholesome one. I try to be on the lookout for situations where my current "addiction" to running could make me suffer.

I took up daily meditating and a somewhat more "serious" mindfulness practice 2-3 years back, and I've found that being lean and somewhat fit has been helpful. My body seems to be "on my side" when I decide to sit for a long period of time; less things to "make still", if you will.

It's a good thing! I've got plenty to deal with with the tangled mess that is my mind! :-)

Shaolin

My husband is a Shaolin Buddhist disciple of SiFu Shi Yan Ming at the USA Shaolin Temple and their belief places a premium on moving meditation! As a side benefit, it keeps my man easy on the eyes. Every"body" wins! ;-P

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