Bodybuilding As A Spiritual Path

Bodybuiding as a spiritual path- bodybuilder Kevin Richardson

Author and natural bodybuilding champion, Kevin Richardson

Bodybuilding As A Spiritual Path

I wrote this article several years ago and it was a piece that I believed to be very important in a world of fast fixes. Today in my practice as a personal trainer in New York City, I can’t help but hear the shift in tone when the word “bodybuilding” comes up. Conceit, freak show and self worship are becoming more and more the terms the general public uses to define it, and as such I believe this article to be even more relevant today  than it was when I first wrote it. Thank you for taking the time to read my work, and here it is:

Sometimes truth contains apparent contradictions. Contradictions that come as a result of the intellect struggling to comprehend that which is beyond intellectual comprehension. Such truths speak to what lies well beyond the façade of ego and instead communicates directly with what we often term as the spirit within us. This spiritual side of ourselves is timeless and ever present, unaffected by the vicissitudes of life and simply is. It is a side that so many choose to ignore but one that so many struggle to comprehend. Time has taught us that the physical can be a gateway towards the spiritual. By training the body we refine the spirit. By taking our physical self to an extreme place where intellect ceases to have meaning and our mental and physical selves unite in the completion of intense activity those able to endure will inevitably find themselves in a quiet place where another side can be glimpsed.

A silent side. A part of us that is powerful beyond all imagination, and a side of ourselves where all things are possible, and all hardships can be endured and overcome. Bodybuilding, on the surface, seems to relate almost exclusively with the physical. The body is developed through years of toil, struggle and self-sacrifice into a work of unmistakable art. Sadly, today it remains largely a superficial pursuit where the emphasis is so much on the end that the means falls by the wayside. Drugs take away the almost Sisyphean task of brutally hard training and rewards the user with instant gratification. The struggle then becomes a destructive one as one must risk more and suffer more to reach the higher levels as progress is determined not by the steadfastness of years but with the ability to procure and survive overwhelming amounts of drugs. Even in the natural bodybuilding and physique competition circle for most the culmination of the body as a true work of art is reserved for only specific times of the year, and in a competitive arena. While there may be no drugs involved the onus is on winning a competition and often health is compromised in other ways to help make this possible. After the period of competition for many caring for the body tends to wane falls until another season draws near.

The ‘Ura’ and the ‘Omote’ The Inner and Outer Aspects

the spiritual side of bodybuilding- yin and yang

Like all paths, there is a duality to bodybuilding or any type of physique competition. A Yin and a Yang for a lack of a better description.

In this modality, it is a limited pursuit, and one that the general public finds difficult to understand, much less to emulate, but it can be more. So much more, if we only let it. In the Japanese martial tradition that I teach and follow there is the concept of ‘omote’ and ‘ura’. ‘Omote’ refers to that which is on the outside, the superficial, while ‘ura’ refers to that which lies within, largely hidden from cursory observation. They are two sides that mirror each other but together constitute a whole. All practice begins with the outer manifestations- but for there to be true mastery there must be a movement away from that which lies at the surface and an internalization of the very practice itself. In all disciplines this comes only from years of focused study and toil. Few seek that which lies underneath the impressive veneer of bulging muscle and fat stripped sinew, but those that do find a path, a way of life, that develops more than biceps, rather one that nourishes both the physical and the spiritual.

To Truly Find The Path You Have To Step Away From The Superficial

The contradiction: In order to truly experience bodybuilding as a path, one must first make the difficult resolution to step away from the superficial. In bodybuilding it means no longer looking at the outer self as a gauge of progress. Contradictory, yes, but it is the first and perhaps the only path towards making the endeavor a sacred and lifelong internal process, as opposed to a fleeting and shallow pursuit. I remember well in my early years of training, jumping on the scale every day, measuring my arms at every opportunity and spending countless hours in front of any mirror or any reflective surface that I could find, all in the pursuit of some tangible manifestation of progress. Like so many others, I looked at every turn for a sign- something that would validate my pain, suffering and sacrifice. It is hard to put into words the struggle that it was for me to train so hard and see so little in the way of a return. The return of course was by no means little, but to a teenager bent on achieving his goal the slowness of the process was as agonizing as the training. As the years went by, this ‘need’ for some form of validation was satisfied by contests and photo shoots, and the acclaim that it brought from my peers. Nevertheless, it though it remained a constant part of my daily routine, it was only after I made the decision to stay on my diet as a way of life bent on caring for myself as an individual, did I suddenly make the difficult step of abandoning the mirror.

As hard as it was, it was a necessity. The training, the discipline and most importantly, the joy and vitality of the experience became something far more rewarding than any trophy or screaming crowd could equal. In the gym, I would wear clothes that allowed me to see and connect with the outer aspects of my pursuit, but other than these brief times, the way I looked was of little concern to me. the focus falling now on the training. The irony of it, and herein the contradiction, is that I look better than I ever did, and I have continued to improve far more than I ever believed possible. All without the aid of any supplement, drug or crutch of any kind. The training became and is more. If we stop and find a way to quiet the noise within that we so often use to define ourselves, we feel ourselves almost in the presence of something else that resides within each of us. It is this self, ever tranquil and always at peace that adds the final dimension to the beings that we truly are.


Using The Pain Of Training To Form A Union Of Body And Spirit

Within the context of my training regime and philosophy, the body is carried to the point of complete and utter failure much like the practice of shugyo performed by the ascetics of my martial tradition. The weights becoming such an impossible and unbearable load that every fiber of your being screams to drop and be free of. Yet it is there, at the very borders of endurance that we learn that we can strive to do more. To go past the physical, and to do so requires an effort born of something else- something that lives well beyond the self-imposed realms of pain and impossibility. Finding it, finding that place within, we achieve what appears to be almost superhuman, going far beyond our limits and into a place of infinite possibility and potential. It is this knowledge and mastery of self in all its forms that brings about true strength, a strength that is intrinsic and inseparable from who we are, and not an artificial one that is born of chemicals, pills and powders and thus virtually unknown by our spirit.

It is a strength that allows us to endure. A spiritual strength. One that carries over to every facet of our individual lives. A strength that has helped me accept that which is difficult in life, both emotionally and physically. A strength that springs from our own indomitable spirits, a force that recognizes, knows and accepts suffering as an inevitable part of life, and stands unaffected by it. This is a way of health, of compassion, caring and self-development. True, you are rewarded with a strong and well-toned physique and a vitality that can be defined only through experience, but throughout it all, the body in all its forms is respected and lovingly provided for. Diet, a term that before would invoke an idea of negativity, takes on an almost sacred air, becomes more and more an important part of the path. Thus, eating only that which is natural and wholesome and never even stopping to consider indulging in that which is harmful for our bodies becomes an effortless exercise.

Fasting As A Way Of Life

Fasting, an integral part of so many religious and spiritual practices is defined as the abstinence from food or drink in some form, with the idea of bringing the flesh closer to the spirit. While fasting is a temporary undertaking, within a religious context, this practice creates a fast that lasts for the duration of one’s very life. Abstaining from all that is potentially harmful creates a bond of respect to the physical body itself- one that will not be broken for any social tradition or custom, while also serving to build an unparalleled inner strength and a connection as well to all things spiritual. This abstinence and care in eating makes our most basic function- the consumption of food and water, an essential part of an even greater spiritual and physical pursuit.

Time, however, is the fire that allows all these elements to simmer together and stew into a perfect whole, and it should never be expected that such integration of body and spirit be realized instantaneously. For me it came after the toil of almost a decade and a half, but it is a struggle that bore great fruit, and a struggle where every fall brought me closer to a realization of something unimaginably rewarding. The reward that such a focus on the physical and the spiritual and the integration of every basic activity towards the realization of a higher plane is not only limited to the individual practicing it. Others see and are inspired themselves to strive towards the realization of their goals, and the creation of their own paths, founded as well on the idea bettering their overall health and fitness.

Those that find their way towards this path can know that as time draws on that we will always have the vitality and strength of good health and an inner musculature that will never be eroded by the ravages of time. We can have the clarity to know that all that we envision is indeed possible, but most of all, such a practice makes apparent that which lies beyond the material. A connection that manifests itself as well as a need, and a sincere desire to do all that we can to help others. A contradiction, once again in that the way of focusing on the self, ultimately becomes a portal towards helping and caring for others.

To truly focus on the inside, leads always once again the outside, but in a much more meaningful and fulfilling way. Thank you for reading.


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Featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to network TV, Kevin Richardson is the international fitness consultant for UNICEF, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City. Learn more about his award winning personal training services here!