One thing that has always confused me is the idea of a workout designed to be “survived.” Perhaps when I say this, you will imagine a military-esque man yelling at middle managers as they drip sweat onto their $50 yoga mats. That’s fair. But there is a far less dramatic version of this too. Here, people are simply watching the clock or rushing to get their reps completed.
My issue here is that surviving is pretty baseline. It is not learning. It is not thriving. And it’s not really experiencing either. I mean, yes. Sometimes, you simply have to learn to do the hard thing because progress takes real work. But there’s simply no need to build a culture around self-flagellation. Especially when so many other options exist.
We talk about mindfulness all the time but generally just in broad strokes. So, I think the real question here is what how to practice mindfulness. And since I have a role in steering the ship of a fitness community, I think a lot about how mindfulness is practiced via exercise. It turns out that the opportunities here run deep.
Mindfulness, for the record, doesn’t need to be practiced on a quiet mountaintop. It can—and should—be practiced during strenuous physical activity. In fact, I think that high stress and chaos are required for real mastery. This dimension of experience pressure-treats your learning. But this is a final destination. It’s like firing a ceramic bowl in a kiln to lock in the colours and shape. You don’t throw that sucker into the furnace while you’re still working the lumps out.
In the interest of keeping things practical, I’d like to share one exercise-based approach to mindfulness today. I recommend that you choose something that you are already competent at. Let’s say a plank. I like this example because it’s also kind of boring. Why is mild boredom valuable? Think of it as an entry-level challenge for mental resilience. If you can’t handle vaguely uncomfortable emotions, how are you going to handle any kind of high-intensity challenges—at least once the novelty wears off?
So, get into a plank. But instead of measuring in terms of time, measure it in terms of experience.
If it feels hard… Do you know how to make it easier? For example, you might lift your hips into more of a pike. Or incline your body (putting a bench under your forearms for example). Keep going until things feel easy.
And once it feels easy… You really get to work. Do you know how to make it harder without fundamentally changing your position? Do you have the physical tools to increase ab tension, change your breathing, selectively load different parts of your body?
Can you explore these options in a way that invites curiosity and experimentation? Can you crank things up to an intensity that is only sustainable for a few seconds? And then… Can you turn it back down so that you’re actually recovering without giving up?
The practice of paradox
The above example is part of one of my favourite methods. I love to approach lower-demand challenges in a way that transforms them. Can you walk across a strip of tape as if it were a high-wire? Can you dance like everyone is watching? Or finish a set of squats as if you were getting paid $10,000 for every rep past your initial target?
This trick of mental positioning asks you to really show up for moments that would otherwise slip by. It also gives us the tools to be more relaxed in moments of true importance and high stress. We’ve been there, done that a thousand times. That is the heart of deliberate practice.
“But what about mental toughness, Geoff?”
There is certainly a place for mental toughness as an exclusive pursuit. This most notably exists in special forces selection—the kind of meat grinders designed to separate out the top third (ish) of candidates based on mental and physical toughness. These testing grounds are not exactly optimized for skill development. They just take a bunch of already tough, conditioned people and beat them down until most of them crack. The learning (and probably therapy) comes later.
Here’s something that you might not know about Bang: in our early days, we specialized in working with combat athletes. If you follow MMA, we’ve trained athletes who have competed in Bellator and the UFC, as well as many other promotions.
This might be hard to imagine in the context of our touchy-feely current selves. But we’ve always been pro-performance (and pro-resilience). Even with our fighters, we often had to counsel not constantly biasing toward mental toughness. There are other priorities and—guess what? If you’ve stepped into a ring or cage multiple times, mental toughness is probably not your biggest deficit.
The only real change we’ve made since our fighting days has been in asking how effective we can be in helping everyone develop the skills for mindfulness and resilience. These two things are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary. And they allow us to not only live better—but to help others do the same.
P.S. Sharing tools for mindfulness here is rooted in a desire to help all of us create the space we need for empathy and positive action. I don’t think of this as a luxury. Moving toward reconciliation with Indigenous communities will take grit. So, if you want to put genuine mental toughness on display, this is the way. It certainly carries a lot more weight than competing for who can do the most burpees. Exercise is a powerful tool—and it is best harnessed in the spirit of a powerful and important goal.