“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”
― Lao Tzu
This isn’t just a pithy aphorism but actually a very practical concern that can help you in health and fitness as well as in other areas in your life.
At the heart of it, working on truly knowing yourself gives you an opportunity to bypass some common mistakes in your physical training – specifically, mistakes such as:
- Overtraining (or not training enough)
- Progressing too quickly (or too slowly)
Those two mistakes in particular have a lot to do with misunderstanding what you can handle and not being honest with yourself about what’s really going in your body. I will outline what it means to truly know yourself, the benefits of that, and some examples that you can use right now to improve your self-knowledge.
I’m not really sure about “enlightenment,” but I do know that having mental and physical strategies for better introspection and knowing yourself will help you be stronger, more resilient, and make training more enjoyable.
Part One: Mental Strategies for Self-Knowledge
Understanding your body’s physical needs first requires some level of introspection and self-awareness. Most of us think we are in touch with our needs and abilities, but how many of us do a mental check-in before starting a new exercise regimen, or even before starting each day’s training?
Even if you are a generally introspective person, the strategies I’ll outline below will help you to approach each day and each new program with a better sense of self-knowledge and awareness.
Know What You Can and Cannot Do
The first step in knowing yourself is taking a critical look at your current physical condition, as well as your other responsibilities, and analyzing what you can and cannot do.
Here are 4 important questions that should be foremost in your mind:
- Have you been consistently training well for a long time or are you just getting back into it?
- Are you a bit long in the tooth or more of a spring chicken? (In other words, are you closer to 50 or to 20 years old?)
- Do you have any current or past injuries that can become barriers to faster development?
- How much energy do you need to deal with all the responsibilities in your life?
These four questions will tell you a lot about what can you do right now and what can you really handle consistently when you add training into the mix.
There’s a world of difference between what a young, single 20-something, working at a non-stressful job can handle, and what a person in their late 30s with a family and a nonstop job with high expectations can take on.
The former can generally handle a very high intensity and load of exercise with little issue, while the latter would likely burn out under the same program within the space of two weeks.
An honest appraisal of your life situation and your body’s response to it is necessary for your long term wellness and progress.
The best program in the world is no good unless you are able to handle it consistently for a long time. And knowing what you can and can’t do is a big part of that.
Know What You’re Training For
Often, we don’t really go too deeply into our reasons for our exercise and fitness regimen.
We do it for vague reasons, such as health and wellbeing. After all, everyone knows that exercise is a good thing for you to do, just like brushing your teeth and eating your vegetables!
But if we’re going to spending a lot of our time and energy on something, we should know exactly what it means to us personally, and why it should be a regular part of our lives. It could be any, or combination of, the standard reasons:
- Weight loss
- Muscle building
- Rehabbing from an injury
- Sports performance
And it could start off for one reason and transfer to another. Your goals may change depending on what’s going on with you at a particular time:
- Stress relief
- Health condition
- Major life changes (moving, job/career change, family issues)
I’ve talked about this quite a bit before because it really is very important. Understanding your true underlying motivations is a big part of self-knowledge and helps direct you to the training and activities that you will enjoy and be consistent.
If you have fooled yourself or, to put it more kindly, are unaware of what you really desire out of training, you may be able to stick with the plan for a short while, but sooner or later you’ll end up quitting.
Take the time now to look inside yourself and analyze your true needs and wants.
Part Two: Physical Strategies for Increasing Self-Knowledge
So far, we’ve talked about more of the mental aspect of getting to know yourself better, including asking yourself the right questions, reflecting on your motivations, and being honest about your overall health and tolerance for exercise and other physical activities.
Now I want to share two ways to change the way you practice what you are already doing in your training.
This approach can help you observe, question, and gather information about yourself, not just in general but specifically in that day of your practice.
Warm-Up Mindfully to See What Your Body Needs
We all know it’s important to warm-up the body before getting to the main part of your workout, but there’s a tendency to rush through it, just swinging your arms and legs about until you get to the meat of your session.
Though you might be accomplishing something by just getting the joints and muscles moving, you should get a lot more than that out of your warm-up.
I like to use the warm-up as a way to assess my body, and ask myself, “where am I at today?”
By moving through your warm-up slowly, focusing on your breathing, and being mindful of how each joint is feeling that day, you’ll not only be able to reset and go into your workout feeling more centered, but you’ll also be more aware of what might need to be adjusted or changed that day.
Use your warm-up as a way to work through any kinks you might feel initially.
For example, let’s say your wrists are feeling particularly tight as you move through your usual wrist warm-up. This is a good opportunity to spend a bit more time on your wrist warm-up than you otherwise would.
Just don’t get too caught up in the warm-up that it winds up taking as long as your actual workout!
Conversely, not feeling so spry in your warm-up, even after putting a bit more time into it, may be a sign for you to really tone down the intensity of the training session. You may not need to skip it altogether, but use the introspective warm-up to help you realize that the day won’t be one where you set personal records.
Use this knowledge to adjust and temper your training at every session. This is a smarter way to do things.
Use Stretching to Check in With Your Body
Stretching, whether on its own or as a cool-down at the end of a workout, is another great way to learn more about your body and how it is reacting to not just your physical training but the other things that are going on in your life at the time.
Remember, everything we do is part of, well, everything we do! A couple of hours of lost sleep, a deadline at work, family dramas, along with ramping up your exercise all converge into more stresses and strains.
Being more mindful in your warm-ups as detailed above gives you a window of opportunity to delve deeper into yourself and gather feedback that you may otherwise miss.
Our friend Kit Laughlin once said:
“Stretching is a way of interrogating your body.”
Don’t just go through the motions and listlessly plop into a stretch or, perhaps worse, scream “NO PAIN NO GAIN!” and force yourself into the splits. Instead, use this time as another moment of self-reflection.
Just as you get to know your strength and endurance baselines after even just a few workouts, it doesn’t take much time to get a feel for how certain stretches should feel.
- Does it hurt a bit more than usual, with the same amount of reach you’ve been using?
- Is it not subsiding even as you hold it for a while?
Think back and see if you can figure out why this may be the case. And maybe you won’t figure it out. But even that experience tells you that your body is a little off from the norm.
This is the concept behind biofeedback techniques, from complicated machines or special assessment tests. And all of those can be great tools, but you can see from the above that you don’t necessarily need them to start learning more about yourself right now.
You can achieve the majority of the benefits of those biofeedback devices from simply taking your time, looking within yourself and observing the sensations as you move and stretch your body.
Exploring and Owning Your Limits
It is not a far-out, new-agey thing to do some soul searching in regards to your exercise and physical activity habits.
The reasons and approaches I outlined above are real and practical illustrations of why it’s important to do some self-reflecting and how that can help you progress.
Understand how you react to your exercise training and be willing to adjust. That is key to a continued consistent regimen which itself is the key to success. Also, make sure you really know what your true goals and needs are, and what you expect to gain from doing all this.
Being in tune and aligned with your genuine intentions makes the process smoother and more likely to continue.
Having limits doesn’t have to be limiting!
Real mastery means owning and being able to work with and within your limits in any situation. This requires an authentic sense of who you are, what you can do, and why you are doing it.
One great example of the benefits of training with a goal of improved self-knowledge is our Vitamin course, which features 20-plus different movements.
GMB Vitamin: 28 Days to Better Movement
Get to know your body better by taking it through unique ranges of motion, with a new exploratory movement every day for 28 days.