Our good friend Al Kavadlo is back on the show, and he’s got a new book out on achieving amazing bodyweight skills through cultivating a “zen” approach to fitness and life. It’s called “Zen Mind, Strong Body,” and you can get it right here.
Here’s Ryan’s favorite snippet from the book:
When you’re completely focused on your training, the division between mind and body breaks down, and everything seems to fall away. This is what I’m talking about when I talk about ‘zen mind.’
Here’s some of what we cover in this podcast…
- (03:41) Why did Al write this book?
- (04:05) When you’re so hung up on the results, you lose the experience and the appreciation of what you’re doing.
- (08:16) You have to adjust your practice based on your own level. “Take the first step and the next step will be there when you’re ready to take it.”
- (09:33) People do things they’re not ready for because ego gets in the way.
- (17:23) Ryan’s experience doing a triathlon vs. Al’s experience doing a triathlon.
- (18:51) “Completing an endurance challenge like a triathlon or a marathon is such a great mental challenge.”
- (24:59) When it comes to nutrition, people usually know what’s good for them and what’s not.
- (26:08) Trainers are not perfect. And no, they don’t fart unicorns 😉
Ryan: Hey everybody. On today’s show, I’m talking with one of my friends Al Kavadlo. Now I talked to Al quite a few times in the past. This time around, it’s pretty exciting because we’re going to be talking about his new book Zen Mind, Strong Body.
I’ve been in Japan for quite a while and Zen is something that I’ve studied pretty much the entire time that I’ve been here in Japan. So it’s really great to be able to talk about this with Al and hear his perspective on things. We talk about training. We talk about nutrition and we talk about life.[Music]
Ryan: Hey, hey, hey, what’s up, my friend? Al, how are you doing, man?
Al: Hey, hey! What’s up Ryan?
Ryan: Nothing much, man. I’m so happy to have you on here. We’re going to be talking about your new book, Zen Mind, Strong Body. We’ve talked so many times before. It’s always good to come back and have a chat with you.
Al: Always a pleasure.
Ryan: This time around, I think it’s really cool too because your new book, I think it’s pretty special the fact that you’ve taken a lot of your articles, some of your best articles, 26 of them and you put them together and to this – in this format and actually just before the interview, of course we were talking about kind of how you laid that out.
I love it how you split it up into three sections and there’s such good information in there and let’s talk about it today. Is that cool?
Al: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Ryan: So name of the book, Zen Mind, Strong Body. Like I mentioned before, 26 articles and something else that I really love is the intro. You have this guy – what’s his name? Mike Fitch …
Al: I think you guys are familiar with each other …
Ryan: Yeah, Mike and I are really good buddies too. So it’s really, really cool to see that Mike did the intro on that. It’s always good to see all of us supporting one another and more importantly having fun with what we’re doing and …
Al: Absolutely. Grateful to have him onboard.
Ryan: He’s such a neat guy, yeah.[Music]
Ryan: So going into the zen part of it, I’ve been in Japan now over 20 years. I came over for the martial arts and within that, with my swordsmanship, with kendo and the aido and everything. Studying zen meditation side of it is a big part of my life and I was really happy to see you come out with this book and especially with the title and there’s a lot of different books out there that talk about zen and they go into some – the mindset of things and I like how you keep it simple here and when you’re talking about somebody. If I may, I’m going to go ahead and read something that you wrote in there.
Al: Go ahead.
Ryan: Basically what it is about your book and so – because a lot of people might see the title and become a little confused about it and I like how you summed it up here. It said, “When you’re completely focused on your training, the division between body and mind breaks down and everything else seems to fall away.” This is what I’m referring to when I talk about zen mind.
I really like that because I think a lot of people have this misconception of zen and the meditation of that. You have to completely clear your mind and you shouldn’t be thinking about anything when in fact I believe that it’s more about pulling the focus back to exactly what you’re doing and having this mindfulness of being in the moment and you do talk about that a lot in your book, which I like, especially one of the phrases when we get into part three. It’s when you talk about, “Be here now,” and I just love that.[Music]
Ryan: If you can tell us a little bit about the focus of your book, about really why did you write this. Why are you putting these articles together for all of us?
Al: You know Ryan, I’m really glad that you read that quote. I think that’s one of the most important lines in the book and it’s one of those things. There’s so much emphasis in mainstream fitness on the goal, on getting to this end point and so many people get lost in actually enjoying the moment. They’re so hung up on the results.
So that was really the impetus to put this together and that’s such a big part of my fitness policy is being present for the experience itself and being able to appreciate it and enjoy it for what it is rather than just seeing it as a means to the end.
I think the only way – the irony of it is when people aren’t thinking about the goal so much and they focus on the process. Lo and behold, you get in better shape. When people are so hung up on the goal, sometimes that causes them to get frustrated and derailed and they never get any progress at all. So I’m just trying to get people to focus on being present for their workout and doing it to do it.
Ryan: That’s so great. In GMB, we talk about mindfulness all of the time and there really isn’t something that shouldn’t be mindful. So even if it’s just the pull – and I say just the pull-up like it’s nothing. But being in the moment and really feeling about what’s going on and so just focusing on trying to crank out 10 reps or something like that. Just like what you said, the goal – it’s great to have the goal by focusing on the process. When you focus on the process, you will actually get that goal.[Music]
Ryan: Something right in the beginning of your book, one of your first articles was talking about why you don’t make New Year resolutions and I think this is great. It’s the time of year. It’s January right now and everybody is wanting that new body and they want to maybe focus on particular skills. I want to get the Planche or I want to get something. Why don’t you do New Year resolutions?
Al: Well, it’s one of those things that – the whole calendar is kind of just a made-up thing so that we can know, OK, I’m going to meet you at this day on this time. So we could arrange to do a podcast like this. Just a beautiful thing. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to coordinate it.
But people take that good idea too far and they turn this thing. Well, OK, I’m going to start working out in two weeks and in the meantime, I’m just going to stuff my face and sit on my butt.
That’s crazy. It’s like every day is an opportunity and your body doesn’t know if it’s January 1st or December 20th or whatever day it is. It responds to the stimuli that it’s given. So you want to give your body the stimulus that’s going to keep you growing and keep you healthy and keep you strong no matter what day it is.
So the other thing with those New Year’s resolutions is – and it’s a cliché and everyone knows it. No one sticks to it.
Al: You know? So you can’t think that magically, oh, January 1st is going to hit and suddenly I’m going to have this willpower that I don’t have now. It’s like you got to really take a good hard look at yourself no matter what day it is and say, “Hey, what consequences are your actions going to reap? Are those the consequences you want?” If not, you got to reevaluate what you’re doing.
Ryan: That’s so good, man. I mean this year, I don’t really have any resolutions as well. A couple of years ago, I started January 1st. I was like I’m going to get the one-arm handstand and I did but nowadays, it’s exactly what you said. It’s just focusing on every single day and appreciating every single day and being in the here and now and just continuing with it and also understanding that we’re not perfect, that we might make mistakes and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over it. We should just be mindful of what we’re doing and move on.
We will go into it a little bit when we’re talking about food. A lot of the things that you said as far as being here now, but I think it comes down to something else that you brought up and that’s – you get questions and people say, “Well, how do I get better?” Well, there’s only really one answer, right? Practice.[Music]
Ryan: Getting into the practice side of it, what would you do as far as – if you’re wanting to go to a new goal or a new skill or you have some sort of goal, yeah, you practice. What kind of mindset would you have for that?
Al: Well, the thing is, you want to break these skills down. I know that’s something you do a lot with Gold Medal Bodies. It’s something we do at PCC, saying, hey, the end goal is a one-arm pull-up or a pistol squat. But where you’re at now, that’s not realistic. So the step that’s more realistic for you today is to do a box pistol or an Australian one-arm pull-up or one-arm flex hang or whatever may be appropriate.
You do that and you do it the best you can do it and then as you get stronger, eventually the next step kind of becomes available to you and then you can continue to pursue that goal. There’s a quote – it has probably been attributed to a few different people but the quote is something like, “Faith is taking the first step even though you can’t see the whole staircase,” and that’s kind of what you have to do in this kind of progressions is you just – you go on the step that you’re at and the next step will be there when you’re ready to take it.
Ryan: So yeah, I think so many people actually try and force it and for one, like we’re talking about, they kind of lose the real meaning of actually practicing something.
But when things are forced, typically it doesn’t happen and so a big thing with me is just letting go and saying, “Yes, I do have this goal here,” but let go of that goal in order to focus on what I’m doing right now and practicing and making sure that you’re practicing a level that’s good for you because I mean, let’s be honest. We see a lot of people out there trying to do things that they’re really not ready for.
The ego gets in the way, right? Oh, yeah, I’m strong enough. I should be able to do this but we see it all the time and I mean not just for example – and body weight calisthenics world that we’re in, but body building. It could be at work. It could be anywhere where people have this ego and they let that ego kind of drive them instead of letting go of that and really focusing on what they’re doing and maybe …
Al: Yeah. The other thing that starts to happen I found when you get into some of these advanced skills, handstands, et cetera, is the more you practice them, the more you realize how much is involved, how many subtle nuances there are and it starts reminding you like wow, I thought I understood this but there’s so much more to still learn about this.
That’s the beginner’s mind and that’s a big thing I talk about in the book too. It’s not getting too attached to this idea. Like OK, I know how to do this. I know what this is. But constantly approaching it with humility.
Ryan: Yeah, every single session. Humility in going in with that beginner’s mindset.[Music]
Ryan: One of the stories or articles, pardon me, in the book talking about perception and similar to what we’re just talking about, and perceiving that maybe something should be a particular way. Maybe you think you should be able to get that exercise right or even that you should look a particular way.
For example in the book, you – when you first started off, it was in – it wasn’t in New York City. It was in a different gym.
Al: I got my career in personal training started in Chicago at a place called Lakeshore Athletic Club.
Ryan: And you basically just covered yourself up because you didn’t want anybody to have a particular perception of you because you have tattoos.
Al: I got a lot of tattoos here and the first job as a personal trainer and I was a little bit concerned that people were going to say, “Whoa, I don’t want this freaky tattooed guy training me. He’s kind of scary.” So I kind of tried to look a little bit more – you know, just like a regular straight-laced kind of guy.
Ryan: Just like …
Al: Right, exactly. And over time, as I talk about in the book, as I got more comfortable in my skin, so to speak, and began just kind of being who I was, that actually ultimately wound up being more of the draw for people because people were like, “Oh, this guy is kind of interesting. He has got a cool look and he has got stories.” The moral is be yourself, right?
Ryan: Exactly. It’s where – I need to keep coming back to the ego part of it but there are a lot of people who tell us that we should be a particular way or act a particular way or even do particular exercises maybe we don’t even want to do. So what I love about you is you’re your own person and you do things your own way and you tell people to do that too. I think that’s so refreshing because there are so many people out there who say, “Well, you have to be able to do this and this is one exercise that you should be doing and you shouldn’t do anything else unless you do this.”
It’s just great to see that if you encourage people so much and you give them this positive way of looking at things, that goes way beyond the ego and I mean I think the smile. With you, this is interesting. I’ve always though it’s – yeah, you’ve got a lot of tattoos and I think they’re great. But it’s that smile and you just see that, that energy and that positivity coming out of you every time.[Music]
Ryan: In your new book, we’re talking about right now Zen Mind, Strong Body. The photos are always great. I always love those photos and I ask you every time. I know that you say that you don’t have a professional photographer doing this. But I mean is that your brother?
Al: This book, I did work with a couple of pro photographers.
Ryan: Oh, you did?
Al: I have worked with a few pro photographers in the past, but I’m kind of always – and I guess this is just the modern world also. You’re always ready for a photo opportunity at any moment. Like, oh, there’s a really cool statue. Let me climb up and do a human flag on there or whatever. So you got to just be ready to go. So yeah, a lot of those folks were taken by a lot of different people and yeah, my brother Danny took a bunch of them. But I did have a couple of really great photographers that I was really fortunate to work with on that.
The photo that’s on the cover of that book was taken by a guy named Michael Alago who’s a really talented dude. And you know what? That photo kind of was partially the impetus to even put this book together. I had this title Zen Mind, Strong Body that a friend of mine Andrew Tanner [0:14:05] [Phonetic] had suggested a long time ago as a possible idea for a workshop.
We wound up doing this whole PCC thing and that has been going really well and we’re happy with that. But I always had that Zen Mind, Strong Body kind of floating around the back of memory. That’s a really good name for something.
Al: And then I did this photo session with Michael Alago and we did this great photo where I – he was like, “Do this like prayer handstand. You look really good.” I kind of have that photo. I have this idea and I had my idea that I want to put a book like this together. I’ve been like, wow, I’ve had my blog for six years now. I’ve got a lot – like hundreds of articles, some better than others, but some really good ones that are kind of getting lost in the mix and I want to put them out in a way that they will kind of be permanently out there and not just lost in the ether of the internet.
So, all those three things kind of coalesce. Like here’s this title. Here’s this image. Here’s this book idea and just like boom. It was just a beautiful thing in the universe because I feel like it kind of served it right up to me.
Ryan: Yeah, I was just going to say that. Just everything comes together and it’s good when that just happens.
Al: So yeah, that was like a Zen- like thing in itself.
Ryan: It’s very cool. And it’s simple. The simplicity of it, you see it too. So – and really everything that you do, even like when you said when you’re taking pictures, it’s kind of like – OK, well, let’s take a picture right now. I’m ready to do it. Keeping things simple and it’s something you wrote in your book too, another quote. Don’t make your life any more complicated than it has to be and that’s a great way to look at training, diet, just whatever you do and I love it.
Al: People want to make it too complicated. They don’t want to accept the easy answer.[Music]
Ryan: I want to ask you a little bit about how you mentally deal with injuries and this is something – you talk about injuries in your book. But what are some things that you kind of deal with? And physically, yeah, you got to work around the injury and we know that. You’re not really going to push through the pain but more the mental side of it. When you have an injury, how do you sort of deal with that?
Al: Like you said, you work around it. If your wrist is bugging you, it’s kind of an opportunity to put more emphasis on your legs or if you have a knee issue, then you can work on shoulder mobility or whatever is going on with your body. There’s always going to be an area that is safe and healthy enough to work and improve on.
So sometimes you got to look at if there’s an opportunity. Like oh, I have this opportunity now to really focus on my legs because I have an issue of [0:16:31] [Indiscernible] my upper body. But ultimately, it comes back to that day-to-day philosophy and that being in the moment with it and accepting things for what they are and not getting angry about it or getting frustrated and saying, “Oh, it’s supposed to be like this.”
Now that’s not like that, I’m all worked up and upset. It’s just OK, this is what I have to work with. So I’m going to do the best with what I got to work with rather than complaining that I don’t have more because we always can see the glass as half-empty or half-full. It’s kind of a cliché. But a lot of life is up to us, how we choose to relate to our circumstances.
Ryan: So relating to circumstances will actually – takes us to the next – the next thing that I want to talk about was your experience with your triathlon and my first triathlon – I’ve done two but the first one I did was as a freshman at university and I will tell you what. You kind of go in blind thinking, “Oh, yeah, no problem. I can do this,” and you train for it and the physical part of it, not necessarily a problem. But once you get in the water with all those people, and you can’t see anything, you’re getting kicked in the face, and your goggles are coming off and then you got to get out of the water and you’re just – all kinds of messed up in the head.
It can be tough and I just remember I – I thought I was prepared but mentally I wasn’t and that was a big eye-opener for me. You want to tell us a little bit about your experience though with triathlon?
Al: It’s funny. I had almost the opposite experience because I have a lot of friends who have done triathlon, who were kind of giving these horror stories. It was about, oh yeah, this guy elbowed me in the face and my goggles fell off and I was fighting to put them back on and there was a shark chasing me. I got a flat tire on the bike ride and I broke my leg on the run and all these horrible things that could go wrong.
So I was really prepared for the worst. So I kind of felt like – this is something I talk about a little bit in the book, how when I was pacing myself during that race, I really took it easy because I was so afraid of all these things that might go wrong. I just want to finish in one piece. I just want to finish in one piece.
Then of course I did finish and I felt like, well, I should have pushed a little bit harder. I was so pensive about so much of it but it was a great experience. Doing something like any sort of endurance challenge, a triathlon, a marathon, whatever it may be, it’s such a great mental exercise more than the physical one and you learn so much about yourself and it really – it comes in a form of meditation when you’re on those long runs or those long swims and like you said, you’re in the pool or you’re in open water and the visibility is terrible.
It goes back to what we were saying before about taking that step even though you can’t see the whole staircase. You can only see five feet ahead of you and you keep swimming and you’re just one stroke at a time, one breath at a time and that’s kind of a beautiful thing.
Ryan: Yeah, and being on those endurance. Like for example, a run. I really love – I used to. I don’t do it really much anymore but running in the mountains. Now if I have time, I just go hiking in mountains but I was running and I was in an endurance race. I just remember that it does. You do kind of get into this mindfulness, that meditation of just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and you fall into that groove. A lot of people call it the flow, runner’s high, whatever you want to call it.
But if we can take that feeling and really incorporate more into our everyday life, which you’re talking about here in your book, with your training and everything, I think that we would be so much better off for it and that’s what I just love about your book.
Skill work too. Let’s be honest. You and I, we’re into skills. We love learning new skills, right? So having that mind …
Al: And you’re stronger at this point, right?
Ryan: Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of like, hey, whatever.[Music]
Ryan: The skill work, as far as approaching that, and you talk a little about that. You’ve got some great programming in your book to help people to get places. We talked a little bit about it but skill work. How do you approach a particular skill in your case?
Al: Well, it’s just one of those things – we were talking about this a little bit earlier. You just have to be patient and respectful and see it as a journey and not be attached to, “I’m going to get this move by next Friday,” or next month or the end of the year, whenever it may be because that timeline might ultimately set you up for disappointment. So it’s one of those things you kind of want to – you want to have high aspirations but you want to have realistic expectations.
So you just – you enjoy the process. If you get a little bit better and then next week maybe you regressed a little bit, you kind of just take that in stride and just understand it’s a big picture thing. Otherwise, you drive yourself crazy. You will get frustrated.
Here’s the thing with goals. What happens when you achieve a goal? You want a new one, right? Like that. OK. I can do a handstand. Now I want to do a one-arm handstand. OK. I can do a one-arm handstand. Now I want to do one-arm handstand push-up. Whatever it is, there’s always going to be a carrot dangling at the end of the stick that you’re going to want to keep chasing.
So you have to realize the futility act and you keep the chase up, but you realize, “Well, I’m going to get them or I want something else,” so you kind of have to just keep that in the back of your mind that the thing itself isn’t really the thing. There’s always something else kind of hiding behind it. It’s the game of black and white. It’s what [0:21:52] [Indiscernible] calls it. I don’t know if you’ve read …[Crosstalk]
Ryan: Yes, yes. So good. I mean it all comes back to being here now, what you’re talking about all the time in your book and not just skill work of course. Nutrition is the same thing. You can stuff your face with crap and …
Al: Then you got to live with the consequences.[Music]
Ryan: Since we’re just kind of talking about nutrition, as far as being here now, what – because your approach to food and everything is pretty simple and so you can either choose to stuff your face full of crap. But if you get on yourself thinking, “Oh, I don’t have the body that I want and I don’t know why I don’t have it,” kind of thing, it all …[Crosstalk]
Ryan: Unrealistic outcomes. So what would you suggest for a person who might want to change up their nutrition? I don’t even want to say change up the nutrition because let’s be honest, most of the people that come to us are saying, “OK. I want to lose a little bit of weight,” or something like that.
Ryan: How do you go about that?
Al: People often are not honest with themselves and I think that’s the first thing that people have to do is really take a good, hard look at what they’re really putting in their bodies and then assess from there. It’s just – there’s – you can tell when someone is lying to you. We’ve all as trainers had had those clients who come in. They’re going to be like, “Yeah, I’ve been eating really clean. I had a salad today and a piece of grilled chicken. I don’t know why I’m not losing weight.” It’s like, well, maybe there was something else. What about those 10 beers you didn’t tell me about? And that slice of cake you were sneakily eating. You thought no one saw.
So people just – there’s no secret out there. It’s just you reap what you saw and a lot of people are in denial about what they’re doing to themselves and sometimes, it’s not entirely the people’s fault, because they’re misled by the dietary industry. They’re told certain things like you should eat six meals a day and this popcorn is fit popcorn and this is going to be good for you.
So there are a lot of really shady misleading marketing. But at the same time, I think there’s a lot of people who ought to know better, who believe what they want to believe. It’s like oh, this popcorn is good for me. I’m not going to question that because I like thinking that popcorn is good for me.
Ryan: And really understanding where you are right now too. I think – you’re saying that too and being here and I think we all know what is good and what is bad for us. I mean let’s be honest. McDonald’s is not good for you.
Al: Yeah. It’s one of those things – like when people who smoke cigarettes. You don’t go up to someone and be like, “Smoking is bad for you,” and they’re like, “Really? It’s bad? I should quit.” It’s like everyone who’s a smoker knows it’s bad. They’re addicted to it. They’re going through whatever they’re going through.
It’s the same thing with food. It’s like people know they’re making bad choices but it’s a deeper problem than just understanding that this isn’t a healthy thing to eat. So it’s – the whole dietary nutritional thing is something I try not to get too deep into. It’s almost a whole separate thing from what we do. We’re here to teach people calisthenics.
Ryan: Yeah, how to do cool shit.
Al: And it’s like go see a dietician, but inevitably those questions constantly come up and it’s unavoidable. So that’s part of why I wanted to talk about some of that stuff in this book. Really a big part of why I wanted to put this book together is there are so many questions that are continually asked that haven’t really been addressed in my other books yet. I want the chance to like officially and formally put it out there. Like, this is my stance on diet or cardio or a lot of the other things that I get into in there.
Ryan: Yeah, good stuff and I like how you separate it into the three sections. It’s an easy ready because well, it’s you, and I love it because it’s so personable as your examples that you give, bringing it back and showing examples of what you’ve gone through and showing that you’re not perfect as well, which I think is great because a lot of people out there look at trainers and think, “Oh, this trainer is just the most perfect person in the world and when he farts, he farts unicorns with rainbows,” and whatever. But that would be kind of tough to fart a unicorn.
But I think it’s good because we bring it down to a level that it’s simple in the sense that not necessarily easy. You make things easy. But it’s simple. As long as you keep things simple, but continue to practice, you show that you can get there and doing it in a way that’s not going to drive you crazy.
Al: Zen mind, baby.
Ryan: That’s where it’s at, yeah.
Ryan: So final advice for us, some zen words …
Al: You said something a minute ago that I wanted to come back to as a final thought. People are always comparing each other to other people and you always compare your inner world to someone’s outward presentation.
So you see someone on Facebook or Twitter, whatever, sharing all these pictures. Look how awesome my life is. Look how great everything is. You’re just seeing these little snapshots that they want you to see, but you don’t really know what’s going on in their inner world. But you know what’s going on in your inner world. You have these insecurities and you think, “Man, that person seems so happy and perfect and they’re not insecure and they never go through any of this,” because they’re not publicly showing it to you. Everybody feels all those things and it’s universal and people need to understand that whatever they’re going through, that everyone is going through it at some point and that they’re not alone and that they’re not the only one.
There are other people out there whether you need help with fitness or your diet or whatever it is. Put it out there and you might be surprised what you get in return.
Ryan: Love it. Be real. Be true to yourself. Love it man.
Al: I know. Represent. Keeping it real.
Ryan: Always such a pleasure talking with you man. Book, Zen Mind, Strong Body, check it out. We have all the links, everything for you, to order from Al. Thanks again man. Really, I always learn something new when I talk to you. So thanks for being you, man. Thanks for being you.
Al: My pleasure. We’re working out.
Ryan: We’re working out. I love it. All right, man. Thanks again.
Al: All right, Ryan.[End of transcript]
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