The Secret to Spirituality in the Gym
With his back to the class, Dr. Michael Luan draws a stick figure on the whiteboard and outlines seven circles through the center of the body.
“These are the seven chakras,” he explains. “They are energetic centers of the body and govern our psychological and physiological states of being.” Anxious students sitting behind him frantically scribble in their notebooks in an attempt to record the deluge of information.
Although Dr. Michael Luan received a doctorate in chiropractics and a master’s degree in biomechanics, he labels himself a “teacher of body communication”. He teaches his clients to “communicate out to the environment and also back to themselves”. His theories come from a mix of Eastern medical traditions and Western scientific findings. Although unconventional, Michael applies these beliefs in practice with his own clients and teaches them to students enrolled in the Exercise and Sports Studies Program at UC Santa Barbara. Many of these students aim to become personal trainers, and the knowledge Michael shares cannot be found in your average textbook.
“The seven chakras function also as a support system,” he continues. “As we age, this system will break down.” In practice, Dr. Michael uses the physical body to manifest changes in all aspects of his clients’ lives. Through proper exercise one can develop physically, mentally and, he insists, one can even develop spiritually.
“Exercise, or anything that you commit yourself to, should create a spiritual breakthrough,” he preaches. “If you really commit yourself to it, allow the process to transform you, and start investigating a deeper side of yourself as you get into it, you will automatically get a spiritual change.”
The gym might be the last place one would expect to find spirituality. It would be a sight indeed to walk into 24-Hour Fitness and see people levitating on exercise mats, performing bicep curls in the lotus position. However, Dr. Michael insists the connection is more obvious than it seems. “As you do things physically, you’re going to accidentally find spirituality. As we develop the physical body the consciousness surfaces, and vice versa, as we develop our conscious mind we have to develop our physical body.”
“In repetition, there’s meditation,” he continues, “and in meditation you will find your way to spirituality. So I’m sitting there mindlessly doing bicep curls, but as I get into it, I’m going to find meditation in it. Or sitting on the spin bike, just pedaling, or listening to music, to that downbeat, it gets me in that trancelike state where I can find meditation. And in that meditation I’ll find spirituality.”
But what exactly does “spirituality” refer to? According to Dr. Michael, “spirituality is where you find openness and a connection to yourself”. In the gym, the spiritual component is “being really present” and “being honest with what you can do”. It boils down to “lifting the most authentic weight, using the best workout. You’re going to do it clean, it’s going to connect you to your core, you’re going to find the center of your body and the best most efficient way of using it.”
It has much to do with honesty, or as Dr. Michael calls it, “authenticity”. “I used to try to lift heavy weights. That’s totally wrong for me, it distorts me, and it disconnects me, and as I’m lifting weights, it fortifies the distortion I go into.” In the gym, Average-Joe exhibits the same universal problem: “they want to look like what they saw in a magazine, or they want to do what they see the cool person doing in the gym. They’re not doing the workout that is best for them.”
Dr. Michael observes that people who get into fitness for “carnal” reasons often represent the least committed exercisers. To develop spiritually through exercise, one must have the right attitude going in. “Instead of committing to that connection, working with the body, connecting to the core, instead of taking the extra step, they just keep grabbing for that little “I want that”. It doesn’t work. They haven’t evolved their consciousness. They can’t keep living their lives the way they are living, change one factor, and expect everything to get better. We have to redo the whole construct of their life and in doing so, accidentally touch spirituality.”
So how will we know a “spiritual exerciser” when we see one? One can live in the gym for thirty years and never see anyone meditating in between sets, or radiating energy (what Dr. Michael would call “chi”) at the squat rack. Often the only thing emanating from a body in the gym is sweat. With the abundance of organized religions across America, and billions of practitioners, why are spiritual beings so hard to find? For Dr. Michael, one’s religion and one’s spirituality represent two separate entities.
Although he considers himself a spiritual person, Dr. Michael no longer associates with any major religion. He was raised Catholic but claims his religious education “confused” him. Religion is “very much about disconnecting from the body and heading towards spirituality, but there are no keys or steps to do that… I don’t believe that it’s wrong, but as far as connecting the mind and the body, it didn’t do a great job for me.”
This did not deter Michael from developing spiritually. In fact, it actually motivated him and directed him on his “quest for truth”. “Id rather find out that something I’ve committed to is definitely not working, then have the opportunity to reconfigure it, to find something more brilliant, and create a more spiritual connection to it.” This is easier said than done. In fact, it is a process most people never go through. “Some people are just gifted, they’re naturally open, and they’re naturally spiritual. Other people need that connection spelled out for them. In religion, they ask your experiences to be exactly the same as everyone else in that organization. That is initially not bad because it gives someone a step, a feeling… At some point you should be able to take over your experience and your own god connection, not have it labeled in a box.”
Dr. Michael says spiritual people will reach a point where they evolve beyond that box. “You may stay associated with that box, but you’re going to have to move on if you’re really going to develop”. To move on, one does not have to renounce all ties to religion, nor renounce all ties to the notion of “God”. On the contrary, Dr. Michael insists that acknowledgement of self that can make the difference.
“One of the biggest peeves I have is when people diminish the experience of who they are. We should give thanks and give thanks to God, but I don’t think we should give away the things we have worked at and worked hard for… Manifesting something turns it around and allows you to see you have the ability to create. Yea you have God’s guidance, but you also have (that) ability.” Exercise can become one of the best ways to manifest something by yourself, for yourself. “I want to manifest losing this gut, or running one more mile. And when you see it, it’s a huge process; it represents a lot of work, a huge evolvement, and a lot of spiritual growth.”
“I quit my gym membership for this sole reason: I saw people going into the gym like they were going into church. It’s programmed. They’re not connecting into spirituality; they’re connecting into routine. Some people are so committed to their routine that they just don’t feel their bodies. I have to work out, I have to get this amount of returns, and then it’s a good workout, and then you watch the spiritual component go out the window. That’s what a lot of people have done with religion, is connect into a routine.”
Variation in a workout is necessary, and “absolutely” has spiritual implications to it. Dr. Michael points out how easy it is to get stuck in a rut because of a routine. This lessens the awareness and connection to self that is so integral to one’s spiritual development. It also puts one at risk for injury, as it causes one to “disconnect” from oneself. “I didn’t notice I pushed my knee too far, and it’s going to show up with knee pain not today but three days from now. Then I’m going to have this real disconnect because I don’t know how the knee pain got into my knee. And then it’s a problem.”
Dr. Michael states, “at the end of a workout you should be feeling better… and if you’re not, your workout failed you”. For Dr. Michael, the goal of an exercise routine is to leave the person feeling fulfilled. But even he had to learn the hard way. Michael recalls one of his “hallmark moments” with martial arts trainer, who, after his workouts, would draw Japanese calligraphy. He remembers being baffled at his master’s method of relaxation. “What I found at the end of my martial arts experience was exhaustion, whereas he, in that same amount of time we were working out, found a connection in himself to a patience enough to do this calligraphy. He felt more at harmony, more at peace; he felt where he was in the universe… After watching what he was doing I realized I felt very empty after this, and he felt very fulfilled, and I sat there and said ‘I want this’.”
Dr. Michael insists any exerciser can achieve this “spiritual breakthrough,” it is a matter of maintaining that honesty with yourself. “People that are truly exercising, that are truly looking for something, will have such a transformation that they will never want to undo the process of exercising ever again… That’s how you know you have made a spiritual connection.”
For Dr. Michael, it all boils down to awareness, honesty, and motivation. “You don’t have to go with the model that’s out there… But you do have to dare to go out of that box. And you need the belief that there is something out there, and that will give you the drive and compunction to do it.”
That belief, or trust, also goes by another name: faith.
Dr. Michael can hardly hold back his smile as he observes the irony:
“That’s probably the biggest part of religion anyways.”
Learn more about Dr. Michael Luan and his practice here.