I started going to the gym in my late teens. For the first few years it was sporadic at best, and generally dependent on whether my gym buddy at the time – of which I went through many – still had the motivation to go with me.
My enthusiasm was driven by the desire for pecs and biceps that might elevate me past my lanky, slim status. I guess it was the same Men's Health style programming that all boys go through; girls like muscles and bigger is better – in all departments.
Sadly, many gym-going guys never lose their boyhood bodily insecurities, while others make good progress and elevate to a new level that sees them ego-trip through life on a constant quest for external approval.
Of course, girls face a similar struggle: Tall and slim is perpetually marketed as beautiful, and for many this means a lifetime of boring gym memberships, struggling through the latest “lose 10 lbs in a month” workout and overbearing personal trainers.
And so, rather than communal, happy places of temporary escapism, gyms are full of people trying to secure the approval of others and obtain a perfection that doesn't exist.
The reality is, no matter how ripped your abs or how firm your behind, it will never be enough. Just like getting the latest model of a car, soon enough you will desire an upgrade; a little bit more off here, a little bit bigger or smaller there.
And then there's the psychological impact of upkeep.
The fear of losing muscle or putting back on weight infiltrates our daily lives. The gym is constantly nagging us to “get back in here”. You feel down when you miss a workout but irritated that you can't just let it go and be happy as you are, for once.
By and large, this creates a cycle of desperation.
What is supposed to be a healthy, mindful activity becomes a sufferance of mind.
Of course, there are those who genuinely don't give a hoot what others think, those who are happy with themselves regardless of their exterior and solely go to the gym to keep fit and have an hour “me time” away from the stresses of work and confines of the home.
It wasn't until well into my twenties that I became one of those people.
My pathway of study towards a more mindful life enabled me to escape the shallow fishbowl of lifting weights and protein shakes.
These days I treat the gym, and myself, very differently.
My workouts have become a meditative way to connect my body with my mind. I no longer need a gym partner to motivate me to go. In fact, I look forward to going alone and the chance to bring my mind home.
I have let go of having gym goals. I don't need them. I don't even have a workout routine. I don't care how much I weigh, how much I can lift, how many press-ups or pull-ups I can do. There's no notebook to jot down my progress, and no specific instructions to follow, either.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not having a go at anyone with specific goals and routines. It's a good thing to want to be fitter, healthier and look your best. I'm just sharing where I'm at with this “gym thing” in my life.
I've been involved in sport in one way of another my entire life. I know lots about nutrition, the body and how to exercise. And I now allow this knowledge, combined with how I feel on any given day, to inspire my workouts and make the experience about so much more than the vacant pursuit of a better physical appearance.
And guess what? I feel fitter than ever. And have never enjoyed the gym this much.
It's funny, guys in the gym often ask me what I am trying to achieve, how much I weigh, what supplements I take, etc. Yet none of this means anything to me anymore, not like it did at 17 years old.
It's superficial. Empty.
Sure, being muscular and healthy is great, but body obsession tortures the mind. You might end up looking fantastic on the outside, but what about the inside.
How stable is your mind?
What if people stopped saying, “Wow, you look great”.
How would you feel if a friend said, “Have you lost weight?” Or, “Have you not been training?”
When your whole identity becomes this ‘gym guy/girl', it's easy to lose sight of who you really are. You become an ego-centric mental slave to the gym, to looking as good as you can.
The initial joy of reaching your fitness/bodybuilding goals turn into fears of not being able to maintain this identity, and not being able to satisfy the craving for perfection you know is beyond the capability of your genes.
And this is what drives many guys to steroids and many girls to weight loss pills.
It feels so liberating to just let go, to go to the gym and connect with every inch of my body, contemplating how it works, how it's developing in terms of health and age.
I don't pause for mirror takes, admiring my good bits and scrutinising my bad. I move calmly between apparatus, appreciating my ability to exercise rather than grunting and pacing like a caveman.
I focus on good form not weight. I engage in proper breathing not vein-popping grimacing. I watch every push and pull through its motion, appreciating my limbs and Mother-Nature given ability to use my legs and arms in this way.
I stretch mediately, focussing on my chakras and letting go of attachment to thoughts I have accumulated during the day. I treat the gym as I would a temple – a place where I respect my mind, body and soul, bringing the three to harmony with the rest of this interdependent planet.
Next time you go to the gym, I ask you to try using the time in a similar way. Leave your ego and insatiable quest for a lean body at the door.
Let it all go. Don't focus on any goals, on what others might be thinking about you, on those extra calories you consumed at lunchtime, on how you once looked or how you'd like to look in the future.
Just be there.
Fully engage in every exercise for the absolute purpose of being present and enjoying the ability to physically function in this beautiful way.
And you know what, I guarantee that you'll end up training more effectively and more efficiently, and feeling and looking better than ever.