Book Summary: Body, Mind, and Sport


by John Doulliard

What’s it about?

Everyone known about the “Zone”, the name given to what countless professional athlete have experienced as a fluid, Zen-like calm in which performance is at a high level, championships are won, and records are broken. This book tries to figure out what makes the “Zone” possible, and how we can take better advantage of it in our normal, civilian, non-professional exercise.

Why I read it:

To me, exercise is a deeply spiritual experience. Physical exertion is at least as difficult for the mind as it is for the body. And it’s such a primal thing, so much a part of us that it just seems ripe for metaphor. There’s so much depth to the idea of fitness. It makes me think of mortality, of evolution, history, greatness, willpower, and self-actualization. I’m always looking for books that deal with the more poetic side of physical fitness, but they seem few in number. Most fitness books seem to be simple diet/workout regimens, and never end up being as philosophical or as literary as I’d like them to be.

My impressions:

Well, it definitely had a lot of promise, and I certainly picked up a few things, but it could have been better. Douillard has a really wonderful approach to exercise, that is, until he gets into the specifics. Influenced by Ayurvedic techniques, he emphasizes the importance for unity of mind and body when exercising. He denounces the common practice of listening to music, watching TV, reading, or whatever when you’re doing physical activity because it distracts you from paying attention to your body’s rhythms and exertion state. Rather than treat exercise as an aggressive just-have-to-push-harder experience in which you ignore your body pleading you to stop, you pay it rapt attention and push yourself only with controlled and concentrated, and then revert back to your comfortable pace.

This is best done, he says, through nasal breathing. Breathing only through the nose when running (or anything else, but running is the example) forces you to breath deeply through the diaphragm, and discourages shallow panic breaths that most of us are used to taking when we exercise. Deep breaths keep the heart rate and breath rate low, which increases satisfaction. So you might not run as far or as fast, but you’ll enjoy it more and you’ll be more inclined to repeat it. Focus less on how fast you can go, and pay more attention to how effortlessly you can do it. It’s a brilliantly counter-intuitive insight that perfectly inverts “no pain, no gain.”

I can attest that the nasal breathing thing works– I had the best workout of my life doing it, and I actually felt invigorated rather than drained at the end. I disagree, however, that nasal breathing is the only way to achieve this kind of performance. As far as I’m concerned, any technique that promotes mind-body connection and encourages you to be mindful of your exertion is a win all across the board.

There is a significant section of the book that is about Ayurvedic diet principles, which seem based on the idea that each person should eat in a way that suits his unique temperament (either Winter, Summer, or Spring). I found it to be scientifically unfounded and really muddled with bullshit New Agey language and meaningless graphs. On top of that, there are long sections that promote exercise programs that didn’t seem particularly useful or novel, not to mention an annoying number of self-promotional references to the writer’s seminar programs.

All in all, it’s an interesting book for the core message, but the specific tactics are a little shaky. If you have an interest in exercise from a philosophical perspective like I do, it’s worth a look. Otherwise, I’d pass.

Further Questions:

  • Why aren’t there more books like this?
  • How does the “Zone” relate to CsikszentmihalyiI’s idea of “Flow”? Are they talking about the same state?
  • Why are people so attracted to the idea of tough-guy Spartan events/obstacle courses like Tough Mudder, Run for Your Life, etc.? What happened to the quiet cultivation of the self as it’s own reward?

Quotes:

“Take notice when playing a particular sport– for example, when you shoot a basketball. Note the immense focus during the shot, followed by an immediate mind-body release right after the ball leaves your fingers. For a second, the mind is totally free of thoughts and the body is totally relaxed. It’s the same silence ancient warriors sought in the release of the bow on the battlefield. Find this silence in your tennis shot, soccer kick, or skill-related activity.”

“With [the right] program the measure of your success will not be limited to how much you can do, but, more importantly, with how little effort you can do it.”

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