The Insanity Workout and Byzantine Spirituality

The Insanity Workout-not for exercise slackers!
The Insanity Workout-not for exercise slackers!

Recently a friend loaned me a copy of the Insanity Workout series. I had seen infomercials for this intense workout quite a few times and it struck me as, well, insane. All of the jumping, “core” exercises, and other work looked (and still looks) brutally difficult.
Despite my own intuitions, the recommendations of my friend and so many online testimonials piqued my interest in trying this program. So, here I am today, in the middle of this regimen trying to follow it as best as I can, and the challenges I’ve faced (combined, hopefully with some amount of progress!) have been both extraordinary and completely enjoyable.
Early into my online research, I had read of some complaints about the insanity workout. For example, on the “Pure Cardio” video, some commenters noted that there are no break sessions built into the workout, as is the case with other videos in this series. Thus, a workout which is billed as forty five minutes was in reality much longer when you take resting into account.

I bore this in mind while going through the program, which begins with a fitness test that is repeated roughly every two weeks. However, before even getting to the “Pure Cardio” episode, I found that I needed to rest an awful lot more than what was prescribed. I was giving my all and not doing half as much as these fit folks were managing to do. And I also noticed that among those who appear in the fitness videos, there were frequent moments when these relatively fit people were simply exasperated. I also noticed that the trainer, ShaunT, was telling specific people to take a break when their form was compromised/they looked like they were too tired. To actually go through the whole workout without stopping during the exercise was not what you see in watching and trying to perform these exercises. Thus, when I finally got to the “Pure Cardio” episode, resting in the middle without pushing pause was not something to even flinch at. Yes, as mentioned by online critics, there were no breaks. But when I heard the trainer saying to rest when I needed to, and saw people acting accordingly during the video, there was no need to pause this video, and it took 45 minutes, and not longer. The amount of physical challenge was all that I could imagine doing, and as such there was no element of guilt when I had to go more slowly than my TV workout buddies (or to flat out stop for a bit!).

Now, I’ve drawn out all of these details not to get you to buy the Insanity workout series, though if you are interested that’s great. Instead, the point that I want to make in this reflection is to underscore that this arguably flawed notion of needing to do everything in a workout regimen has so many parallels to what I understand about Byzantine spirituality. Or to put it positively, the built in ability to go easier than the “perfect” goal for the sake of one’s own health and salvation is fascinatingly paralleled between the Insanity workout and Byzantine spirituality.

Perfection is constant growth in the good, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa. Instead of seeing one coming up short from perfect fulfillment of a challenge/goal as flawed or deformed, much of the Orthodox Tradition is about giving one’s all, and hoping to grow in perfection as the years go on. Our ways of prayer, fasting, spiritual reading, almsgiving, and the like, could be said to follow the Typikon and canons of our Churches. These statements, when compiled, are so demanding that I don’t know of a person who actually performs all of these “rules” to the letter. But then, to call them rules is to miss the point about perfection, and why we have these spiritual exercises (hence the quotation marks).

A copy of the "Sabbaite" Typikon from the Holy Land-not for spiritual slackers!
A Russian copy of the “Sabbaitic” Typikon from the Holy Land-not for spiritual slackers!

The Typikon and canons are like the Insanity Workout. Sure, it would be wonderful to be able to do every possible rep of the workout, but our actual goal is to use it as a framework to give our all for our physical (and spiritual) health. How can we know if we are truly doing so? This where a spiritual mother or father comes into play. By walking with them and heeding their guidance, we can discern what is a good rule of prayer, fasting, etc. for us, which will most often fall short of the canons and Typikon, especially for those who are newer. But is this falling short sinning? That would only be true if this tradition were about a bare minimum to follow. Instead, like the Insanity Workout, our tradition is extremely challenging even for seasoned monks. No, it is not a minimum, but a maximum. It is a pinnacle, which calls us to look up at our goal, and to strive to grow in the good without looking at our neighbors.

Similar to the Insanity Workout, if I were to stop fasting every time that I saw someone else taking a break, I might be cutting my own “all” short. I might also be coming into judgment by looking over my shoulder and concluding that that person’s rests from the goal are weaknesses or a lack of love for/dedication to our spirituality. That spirit of judgment is worse than falling short of an ideal, as the Prayer of Saint Ephrem reminds us again and again.

Rules of prayer and fasting may appear harsh and legalistic from the outside. The Insanity Workout may also seem torturously difficult if one thinks that all people should do every rep to be faithful to it. We could instead propose a minimalistic set of rules to let people know what the least needed is. Some leaders have advocated this, but I think that this could be missing out on the adventure of looking to an ideal and journeying to give one’s all, not to get perfect marks, but to become perfect from within and without. As we journey in the spiritual life, may the athletic efforts of those who have gone before us not daunt or dismay. Instead, may they inspire us to higher peaks!
Through the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us!
Christos Voskrese!

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