Exercise and Spirituality

Mr. Marat, a Muslim coworker, and I had just driven together to an urgent meeting when, as I was impatient to rush out of the car, he asked me to wait for him as he completed his prayer. Yet what was most surprising of all was how much admiration I had for him in those moments. I couldn’t even focus on how massive an inconvenience this was because of the sheer grace of the ritual. I had never seen a Muslim pray before, and I was bewildered and in awe at what I eventually learned were ritualistic washing and prayers recited in Arabic.

Marat kept at it for about ten minutes, all while sitting in the driver’s seat of his Ford Explorer with me sitting feet away pretending to be able to focus on my book. We hadn’t driven forty minutes in Houston traffic for fun, and there were people waiting for us. Yet I was more worried about not staring. However I feel about Islam, the ritual itself was undeniably beautiful. More than that, I respected Marat’s willingness to make time, even during a busy day, to serve a higher purpose. We all need to remind ourselves that, though most of our day is filled with running to meetings, filling out forms, and taking out garbage, our lives have greater meanings. I realized that this ritual was no doubt much more inconvenient for him than for me, yet he carved out time for it every day.

And it reminded me of exercise. I’m always surprised that more people don’t make the connection between physical training and religious rituals.

Exercise is humbling in the best kind of way. It illustrates your faults and limits in full color and detail. However comfortably you may be lounging atop your pile of past accomplishments, even a few push-ups will remind you that, yes, you’re signed up for more pain and work, and you should be signing up for more.

A good ritual gives our lives structure. Every type of exercise is repetitive, from running to swimming to weightlifting to mountain climbing. It is at first tedious but eventually comforting. In a world in which chaotic change is always a blink away, in which the sheer threat of that chaos can overwhelm us, a good ritual can give us a strong sense of control and purpose. It fills us with pride in ourselves for having done good, though it is a good based much more on reason than faith. The health benefits of exercise are widely agreed upon even by the most cynical abstainers, and whatever other wins or losses you had that day, you can be confident that you did yourself some long term good if you had a decent workout.

And I’d argue it has an ethical element as well. Our bodies, if properly cared for, can do more, hurt less, and last longer. Whatever our deepest pursuits, whether it is raising a child, teaching a class, building a bridge, composing a symphony or simply making money, we can do it longer and better if we apply the perseverance Marat does. To a large degree, it is up to our minds and wills. Like all good habits, honesty isn’t always easy, and the convenience of simply not doing it will never lose its allure. Yet we end up regretting most of our lies. And the more we lie, the easier it becomes, the more it corrupts our souls.

Marat is one of the best people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. As someone who is staunchly secular, it is with some chagrin that I admit his religious rituals must have contributed to his nobility of spirit. It gives him discipline that I struggle to match. He was much harder working than me, having the same workload as I did, but tackling a Master’s degree and raising three children on top of it. Yet he remained an affable person, always eager to help anyone or glad to chat about anything. It was that unrelenting friendliness that made me completely willing to wait patiently while he delayed me with his ritual. And it was while trying to read my book that I realized that his religion and his attitude are linked. There are aspects of his religion I could never agree with, but it taught him that you get more from life if you ask more of yourself. Whenever I am getting home from a day in which everything went wrong and the idea of suffering even more in the gym seems intolerably painful, I ask myself whether those exact circumstances would keep Marat from a prayer. I know the answer instantly. And if exercise truly is the perfect, rational ritual I believe it to be, a rational person should be as unwavering in their dedication as any religious person.