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Physical Exertion and Spiritual Rest
  • Formation
  • Prayer
Kris Yee

It was one of those hard days that sinks deep into your soul and weighs you down from the inside like a bag of sand in your chest. As my watch ticked to 4:00pm and my workday officially ended, I could feel the weariness of the day's meetings settling deep into my bones. 

I'd spent the entire day in a suitcoat jacket, sitting down on comfortable couches in air-conditioned rooms amongst beloved students, parents, and colleagues, discussing things that really mattered, and feasting on cup after cup of warm, well-balanced coffee from my fancy new Nespresso machine. Yet for all this, I was deeply, profoundly exhausted. 

This was a Thursday, and I hadn't been to the gym in a couple of days, given how my schedule had worked out—the whole week had been busy and full, sort of like this Thursday had been, and I hadn't managed to carve out time to go lift. Coincidentally (or so I thought), I also hadn't really been sleeping well that week. My nights had been characterized by waking up and rolling over every hour or so after each random scene of an upsetting stress dream that I couldn't remember played in my subconscious. 

Given my general state of exhaustion, I was briefly tempted to skip that day’s work out in favor of laying on the couch at home—seriously, I love my couch so much; it is truly a most excellent couch. But I could tell, despite said exhaustion, that my body needed to move, to strain, to feel the weight of a barbell on its back. So, I went to the gym. 

Working out in a garage in Houston, Texas probably doesn't sound like a soothing activity. No matter the time of year, it’s always possible that it’s hot. Really hot. And given the continuous fluctuation between hot and cold we’ve been having, depending on the result of a coin flip, it’s always possible that the garage will be full of mosquitos. You're constantly unsure whether that feeling on your leg is an oversized bead of sweat or an equally oversized winged parasite. It's not glamorous, neither does it seem like it should be relaxing. 

Moreover, this particular Thursday was meant to be a "leg day," and this particular leg day featured perhaps my least favorite exercise of all time: pin squats. For those who don't know, pin squats are much like a normal squat, except that instead of starting from the top of the motion, like a sane person, you start from the bottom—setting the barbell on pins at the lowest point of your squat and pressing the weight up from a dead rest. This is... difficult. 

But as I got into my working sets, the strangest thing started to happen: my brain finally shut up for a second. Teachers often spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about their students. Given the stresses of the week and the things my students were going through, there was a constant hum of anxiety that played on a loop in the background of my conscious mind. But as I strained against the weight of the barbell on my back over and over again, the hum began to clear, and my brain went quiet. By the time I finished the pin squats, I had nothing on my mind at all. My body wordlessly moved through the next exercise in my workout, and I could feel my lips making the familiar words, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." By the time I got to the leg press, I kid you not, I accidentally took a short nap between sets. When I got home, I showered and ate dinner then promptly entered a night of peaceful, dreamless sleep. 

As society has shifted, more and more of us have entered sedentary, white-collar jobs characterized by meetings and air-conditioned computer desks rather than hard, physical labor. If we're not careful, I think this shift can lead us into a profound disunity from ourselves. We are not, as the Gnostics (and many well-meaning, modern Christians) would have us believe, merely souls who happen to possess bodies for the time being. We are human: head, heart, and hands. There is no real division available between the parts of a person—to be at peace, we must be whole. 

And that's why, despite how much I hated physical exercise for most of my life, I've found so much rest these days in lifting heavy weight in a garage in Houston, Texas (shout out to Misty and Collin De Laval, school parents who operate Iron Will Barbell Club, where I work out). It's helped me find peace with myself, to bring my body into union with my spirit. I don't work out because I want to get a "gym bod" or because I hate being fat. It's because I'm a human being. And human beings have bodies. And using our bodies is an important part of why we exist.