sufi dancers
Photo by svklimkin @ Unsplash

How Working Out Like a Whirling Dervish Can Make You Fall In Love With Fitness

“Wherever you are, and whatever you do, be in love.” – Rumi

The thrill of the pandemic workout craze is fading.  UpSwell’s survey found that while 50% of respondents returned to the gym within 9 months of restrictions lifting, nearly a third (27.71%) of all respondents still have not yet returned to the gym, and 31.23% are working out less in 2022.

Peloton, the exercise bike company that saw huge success in the early days of the pandemic only to flounder as sales slowed, reported a $1.2 billion quarterly loss recently. 

SoulCycle will close up to a quarter of its studios across the U.S., including six reportedly in the New York City area, amid adjustments related to the pandemic, the fitness company said Tuesday.

How do we bring it back? Enter Rumi, and Sufism.

Sufism is  a religious and spiritual practice that focuses on the way of life. The word Sufism means “wool” and symbolizes the practice of wearing life like  a loose sweater instead of trying to cling to it.

Rumi is a Persian poet and Sufi mystic who lived in 13th century. His poems are considered as one of the most popular in the world. He started “whirling dervish”  ceremony as a form of meditation and enlightenment. 

There is  a Ted Talk that explains more about the “Whirling Dervish” practice:

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If you had doubt on how big a deal whirling was, it made it to a Ted Talk!

If you think this concept is totally foreign to you, think again. Do you remember when you were little and you used to turn around and around until you were dizzy? That was your youth and innocence guiding you to enlightenment by making you giddy and dizzy. 

The Whisper of a Thrill

The whirling dervish makes its way int othe most unexpected places, including in a scene with Sir Anthony Hopkins in one of the greatest movies of all time, Meet Joe Black. In the below scene, he questions his daughter, played by the lovely Claire Forlani, if she loves her fiancé (this is before we find out he’s a shady shyster). She is ambivalent at best – after all he’s good on paper. But then her father tells her what’s missing – and that’s the thrill. The kind that is felt by the dancing dervishes, who foremost seek to be in love with life.

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And then she meets Joe Black (played by Brad Pitt). He’s strange. He doesn’t make sense. But you can practically cut the chemistry in this coffeeshop scene with a knife:

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How Does the Thrill Apply Our ‘Real Lives?’

Yes, this is a movie. But the general desire for the “thrill” is very much an innate part of our spiritual footprint. During lockdown, life was put on pause and there was no experience, or mystery. The nation turned to workouts as a way to achieve that altered state and land somewhere to transcend the never ending and monotonous reality of an everyday shut down existence. 

And then we are back to life, and we are going back to our ways. But if you approach fitness with the fervor of  a whirling dervish, you won’t even realize you are exercising. It is somewhere you may have been. It is somewhere you can go again. 

woman doing yoga
Photo by Vishal Bhutani @ Unsplash

How to Harness the Whirling Dervish to Reinvigorate Your Workouts

Here’s how to be a ‘whirling dervish” and whisper the thrill back into your workouts: 

Find your joyful movement

You will never be able to “whirl” with joy if you don’t do what you enjoy. If you detest Tabata, but feel like you need to do that to get cardio in, your body will naturally fight the urge to do it until you lose the motivation. Or if you loved doing spin but find yourself bored with it, try something new that will excite you. Exercise, unlike romantic relationships, does not have to be monogamous. You may need the thrill of something totally different to reinvigorate your passion for movement. So try something off the wall, like aerial yoga, pole dancing, or indoor rock climbing. Or use different equipment at the gym like the Versaclimber. 

Close Your Eyes

Keeping your eyes closed may sound nuts but it forces your body to recognize where it is in space, which brings  your mind undividedly to the present. I do it all the time! And so do NFL players during their conditioning, so it is worth a try. 

Closing your eyes makes the mind-body connection that actually reaps the results of these workouts. Of course, this is not recommended on a treadmill, but in any motion where you are suspended in space is an opportunity to practice. The result is that you synch with your body in a way that is much like a whirling dervish, with a completely blurred line between the inside and outside world. 

Closed eyed training is not only spiritually beneficial. Keeping your eyes closed during strength or precision training The reason, according to this article from advanced human performance,  is that closing your eyes on any exercise forces your muscle spindles and other proprioceptive mechanisms to work overtime in order to stabilize the movement and control the load. In other words, it teaches the lifter to rely more on kinesthetic awareness rather than sight.

If that sounds too extreme, take it in steps. First – stop looking in the mirror. I cannot tell you how often I see mostly women with their eyes glued to the mirror during poses even when that angle totally throws off your alignment. The fixation on the natural will make you overlook the supernatural – your inner whirling dervish. It can only come out when your eyes are closed and your heart is open.

An impromptu workou as I was hiking through the mountains outside of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Go Outside

Research from the University of Queensland shows that working out in nature can have positive effects on self-esteem and improve your mood, and the effect is especially noticed in people with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. So this is the perfect chance to take that outdoor yoga or bootcamp class, go for a run or walk outside, or even do a workout video on your deck, balcony, or backyard.

Get your family and friends involved

Moving in synch and conquering a challenging workout together can bring you closer to your friends, family, even your colleagues. It’s also a super easy way to meet people and make new friends.

Even if some of your relatives are a little skeptical of your workout, like my beloved cousin Faroz here making fun of my passion for doing barre everywhere:

A memorable day in Richmond, UK

Go techless

If I go to the gym and I don’t do a class, I am in and out in about 25 minutes, and this is all because I stopped listening to anything while I worked out. Having technology following you through your workout si like working out with a pair of handcuffs. You are never really free. There will always be distractions from notifications. Even if you turn those off, scrolling through your music wastes time and energy. Even if you have a playlist all queued up, how many times have you heard a song and thought, “I’m not in the mood for this?” 

Going techless lets you be aware of your surroundings and focus on finishing the workout. This lessens dawdling between sets and motivates you to get through the workout faster so you can be onto the next thing. Most of the time, the gym will be playing music anyway. Plus I learn so many valuable lessons just from listening to trainers tell their clients. Not to mention, the conversations I overhear are hilarious.

By abandoning the tech, you are freer to tap into your inner strength and velocity. You will also feel more light and free as you move about the gym, not having to worry about touting around a device or messing with your wristband.

Or if going techless is an absolute dealbreaker, consider what you are listening to. Instead of negative nancy news or talking heads, try listening to uplifting songs abd move to the beat of the music.

I practice my own principles! Marie Kondo style.

Detox your workout clothes 

Sometimes the clothes do not make the (wo)man – but they can for sure make the workout.

You should feel your 100 percent best in what you are wearing to workout. Anything less than that is something you don’t need weighing you down. So it’s time to do a workout clothes detox.

I have accumulated so many workout clothes over the years. In many cases, I did not NEED them. But I felt entitled to treat myself, so I did. And some have never been worn, or not worn in years. Throw everything in the middle of the bed, and 

So I decided a detox of my clothing was necessary. Here’s my quick and simple tips to downsize your workout clothing:

  • Get rid of anything that doesn’t fit right. Examples are pants or tops you constantly have to pull up or down. 
  • Get rid of anything relevant to stuff you don’t do anymore. This is how I purged my closet of all SoulCycle branded clothes  and kept one pair just in case I happen to go

Go “freestyle”

Going “freestyle” is what it sounds like – going to the gym without a set restricted workout plan. This is probably better to try if you are more experienced, but it achieves the goal of introducing variety into your workout and allows you to unleash your creativity and curiosity.  you may have been intimidated by before, like the Landmine press, sled push, or a different cardio machine, l

Don’t keep track of time or reps 

If you do sets in the gym, you know that keeping track of time or reps can be onerous. Having to constantly set a timer or remember a count of up to 15, plus do multiple sets, can make your workout drag on past 30 minutes into an hour. 

It is also questionable whether it is necessary to do multiple sets. Although some research suggests that multiple sets can maximize gains, the goal in every case is muscle fatigue. Muscle fatigue is what enhances strength and burns fat, because your body is forced to “recruit” as much energy as possible when you are pushing yourself to failure and once it runs out of glycogen (e.g.,, stored sugar), fat is the next source of energy. 

Enter “AMRAP” – which is an acronym for “as many reps as possible.” This is the way I train because (a) I don’t have time and have a real job (b) it is so much less mental clutter to just lift until I maximize my efforts and then move on to the next exercise. How do you know when to stop? For me, my muscles shaking are a pretty good indicator, but the general principle is that you want to do as many reps as possible until you can no longer maintain your form.  

AMRAP can be very demanding on your body, but it is a great way to get a full body workout without having to go to the gym every day. A common piece of workout wisdom is that the best exercise is the one that you will do, so an exercise that gives you the freedom to complete a set and turn your attention to the next move is worth considering. 

More about AMRAP training can be found here.

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