Erin Joy Henry

Writer, holistic health counselor and model

Written for the Huffpost Healthy Living January 25, 2013

If you’re into fitness, you’ve heard of CrossFit. Celebrities, athletes, moms and military vets are all stepping into the box (CrossFit lingo for gym). Some are doing it to lose weight, some enjoy the thrill of the competition and some probably don’t know why they keep coming back day after day to participate in this fitness phenomenon. The “sport of fitness,” as CrossFit dubs itself, has steadily grown to hold a powerful presence, proving it is more than just another passing fitness trend. CrossFit is booming so fiercely that it is difficult to find an accurate count on how many boxes are affiliated worldwide, but it is somewhere around 5,000 and increasing by 50 a week according to the most recent Wikipedia findings.

Inside boxes, groups of athletes push through grueling workouts together, against the clock and their own personal best. If one were to poke their head into a box towards the end of a WOD ( workout of the day), the sight would be difficult to forget. Sweat and blood may drip off the pull-up bar, bodies may be strewn about the floor like rag dolls straining to catch their breath, and the quaking sound of a loaded barbell slamming against the floor would affirm the last group member had completed their final squat snatch of the day. Members would write their scores on the board, high five and walk out the door — back to their more complicated and stressful lives outside the box.

What is difficult for an outsider to see is that these people just went to a place inside the box, and themselves, that isn’t accessible to them at any other point in their day. The physical intensity of the workout gave them no choice but to draw their attention inward — to the now. In the now, or the present moment, the mind experiences a much needed gift of rest.

I was a CrossFit skeptic when I heard of it a few years ago. I loved to work out, but I couldn’t understand why grown adults would want to beat themselves up day after day. Did they want to get buff and sexy? Were they in a fitness cult? Are they some kind of masochists? I was also resistant because I didn’t want to further injure an old rotator cuff tear and a delicate lower back. My self-conscious side thought people would smirk at my poor upper body strength, and my gazelle-like arms couldn’t even manage one pull-up. I was sure my fitness had peaked several years ago and it was only downhill from there.

I had watched other members who stuck with it become more confident, assertive, fit, stress-free, health conscious and eager to take on the world. I heard them talk about doing things they never thought they could do. A CrossFit workout seemed to yield something uncommonly good that seasoned veterans of the sport said I could only experience if I gave it at least a few months. They spoke as if CrossFit had given them some sort of indestructible sense of well-being that ran far deeper than the physical body.

Last weekend, I was barely hanging on as I fought to finish the Filthy Fifty. The FF is a CrossFit workout that requires you to complete 50 reps each of 10 different high intensity functional fitness movements, one after another with no rest. There is a 30 minute time cap. I was at the halfway mark when things got tough. I was swinging from the pull-up bar trying to force my core to engage and pull my knees up to touch my elbows 30 more times. My body was exhausted, and I wasn’t sure I could force it to obey. My mind was chattering away with negative self-talk, making me doubtful I was strong enough to reach the 50 reps I needed to move on to the next exercise.

I knew I had to dig deeper within myself. I faintly heard the trainer remind me I could do anything for 15 more minutes. I focused straight ahead at the white wall, and dropped fully into the present. My mind quieted and my body took over. There were no more thoughts of what was next and whether or not I could do it. I committed to make my way through the workout one repetition at a time from that point on. The seconds between deep gasps for air were filled with thoughts of nothing beyond my next breath.

As I hurled heavy medicine balls 10 feet up a wall, and repeatedly threw myself on the floor in the form of burpees, I steadily worked my way to the finish. As I called out my time, the sweaty, panting sight of me may have appeared disheveled, but inside I was in a state of peace and quiet that I hadn’t felt in days. I was in the now.

Having lived many years in New York City, I had a hard time learning how to be happy in the present moment instead of focusing on how I could get ahead. The race for more of everything was never ending until I developed a yoga practice, went on meditation retreats and spent periods of time at an ashram in India. These helped me to spend more time in the present, where every worry, stress, thought and fear falls away. It is the place where the joy of living truly occurs. Somehow, a CrossFit workout is able to bring me to this place too.

I’ve been joking with my friends lately that I’ve joined the CrossFit cult, and I know they are silently rolling their civilian eyes a touch. But I know they are curious what is happening inside this private world of fitness that is so good. I tell them you get a shortcut to inner peace through an ass-kicking workout. When well-being starts on the inside, the rest falls into place. I know it’s true because over a year into my CrossFit experience, I’m stronger and faster than ever, and even my injuries have improved. I don’t know if a WOD will always be my route to inner peace, but for now it’s working.