Aspiration, Inspiration—And The Quest For Enlightenment Through Calisthenics

by John Du Cane, CEO and founder, Dragon Door on January 13, 2015

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Al Kavaldo Instructing PCC

Back in the day, I practiced Zazen for a period, including a painfully exquisite five-day retreat. The beginning meditative practice was to count the soft inhales and exhales, with attention at the nostrils. Counting up to ten breaths. Then starting over. When you failed to stay fully attentive to ten breaths in a row, you would go back and…start over. For hours per day…Very challenging indeed, yet finally very rewarding.

And how does sitting like this, completely immobile, counting your breath hour after hour, relate to calisthenics?

It has to do with two breath-related words: aspire and inspire.

Two of the most powerful keys to successful physical cultivation are mastery of the breath and mastery of attentiveness. The word aspire translates simply as to breathe. However, aspire has evolved to mean to dream of, yearn for or set one’s heart on. Thus the meditative Zazen practice of counting breaths becomes an aspirational activity. We breathe consciously as we aspire to greater heights. The final height is known as enlightenment, be it achieved suddenly or gradually.

When we practice calisthenics (“beautiful movement”), we ideally engage in a Zazen-like, aspirational discipline—refining ourselves by extreme attentiveness to every subtle nuance. We enlighten our bodies as we enlighten ourselves mentally and spiritually. There is no division, no separation as we practice in the conscious moment.

Al Kavadlo Zen Hang

In this context, Al Kavadlo’s new title Zen Mind, Strong Body is aspirational in its intent and message. A longtime proponent of conscious practice in bodyweight exercise, Al Kavadlo is a perfect exemplar of how that attentiveness can pay off in real-world results. Al aspired to climb dizzy heights as a physical culturist—and has succeeded both in form and function. You just have to look at his photographs to see a perfect marriage of elegant, symmetrical physique and athletic accomplishment.

Another quality of the dedicated aspirant to physical supremacy is that they are consistent and persistent—harking back to that relentless attentiveness to the breath, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year… Like the maestro of calisthenic maestros, Paul Wade, Al gets how crucial it is to be patiently progressive in your physical development.

Fools rush in to “tougher and harder” before they are ready—and get hurt, often badly. Amateurs are haphazard and intermittent in their practice—and spin their wheels going nowhere slowly. The remedy? Aspire to attentive, dedicated, progressive practice—as Al so handsomely describes and exemplifies in the pages of Zen Mind, Strong Body.

Al Kavaldo Back Bridge PCC

When I studied at an ashram in India, my avowed intent was to “get enlightened”. Well, I can’t say I achieved enlightenment, in the classic sense of that attainment, however I sure “lightened up.” 🙂 Which is another key to successful physical cultivation, according to Grandmaster Al…a fun-loving, light-hearted, flexible spirit does absolute wonders for your longevity as a progressive calisthenics practitioner. If you want to succeed both big-time and long-term then: lighten up! There is a reason you’ll see Al smiling in pretty well every pose and movement, however difficult: a happy face translates into hard—and sustainable—gains. So, wipe that scowl off your face, buddy—grimaces aren’t going to help you get stronger, just more uptight. Rigidity and over-seriousness toll the death knell for your strength aspirations. Relax, smile—and practice “enlightened calisthenics” instead…

So, for me, much of the value in Al’s Zen Mind, Strong Body is that it will help you get your practice mindset straight. The novice practitioner can save himself a world of grief and poor results by adopting Al’s Zen of enlightened calisthenics. More advanced culturists can use Zen Mind, Strong Body as a mirror—to check if they are on track, or need a course correction or two…

What did Jimi Hendrix say? “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky…”—an inspirational paean if ever there was one…. Which brings me to another important value to absorbing Zen Mind, Strong Body: to be inspired.

Al Kavadlo Handstand On Arch

Inspire referred originally to the act of breathing or blowing into—with spiritual connotations of higher truth being transmitted. Now, inspiration refers to the urge to do something especially creative or the ability to animate others to transcend their current limitations.

Al is flat-out an inspirational being, whether it be in person, as an author or when leading a calisthenics workshop.

Al is inspirational because his story is one of triumphing physically as the result of diligent, attentive practice—rather than because he was some super-stud athlete as a kid who never really had to work to be as strong as he is. Inspirational message: if Al can do it, so can you and here’s how…

Kavadlo Bros Archer Pull-Ups

Al is inspirational in his books, through the sheer creativity and wealth of fun flamboyance he brings to the show. And I do mean show. Who on earth needs another pedestrian, me-too, by-the-numbers exercise book? No thank you! Al entertains us with a new and exciting spin that ignites us to jump into action and make stuff happen… He additionally inspires with a stripped-down, nuts-and-bolts approach to the methodologies and exercises he advocates.

The Zen Way of Strength places an emphasis on direct experience and listening to your own body as the most powerful forces to employ on your behalf in the ongoing game of physical culture. This too is an inspirational message: trust yourself, be instinctive and—with discipline—you can achieve anything you want…again, Al is the perfect example.

Those of you fortunate enough to have attended a PCC can attest to how inspirational Al is a leader with his brother Danny Kavadlo. Talk about getting fired up! Whatever inspiration can be had from the books, is ten-timed at a PCC… There are those who hide their relative physical ineptitude behind a carefully-constructed façade. Not so Al Kavadlo. What you see is what you get and what you get is pretty darn inspirational. If you want to experience “enlightened calisthenics” in action, you most certainly will at a PCC. Hope to see you there soon!


Zen Mind, Strong Body by Al KavadloNow available from Dragon Door Publications:

Zen Mind, Strong Body
How to Cultivate Advanced Calisthenic Strength—Using the Power of “Beginner’s Mind”
By Al Kavadlo

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  • Mohammed

    There are so many lessons in this article; I’ll have to read it a few more times to fully understand and absorb all the points.

    One of the points I immediately related to was the persistence and consistence required to attain physical supremacy. Since starting Convict Conditioning four and a half years ago, I’ve come a long way. During the journey, I have felt frustrated more than once at the perceived slow results but I stuck with it; very rarely did I miss a session due to laziness, lack of motivation or other non-excuse excuse. I knew that if I did, I’d lose some of the progress I had made so far.

    And it has paid off. I may not be a calisthenics superstar but my joints are stronger, I can tense and use the muscles of my body as a unit, I have better posture and have better movement patterns than I did 4 years ago.

    “Fools rush in to “tougher and harder” before they are ready—and get hurt”. Something I have been guilty of a couple of times. You rush in to attain square ten, but end up not back at square one but square zero. I try to act more wisely, these days.

    Great article, John!

    • Mohammed

      *Consistency, not “consistence”

    • John Du Cane

      Great story about your progress over the last four and a half years with Convict Conditioning. It is stories like yours that makes it so worthwhile and wonderful to be publishing what we publish. All the best in your future cultivation!

      • Mohammed

        Thank you, John!

  • Thanks, John! It’s very cool to read about your time in India!

    It’s also tremendously flattering to see such kind words about myself from someone of your caliber. I’ll do my best to remain humble though. 😉

    • John Du Cane

      Al, only too well deserved, my good friend:)

  • Jack Arnow

    Fantastic article! This article summarizes and deepens what I’ve learned in 57 years of bodyweight experience. John, Al and Danny each express these ideas from their own unique perspective. I’ve been fortunate to meet them, learn from them, and be inspired by them. I suggest you do the same. Books are good, in person is better. Breathe, focus, persist, have fun and enjoy life!

    • John Du Cane

      Jack, I am honored to have someone with your background comment in this way. It was a great pleasure to meet you at the NYC PCC last year! And you are such an inspiration, speaking of that word….

  • Matt Schifferle

    Wonderful John!
    I once went through a phase where I listened to Jazz while workign out which was very different from the usuall hard rock aggressive music I had been listening to. I felt it put me in a much lighter mood and felt more joy in my training. It really made a big difference!
    This year I’ve been working hard to be a little less serious and more light hearted and this post was a perfect sign post on my journey. Thank you very much!

    • John Du Cane

      Thank you for the kind comments Matt! I would definitely expect certain kinds of Jazz to be more conducive to attentive, joyful practice. My great personal preference though for attentive practice is not to have any music at all.

    • Rodolfo Oliveira

      I would use qi gong or tai chi music as it evokes spirituality in practice. It would be blissfull to hear to the nature’s music in some wild place though. That is why I find Calisthenics the ultimate humane training: you tend to connect to all of the universe as you are practicing your moves. Great post Boss!

  • Ever since reading this I’ve been trying to figure out how a five day retreat like that would go for me… In all seriousness though, its great to hear about these experiences as they really relate to so much of what we do with calisthenics, especially with the ever important mental side.

  • John Du Cane

    Thanks “Maestro” 🙂

  • Michael

    Great article!! My wife and I have been training with Al once a month since October at TSP and it is the MOST enjoyable hour of my month!!! What a wonderful human being Al is!!! He just flat out gets it!!!! Doing PCC NYC in June!!!!!

    • John Du Cane

      Excellent Michael and I look forward to seeing you there in June!

    • You are too kind, Michael!

  • It’s an honor and a privilege to read that from you, Coach, but I’m not sure any bodyweight book can ever eclipse CC!

  • Dan Earthquake

    I was at the swimming pool tonight with my friends for our weekly interval session. On the warm up lengths I had some discomfort on the in breath which gave me some difficulty. As the session started I found I didn’t have the same pull as I normal. A trapped nerve maybe, it didn’t feel muscular. People who I normally overtake & lap overtook me tonight. I didn’t worry. I moved myself to the rear & turned my arms, kicked my legs watching the light play beautifully on the pool floor, something I never get tired of looking at. I enjoyed the moment of it, the sensation of gliding through the water, more a hippo tonight than a swam. I’m a swimmer. Sometimes I swim a long distance, sometimes I stand immersed & look at the sky. It really doesn’t matter that much if I go fast or far. I remembered a little phrase I read the other day: “Do what you can with what you have where you are.” How easy is that? No excuses to make the best of it. Great achievements & poor performance are all part of the whole experience. It’s not always going to go well, but there’s always something productive that can be done. I’ve come home happy, had a meal, noticed Al had tweeted that JDC had posted & here I am. I’m about a third a way through Zen Mind, Strong body. I like it a lot. Success isn’t always about the personal best, the victory in a race or completion of an ambition. Living the life you want to have starts by being happy about where you are right now. It’s up to us to choose where that is.

    • John Du Cane

      Very well said indeed Dan!

  • Perkelnik

    Hi. I found out that the book is only available in digital form. Can I read it on a computer? I dont have a reader.
    Thanks for the answer.

    • It is only available in ebook form right now, but the good news is, it’s VERY readable from the computer!

    • John Du Cane

      Yes, you should definitely be able to read it on a computer if you order th eversion for sale on Dragon Door.

  • Norman-from-Germany

    Last summer I had an amazing experience I want to share with this fantastic community… I walked through my favourite forest and passed on to a free place with much sky above it. Suddendly I felt like practicing calisthenics and began doing pushups. Practicing pushups is not very special seen from the outside. What happened was in the inside! I felt totally connected to my body and an exhilarating and empowering connection to the nature sorrounding me as well. The pushups felt so easy! Pure power runnig as electric energy through my body. It was a deep deep hapiness being one with the present moment; everything was easy. I practice Meditation and yoga since many years and had some experiences which could be regarded as enlightened moments. But THIS one was one of my very best experiences! Practicing Progressive Calisthenics following the CC Program!
    My deepest appreciation to Paul Wade sharing this piece of art.
    A big shout to Al! I really love your work and your enlightening presence!
    and… a big shout to Danny! We had e-mail contact last year, but health issues and some financial things made it impossible to come to the PCC in Munich. It´s just delayed but not canceled, however. Keep being so inspiring!!
    Namaste, Norman

    • John Du Cane

      Norman, that is such an inspiring and wonderful story, very special! Hope to meet you at a PCC in the future…

  • Rodolfo Oliveira

    Great post Boss! The mental part is really hard specially if you are a little overweight as I am. But I gotta say that reading the first book of Al “We Are Working Out” already helped me a lot to overcome the normal mental obstacles a big change for the best in life brings. This book should bring my game to a whole another level now. The only problem is that I am going to go broke with so much excellent material being published by Dragon Door. Broke but happy though.

    • John Du Cane

      Thanks Rodolfo! Broke but happy–we can live with that:)

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