Are physical fitness and spiritual fitness mutually exclusive? To explore this concept for our members, BOYT connected with the authors of Fit Soul, Fit Body, which pairs physical training with spiritual teaching to feed both body and soul. Brant Secunda is a world-renowned shaman, healer and teacher in the Huichol Indian tradition in Mexico while his professional partner and friend, Mark Allen, has six Ironman championships behind him and the honor of being named Greatest Triathlete of All Time by Triathlete Magazine. Fit Soul, Fit Body explains how to incorporate the divine into everyday exercises and why the two issues are linked.
BOYT: What was the inspiration behind Fit Soul, Fit Body?
Mark Allen: There were three key elements that inspired us to write the book. The first started with my journey trying to win the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, which led me to studying with Brant Secunda. The short version of that story is that I had tried to win the Ironman for six years. Six attempts, some top finishes, but all of them just shy of becoming the champion. I had all the numbers in the logbook that said I should be able to achieve that great dream, but there was something inside of me that was holding me back, something not strong enough about my inner character that needed to be fortified.
But then in 1989, prior to my seventh race at the Ironman, I was extremely fortunate to make a connection with Brant Secunda and the teachings of the Huichol tradition that he is trained in. It was as if a light switch was turned on. I was suddenly able to find that inner strength at the most critical moment of perhaps the greatest battle I had in that race, and that win started what would be a string of six Ironman victories in six starts. I have studied with Brant Secunda since that time and continue to use his teaching, ceremonies, and healings to create a positive balance for my life and to maintain what we call a “Fit Soul.”
Brant Secunda: When I was younger, I lived with the Huichol Indians in Mexico with my adopted grandfather Don José Matsuwa, who put me through a 12-year shaman’s apprenticeship. Because life in the Huichol Sierras in Mexico is very active, I was very lean and strong during those years. My body and soul were fit, as were Don José’s, who lived to be 110 years old. Until he was 108 he could carry huge loads of firewood and corn up and down the mountainsides. But after coming back to the modern world, I put on extra weight because, just like many people up here, the lifestyle is not inherently active. We have to make time to develop the health of our bodies, and if we don’t, it can be so easy to put on extra unnecessary weight.
Shortly after Mark Allen’s final Ironman victory in 1995, my family and I joined him in Hawaii when he was inducted into the Ironman Hall of Fame. It was two days before the actual race that year, so all the athletes were training like crazy getting ready. So there I was with 1,500 of the fittest bodies–and ME! That was my inspiration to start exercising again. From that moment forward, Mark Allen and I started exercising together, going on many runs, long walks, working out with weights and through means available to all of us in the modern world, I got my physical body back in shape.
Out of all that, Mark Allen and I decided to start teaching a workshop together initially called “Sport and Spirit.” It incorporated many of these simple tools that can completely change your physical body, and also utilized many of the Huichol tools of transformation that help a human being manage stress, release negative emotions, and adopt positive qualities to guide them. We developed tools to help quiet the mind and the internal chatter that can often hold us back from taking the leap of faith that’s required to overcome challenges. Eventually, word got out about what we were doing and a publisher in New York came knocking, asking us if we would want to write a book that would bring these concepts to people.
BOYT: You mention the top 3 emotional barriers that prevent a person from achieving their goals. Please share what the top 3 blocks are and what can be done to break these barriers.
Brant Secunda: We say there are three negative emotions that all others can be related to. These are fear, anger, and jealousy. My grandfather Don José used to tell me, “Grandson, these emotions are not who you really are. And when you have them, you end up paying attention to them. How can you hear what the wind is trying to whisper to your heart when you are paying attention to fear? How can you hear what Mother Earth is trying to teach you when you are paying attention to anger?”
We all have these emotions and can learn to deal with them, and let them go. And even if we can’t completely let them go, we can at least go forward in our lives without letting them hold us back.
One way to release fear, anger or jealousy is to not pay attention to these emotions and indulge in them, as this will only have a negative impact upon your life. These emotions can cause weakness to the physical body, thus diminishing the power of the soul. The Huichols would say to just let them go, that this is actual an option of how to break down these barriers. An example would be to go to a river and breathe in the beauty of life with the sound of the river, and then as you exhale, let go of anger, fear, or jealousy.
BOYT: What spiritual practice keeps you grounded and present?
Brant Secunda: One is to always remember to be humble, that everything in life is a gift–including your own life. It can be easy to get carried away with our self-importance from the perspective that says our own life is more important than all other life on the planet. Don José used to tell me that my life was no more important than a blade of grass.
When you are not humble, you might have that “Why ME?” feeling, as if you don’t deserve to have to deal with the problems or challenges you are facing, that life should be easier or better. Being humble says, “Thank you that I am alive another day, even with all my problems. I am still alive and can still breathe in the air. I am grateful to still see life going on all around me.”
A second practice is try to learn how to listen to your intuition or your higher self that knows everything already, and then to always ask that intuition what is important to be doing right now in the situation that is right in front of you. Ask your higher self what your next move in life should be: What action should you be taking in the next moment and in the one after that? Often the answers we get will not be what our ego would like, but asking helps keep us grounded and present rather than getting carried away with things that may not really be the most important for us.
BOYT: What is the most important psychological change that needs to occur to achieve our goals, in fitness or other areas of life?
Mark Allen: Having a goal is the first step to achieving most great things in life, but then getting there is the real heart of those dreams and aspirations. That journey may require a change of attitude that’s reflected in one of the nine fit soul, fit body keys in our book, called “Live What You Ask For.” There are many people who, for example, wanted to be the Ironman Champion, but very few were willing to live what that goal was asking them to do to become the champion. Living what you ask for requires continually checking in and asking if the actions you are taking, the thoughts you are telling yourself, and the environment you are immersing yourself in are all helping you to live those dreams. Are they helping you Live What You Ask For? This doesn’t mean that you are going to never waver from your plan, or that you will be able to see yourself actually achieving those goals every second of the day. But it is a way to keep the compass guiding your efforts, pointing you in the right direction.
A second change that many people have to make is to develop patience and accept the mundane steps that will lead them to their goals. Most goals, especially the big ones, inspire us to take action. Then over time, the daily efforts required by those goals can become extremely routine. We might get impatient thinking that we should have arrived! If we can keep in mind that profound changes happen very gradually over time through the efforts of lots of work and practice, then we embrace the patience to take those small daily steps in exercise or in developing our inner character necessary to becoming the person we have in our vision.
BOYT: What are the daily practices for the most spiritually grounded and healthy people that you know?
Brant Secunda: This is as varied as there are people on the planet. So it is tough to try to narrow down what you might find most spiritually grounded and healthy people doing. So I will give some examples of what the Huichols would be doing in their daily lives, because they are a culture that really does embrace being spiritually grounded and healthy.
One thing would be to strive to be a kind, compassionate, loving person. Don José emphasized in my training that love is the strongest power of all, and that it helps a human being become whole or complete. He said that love is the foundation of all other power, and that by just walking on Mother Earth we inherently take her love into our bodies and souls, which makes us healthier, more grounded people.
A second practice is to just laugh! The Huichols love to laugh and tease each other. Laughing breaks down barriers and makes us feel good. You know this if you have ever visited someone who is sick. If you can make them laugh, they feel better. Don José told me near the end of my apprenticeship that if I could not tell a good joke by the time I left, then I had not really learned anything. When we get together with others and laugh together, we all feel better. People may not think of this as a practice that can help us have good physical and spiritual health, but most great spiritual people I know enjoy laughter.
One last practice that I would leave you with is to develop trust in a higher power. Early on in my time with the Huichols, they told me I would never really learn until I learned to trust in the Ancient Ones or the Great Spirit. Trust in life helps us to keep going even when life is unfolding in ways that don’t make sense in the moment. Trust opens our hearts and helps us develop our intuition. Trust in life helps alleviate stress by bringing back hope and a sense that everything will turn out just right in the end, even if “right” is not quite what we had in mind when we signed up for the endeavors we are pursuing at the moment. All of this brings a person good health and keeps them grounded spiritually.