Faith and Fitness: 3 Spiritual Lessons I Learned From CrossFit

Woman drinking from a water bottle in the gym. She is wearing a CrossFit tank top.
The author, at her CrossFit gym, taking a well-deserved water break.

When I came to my first CrossFit class three years ago, I arrived to prove to my sister how much I would not enjoy it. As someone who identified as “not a gym person,” I could not lift an empty barbell, did not know how to use a rowing machine, and could not do one push-up (even from my knees). Today, I can lift (power clean) 125 pounds, use the rower like I know how to walk, and perform 15 regular pushups. And I really have no clue how this happened. The physical gains in CrossFit have been immense because of the methodology. And, the more I think about it, this methodology very naturally transfers to spiritual life. Here are three spiritual lessons I’ve garnered from my CrossFit experience.

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Your spiritual fitness regimen can be programmed to include a variety of repetitive prayer practices

In CrossFit, workouts are programmed by the staff. So when you arrive at the gym, your workout will be detailed on the whiteboard, and the movements (for example push-ups, pull-ups, deadlifts, box jumps, etc.) are chosen for you based on a system that repeats certain movements in a cycle to holistically build your overall fitness. This varied structure keeps me engaged and lowers the risk of injury. Similarly, I benefit from discipline in the spiritual life but need to vary my prayer practices. When I expect myself to stay statically consistent (i.e. “I’m going to pray the Examen every night forever!”) I end up giving it up when I skip one night. Instead, I make the goals shorter and vary them. (“This week I’m going to try centering prayer for 10 min/day at lunch.”)

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All prayer practices are infinitely scalable according to your spiritual fitness

All of the movements in a CrossFit workout can be scaled. Every movement has degrees of difficulty according to the athlete’s body on the particular day they’re showing up. If the workout calls for “pull-ups” and you can’t even hang from a bar, a scaled option includes pulling yourself up using gymnastics rings, or pulling a light dumbbell to your chest as you angle your body forward. Similarly with spiritual practices, sometimes you have to scale according to your bandwidth and time or other factors. My prescribed 10 minutes of centering prayer could be scaled to three minutes if I’m running late for work or maxed out at the end of the day. My nightly Examen could be scaled to lighting a candle and saying a couple of gratitude prayers. The point of scaling is to allow myself to build consistency without burning out.

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Community carries you

If I show up to the gym, I know the workout will be completed because everyone will be doing it and I’m a part of the whole moving organism. My body will just kind of kick into gear even if my mind is thinking of other things— at some point, something shifts and I’m entirely present. Calories have been burned, and the workout counts even if I did not consciously decide to make each movement happen. Similarly, when I show up for Mass, it is likely that I might not be “in the mood” to go when the time comes around, but good old obligation and being witnessed in my practice subconsciously motivates me. And, even if I’m “going through the motions”— standing, kneeling, sitting, saying repetitive prayers—my mind could be elsewhere but the prayers still “count.”

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CrossFit spirituality is one of consistent effort in community with adjustments according to your daily need. Over time, the method begins to take, and you will find yourself on a whole new level of spiritual fitness you never knew possible.