The Yoga of CrossFit

Those two don't go together, right? Well...

My CrossFit journey started this time last year, in May 2014. CrossFit Oahu set me up with my own personal training coach, Christine "Wojo" Wojciehowski, who patiently walked me through all the basics of common CrossFit movements and terminology. EMOM. AMRAP. 1RM. OHS. HSPU. WOD.* And so on.

An alignment nerd after my own heart, Coach Wojo was meticulous in her observation and feedback. "Initiate from your hips." "Keep the spine neutral." Even better, she reminded me over and over, "Write this workout down, and note the weight you used." She said, "You'll be surprised at how far you'll have come in a month." Or two months. Or a year.

I learned how to modify exercises I couldn't do yet, like handstand push-ups. I learned the difference between a push press and a push jerk. I learned that it doesn't matter how much weight you put on your barbell if you haul it up with a disorganized spine and janky kinematic rhythm, kind of like doing arm balances in yoga. I learned to be uncompromising in my form and unperturbed by others' "performance," also like yoga. And, I learned to keep a detailed logbook.

Rewind 10 more years. In May 2004, I'd just taken my first steps without the support of a titanium back brace. A drunk driver had hit my vehicle, and my spine broke in the crash. During the long recovery, my casual yoga practice turned into a serious dedication to pranayama — mindful, full body breathing. I ached to move my body more, but I couldn't even sit up in bed by myself. I couldn't walk to the bathroom. I was a yogini, a dancer, a theatre actor, and I was bedridden.

That Stephanie didn't have a logbook. In fact, I deliberately avoided leaving any evidence of my brokenness. I refused photographs, and I abandoned my journal. "This is not me," I told myself. I envisioned the story of my life blipping over the months of recovery, a blurry non-event, like the third grade photos that never quite made the family album. (I hid them. It was the '80s. Sorry, Mom.) It was denial as an attempt at bravery.

When I had a bad day, I assumed all my days henceforth would be bad. When I had a good day, I assumed all my days henceforth would be good, until the next bad day came along. I had no way of removing the emotional blinders of trauma to view my healing process clearly. Through all of the ups and downs, the overall trend was definitely upward, but if you asked me on a bad day I'd report otherwise.

When I finally stepped onto my yoga mat again, I cried with fear and with freedom. I had indelible knowledge that I was not invincible — I could and would break — but I wasn't dead. Each practice was a victory, and I could feel something starting to happen inside, something slowly getting stronger, more confident, less fearful and fragile. I committed myself to the yogic principles of non-violence, consistent practice, and self-study. Still, I avoided my journal.

As a result, when I pressed up into my first headstand after the crash, I had no clue how I got there. The headstand press was a monumental achievement, concrete evidence that I was healing beautifully. Sure, I'd been working on it, but for how long? And how often? What poses preceded the successful attempt? It was magical and I didn't care... until I couldn't do it again.

My mind raced: What did I do? What didn't I do? What's wrong??

No breadcrumbs. No way to get back to where I once was. I practiced on, but I admit, every time my body overcame a physical challenge it seemed like a happy accident. When I finally got another headstand, I thought, whoops, I guess that's cool.

Back to my first "real" CrossFit WOD last year, my very first experience of working out with the fire breathers, the twice-a-weekers, and the newbies like me, all in the same group. It reminded me of my very first yoga class: I knew I had the basics down and yet I still felt clueless.

My WOD book from that time lists my maximum effort particulars:

  • Snatch 1RM — 25 lbs
  • Deadlift 1RM — 65 lbs
  • Pull-ups — 1 rep, using the thickest resistance band for assistance
  • Push-ups — 2 reps, wobbly ones, from my knees

I couldn't run 200 meters without feeling like I wanted to throw up, or go home, or both.

Now, 12 months later, I'm regularly snatching 70 lbs, deadlifting 135 lbs. I'm still working on that one unassisted strict pull-up. It's coming. I can do standard push-ups in quick sets of 5, and last week I did my first hand-release push-ups, a plyometric movement that requires explosive strength, stability, and hardcore confidence. I regularly run 800 meters in under 4 minutes, which is further and faster that I ever have in my life. All of this without even considering puking. Win.

And double win: I know my strength and skill are not happy accidents. I've traced my steps. Before 135 lbs, I lifted 130 lbs. Before that, 125. I can look up the dates. I can find my way back.

CrossFit (and Coach Wojo) taught me that recording my progress is key to feeling accomplished, to knowing what exactly has changed and by how much. After each WOD, I write down how many reps I did, at what weight, and sometimes how fast. I note when my form started to break down, when and if I dropped down in weight as the workout went on, and a number of other factors that affect my work, like sleep and nutrition and stress level.

Logbook = journal with total objectivity.

do not log my workouts to determine whether I'm strong or weak, better or worse, awesome or lamesauce; rather, I record my observations like a scientist so I have clear data on myself at an exact point in time. Furthermore, I have evidence that the work happened. I definitely did something. On a definite date. At a definite weight. For a definite length of time. It's all here in the logbook.

Call it outcome-focus. Fixation. Call it vanity, even. Too goal-oriented to be yoga.

Or, call it self-awareness. Call it a mindfulness practice, with supportive notes. Documenting landmarks on the endless journey. Small, daily affirmations with this simple proof: "Today, I did this." No subjectivity. No inner monologue of judgmental chatter. That 80-lb barbell came off the floor 30 times. For sure. And I felt like a badass.

And then, weeks later, I get to feel like a badass again when I re-read my notes.

There are still ups and downs, and charting out my growth over the last year clearly and unequivocally shows that the trend is upward. I might have a down day, or a down week. But now I have data that show I'm putting one foot in front of the other on a regular basis and I am getting somewhere. I have evidence that my down days consistently lead to up days.

Discouraged by a string of missed workouts? Derailed by the holidays? Flip flip flip the pages. Oh right, I'm a badass on a badass journey. Motivation, check.

Here's the yoga of CrossFit.

The practice of CrossFit, or yoga, isn't goal-driven if you don't have a goal. Case in point: I don't care what weight ends up being the heaviest lift of my life. I don't have an arbitrary goal time or goal number of reps in mind when I work out. Every time I step into the box, I'm focused on being the best that I can be that day: giving my whole heart, observing without judging, breathing. And every time I step onto my yoga mat, I'm focused on the exact. same. thing.

I am compassionately, non-violently celebrating my strength.
I am dedicated to consistent practice.
I am committed to knowing myself as I am, being curious about my growth, and accepting myself as I change.

There have been times when I look back on the just-finished WOD and think, "Oh boy, I'm a wreck. Everyone else was lifting way more than I was. I'm way outta my league." Like the bedridden Stephanie of years past, I want to erase the feelings of inadequacy by refusing to document the weak spot. But I grab my logbook anyway, and I write down the weight I did, the time, the reps... And there it is, in shaky blue ink, my weight, time, and reps from a similar workout a few months ago.

I may not be the strongest in the box, but I am the strongest Stephanie Keiko Kong that ever lived, and I've got the log to prove it.

P.S. Thanks, Coach Wojo.

*For the uninitiated and desperately curious:

  • EMOM = every minute on the minute
  • AMRAP = as many reps/rounds as possible
  • 1RM = one rep max, the amount of weight lifted in a single maximum effort
  • OHS = overhead squat, a standard squat with a barbell held overhead
  • HSPU = handstand push-up
  • WOD = workout of the day, always different, always challenging, always scalable to individual needs