Today’s blog post comes from CFP member Sean O’Dowd. As many of you know Sean in and out of CFP, what you might not know is that Sean is an accomplished leader with many publications including Forbes Magazine and Wall Street & Technology. I got an e-mail from him Friday saying “hey buddy…I was cutting into some old corners of my hard drive looking for something and stumbled across this little write-up I did on CrossFit like over a year ago..It was just one of those random ideas in my head that I’ll write down, forget about and get lost on my computer…anyway figured I’d share it with you since you like CrossFit.” Thanks for the share bud!
The Wu-wei (Way) of the WOD
By: Sean O’Dowd
It seems that countless top ten lists, personal reviews, journalist recounts, box blogs, etc. exist on why CrossFit is great. These stories talk to why people should try it and share in the amazing gains and benefits that we all have come to understand and love. And they are all right.
I also feel like there are countless stories that highlight the amazing business growth in the marketing, products, community and box openings that CrossFit has experienced.
It’s like magic – right? Turns out there seems to be a simpler, more basic and fundamental explanation as to why all this has exploded. It’s not the improvement in our bodies that explains it; and yes I know improving that is a rather major component of CrossFit! It’s our brains.
Scientifically speaking it is actually neuroscience – and in this case cognition or how things are processed in the brain. Neurology and the study of what our brains actually do during certain activities continues to expand. In particular, studies looking at physical activity show that during and after exercise the brain releases dopamine. And dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers – in a nutshell what makes us happy. BTW that pic to the right is the molecular structure of dopamine – not exactly how you pictured happiness?
- Change (variation) – variety is the slice of life
- Novelty of an activity
- Being focused or in the zone
CrossFitters should start recognizing what’s starting to happen here after reading that list – I least I hope! As an aside you can click on the happy pic for a good flick on the topic of happy research. So as a reminder, here’s the classic definition of CrossFit:
- Constantly varied: Always changing the workouts
- Functional movement: movements humans were built for
- High-intensity: promotes neurological and hormonal responses
Starting to see the overlaps? Let’s also look at the last happy bullet that highlights being in the zone. This is where things get interesting and also where philosophy enters the equation.
Being focused or in the zone as many athletes known is also called the flow state. Ancient Chinese philosophy calls this the Wu-wei (pronounced Way).
Looking into the Chinese concept of “Wu-wei”, you will find that its translation is “non-doing” or “non-action.” OK, CrossFit couldn’t be the more opposite on non-action – this guys so off-base your saying. So without launching into a deep history of Wu-Wei and Tao philosophy, The University of British Columbia’s, professor Edward Slingerland captures the essence of Wu-Wei nicely: “It is better translated as “effortless action…you become completely lost in what you’re doing.” 
It’s less thinking and just doing – the very essence of flow. The flow is where, regardless of skill level, intensity, weight…your singular cognitive focus is on that exacting moment and outcome…short, hard, tough obstacles to overcome = WOD (Prescribed or to your level!)
“You get a shortcut to inner peace through an ass-kicking workout”
Surmounting that challenge is one aspect of flow, yet Slingerland’s thinking expands on that idea and “characterizes the hallmark of wu-wei or anything we’d want to call “flow” as the sense of being absorbed in something larger than oneself, something from which one derives value.” That larger then yourself feeling might be seeing your friends finish the WOD, surmounting their own challenges and supporting them through it and realizing you all are sharing similar goals and challenges – it’s the foundation for how the community is formed.
The CrossFit focus, workout (novel/changing) and community are an absolute trifecta that hits the happy list squarely on the head. There are absolutely other circumstances and activities where this all comes together…yet the box has uniquely captured all the ingredients that keep you coming back for more…and your brain knows it. That is the Wu-wei of the WOD.
 Another interesting fact is that yes exercise can “activate the brain’s pleasure circuit. And so, like nicotine or orgasm or food or gambling, it can become a substrate for addiction as well.” Kind of explains why a lot of CrossFitters never leave the box! http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-compass-pleasure/201104/exercise-pleasure-and-the-brain