Physical Strength as The Basis of Enlightenment

physical-strength-spirituality“First of all our young men must be strong. Religion will come afterwards,” said Swami Vivekananda. “Be strong, my young friends; that is my advice to you. You will be nearer to Heaven through football than through the study of the [Hindu religious text of the Bhagavad] Gita… You will understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles, a little stronger.”

We in the West have inherited the Christian image — and I would say, largely a false image — of the spiritual or enlightened man: self-sacrificing, passive, slender, and in a sense anti-physical.

Where Christianity has declined or disappeared, this image and the assumptions of the religion — equality, a focus on — or a belief in — the poor and the outcast, and strong suspicion of the physical body, especially physical strength — have become the major motifs of politics.

But the traits we associate with spirituality and intelligence are not necessarily accepted by either non-Western or pre-modern cultures. 

If we look to the East, we find that the Buddha — a prince in his earlier life — was said to be skilled in martial arts; Krishna revealed his teachings on the battlefield, urging his disciple to fight. Then, of course, there are the Shaolin warrior monks, who developed Kung-Fu. So, too, in pre-Christian Europe, the gods prepare for a final cataclysmic batter: Ragnarok.

“God is not to be reached by the weak,” says Swami Vivekananda. “Never be weak. You have infinite strength within you. How else will you conquer anything? How else will you come to God?”

If we have infinite strength, physical and mental, isn’t it a blasphemy to cultivate weakness within ourselves? Certainly, it is. Yet, today, across the West, we see not only a loathing of the strong, muscular physical body in regard to men (and feminine beauty in regard to women), but we see college students calling for the banning of ideas with which they disapprove (but have never engaged), the banning of speakers with which they disagree, and even for the establishment of “safe spaces” on campus.

This is both an anti-intellectual and anti-body environment. Although the figure of the false Jesus-like male invariably turns up here, against both physical and mental strength, it is essentially an anti-spiritual movement.

It is a movement, or, really, a mob, designed to keep people locked into certain beliefs, but not to understand them. Learning, understanding, awakening, self-development, and character or cultivating inner strength all require the individual to consider ideas different to, and even contrary to, his beliefs. He may or may not change his views. But he should at least understand his own better by doing so.

True spirituality, as would be understood by Swami Vivekananda, ancient tribes, martial arts lineages, Buddhism in the East (especially Vajrayana Buddhism), Hinduism in India (especially Tantra), and even Freemasonry (with its symbolism of death — the dagger, and so on), requires not safe spaces but dangerous spaces — that is to say, spaces of cultivation through a kind of positive-opposition to the disciple, student, or initiate. Such spaces are not reckless, but designed to push the individual beyond what he believes his limits are (but in fact are not).

Cultivating physical and mental strength means cultivating inner and outer peace. It is not only an act of self-reliance, it is a real self-sacrifice — sacrificing one’s pettiness through focus, the pain of physical exercise and inner-growth — to one’s society that should benefit from having more men and women who are noble in mind, body, and spirit.

Today, we have come to mistake the shallow appearance of niceness for the substance of inner peace, attained through strength. This is an enormous trap.

“Nice guys” are usually not that nice. A man whose body is weak, and who is easily intimidated must avoid violence. Such a man is not peaceful. He is merely forced to be subservient. “Peacefulness” and “enlightenment” and “spirituality” become a pose — excuses not to engage in confrontations. It is not merely a case of avoiding physical violence, but even in expressing his feelings to his girlfriend, for example, if it could lead to a heated discussion. Because he does not do what he believes is good for him, and because he expects others to act as weakly toward him when he wants something from them, inside of the “nice guy” boils resentment that he does not get his way.

We see this frustration played out in other ways, imposing itself on society.

In the past, weak-bodied priests talked viciously about God’s “love,” and warned of hell fire for anyone who disagreed, while religious schools often meted out harsh punishments to boys and girls, traumatizing them for life.

Today, we see a new expression of the same old fear: Large groups of “peaceful protesters” screaming, shouting, threatening, committing acts of vandalism, and even sometimes physically attacking a lone individual who has had the nerve to say something with which they disagree. All of this happens for some alleged ideal — usually some secular variation of Christianity’s universal harmony among mankind — which melts away the moment it becomes an inconvenience. Alone, each member of the mob is utterly without strength.

As Swami Vivekananda said, “strength is life, weakness is death.” Choose life. Cultivate physical strength. Make it a foundation for authentic inner peace, for cultivating higher qualities, confidence and focus, and make it a shield against the winds of modernity that blow this way then that, ever changing, always howling, always empty.


Angel Millar is the editor of The Spiritual Survival and the author of several books including The Three Stages of Initiatic Spirituality: Craftsman, Warrior, Magician (release date: February 2020).

23 thoughts on “Physical Strength as The Basis of Enlightenment

  1. I agree with much of what’s said here and the importance of health and fitness. But how would you recommend to the physically disabled, the chronically ill, or those aged past their physical prime? In my family there are all 3 of these things, though the people they affect are all at different places spiritually, my husband being the only one who maintains regular spiritual practices.

    1. That is a good question, Jenny. Of course, I have to say that anyone fitting the descriptions you have given should consult their doctor before doing any strenuous exercise. The article was intended more for those who are healthy, and, as such, able to engage in strenuous exercise. However, that does not mean that those who are not in top physical shape should be excluded. We all have our limitations; some of us have more, some of us have less. Someone in their fifties or sixties probably will not be able to do what they could at twenty, though this is not always the case. Personally, I am far stronger and far healthier now than I was as a young man in my late teens and early twenties. This shouldn’t be the case, but it is.

      Those who are sick have to work on recovery first, eating healthy and natural foods, keeping up their spirits, seeing friends, exercising the mind, meditating and doing breathing exercises, and so on. If they are able to do some light stretching each day, that might be beneficial. As they recover they can, of course, add other light exercises, such as walking.

      For those who are disabled, I would say this, in the martial arts school where I practice we are encouraged to show up to class even when we have an injury. If your right arm is injured you can practice your left arm, and you can practice kicking. If you leg is injured you can practice punching. If both are injured, you can practice meditation, breathing, and healing. A friend of mine who is unable to take up very aggressive martial arts recently started Tai Chi for exercise (Tai Chi Chuan can be used for fighting, but he is limiting his practice to exercise).

      Those who are partially disabled might be able to exercise other parts of their body, and I would recommend that (e.g., if the legs are affected, they may be able to exercise the arms, using small weights, building up strength over time). In particular, they might benefit from “dynamic tension.” This is where the individual moves parts of the body, while tensing those parts, e.g., doing bicep curls, tensing, but without weights. Here are a couple of links:

      “What’s Dynamic Tension” at Men’s Health mag.
      “The Weightless Workout” at BodyBuilding dot com.

      You might also want to check out Systema breathing. This is very much the same idea, but can be done even by someone who is laying in bed. Some basic exercises are described in the book Let Every Breath, which you can buy from Amazon, here.

      Lastly, I’d recommend checking into Chi Gong (or Qigong), which is a form of exercise that is especially good for internal health. The movements are simple and not too demanding in most cases, though it can be very beneficial for the body and mind.

      I would say that for anyone who has not exercised in a while, start slow and build up a routine. There is no shame in starting with a few minutes of stretching and a couple of minutes of dynamic tension a day if that is all the individual is capable of. The main thing is routine and building on what the individual has accomplished.

      I hope this helps, and I hope the links and suggestions will be of use.

      Best of luck, and best wishes,

      Angel Millar

      1. Thanks for the thorough answer Angel. My husband has both a physical disability and chronic illness, though he’s become an accomplished drummer, which offers upper body excercise to some degree, I think something like Qigong might be very all over beneficial!

      2. You’re welcome, Jenny. I definitely think Qigong could be a big plus. I practice it, and find it beneficial. But do check out the other links and suggestions as well. (I am sure there is a lot more info online.)

        Feel free to email us privately and let us know how things progress. And, again, best of luck. We’re glad to offer some insights from our own experience, and hope that they can help your husband. Maybe you can even take up Qiqong, together 😉

      3. P.S. one of the better known Qigong practices is “Eight Pieces of Brocade” or “Eight Pieces of Silk” — which has eight different exercises. Usually this is done from standing positions, but most of them can be modified and done while seated. There are lots of versions of this set of exercises, and there are lots of other Qigong exercises as well. If you can get a teacher that is best, if not there are a lot of recourses on the net. Here are a couple of links:

        From a sitting position:

        From standing, but shows the arm movements, which can be used by themselves:

    2. go on instagram and facebook and you will all sorts of challenged people who workout and dont let a disability or age get in the way.

  2. Your sentiments resonate immensely with me; not only in regards to society’s weakened, if not completely moribund, emphasis on the sacred nature of physical culture as being integral to the totality of an individual, but also how this tendency has caused minds to weaken and thus an inability to have reasonable discourse among those with whom we disagree, which is a true sign of decay. It seems that no matter what ensues on college campuses and in politics, no matter how devolved we become in the west in relation to our own preservation, man continues to follow along the same lines of detriment – and somehow still being perplexed by its downfall. On the chemical level, we’ve stagnated our health through inactivity and excessive toxins, causing our very thoughts to become rife with negativity, unchecked emotion and irrationality. In my opinion, the world needs not more mindless ambition to impress one another, but an individual’s interest and endeavor into physical disciplines, mental tenacity, and ultimately holistic health. This is the path of self discovery and hopefully social cohesion based on more reasonable lines, not on the interference by rulers into the mere disagreements and hyper-emotional nature of the madness which is the multitude. One would do well to heed the emphasis by the likes of Socrates, Plato and Epictetus of a total mind-body health which resonate in the annals of history and which are now, more than ever, vastly important. Thank you for upholding the timeless wisdom of all physical practices which are the true vessels for the improvement of man.

  3. Oh man–the best article I have read in a long time-I shared it on my Facebook page—-Angel just nails it. I’ve always had problem with Christianity because of its encouragement of passivity and let God take care of the problem mindset. As one who has read and studied The Bhagavad Gita in recent years as well as the writings of Swami Vivekananda, I appreciate the references and quotes.

  4. I agree to some extent. I’ve always incorporated physical exercise, sport, martial arts or whatever in my life-not understanding how any person could or should do without it. For me, its essential. For those who get it, it’s more than just muscle, its a way of getting into the zone or delving deep within in order to transcend the purely physicalness of life. Its a method or a path to achieve this aspect in life. And after reflecting on this sort of thing for years-that being how does physical fitness or strength impact ones ability to transcend gross matter, to become more spiritual, to bring about the hidden forces within such as kundalini, chi, or what have you; I have come to a personal understanding that it is only one path-just the path that i took and that works for me. I agree that humanity seems soft in so many ways today and that i think because of this softness and delusion many live in, it acts as a block or hindrance to truly finding oneself and finding the higher self. The softness to me or lack of physicality isnt necessarily the problem, but it certainly doesnt help. This weakness is a symptom of a lack of awareness, ignorance, a consciousness thats all caught up in the shit in life. To me though, anyone can become a spiritual warrior in one sense or another, and even though the more physically oriented of us might gain a deeper understanding in one aspect, these people if fortunate enough to achieve it some other way, may be more enlightened in others. Nonetheless, i think you are right in many ways as we are indeed physical beings in a physical world and perhaps that fact alone suggests our paths to enlightenment need to follow some variation of that.

  5. While I would agree with what you say, you seem not to understand the nature of knighthood and the warrior spirit in the manifestly Christian, Traditional, Middle Ages. You accuse Christianity of promoting physical weakness while ignoring the Crusader ideal. Was it not a Christian Pope that declared all those who die in battle on a Crusade were assured Eternal Life? While I would admit that Christianity is affected by the same degeneration that society has reflected, and as a result has become more “peaceful” or pacifist or even against certain expressions of physical strength, Christianity as expressed in a Traditional society (in the Guenonian or Evolian sense) was a virile, strong and was very much compatible with the warrior spirit. The entire social order of feudal Europe was based upon the warrior ethic and Traditional Christianity was the summit of said Traditional society.

    1. You are, of course, quite right, Averheim, that Christianity has had its own warrior spirit, embodied, in particular, in Christian chivalry. That was certainly an oversight on my part, but I was really thinking of, and referring to, Christianity as manifest today and in living memory.

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