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The wabi-sabi way to a healthy lifestyle

Lisa Armstrong is the mother of two grown daughters, a yoga practitioner, an educator and a long-time freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness, and historical topics that affect humanity's personal and collective well-being.

The art of loving imperfection

No, it's not a new type of sushi or another form of the martial arts. Wabi Sabi is about accepting the impermanence of life, as well as our own imperfections — with strong implications for how we approach getting — and staying — fit.
Woman running in the rain

Ever been obsessed with health and fitness to the point of exhaustion — or worse? Expecting perfect results from your workouts? The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi advises accepting imperfection and focuses on embracing life.

The roots of wabi-sabi come from Zen Buddhism, meaning there is an important spiritual aspect to it. Pared down to its essence, the philosophy celebrates elements that are weathered, worn or rusted. Wabi comes from the root "wa" which means harmony, peace, tranquility and balance. Sabi means "the bloom of time." Wabi-sabi appreciates the perfection in imperfection, including the signs of aging or the patina of fine wood.

Daisetz Suzuki, a Japanese scholar, also sees wabi-sabi as celebrating the freedom that comes from getting rid of the weight of attachments and material concerns. Finding your way in an imperfect world often includes trying to get fit using mechanical devices at an indoor gym, which can run counter to this simple approach.

Dan Bosworth, an outdoorsman and fitness blogger says, "Good health and fitness need not be complicated. Often all that is required is a person's own body weight and willpower. To me, pull-ups done on a piece of old scaffolding or a tree branch have wabi-sabi. Going for a run in the rain or snow has wabi-sabi, running on a treadmill does not."

In its attitude toward imperfections, wabi-sabi has further implications for fitness. "It leads to acceptance of aging as a natural evolution. It's an aesthetic appreciation of how a constantly-challenged and well-taken care of body changes," Bosworth says. He says this method carries over to nutrition too as good food, well prepared and savored, lines up with the wabi-sabi way.

Health and wellness related to wabi-sabi also seeks to reduce stress by living more simply and mindfully. Brieann Boal of Wabi Sabi Wellness, who poses her students against tree-trunks for yoga asanas, recommends using the beach for runs, as well as a mix of cardio, core workouts, and more to instill wabi-sabi principles in students.

Arielle Ford, author of book Wabi Sabi Love: The Ancient Art of Finding Perfect Love in Imperfect Relationships, said that at one time she was totally obsessed with having the perfect body and working out all the time. She felt that her weight shouldn't exceed 125 lbs, her fingernails should always be perfectly manicured and her hairdo should be equally perfect. However, she says she has learned that this image didn't help her feel better. In fact, she said she remained anxious and depressed until she learned to let go of such an impossible standard. "The purpose of wabi-sabi love is to honor the cracks and imperfections in yourself."

When it comes to working out, wabi-sabi recommends choosing an activity that doesn't come naturally to you. It's okay to look silly or to be the last one selected for the volleyball team. Let loose and have fun! You won't stick with any activity if you hate every minute of it. Find something you enjoy, and forget about the rest.

Ford also encourages women to gather their own emotional tool kit — things or activities that you can count on to lift your spirits when you feel down. From yoga to healthy eating, to family bonding or meditation, knowing that you can generate your own happiness can help provide you with feelings of power.

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