Now and Zen: For success in sports, train your mind


If you want to be a better athlete, heck, if you want to be a better person, you must train your mind as well as your body.

Sinking putts and practicing free throws over and over all have merit if you’re looking to score better in golf or basketball. But the key to extraordinary success in sports, and in life, lies within, so sayeth all the great teachers.

Peter Ralston, a Zen master and world-class martial artist, is one of those great teachers. Runners, swimmers, tennis players, boxers, baseball players - even chefs and musicians - all seek him out to learn his five body-being states, why “being” is more important than “doing,” and - his signature mindblower - how to achieve Effortless Power.

“The role of mind in physical performance cannot be overstated,” he writes in his latest book, “Zen Body-Being: An Enlightened Approach to Physical Skill, Grace and Power.” (Frog, Ltd., Berkeley, Calif.) “When people make magical leaps in ability, it is simply from the discovery that conscious insight makes an enormous difference in physical performance.”

Wouldn’t you love to make a magical leap in ability? It’s possible if you’re willing to work at it, but it takes serious discipline and joyful persistence, says Ralston, who earned black belts in judo, jujitsu and karate by the age of 19 and went on to become the first non-Asian to win the World Championship full-contact martial arts tournament in China. Ralston stopped competing years ago and founded his own unique blend of physical training and consciousness development called Cheng Hsin, which loosely translates as “truth and being.”

OK, I admit it. I love this stuff. Accessing body-intelligence. Enhancing feeling-awareness. The mysteries of effortless power. It’s all discussed in great detail in Ralston’s book (also on his Web site: Just in case you never get to either, let me highlight what Ralston calls his “five body-being states.” Master these (you’ll need help) and effortless power is yours!

  1. Relaxing. If there’s a mystical secret to success in sports, it’s learning to relax deeply, fully. Ralston discusses three stages: 1) You command yourself to drop your raised shoulders, for instance. It happens, relaxation is immediate, but superficial. 2) Your “letting go” signal is deepened and floods your entire body. Balance, speed and range of motion increase. 3) You maintain a feeling-state of letting go for longer periods of time so muscles relax to the core and - the key to it all - the mind relaxes, too. If you can’t relax your mind, you can’t relax your body.
  2. Feeling the whole body. Ralston teaches his students to become super-aware of their entire body in space, each and every part. It’s not easy. It takes time and practice, lots of practice, sensing each body part and the whole body, too, as you walk, lie down, pick up a pencil. The ultimate goal, he says, is to feel all of your body all of the time.
  3. Moving from the center. By learning to move from your center, you act with less effort and greater strength, physically and mentally. But where is your center? Around your heart? Wrong! Your center of gravity is in your lower abdomen, just below the navel. Go ahead, feel it. Move from there, every time you move.
  4. Being Grounded. Ralston teaches exercises that help you sense gravity’s subtle pull. It’s a powerful force that can work for you or against you. If you adjust your body so it is grounded - aligned with gravity instead of fighting it - “the power and mass of the ground will contribute to the effectiveness of your action.” It requires a shift in conscious awareness, but if you can make it happen, watch out. Your opponents will fly through the air!
  5. Being calm. This is different from relaxation. “Calm is being motionless in motion,” Ralston writes. It’s a state of mind, an inner stillness.

You get there not by ignoring what’s going on, but by embracing it, by letting it be without reacting to it. “Clarity and freedom arise from being calm, not from being reactive.”
“Your body is with you all the time, and you use it well or poorly in each action you take. Change can begin now, a minute from now, or in 10 years -- it’s up to you. Only you can transform your own body-being.” - Peter Ralston

Marilynn Preston is a fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues. She welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to