Gyms, Culture, and Identity: Why Gyms Could be a Spiritual Space

Words by Fatima Lee Garsi

What is a gym?

By definition, a gym is a place that has fitness equipment for people to use for their physical education.
A place where people go to get buff, to sweat, to stretch, kick, jump, and punch their way into a better body. 
Gyms are a new thing in the West, born out of a bodybuilding culture (aka gay male culture – but more on that in another article!) that seems to be obsessed with individual self-expression.  Bodybuilding is not a group sport: it’s all about smoke, mirrors, and muscles.  
Individualism – an aspect of Western culture –  is also found in boxing gyms. Individual expression is an inherent part of boxing culture and it results in a lot of swag and toxic masculinity. I hate to overuse the term “toxic masculinity” but the culture of boxing truly embodies it. Just watch a professional bout and you’ll see barely dressed “ring girls” holding up a giant number indicating each round. These special girls are decorative – they stand around looking pretty in the background. Western boxing culture is about individualism and primitive desires. Fighting…and fucking. 
Western culture certainly influences its gyms, but gyms can also influence culture: gyms create culture and social change. 

Gyms: Spaces of Spiritual Practice

Our gym, Sister Fit, caters to Muslim women, diverse women, and LGBTQ+ people.
Many people have asked, “What does identity have to do with going to the gym and getting a workout in?”
That’s a great question.
I think I like to use the word “gym” because it’s more accessible. Our culture can understand  “going to the gym” more than “going to a specialized studio.”  
And do you know what’s interesting?
In other parts of the world physical activity is linked to spirituality and culture.
In Thailand, Muay Thai – their national sport and also the deadly martial art – is seen as a spiritual and religious practice for Thai people.
In Korea, Taekwondo is a very important part of the heritage as well as a form of cultural and spiritual preservation, much like the importance of Kung-Fu in Chinese culture.
It’s quite common for these practitioners to pray in their dojos, which are essentially cultural gyms.
In these traditional martial arts “gyms” people do not merely exercise their bodies. They exercise their spirituality, their culture, and sometimes religion. Their entire self-image and identity as a human is expressed through their gym. 
In the West, we separate the body, the mind, and spiritual connection. The gym is for the body, education is for the mind, and religion is for the spirit, right? 

What’s missing in our gyms?

North Americans are unwell – a good chunk of our population is unhealthy, obese, suffer from lots of maladies, are on prescription drugs, and are depressed. Despite having lots of resources, high-quality food, and access to the best education, we are sick. I believe the lack of connection to our identity, bodies, and spiritual nature wreaks havoc on our ability to be well and thrive.
Listen, I’m not a hippie. You don’t need to be a hippie to understand what makes you feel well and connected to yourself.
Current commercial gym spaces were not built with diversity of culture in mind. I don’t see anything wrong with them: I simply believe we need to create MORE gyms that cater to different types of people. 
I believe that wellness and personal training is an exciting industry because it’s new, it helps people tremendously, and allows people to develop their self-image and identity in a way that no other industry or space can do.
If my job as a coach is to influence people to get healthier and develop themselves physically, that means I need to dig deep into other areas of their life that prevent them from making these physical changes. 
Our health and identity are tightly interconnected, and I’ll be talking about how, in Part Two of this Gym, Culture, and Identity series. 
Stay tuned!