After posting my previous blog on how Scott Sonnon responded to criticism with an unusual integrity for a personal development guru, Coach Sonnon generously offered to give me a sample copy of his TACFIT Warrior exercise program in exchange for trying it out for 3 months and reviewing it here. I took him up on that offer.
It hasn’t been 3 months, but I’ve given it a fair trial for about a month, and have been thinking about this brilliant program quite extensively during that time. As a fitness product, I’d give it 4/5 stars—even though the system itself is fundamentally flawed in certain subtle and all-important ways. In fact, TACFIT Warrior provides an excellent platform for discussion about the purpose of personal development itself. Ultimately I think it’s a brilliant system, but still a tilted vessel for personal transformation.
The Imperfect Vessel Model
In Yoga for Transformation, Gary Kraftsow summarizes the obstacles to wholeness using the “imperfect vessel” model:
While the ancients taught that we all have an inherent potential for wholeness, they were also keenly aware of the obstacles that keep us from it. And, in relation to our ability to practice those integrative and transformative techniques that eventually lead to freedom and wholeness, they spoke of four basic types of imperfect vessels, which they portrayed symbolically and in their esoteric teaching and practices as follows:
The Upside-Down Vessel
The upside-down vessel symbolizes fundamental disorientation. It represents an individual with a closed mind and a closed heart. The view of the ancients was that the first steps in personal transformation are the recognition of the reality of suffering, knowledge of the causes of sufferings, and the wish to change our condition. These people who are represented by the upside-down vessel are either unaware of their suffering, unwilling to accept their own role in it, or unable to envision the possibility of change. And in these cases, there is no role for personal practice.
The Dirty Vessel
The dirty vessel represents those people whose systems are toxic at some level. This includes not only physical toxicity, but also psychological or emotional toxicity. In all such cases, the first step in personal practice is necessarily purification.
The Leaky Vessel
The leaky vessel is unable to hold whatever is put into it. It symbolizes those who are unable to sustain practice and to build energy in their systems. This condition may be the result of an unstable mind, too many distractions, and/or an unhealthy lifestyle. And in all such cases, the first steps in personal practice are disciplines that may include renunciation of certain activities as well as practices designed to seal the leaks.
The Tilted Vessel
The tilted vessel is able to contain a certain amount of whatever is put into it, but it loses some. It symbolizes those who receive practices and teachings and make progress, but are unable to maximize their full potential. There are a variety of possible reasons for this condition, including, for example, a distorted perspective on the methods and purposes of practice. And, in these cases, certain practices were designed to “right” the vessel.
While Kraftsow is describing spiritual practitioners, these distinctions also apply to teachings on personal transformation. Notably, Sonnon’s fitness programs—including TACFIT Warrior—patch up the leaky vessel by very intelligently designing routines that include joint mobility and stretching to compensate for the primary exercises, as well as cycling intensity throughout the week and from month to month. In fact, his Circular Strength Training programs are largely designed to do just that—to help you to “sustain practice and build energy” and strength in your physical system through smart exercise program design. Sonnon’s IntuFlow joint mobility program and Prasara Yoga are practices “designed to seal the leaks” from the immobility of daily life and the stresses of training and other physical work. I still use IntuFlow almost daily and highly recommend it. The beginner level (1 of 4 levels of increasing movement sophistication) is available for free from Sonnon’s organization on YouTube:
Now might be a good time to mention that in terms of physical development, I’ve been a leaky vessel until very recently. I eat fairly healthy and exercise daily, but have often started physical exercise programs and had to stop due to injury (often just minor tweaks to joints and tendons) or fatigue from overdoing it. I’d say probably 80% or more of exercisers are at this same level or below, and a similar percentage of exercise programs are leaky vessels that don’t instruct participants in how to train properly for sustainable health and fitness gains. In fact, most of what passes for “health” and “fitness” is exactly the opposite. In that way, TACFIT Warrior and Sonnon’s other programs are way ahead of the pack, far ahead of The 4-Hour Body for instance. I’ve found IntuFlow and Sonnon’s clubbells very helpful in that regard.
Patching The Holes, but Still Tilted
TACFIT Warrior brilliantly includes IntuFlow joint mobility warmups and Prasara Yoga cooldowns, chosen specifically to compensate for the 6 progressive bodyweight agility exercises that make up the bulk of the program. TACFIT Warrior also follows a variable intensity “wave” wherein you do no intensity (joint mobility), low intensity (stretching/yoga), moderate intensity (the specific bodyweight drills), and high intensity (same drills but faster) days in sequence.
However, TACFIT Warrior still seems to have the parking break on. It’s philosophy is divided against itself, wanting both to find transformative liberation, but also to focus on (and get) all the worldly goodies and achievements the ego can desire. This seems to be because of a “distorted perspective on the methods and purposes of practice.” Specifically, the purpose of TACFIT Warrior is to train in various agility-focused bodyweight exercises in order to reach a Flow state, wherein one links this Flow state to one’s chosen goals through visualization while exercising. Again this is actually quite brilliant! Rather than force a “peak experience” of mania through aggressive positivity as Tony Robbins encourages, one reaches Flow through diligent practice of complex movement sequences, and in the process becomes quite physically agile. Here’s an example of the agility drills taught in TACFIT Warrior, performed expertly by CST coach and fitness blogger John Sifferman:
Flow States and Enlightenment
Another stated purpose of the program is to attain a Flow state that rides the edge of physical stress before it peaks over into strain. Sonnon states that the medium intensity day is thus the pinnacle of the program. Yet it still includes a high intensity day where the exerciser is supposed to get their heart rate over 85% heart rate maximum and subjective intensity level of 8-10 out of 10.
John Douilliard in his fascinating book Body, Mind, and Sport found that by incorporating mouth-closed ujayii (or “Darth Vader”) style breathing and careful attention to stress levels, athletes could train themselves in a short period of time to exert maximum output with a perceived exertion level of a 4—where with normal breathing the exertion level would peak at a 10. Douilliard’s athletes also consistently found that they entered “The Zone” using his methods, their heart rates settled at around 50% heart rate max, and they even registered as having high Alpha brain wave activity, a frequency usually associated with meditation or biofeedback. This held true even for professional athletes playing their sport with the utmost physical intensity. One “non athlete” using Douilliard’s methods was apparently able to run for 17 miles at a 6 minute pace-per-mile taking only 6 breaths a minute and with an average heart rate of 120 beats per minute.
If TACFIT Warrior is truly about cultivating Flow, about being “effectively efficient” as Sonnon says, why train high perceived intensity at all? It seems to me that perceived intensity should always be kept very low, while increasing the amount of work one can do while remaining totally calm, as if in the eye of the hurricane. Sonnon’s reasoning for training high intensity is so that you train how to come out of stress states more rapidly (which he argues is highly relevant to military, police, martial arts, and other “tactical” professions), but again—why train to enter them at all? Wouldn’t it be far better to train how to perform at high levels while enjoying one’s self and avoiding activation of the sympathetic nervous system? Which is better—knowing how to calm down quickly, or how to not get stressed in the first place? If I want to train how to deal with excessive anger, I wouldn’t recommend getting really angry and seeing how quickly I can calm down—I’d find ways of dissolving the triggers to becoming angry in the first place, and find ways to be more resourceful so I wouldn’t have to rage at all. In this way, TACFIT Warrior seems to be working against itself and would be a far stronger offering if it dropped high intensity days altogether in favor of more moderate intensity Flow-state days.
When it comes to instruction in agility, Sonnon really shines. But when it comes to teaching Being and stillness, Sonnon would be better off outsourcing the job! A curious and potent example occurs on the TACFIT Warrior yoga video for low intensity days. The last pose is savasana or corpse pose, lying on your back, for 1 minute. Typically yoga classes end with savasana (my favorite 90-minute yoga class allows 15 minutes for savasana), and many yoga teachers emphasize that savasana is the beginning of true yoga wherein one learns to completely surrender into pure Being. Sonnon’s phone goes off during his 1-minute savasana instruction and notably he didn’t re-record this segment, but simply kept talking as he silenced it. I think this speaks volumes about the “tiltedness” of this program.
An even deeper problem with TACFIT Warrior is this: Flow states are transcendent experiences wherein one loses all self-consciousness, yet in TACFIT Warrior the instruction is to link this state to a very personal desire! This approach short-circuits the spiritually transformative potential inherent in Flow state experiences and attempts to create a self identity out of them. Buddhists will immediately recognize the problem here, as any and all states of mind—including Flow states and other spiritual highs—are subject to the three characteristics of all sensate phenomena:
- Impermanence. Flow states, just as all states, don’t last. In fact, there’s no way to make them last. So just let it go and…woah, back in the Flow!
- Suffering. Because Flow states don’t last and yet they feel really good, there is a very human tendency to cling to them. Doing so just causes unnecessary suffering for yourself and others. It also ironically blocks the Flow!
- No-self. During a Flow state, there’s nobody home—it’s an experience lacking self consciousness, which is exactly what’s so profound about it. It will do you no good at all to create a self out of this selfless state—not only will it cause you to suffer, it will also prevent the Flow state itself.
This isn’t mere Buddhist dogma—check it out for yourself!
Sonnon is by far not the first to make this particular error—the entire self-help world largely consists of dirty and leaky vessels with a few rare tilted ones leading the pack (and a one in a million perfect vessel looking very ordinary standing in the corner). Specifically, the technique of linking a trance or Flow state to a desired outcome is an incredibly common theme, and if anything Sonnon does it brilliantly! Tony Robbins attempts to do this same thing but uses mania as his “peak state” instead of a complex and balanced Flow state, leading to very negative side-effects. The negative side-effects of a method like Sonnon’s in TACFIT Warrior are much more subtle but can often be intuited if not made explicit.
One such subtle problem with TACFIT Warrior and it’s predecessor TACFIT Commando is that these products are specifically about making military, police, martial artists, and other professionals in potentially violent encounters to become more agile…yet agility is not necessarily a good thing in and of itself! A more agile psychopath is a frightening thing indeed. While Sonnon does include an exegesis of The Book of Five Rings in TACFIT Warrior, thus emphasizing classical virtues like honesty, I’d prefer a program that places it’s focus squarely on eliminating the root causes of violence itself rather than making more efficient, agile killers (and I’m guessing Slavoj Žižek would agree, but he’d probably reference a whole lot more Lacan in his explanation).
Sonnon has repeatedly made statements on his blog and elsewhere to the effect that we need more agile “tactical” professionals so that we don’t need to use as much force in keeping the peace. It’s a common enough argument with some validity to be sure, yet still I think this is missing the heart of the matter when it comes to violence. Albert Einstein used his brilliance in service of our nation to create the first atomic bomb which was then used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many people to this day say that these horrific bombings which killed between 150,000 and 246,000 civilians instantly were justified because of the additional deaths prevented by a land invasion. Einstein did not share this opinion, perhaps hinting at his ongoing guilt when he stated “One cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” I’m with Einstein on this one—not harming as many is not good enough. We must cease engaging in violence altogether to attain peace, whether inner or outer.
Marketing and Miracles
In my research for this article I also came across criticisms of Coach Sonnon in some dark corners of the internet. Some doubt his achievements are legit, especially his involvement with Sambo and his training of an Israeli Special Forces team. These criticisms appear to me to be pure speculation, but I suppose it’s theoretically possible that Sonnon expertly faked his credentials. I think it’s much more likely that Sonnon achieved exactly what he said he did, but that he exaggerates the importance of his achievements in his personal branding due to some lingering personal insecurities (not to mention that our culture rewards this sort of thing), and that his detractors are reacting to this overcompensation. As with his brilliant products, the issue is not the thing itself so much as the aggressive overcompensation for the thing. Interestingly, Sonnon’s methods are attempts to address aggressive overcompensation in physical training where people push their bodies too hard, whereas Sonnon emphasizes balanced approaches to high achievement. It seems he might benefit from the lesson he is teaching others in exercise by applying it to his own psychological development.
Interestingly, Sonnon cites Amma, known as “the hugging saint,” as his inspiration for creating Prasara Yoga. Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, or “Amma” for short, is famous for giving people powerful experiences of unconditional love while hugging them, often hugging one person after another continuously for 18 or more hours a day. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of gurus like Amma who use special powers (siddhis) precisely because no matter how many times they say “the love you feel in my presence is actually in you,” the truth is that many people feel unconditional love only in the presence of gurus like Amma. The net result is a cult-like following (or sometimes a full on cult), not a bunch of liberated individuals living their ordinary lives from their true nature as Love:
Apparently, the ashramites had put up a sign for Amma’s visit, which the Green Ave. residents were fine with. But after Amma’s visit, the residents wanted the sign down as it was in breach of the local covenant. After a long period without response from Amma’s folks, the residents took it upon themselves to remove the sign. When they showed up to do so, the ashramites attending the sign made a few phone calls. Soon afterward, a bus showed up with 50 goons and Amma’s love came at the Green Ave. residents with canes and crow bars.
(I should make it explicit that I don’t think Sonnon is a cult-worshipper of Amma. Many people have powerful experiences in the presence of gurus like Amma without then entering the seedy inner circles where the worst abuses of power occur and therefore usually have no idea that they are even going on.)
Gurus like Amma seem to me a poor substitute for finding one’s own wholeness and true nature, but on the other hand they can sometimes wake up sleepy seekers to the possibility of finding such a place of Being within. According to Georg Feuerstein, guru yoga has three levels—outer, inner, and secret. One often starts with an outer guru, projecting all of one’s spiritual essence onto the other. Ideally (at least in my opinion), the guru denies having (or refrains from using) such magical powers and quickly points the student within to their inner guru, intuition, intelligence, Being, or whatever you want to call it. With a less noble guru, a student may end up dependent and subservient only to eventually become disillusioned with the specific guru or the path itself (see Saints and Psychopaths by Bill Hamilton and Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path by Mariana Caplan). Sometimes this disillusionment can be the beginning of true freedom. Eventually some seekers go beyond inner vs. outer, finding that the teaching is a well-kept secret that has always been out in the open for those with eyes to see. Finally the veil of ignorance is lifted and everything and everyone becomes one’s guru, and Being becomes one’s ordinary daily reality.
Be the Paradox
Getting back to the purpose of TACFIT Warrior, Flow states are subject to the three characteristics of all sensate phenomena: they don’t last (impermanence), clinging to them causes suffering, and there’s no permanent selfhood that can be created out of them. However, Flow state experiences can point us to a way of living that is Being-focused or process-focused instead of outcome-focused. To enter a state of Flow, we must forget ourselves and enter our direct, present-moment experience. As soon as we try and create an identity out of the Flow state, we are no longer in one! As soon as we crave another Flow state, we have lost the possibility of getting one. As soon as we reject our current state as not as good as a Flow state, we have barred the doorway to Flow entirely. Flow comes from an unconditional acceptance and engagement with the present moment—but an acceptance that seems to evade the conscious, willful mind. Entering a Flow state is therefore a classic be spontaneous paradox:
Any request or command for a spontaneous act will cause other persons to be unable to perform the act spontaneously. Whether it’s to: “Go to sleep”, “Show me you love me”, “Be happy”, or even “Do a good job”, the mere gracing of their ears with the request will make it difficult or impossible for them to perform as requested. This is the reason why actors before a stage performance are told to “Break a leg”. Since breaking a leg can only happen spontaneously, it will not happen on command, and the actors are not stuck in the exquisite “Be Spontaneous” paradox of being wished to “Perform well tonight”. Even the simple request by a photographer to “Smile” will evoke a faked or posed smile in place of a genuine one. True unhappiness enthusiasts are experts at the “Be Spontaneous” paradox.
So whatever you do, don’t find it easy to consistently enter a Flow state as your ongoing way of Being from now on!
Flow states happen precisely because we aren’t there—they are states where self-consciousness is temporarily missing and pure Being is the only thing present. Buddhists would call this waking up to Reality! This is the problem with TACFIT Warrior in a nutshell. It seems like it wants to be about waking up, but it’s more like dreaming one is awake. Flow states are still depicted as “other,” are still “altered states” rather than “the natural state.” These Flow states also aren’t good enough in themselves, but tools to get something else. This kind of practice is cultivating the conditional “if-then” egoic approach to happiness—if I get a Flow state, then I’ll achieve my goals, and then I’ll be happy—rather than using the Flow state to cultivate being A-OK with existence as it’s happening, right now…and now, and now, and now…regardless of conditions.
In my experience, you do not need to become highly agile and coordinated to enter a state of Being—in fact, there are no qualifications whatsoever. Paradoxically, there are methods to enter states of timeless and unselfconscious Being (developing physical agility is one of them!), and the ability to do so seems to follow a predictable developmental path, but all methods ultimately still depend on the blessing of Grace.
Steven Barnes’ encouraging voiceovers for the “mission simulation” follow-along videos are also incongruent with achieving a Flow state, at least for me. When he says “crush it,” I found my muscles unnecessarily tensing and getting fewer reps (and having less fun) as a result. When he encourages exercisers to fight the negative, lying voices in your head, it also didn’t fit with my experience, for I’ve done a lot of work creating good relationships with all parts of me such that I don’t have parts of me that lie to me habitually anymore. This instruction seemed like an invitation to create more inner conflict, not a conflict-free Flow state. Perhaps it was a brilliant “break a leg” kind of paradoxical intervention, but more likely the aggressive push yourself attitude was borrowed from conventional leaky vessel exercise paradigms wherein one fights against oneself—a terrible waste of energy. In any case, I’m still waiting for TACFIT Buddha. Hopefully Sonnon’s vessel with be righted and we will see the development of programs promoting real peace and harmony in the near future. In this case, it is true that it’s easier to be a critic, as I have no idea how to create such a product that would improve upon TACFIT Warrior and integrate my critique. In the end, I’ve decided this product isn’t for me, but I continue to use IntuFlow and recently purchased two of Sonnon’s 15 pound clubbells which I’m very much enjoying.
So in this case, what are “practices designed to ‘right’ the vessel?” My bias of course is in favor of Core Transformation, a profound practice created by Connirae Andreas that I’ve found to go as deep and thorough as is psychologically and spiritually possible. Yoga itself surely has practices for correcting such tilts as well, but as I’m not a yoga teacher I can’t speak to what practices might correct for the errors I see in TACFIT Warrior. I also think that some of the writings and practices of Moshe Feldenkrais may apply (see this article “How to Learn: A Manual“), as well as the breathing and mindfulness techniques of John Douillard found in Body, Mind, and Sport, which I am currently reading and practicing as well.
I could write a lot more about TACFIT Warrior, but I’m afraid most readers will already find this article tl;dr. I invite you to add your thoughts to the discussion, whether or not you have purchased or used this specific program, in the comments below.
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