Zen Mind, Big Snatch, Part I: Yin


This is part 1, read Part 2 here.

Most lifters are one-sided.  They are either aggressive, able to finish the pull hard, will go after anything, but throw the bar all over the place and miss the big weights because they can’t control the trajectory of the bar.  Or, they are mellow, have nice (even flawless) technique with light weights, but won’t finish the pull strong enough on the big weights, and so they miss anything truly heavy.

The aggressive ones are like Dragons.  The mellow ones are like Pearls.  You don’t want to be either.

Or, more accurately, you want to be both.

You want to be a Samurai.

Let me explain …

The Samurai, or The Dragon With Pearl Eyes: Complementary Opposites


Becoming good at the Olympic lifts requires that you assume two attitudes at once that (at first) seem totally opposite of one another.

In traditional Western cultures, opposites are seen to be in conflict with one another.  Good/Evil, God/Devil.  One is fighting to overtake the other.  And, wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place if we could just end the one altogether (depending upon which side you’re on).

That isn’t how it works in Eastern cultures, and it doesn’t work that way in weightlifting either.

In this respect, Olympic Weightlifting is far more Eastern than it is Western in character.  Approach it that way, and it will make so much more sense to you.

In weightlifting you have to be aggressive AND technical.  Pull the bar up with everything you have and then immediately yank yourself under it.  Drive the jerk up and instantly dive down.  Many opposites that have to play nice with one another!

I named this blog “The Iron Samurai” for a reason. The Samurai (or at least the ideal of the Samurai) were the perfect embodiment of Yin and Yang in concert with one another.  They were aggressive as needed, but in total control.  They faced death without fearing it.  They were the opposite of the barbarian hordes who were fueled by fear and aggression alone.  They were fearless.

And this made the Samurai far more deadly.

By adopting the mindset of a Samurai – joining the light with the dark – you will become a far greater weightlifter.  In fact, if you don’t do this, you will fail to reach your potential.

Zen and Taoism: A Quick Side Note

I’m going to describe the two parts of a weightlifters personality as Yin and Yang, but don’t get too hung up on that.  I know that Zen is technically a Japanese adaptation of Buddhism and the concepts of the Yin/Yang “non-duality” is Chinese and Taoist.  But, in point of fact, Zen is as much (or more) Taoist than it is Buddhist, philosophically.

There is debate here, usually by rabid traditionalists in either school who refuse to take a broad view of things.  You can read more about it in the book The Tao of Zen.

I will say this, however.  Taoism is at heart about spontaneity,and getting to your goal – enlightenment, a big snatch – via an unstudied approach.  While Zen is the opposite. Zen recognizes that there are many paths, but it developed what it felt was a more reliable method or system to get there that would apply to the broadest group of people.  For this reason, I’ve always been far more Zen than Taoist.  I believe in systematic approaches to problem solving.  It’s why I coach!

Besides … I’m using these ideas loosely anyway.  After all, this is a weightlifting blog!  Not a blog about comparative religion.

Your Inner Yin: The Pearl


Believe it or not, Yin, the pearl, is associated with the dark and shadow.  To a Western mind, that probably seems backwards.  Dragons breath fire and kill things!  Shouldn’t that be dark?  Why is a Dragon associated with the light?

Here’s the way I look at it.  The Sun (light) is about as violent an object as you’ll find in the Universe.  A giant ball of flaming nuclear explosions isn’t exactly what I’d call a vacation spot!  Thus, light is aggressive, shade is not.

In Weightlifting, you have to move your body around the bar, not the other way around.  The bar has a specific path it has to follow, and you can’t get in its way!

The first part of the pull – from the floor to the knee – is a great example of a moment when you need to let your inner Yin take over.  The Yin is like water, it is fluid.  Adopting this mindset allows you to slowly move your knees back, get your hips up, get your body into the position that will set you up for a strong pull at the top.

When you move from the knee to the hip, you must do so precisely.  There is no room for error.  Yanking on the bar with excessive force that is uncontrolled will cause you to miss the weight.

In the beginning, when you are learning, you should be FAR more Yin than Yang.  I’ll get into how to use the Yang to lift big weights tomorrow.  But, if you don’t have a solid background of Yin training, it will all be worthless.

Olympic Weightlifting IS a Martial art in the same way that they treat Flower Arranging or the Tea Ceremony in Japan.  When you are first learning something like Kung Fu, you will spend a long time – weeks, months, even years – practicing the motions of the body.  You will drill, and drill, and drill, until these motions become subconscious and you don’t have to think about them.

Doing my Fab-5 snatch drill, for instance, with a stick is a Yin-style practice.  You are going through the motions of a real snatch, but doing so slowly, trying to increase the fluidity of it.

Your goal is aesthetic perfection.

There is no need to explode fast, to jump hard, or to stomp the feet powerfully … yet.  We’ll get to that.  What matters now is that you can make the snatch look pretty.

Despite all of the heavy weight being lifted by these monsters, the snatch, when done right, is a truly gorgeous movement of the human body.  There is something remarkable happening.  Few sports can boast of such beauty.

The Pearl is Fearless

“Fear is the Mind Killer” – Dune

It is not the Dragon that is fearless, it is the Pearl.  The Dragon isn’t just aggressive, it is hyped up and anxiety prone.  That is the double edged sword of reality.

Aggression is a hormone-fueled response.  It is useful (as I’ll explain tomorrow) but it MUST be controlled.  Like all emotion related states, it can backfire and lead to a fear-driven mindset (fight or flight) that is death in weightlifting.

If you are always relying on your high energy levels to make lifts – grunting and yelling, banging your chest before a big snatch, relying on loud music and your teammates yelling and cheering you on – you will miss everything worth making.

  • You will fail in contests when things aren’t exactly like you are used to in the gym.
  • You will fail to make new personal records that you should have made.
  • When you miss a lift in training, or your opener at a contest, you will get so discouraged that you won’t be able to come back and make it on the next try – even when it should be an easy lift for you.
  • You will become an emotion machine, guided by your hormone levels, not your rational mind.

Even once you start lifting heavier weights, once you’ve developed great technique with a stick, you should never abandon the Yin.

Some lifters will make this mistake in the beginning.  Everything is going so great with the stick or the empty bar … then we put some plates on the bar and it actually feels heavy for the first time.

Fear sets in, they stop being rational and clear-headed, and they revert to their primal aggressive selves.

You don’t ever want to be like a caveman.

Be the Samurai.  In control.  Fearless.

The Samurai Strength Philosophy

“I have found that bushido means to die. It means that when one has to choose between life and death, one quickly chooses the side of death.” – The Hagakure

That line is one of the most misunderstood lines in all of Japanese history.  The point is NOT that one seeks out death.  That is stupidity.  But rather that the fear of death attracts it.

Think about that for a second.

If you fear missing a big weight on the snatch, guess what will happen?  You will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your fear will allow the Yang, the Dragon, the hormones, to become over-active and uncontrollable.  They will take over.

Your body will cease to do what it has done with all the previous weights that you made successfully (weights that were only 5 or less pounds than what you are attempting now).  Your technique will go to Hell.

Even just ONE flaw is enough to cause a failure with heavy weights.

Samurai understood this principle.  Going into battle and risking death and dismemberment was frightening in a real way most of us will never experience.  And yet, they knew that in order to be the most effective soldier – thereby protecting their own lives – they had to abolish their fear.

This is the Yin, the Pearl side of the coin.  Calm, mellow, in full control, fearless.

By the way, I generally hate “war” analogies to sports.  I think they are disrespectful to people who actually DID go to war.  Weightlifting is just a sport.  It is NOT life and death.  And there in-lies the point.  You have nothing to worry about.  Nothing to fear.  You won’t die. If a Samurai could go into battle not fearing death, you can certainly lift on a platform not fearing a miss.

Next time, we’ll talk about your Inner Yang, the Dragon, and how you can’t stay mellow forever.  Without a certain amount of aggressive fervor you will never lift anything near your potential.  But, as I said, ONLY if you can pair it with your Yin technique and “no mind”.  Without both, you will fail.  Every time.

READ:  Zen Mind, Big Snatch, Part II: Yang

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