By Circle Editorial Team

No, not wasabi. Today, we are talking about the Japanese philosophy known as Wabi-Sabi, and how it applies to one’s pursuit of fitness.

What is Wabi-Sabi?


Wabi-Sabi “rejects” the pursuit of perfection and embraces the reality of imperfection. This Japanese philosophy can help us escape the hamster wheel of chasing an ideal life and teaches us to appreciate existence as it is: perfectly imperfect.

At first glance, the concept of wabi-sabi flies in the face of everything espoused in fitness culture. Working off excess weight gain; improving our physical health and capabilities; or even counteracting the effects of ageing. All of these are common reasons (which we would encourage) as to why we turn to fitness activities as part of our path to perfection.

The Issue with Perfection

Yet, the pursuit of perfection isn’t as picturesque as one might imagine. We’ve all been exposed to the consumerist ideal of perfection. For many, we’ve shaped our lives around the concept of existence without fault. This could be a need to acquire a perfectly sculpted body, hair, skin, jawline, etc. But don’t just take it from me. Here’s what actor Sebastian Stan of Winter Soldier fame had to say about the struggles of keeping in perfect shape for a character.

“Anybody that even has a healthy physique to some extent has body dysmorphia," he says. "Because once you're going into a peak, the best look possible, which by the way, I don't care what they say, unless there's like, magic formulas out there — which there are but some of us are not in that pocket — your body can only be at peak 100 percent for like maybe a week or something. At least, how I've experienced it; and I mean diet and exercise and tanning and water and lighting and everything. And then you spend the rest of the time going, 'I'm not what I used to be.' But it's just all in the head.”

It is not just him. Prominent stars like Megan Fox, Richard Madden, Robert Pattinson, and Channing Tatum have all spoken up about their struggles and sometimes insecurities with the maintenance of their body image. The issue extends to us everyday folks too!

What is Body Dysmorphia

Body dysmorphic disorder (more colloquially known as body dysmorphia) is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a “mental health disorder in which you can't stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that appears minor or can't be seen by others.”

Still considered a stigma to speak up about in Asia, let alone Singapore, disorders such as body dysmorphia have, unfortunately, been underreported and under-addressed. Dr. Oliver Sündermann and his team from the National University of Singapore’s clinical psychology programme surveyed local university students and found that about three to five percent meet diagnostic criteria for body dysmorphia, which is in line with other international studies.

Body Dysmorphia in Fitness

The most “mainstream” form of body dysmorphia in the realm of fitness often manifests as bigorexia, where sufferers are preoccupied with their musculature and build. Typically speaking, the fitness process involved with the building of muscles is a good one, as it provides both physical and mental health benefits. When it becomes a fixation, however, that is where the nasty bits come into play. By that point, bigorexia can escalate and lead to depression (instead of alleviating it), medical conditions, or even steroid misuse.


Embracing Imperfection

"The sharper the knife, the easier it is to dull"

In summary, the more we try to perfect something, the more frigid and fragile it becomes. It is especially observable on our bodies - a near perfect body quickly decays, as Stan laments above. The inability to accept imperfection inevitably leads to the aforementioned downward spiral.

Yet, embracing imperfection doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t self improve. Self improvement is very much advisable, as long as it is within reason and without the obsession with perfection. Take Kaizen, for example, which is a Japanese philosophy about continuous improvement through small and easily achievable steps.

Nor does it mean that we should be making a mess of things.


Applying Wabi-Sabi

Learning from Imperfection

Training is practice. Practice is where you have the freedom to do things incorrectly over and over again. Each manifestation of imperfection is an opportunity to learn. In other words, every time you screw up, you create a situation you can examine, a strategy you can adjust, and a chance to try again. With no penalties.

Setting Reasonable Expectations

We all have important priorities and commitments outside of fitness. Thus, set smaller goals that will allow you to enjoy your experiences. Even a short HIIT workout at home through our lessons on Watch is better than nothing at all if you can’t get to the gym. Instead of attempting to break a personal record each time you workout, make slight adjustments when you hit a plateau. This will help get you away from the “all or nothing” mentality, as well as help develop healthy habits instead of restrictive ones.

Accepting Lack of Control

No matter how you go about with it, embracing imperfection is one of the easiest ways to stay on track with your fitness program. Allowing yourself some deviations and breaks here and there won’t stall your progress. Blowing them out of proportion will. For example, you’ve exceeded your daily caloric intake by about 300 kcal (one cookie). You may think: Oh no! I’ve failed my diet! Aiyah, might as well forget about dieting and just eat a pizza. That isn’t the mindset you should be having. Some girls are known to develop eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia due to their toxic relationship with food. Instead, make sure you leave wiggle room to account for the small setbacks that may arise so you are able to move forward with your program and you’ll be well on your way to success that you can maintain!

Fitness as a Journey

In our quest for weight loss or a better physique, we tend to lose perspective. Understanding the larger picture, that losing weight is not the sole objective of fitness, is what keeps us from being trapped in the hamster wheel. If we spent half as much time focusing on our overall health, emotional wellbeing and level of fitness as much as on our physique, we would be much better off and more successful at it. Feeling defeated by a few setbacks and giving up at the first signs of difficulty is a sure way to take two steps forward and three steps back. Pick yourself up and move on!


You are shaped by your scars. There are stories about them, whether they be rooted in a glorious performance, or a hard-fought effort. These stories chain together in a particular manner that brought you where you were today. And perhaps today is beautiful because you are being you, exactly as you are, with your achy joints, your stiff hamstrings, your least favourite exercise in front of you, but with the clairvoyance to both embrace and work on your imperfections.


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