Balance By integrating movement and mindfulness, and infusing sports with a softer and more spiritual perspective, we are equipped with the tools to listen to our changing needs and can learn to grow a life of harmony, connection, and sustainable well-being, says Los Angeles-based creative director and holistic life coach Ryan Willms.
After having moved to New York to pursue a new career as an art director for streetwear brand Stüssy, Canadian-born creative Ryan Willms reached the decision to quit all work and end the publication of his influential menswear magazine Inventory. New to the busiest and most exciting city in the world, he found himself avoiding friends and isolating himself in his apartment.
‘I realised it was not such a good place I was in,’ says Willms. ‘My body had told me I needed to slow down but I wasn’t mindful enough at the time to be able to listen. I thought the answer was to go harder and do more. Work more, run more. Eventually I got to the point where I was feeling really depressed and realised that if I didn’t take a break from this level of intensity, I was never going to be able to heal.’
After a period of rest, recovery and reconnection ‘with nature and a more natural pace of living’ in the Canadian countryside, Willms re-settled in Los Angeles and began exploring the intersection of health, fitness, and spiritual growth – a journey he has been sharing on his podcasts Into the Well and the Mindful Endurance Program since 2019.
‘Meditation is always the first thing I recommend to someone who wants to feel better. I think it is completely foundational to a life of well-being. The relationship with meditation is tricky and subtle and evolves, but I truly believe it’s one of the most powerful and magical ways to learn and grow. You can start with five minutes a day. It's more about consistency than doing it once for 40 minutes, and then not doing again it for a week.
When we grow up, we are merged with our experience and our identity. Who we think we are is completely tied in with what we are doing. If somebody criticises my work, it's like they're criticising me as a person, and if somebody breaks up with me, then I will feel shame that I'm not good enough.
So just beginning to pull that apart and realise that ‘I am not my body’. ‘I am not my work’. ‘I am not my relationship‘. ‘I am not the car that I drive’. Meditation really helps with that. It helps create a place to witness what's going on and how you’re feeling. And then you can choose to react to it, instead of just being reactive, and know that you’re okay in that place.
The other thing I recommend is going to bed earlier. Generally speaking, if you can get more and better sleep, you're just more resourced for anything in life, whether that's an ambitious physical pursuit or being creative, or just being more resilient, to stay healthy. And then, moving your body. Whether that's yoga, running, cycling, Pilates, or just stretching at home – anyway you can move your body is really important.’
In what ways do you think mindfulness practice can be beneficial to running and other forms of exercise?
On a basic level, meditation helps create an awareness of what's going on and how you're feeling. If you are running, or if you're going to a race and feel nervous, you can use it to just to calm your nerves and be more relaxed. And that can be before a meeting as well.
If you're running a 10K, or a half marathon, or longer, there's usually a point where you ask yourself why you’re doing this, and meditation can be a great way to get familiar with that little space, and prepare yourself for that moment.
Beyond that, there's so many methods and modalities of meditation that I think are incredibly powerful. Visualising things can be very helpful, and it’s something that people have been using for a long time.
A lot of athletes are visualising the game, how they’re making certain shots, even if they don’t know they’re necessarily meditating. When you’re visualising something, you actually feel the feeling of that happening. Your body doesn't know the difference between the imagined and real life, so it feels comfortable with it. ‘I can do that’. It doesn't feel out of reach.
On your podcasts, you have been sharing your journey towards completing a triathlon, but also your struggles with self-doubt and the need for other people’s approval. How do you balance these issues with extreme training?
In the last few months, I have gotten clear that deep within me, I don't feel I'm good enough – and that’s something that would have been planted very early on in my life. As we grow up, we learn to create certain conditions to feel accepted and loved. When those conditions keep falling away in life, not working anymore, you’re left scrambling to figure out what to do.
This is unconscious. I'm not literally thinking ’I need to sign up for a triathlon, and then I'll be good enough’. But I realise that that has been a huge motivator for me through my whole life, whether it's starting a business or doing a podcast, and certainly, triathlon is one of those things as well. Even my spiritual journey. Realising that this has affected almost everything I've ever chosen to do has been really challenging. It's been a process over the last year, of me putting down all these things I've been trying to use to feel better.
There's a beautiful metaphor of the ego being like a block of ice. Bring warmth and sunshine and love to it, and it will melt slowly and return to water, which is a constant metaphor for flow and fluidity. We don't want to entirely get rid of the ego – we don’t want to bring out the axe and chop it up – but just allow it to relax and melt back into ourselves, to find a natural state of peace and being.
In the last year I have started reading Daoist philosophy, which is very much about non-doing, non-forcing. I think it's really beautiful, but it's so far out of the way of how we're doing everything. In our world now it’s all about doing. Even recovery is about doing.
It’s difficult to not do. I've always wanted to go to a yoga class and lie in shavasana [a posture of lying still on the floor] the whole time – not doing anything – and just letting everyone else do their movements around me. I think that would be a beautiful challenge.
You recently became a father. How has that been for you, balancing the new family life with time for training and practice?
It certainly has been hard. I guess I'm just so used to doing whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it. Even living with a partner – it's like, well, the increased need for good communication is something I'm still working at.
Having a little baby is pretty non-stop. He naps here and there, but outside of that, somebody needs to be with him, hold him, see him, rock him. Naturally, in the first months, a lot of that falls on the mother, and I think that's kind of what needs to happen. The child and the mother really need that time together. It's the most important. But it’s a lot of work for the mother, even if they enjoy it and find it beautiful. It still takes a ton of energy and work.
A woman having her first child is a massive life transformation. They go from being independent and working, and they could do whatever they wanted to do, whenever they wanted to do it. And now their whole life is oriented around this new innocent, helpless little being.
For a man that's a little bit different and we often find our rhythm a bit later. The process of re-orientation is taking me a bit more time. To let go of myself and my ego and truly open to our son being my priority hasn’t happened overnight. But I can feel the shift unfolding.
You just need to try to find those moments in the day, and also be at peace. Maybe I would have wanted to go for an hour but I'm only going to get a 30-minute run in today. Can this be enough? It’s about trying to be at peace with the flow of life, and not force it.