Finding God In The Burpee

Finding God In The Burpee

I found God in the burpee.

What’s a burpee? It’s a full body exercise named after the American physiologist, Royal H. Burpee, that consists of several parts:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Lower your body into a squat; place your hands on the floor directly in front of you and shift your weight onto your hands.
  3. Jump your feet back into a plank position and keep your arms extended.
  4. Do a push-up.
  5. Jump your feet forward, returning to the squat position.
  6. Lift your arms over your head while you jump into the air.
  7. Immediately lower your body again into a squat position and begin your next burpee.

I began doing burpees this summer as part of a kickboxing class I signed up for on a whim. I consider myself more of a lover than a fighter. Prior to signing up for the class, I’d never thrown a punch. But, my wife took a kickboxing class at a local gym, loved it and suggested I try it. It was totally outside of my comfort zone. But I gave it a shot and, despite the fact that the kickboxing workout pushed me beyond what I perceived to be my physical limits, I was immediately hooked and now make it a priority to attend a class at least twice a week. 

In between the jabs, hooks, upper cuts and round kicks, my kickboxing trainer loves to toss in a few minutes of burpees. Just when I think my arms and legs can take no more, just as I’m about to collapse into an exhausted heap on the mats, to say that the trainer’s demand to do burpees seems absurd is an understatement.  My mind tells me “I can’t”. My muscles are in agreement. But my trainer disagrees. And, oddly enough, there’s a very small part of me – I must stress, very small – that wants me to keep going. An impulse that’s not willing to give up.  

What’s even odder is that this impulse has the ability to shut down all the doubt and negativity that’s coursing through every fiber of my body. With sweat teeming out of all my pores, my heart pounding and odd grunts and groans emanating from deep within me, I do the burpees. Not perfectly – but I do them. That impulse continues to overcome my desire to give up. And, somehow, someway, I complete the burpee set. 

I’m shocked. The shock is followed by an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and pride. But all of these emotions are short lived as my trainer quickly moves on to the next set of routines and exercises. Fortunately, the impulse keeps me going until the end of the hour long class. It also pushes me to keep coming back to the class despite the strong, negative forces inside of me that look for ways to undermine my new obsession with punching, kicking and, yes, doing burpees. 

I’ve been kickboxing for several months and I’m starting to experience the benefits. I can now throw a punch. While I don’t plan to use this new skill outside of the kickboxing gym, I must admit, I’m pretty impressed with myself. Prior to enrolling in kickboxing, my primary form of exercise was running. I continue to run and am happy to report that kickboxing has made me a better runner, improving my strength and endurance. But, the greatest benefit of kickboxing has been the chance to discover the impulse that knows that I’m more than what I perceive myself to be – the impulse that pushes me beyond my self-imposed physical limits. While it reveals itself during strenuous sets of burpees and other exhausting exercises, I’m finding the impulse to be not just a physical motivator, but a spiritual experience.

My spirituality encourages me to think of God as limitless. We try so hard to define God with words and labels, but no term we use can possibly capture the infinite essence of God. While I don’t believe in an all-powerful God, because such a God would bring an end to the suffering and pain of innocent people, I’ve always believed in a God of endless possibilities -the source of unwavering determination, the drive to find an answer, solution or cure when we appear to have hit a dead end, the reason to dig deep and keep believing. My spirituality teaches me that we’re each created in God’s image. Because of this, we too have tremendous capabilities. But, just as we do with God, we attempt to define ourselves and, thus, limit our abilities. When we hit a dead end, too many of us easily give up. We say “I can’t” and that’s it. We don’t give the impulse that’s not willing to give up time to kick in and take over.

We all know some incredible people who have allowed the impulse to kick in and push them forward in tremendous ways. Most of these folks have gone through mind-boggling personal challenges. It’s absurd to compare my mundane struggle to complete a set of burpees to their challenges. But, my encounter with the impulse has given me some insight into the truly remarkable strength of those who find themselves facing overwhelming obstacles. The impulse has allowed them to tap into strength that’s beyond our grasp – beyond what we often perceive to be the limits of human potential. And because of this, they persevere.

For me, the impulse is the essence of God, an innate, yet often overlooked ability to discover our untapped capabilities. I’m grateful that my kickboxing class has taught me that we don’t need a life-altering crisis to appreciate this ability and be divinely pushed beyond our limits. Certainly, prayer, the study of religious texts and meditation can be incredible ways to encounter holiness. But, I’ve come to appreciate that holiness can be experienced during a set burpees – or any opportunity during which we can encounter the impulse that makes us dig deeper and introduces us to new, remarkable aspects of ourselves.


Andrew Jacobs

Rabbi Andrew Jacobs has been the spiritual leader of Ramat Shalom Synagogue (www.ramatshalom.org) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida since 2002. He is the founder of ISH (www.findyourish.com), an innovative spiritual source and service that enables all spiritual seekers with opportunities to connect with Jewish wisdom. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Jacobs is a graduate of Vassar College and holds a Masters of Arts in Jewish Art and Material Culture from the Jewish Theological Seminary in consortium with Columbia University and the Jewish Museum of New York. He posts regularly on his blog (rabbiandrewjacobs.org).

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