05/10/2013 07:45 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

HuffPost Jummah: Interval Training for the Soul


We welcomed a new addition into our family three months ago-a beautiful baby boy. His older sister is almost three so I had grown accustomed to getting a full night's rest prior to his delivery. Needless to say, I was dreading the onslaught of sleepless nights, the incessant crying, and the round-the-clock diaper changes and feedings. It's an intense time that throws one into the deep end, never fully reclaiming one's old self but coming out a better, more resilient human being. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, these moments of intense child-rearing are very short. Our elders remind us of their fleeting nature although it certainly doesn't feel fleeting as we trudge through them. No matter how much our nafs rails against it, there is something about this intensity that gives meaning to our lives; that wakes us up from a mundane, ordinary existence and connects us with the Divine. I am often reminded of the first few verses of Surat al-Anbiya (The Prophets) that force me to reassess my life through this lens of intensity:

"[The time of] their account has approached for the people, while they are in heedlessness turning away. No mention comes to them anew from their Lord except that they listen to it while they are at play. With their hearts distracted..." (Qur'an 21:1-3).

I see myself in these verses, that God is speaking directly to me beseeching me to wake up. It has become difficult to concentrate on tasks for long periods of time without my hand unconsciously reaching for the smartphone. I suffer from broad informational overload and not delving deeply into any one subject. My need to feel connected online has disconnected me from a metaphysical presence that is far superior. My heart is distracted. It is often at play. I believe that many people also feel this way. In fact, Paul Miller from the Verge chronicles a year-long adventure unplugged. He reflects on his initial surge in creativity, focus, and all around healthier attitude towards life, but quickly laments that his liberation from the throes of the internet cannot be sustained. He writes, "I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat."

So what does the initial intensity of motherhood have to do with unplugging from the internet? The common denominator that may be worthy of exploration here is this conscious attempt to shock our system from the mundane and mechanical. As Muslims, we pray five times a day, everyday. It is easy for us to lose the meaning behind the movements if we do not approach every prayer consciously. We fast the month of Ramadan, but also experience the mid-Ramadan "dip," which roughly translates into less energy and enthusiasm towards our spiritual goals. We recite the same few surahs and if asked which ones were recited, we can hardly recall. Plainly stated, we plateau in our religious endeavors. It's easy to do. After all, when we pray to Allah to guide us on the straight path, it's a vertical path which is met with much resistance. So, how can we revive our soul, our spirit that is oftentimes in heedlessness but always yearning towards Allah? What are some ways that we can orient our soul toward Allah, nourishing it and providing a healthful dose of organic ibaadah?

Well, in an effort to lose the postpartum weight, a few friends had suggested that I look into interval training. Interval training is defined as, "a type of discontinuous physical training that involves a series of low- to high-intensity exercise workouts interspersed with rest or relief periods." The interval system I use has a 3:2:1 ratio of strength, cardio, and core which lasts for 24 minutes. It doesn't require much time, but the time utilized is intensely productive. My body is not as quick to plateau due to the variation of exercises. I slowly came to the realization that mastering discomfort and deliberately changing my daily routine did not need to be exclusively relegated to my physical well-being. What about interval training for my soul, for our collective souls?

This idea is not new. The concept is actually deeply rooted within our Islamic tradition. The formidable task of delivering a message that would dismantle the power of the elite, usurp alliances, and completely change a people's worldview required strength, resilience, integrity, and determination. It still does. We find Allah's prescription to the Prophet and his companions in Surat al-Muzzammil (The Enshrouded One):

"Oh you who wraps himself [in clothing], Arise [to pray] the night, except for a little. Half of it- or subtract from it a little, or add to it, and recite the Qur'an with measured recitation. Soon, We shall send down to you a heavy Word," (Qur'an 73:1-5).

Praying lengthily during the night became an obligation for the early Muslims in Mecca and remained so until the duty to perform the five daily prayers was established. It was strength training for the soul. These men and women trained deeply, intensely, unsparingly. The night prayers instilled a profound love and trust towards Allah that may not have developed had the prayers been interspersed throughout the day, intermingled with distraction and occupation.

Even though the obligation to pray well into the night was eventually lifted, the intense interval of time the companions spent communicating with their Lord left them hooked. Many of the companions continued to pray lengthy night prayers throughout their lives because of the intense beauty of the experience.

In order to realize spiritual epiphanies, sometimes we need to immerse ourselves in self-inflicted hardship. Think late night feedings (usually not self-inflicted), 30 Day Shred, marathon training, fasting 16 plus hours during the summer, unplugging, etc. After the initial shock wears off, we realize that the incremental and slow gains will eventually outweigh the seemingly large and immediate sacrifices. Soon, inward changes will spill over outwardly. There's an extra bounce in one's step; one has a bit more swag. An exercise in intense spiritual training is exactly the jolt needed to realign us with our purpose.

Ramadan is fast approaching and we can easily meet it ill prepared. In order to maximize the potential of this upcoming month, let's implement some interval training for our souls beforehand. Here are a few ideas that may help:

1) Wake up for Tahajjud 4 times a week for a month

2) Determine to memorize 2-3 surahs in a month

3) Fast every Monday and Thursday. If you already do that, fast every other day.

4) Force yourself to pray Fajr and Isha in the masjid for two weeks straight

5) Get out of your cocoon and meet ten new neighbors in two weeks.

6) Resolve to unplug one day a week for the entire day.

Keep the same goal(s) and gradually increase the intensity every week. Ideally, there should be an overarching goal that you're working towards (maybe it's memorizing the entire Qur'an or consistently waking up for Tahajjud prayers, or becoming a minimalist). Grab a group of friends and set up an accountability system for collective success. Once you find yourself plateauing, it's time to shake things up again. Choose another spiritual mountain to traverse. Establish an end date and do not give yourself any time for deliberation. It will be hard. It will be uncomfortable. Insha'Allah it will be intense. As our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, stated, "Hasten to do good acts before you are overtaken by temptation, which will be [gloomy] like parts of a dark night," and "Deliberation should be in everything except in one's work for the Hereafter."

If you can establish a disciplined regimen following P90X or Insanity, interval-training for the soul is definitely manageable. At the very least, you probably won't throw up.