• Misbah Haque

Movement for Cognitive & Emotional Fitness w/ Carl Paoli

Carl Paoli is a teacher and NYT best-selling author of Free+Style. We talk about pursuing a curiosity, 3 different forms of empathy, and stages of skill acquisition.

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Carl, welcome to the show.


Thank you for having me.


Yeah, it's been a couple of years since you've been on. And I remember back to our last conversation and it was one of the w it was one of the more thoughtful episodes that I got to do. And that left me asking, I think, more and better questions. I'm excited to kind of continue that conversation and just hear what you've been up to. Congratulations on being grandpa Carl. I saw I saw the photo on Instagram and you look very full of joy. So share with us anything that you're noticing that you can pass on to us.


Yeah. What an experience little did I know at the age of 38, I'm about to turn 39. I would be a grandfather that was unexpected, but I guess the biggest part is the fact that you can fall in love with someone like this little baby in a split second. And it's just a game over after that. So I'm, I'm, I'm overjoyed. I don't have a lot of words to express what it means. It's the culmination of a roller coaster of a ride when it comes to you know, first we became foster parents to tonight, and then we adopted her as a teenager, and now she's 22 and, and becoming a mother and it's all kind of coming full circle and, and my wife put it really well. She said, holding this baby is like getting a chance to hold tonight as a baby, which we didn't get to do. So it's, it's this full-circle moment that it's hard to express in words I'm just full of awe. Yeah.


And, and dude, I mean, I'm sure we all want to be like grandpa Carl in the sense that you can still do handstands your body is limber. Tell me what's changed with your, you know, movement practice over the years. Because I think even, you know, last time we chatted, we talked a little bit about your experience with Bboying a little bit. And just what you were exploring at that time. I remember reading freestyle connection, the book. So years later now looking back, like what's changed and evolved from that standpoint for you.


Yeah. I think the user has changed, meaning the current version of my expression has changed. And what that means is that the way that I am in a relationship with my training and my practice is different than it used to be. And if we just rewind seven years back, I was doing CrossFit. I was about to publish the book that you just mentioned and something that I saw the other day reminded me of this. But after each workout, I would have a panic attack. I just didn't know it was a panic attack. I felt short of breath in, in a way that wasn't short of breath from the workout per se, but kind of like a chest compression. I felt lightheaded. I felt panicked. Like I wanted to go somewhere. I didn't know where to go. And I realized that the way that I was training and practicing then was a product of my conditioning from the environment that I was in.


And the audience that I was speaking to, which was the audience of performing functional movements, that high intensity. And since I have gone through several iterations of frustration, but I was welcomed by my friend angel or Roscoe who owns Telegraph CrossFit here in San Francisco. And he welcomed me and my wife into taking classes. And he said, come in, no pressure, just move that's all. And that helped me start to see my movement practice within CrossFit from a different perspective. And then that led to the pandemic. And then in the pandemic, I started practicing handstands, enhanced stands now have become the core of everything that I do. All I focus on is just hand balancing, hand, balancing hand balancing specifically two arms, one arm, and some, you know, entries, basic entries and in and out of of the hand handstand and that's, that's, that's the practice. And it's a mechanism for continuing to develop my emotional and cognitive fitness.


I really, I want to bookmark the handstands and we'll dive deeper into that, but something I was curious about you to know, I know for me, like coming from kind of same CrossFit background, then kind of specializing in Olympic weightlifting a little bit. And, and remembering just the level that I would push my body and then still try to live a normal life. It, it, I definitely felt it right, especially with the things I found kind of important to me, like podcasting doing standup, my body needed to be, and my mind needed to be fresh and recovered. And, and that was weird, like an evolutionary period for me, where it felt like I, I kinda was tongue-tied to a certain identity. And I don't know if that's like a selfish way to look at it where I'm like thinking about it, but something was changing. And I felt, you know, like yeah, I'm just curious if you had any, any, any points over your, because you've had a very long career in, in fitness and wellness and movement and it's evolved. Did you ever feel stuck at any point as you were evolving or tied to like, Oh man, I'm breaking away from this identity?


All the time. Yeah. I was stuck all the time and I was stuck because I was trying to do what the world was telling me to do rather than doing what my heart was really telling me. And my heart was telling me to play, to have a good time. And everybody would tell me that it was the opposite. You have to be serious, you have to be committed. You have to be disciplined and everything has to be intense. If it's not intense, you're not going to produce results. The moment I let go of that, everything started to flow and that's kind of where I'm at right now. And it's funny that I say flow because I'm standing in a static position, but I feel like I'm flowing.


Yeah. Yeah. And cause, cause I do remember you know, you, you had a very heavy influence in the gymnastics world. And so now you, you know, you were mentioning the purpose of your relationship to movement practices for kind of the emotional and cognitive benefits. How do handstands kind of tie into that for you? And why did you choose that as the focal point may be right now?


Well, there are several reasons, but handstands are such a simple position, such a simple movement that it's a, it's, it's a no-brainer. You don't have to think. You just do. The other side is that handstands were something that I had in my back pocket from gymnastics I could do. And it just felt like I was accomplishing something. And, and, and that was important. And now what it is, it's, it's a representation of the balance of calibration, of coherence alignment, and playing with a very simple shape that not only is basic but also is inverted, meaning that I'm looking at it from a completely different perspective. And it's very metaphoric in that sense. But that's the shift that I needed physically in order to be able to see my, my thoughts and my emotions from a completely different perspective, literally upside down.


Yeah. Yeah. And how do, is this something that cause, cause you, you are teaching a workshop called interface, that's coming up soon and there's movement writing meditation. A lot of different things involved from a movement perspective are handstands in the mix. How are you making it kind of access to people who don't move like grandma, Carl?


Yeah. That's a great question. The movement practice within the interface workshop is by choice. You, you choose whatever you want to do. I don't tell you what to do. So let's say you choose a Hansen then great. You'll be doing handstands. If you choose to run your run if you choose to work on mobility, it's mobility, you choose your, your movement practice. That being said, we approach it as a skill and a scale, having a progression and a progression, knowing that it's not linear, we'll be able to elicit a couple of things. If you are willing to push to the edges and all I do through the interfaces, help people make the best adjustments to the way that they're practicing.


Yeah. And, you know I feel like from a movement perspective, obviously there’s a lot to learn, but even outside of that, I'm a heavy believer in that skills can be developed and that they can be refined. And if you care enough about it, you can figure out the nuts and bolts. Right. do you feel like being somebody who kind of grew up, in gymnastics and still exploring different variations of it to this day? Is there, did you, do you view things outside of movement as skills and, and do you, do you view like, cause I find it a helpful way, like the way you're talking progression, it's nonlinear, it's a great analogy for developing other things that you care about. Have you seen that transfer over and to just live for you?


Yeah. 100%. I don't even pay attention to my movement progression necessarily. All I'm looking at is how am I and how are other people developing other skills, like communication producing a podcast programming software writing a book singing anything that is an expression has a skillset. So I'm constantly looking, how are people approaching it? And those who are doing the best job in my opinion, are the ones who are able to curate their skill, experience, their skill development experience in a way that when they present it to the world, it seems accessible. It seems relatable. And it also reflects that which one needs to see in themselves in order to pursue learning, developing and other areas of their lives.


Yeah. And, I want to hear your opinion, like your definition of, you know, lifestyle design. Cause when I think of it for myself, it, it kind of you know, there are so many definitions out there, but for me, it feels like, okay, things that are of high value or high priority to me being able to protect the time energy money needed to give those things space. Right. So whether that's spending time with family podcasting doing, performing having that and being able to kind of make trade-offs to really prioritize, you know, that thing. And that's kind of, we talked about how movement fits into this like Olympic lifting at a really high level was not really aligned with my values of, you know like I was up on stage at 1:00 AM and I couldn't get up at 6:00 AM and train the best that I wanted to. And so I needed another practice that would help me and serve kind of the podcasting and standup and things I cared about. So it's kind of, I guess, a value system and you're for me trying to set up the day to day to have kind of, I guess, the highest impact in those things I care about, but I'm curious how, I mean, you've studied this and explored it and experienced it. What's your take on lifestyle design and, and how you a definition that may make us think about it in an interesting way.


Instead of giving you a definition, I guess I'll just break it down. Lifestyle design is life as the game style is the way and the design is how you practice, how you play the game. That's really good. I like that. So that's, that's, that's the way that I think about it, and this, whether you take life seriously or not allows you to notice that the style is unique to the individual. There is not one way there's as many ways as people here and every single person around approaching their life has numerous amount of options for pursuing that. And the work, the design itself has to start with the courage, the willingness, the ability to choose. Because when you design, you have to choose, yes, you may be looking for functionality. You may be looking for aesthetics. You may be looking for value depending on how you're prioritizing.


You have to choose. And the mindset of many is the one that if we choose, we lose. In other words, if we choose one thing we're saying no to these other things, if we say yes here, we're saying no there, but in reality, when you choose and you fully commit you to triple down, then eventually that one starts to fractionalize. So to speak, it starts to branch out into all other choices that you wanted to make originally. And it's being able to see that and trust that when you make the choice in your design of lifestyle and if somebody is listening right now, I'm wondering how do I do that? Well, you start with that, which you are curious about. Start with that. And then you'll notice that maybe when you pursue that, what you're curious about, there are some repercussions that come with it.


Maybe you pursued that, what you were curious about so much that you start neglecting your family, your family will say, Hey, where are you where you're like, well, I'm doing this thing that I'm curious about. Carl said that that's how you designed to think. And this is when now you're faced with how does curiosity balance that, which keeps me connected, engaged here. And then all of a sudden the practice of that, what you're curious of starts to mold into a new iteration, a new variation. And this is where a lot of people get scared and they think, Oh my goodness if I do less of that, which I love so much, which I think is important, I'm going to be regressing. I'm going to be lowering the speed of progression. But that is only a limited type, of thinking and belief system. That's a mindset of scarcity. And what you'll notice is that when you have gotten the wheels into motion and at the same time, you see, you can couple that with that, which is a value, like maybe your family, your friends where you contribute and where you really belong. This thing that you're curious about accelerates because they support it.


Yes. And it's the extra energy.


Yeah. And this is what it becomes this like quickly accelerating snowball effect over time.


You know, that feels like a tough pattern to, I guess, break out of. Because like, for me, let's, let's look back at like, let's say when I was training hard in Olympic lifting, there was this, like, we, we would train the Olympic lifts every day, like Bulgarian style, you know what I mean? And you push through the pain and you enter the dark zone.


Yeah. The dark ages. Yeah. Right.


If you think about it in, stand-up comedy, right. In our world, there is that similar mindset of like, Hey, how many, how many sets are you doing per night, per week? And you're out every single night, the grind is really appreciated. And what I noticed this past year was when everybody, all the stage time evaporated for a little bit, and everyone had to kind of step back people who had been performing every single night, seven days a week, myself being in that like four to six nights per week and, and feeling how it takes away from some other things, how you sacrifice certain, you know, dinners and events or whatever it might be getting to have that back in my life. I think you're right. When I went back out to perform, I was like, Oh my God, I'm gonna bomb tonight.


Like, I haven't been up in months. This is going to be really crazy. But what it was was like, if I had good energy that affected how my set would go, right. Or how a training session would go. And so if you are putting in the grind, but you're miserable because of all these other things you're maybe deficient in, right. Vitamin love or whatever it might be. It, it doesn't you know, people can feel that I think, and it affects you and, and people around you too. So how do you balance that? I guess like the grind and the discipline and the hustle part of it, and then the, you know, explore, be curious what you were saying, being curious, but being engaged here and now.


Yeah. I think the answer is you don't balance it. You allow for it, the lifestyle to balance you. And this is where let's say as a comedian, you're on set every night and you're just trying to get as many reps in as possible over time, you're going to burn out so that the game of balance is noticing, wait a second, what is it that I need that is making me feel this way? And how can I get that need met? And that's when saying, okay, what is the dose going to be as the dose taking one night off? Is the dose doing instead of three sets that night, just doing one what is it that I'm looking for? Is it maybe my body just needs more recovery or I need to be a little bit more in shape. Maybe I need to start training. And, and this being that the act of balancing, it's noticing its awareness first.


Yeah. I really, I love that. There is, there's this one post I saw where you were talking about empathy and I think different types of empathy. And my girlfriend bought this book called the compassionate achiever, and she has liked the print version and she wanted to get it on like audible too. And when we want to get books that are like in two different versions, it's like, okay, this must be good. Right. Something in here is worth it. So I was flipping through her highlights. And one of the ones that I saw was there was this study that was done talking about the difference between, I guess, being compassionate and having empathy and how having empathy at times can POS you know, lead to burnout because exercising, is channeling brain pathways of possibly pain versus compassion is channeling the pathways of love. And it also, I guess the difference was the definition with com being compassionate is being ready to act to, to help the other person versus maybe just feeling it. I don't know, I don't know the exact definition or, or the understanding of that, but I want to hear your version of it and your understanding of empathy and compassion, how they co-relate, how are they different?


Yeah, for sure. So, my take on it is pretty simple. If we take the definition of empathy, which is the ability and understanding to be able to share other people's feelings first and foremost, empathy, if it's an ability, it's a skill. If it's a scale, there's a progression, I can practice it. And what is it that I'm practicing? I'm sharing other people's feelings. Okay. What are feelings? Feelings are the mental models that we create of the human experience. And there are different variations of that. And emotion on the other hand is the embodiment of that feeling. So it's, it's what I'm experiencing through a feeling. That's what an emotion is. Empathy is the ability to share and understand other people's feelings. So it's more cognitive. Okay. But within empathy, there are a couple of different types of empathies. And these are three of, of the, of the main ones.


The number one type of empathy is cognitive empathy. This is also known as sympathy. Sympathy is being able to intellectually understand what somebody else is feeling. The problem with cognitive empathy is that there's no connection. There's more dismissal. Somebody who talks about cognitive empathy or sympathy in a very interesting way as Bernay Brown, when she talks about vulnerability and specifically when she talks about it in relation to somebody else, she says, sympathy sounds like a sentence that starts with at least, let's say, you told me, Hey my girl and I were breaking up and I, instead of me saying, Oh, I hear you. That must suck. Or tell me more or be curious, I would say, well, at least you're healthy.


I'm completely dismissing that. And I'm saying, I hear that. And I can, I can see the feeling, but I, at least this is good in your life. What's takes away from that, which is causing you pain, right? Then you have emotional empathy, emotional empathy is being able to embody somebody else's feelings. This is something that happens when you are watching a good movie. If you're watching a good movie and it's scary, you embody fear. If you're watching a good movie and somebody is crying and you start to cry, you're embodying that. So you're exercising empathy, but at an emotional level, the problem here is that emotional empathy means that you are in the same state as they are. And thus, you can't serve as a contrast in order for them to see the balance that exists or that the clarity that you can create from that emotion.


Right? And then finally you have compassionate empathy, which is I'm going to feel what you're feeling cognitive. I am going to recognize physically what you're experiencing, but I'm not going to succumb to that. I'm not going to allow myself to go on the roller coaster. I'm going to create separation. And the separation is, I am here. You are there. And I don't know if you've ever experienced this, watching a movie with someone where all of a sudden you have this urge to cry and you hold back the tears, the moment you hold back, the tears, sometimes it's expressed in your throat like, Oh my God, I have so much tension here. Or if you've done it in a, in a very like Zen fashion, maybe even haven't been able to put that, that feeling outside of your body, and then extract that physical emotion outside of you.


And all of a sudden you can hold space for the sadness or the fear or whatever it may be without having a reaction. This is now becoming responsive. So compassion is being able to be responsive in your exercise of empathy and, and this being the foundation of it. And what's cool about empathy is that empathy is what allows us to connect with others, but also with ourselves. And when we can connect, not only with others but also with ourselves, we are regulating ourselves. We are regulating others and it's affecting us, can affect our mood and the mood being the lens through which we see the world. And the more compassionate we are, the clearer we see and the more accurate our moods are. And this is because that's what our brain is designed to do. And the reason this is important is that when we are in an emotional state, we can make really poor decisions. But if we have a strong emotional fitness, then our emotions are actually guiding us in the right direction and making us make the right choices at a practical level too.


Not really, I think clarifies what I was saying with that. Like, how am I empathy to some degree if exercised in one of those levels could lead to burnout or, or just an overwhelming sense? But if you practice the last one that reminds me of something, my therapist said that was like is this my bathwater? Or is this that person's bathwater? Because it's like, if you imagine the feeling of I'm getting in this person's tub in their dirty bathwater, it just, it gives you a feeling that's like, okay, I get it right. Like, I can still be there. I can see what's happening. But if there's a separation that you're kind of talking about.


Yeah, yeah. What you, what you were kind of address, there was a, what's known as compassion, fatigue. It's when you're constantly putting out and working and working and working on exercising compassion. Imagine you had to hold back tears your whole life. You're going to get fatigued. So sometimes you have to embody the emotion to clean yourself up.


Yes. And I guess it's like you know, emotions are like waves, so they have an end to it. And I guess if you give it space, it will go through the wave that it kind of needs to in a more natural way than if you were to suppress it in some way.


Yeah. Which it sucks to hear when you're feeling crappy. Somebody said, well, this too shall pass. And you're like, I don't care right now. I feel super crappy. Just leave me alone, you know? Right. Don't try to fix me.


And what's your, how about language? Do you have language that you, in these types of situations you found to work?


Well, and yeah, they, cliche one is, is I hear you. And, and just silence and it's, it's called holding space. I am definitely not the therapist or an expert that, in that realm, but energetically, I can sense it. And what has worked best for me has always just been there and said care for you. I'm just a message away. Or you talk, I'm not going to fix go. Yeah. And just until there's a question my way, I don't say anything, just let it all out. Yeah.


I love that. I wanted to, you mentioned mental models briefly, and I wanted to hear like how you view mental models and, and how that fits and if there's any connection to, you know, the workshop with the interface. And, and how that cause to me, I guess how I discovered that term was maybe like the book peak with Eric Anderson and, you know, it took a long time to like really understand it and mentally I think, and, and see how the game would fit in and what my mental model really was. But something about it made sense to me instantly, which was like, if you can recognize what the game is and see how the components are like are built, you'll have more fun going through it. Cause you're like, Ooh, okay. I'm, I'm, I'm winning, I'm hitting this item. That's contributing. And, and it connects to my model in a certain way. So I guess it's a way to organize your brain to some degree. How would you yeah. How would you describe it?


Yeah, I think your description was perfect. So a mental model is simply a model of a reality that lives in your brain that allows you to make sense of what you're experiencing. That being said, a mental model is a concept, a concept, something that has been conceived, the question is who conceived it. Yeah. Right. Maybe it's something that has been nurtured that you've studied. And all of a sudden you have a made sense of, or it's something that you have created yourself, or it's a combination of both of those, as long as you know, that you also know that you can change them, that mental models are supposed to be a plastic flexible, adaptive.


Yeah. I like that. And, and it gives you for somebody who likes structure, it, it really gives you enough structure. And then also in freedom, I think, to explore within those mental models.


Yeah. It's simply a framework and here's, the beauty is a framework is like a method. A method is like a technique. A technique is something that you would practice. For example, when it's, a movement practice, I practice a handstand and there's a certain technique that being said, I'm constantly challenging that technique in order to help myself adapt to it. In other words, I am molding to the technique and in the process of molding to the technique, to the vessel, so to speak I am learning about myself and not only learning, but I'm also having to bend change, adapt my models, my belief systems. Yeah. That’s really powerful. And that act of trying to interface with the technique, the method, the concept that is the practice that I'm constantly helping people move through. And I do this through, as you said earlier, through writing a meditation, a little bit of breath, work movement and creativity, and these all being methods techniques for assisting you in noticing, first of all, what your concepts are, what your mental models are, what your belief systems are, and then helping you adapt them in a way that reveals what is true and who you are at a, an essential level, so to speak.


Yeah. And, and tell me like what some details on what the workshop now looks like. So it's four weeks long. You, you mentioned a couple of the components that will go into it. Who do you think this would be a really good fit for? And, and, and, you know, that person would get a lot out of this.


Yeah. It's a, it's a good fit for anybody, but it's, it's mostly a good fit for somebody who is in transition right now. So if you, if you're in between jobs, are you thinking about, you know, getting a new job or you are, you're tired with this practice and you want to get into this other one, this is just a great way of catalyzing, a little bit of clarity to help you make that choice. And, and the four stages that we go through our first expression, second experimentation, third integration. And then the fourth is transcendence. This means that first, it's just, you're just going to do. And then you're going to deliberately do, that's your experimentation, you're experimenting. And then you're going to learn some things that, what you're learning, you're going to integrate. You're going to make it part of your habits, the way that you do things.


And then once they are integrated, you're going to say, see you later. I am going beyond that. And the beauty is that when you have integrated a lesson or an understanding, you can move on without the worry of those lessons disappearing, they become permanent. Now you can go back in time, you can go back in your practice and change what you've integrated. That's, that's actually part of the transcendence too. And how does it happen when you start, you start again and you go expression, experimentation, integration, transcendence, and you just continue to go through those stages, which when I speak about them, they look linear, but they're all happening at once. I'm simply rationalizing and intellectualizing practice, which is truthfully kind of. But, but our P brains are our little rational minds. They need that to make sense of that, which is so subtle, that's happening behind the scenes.


Totally. Okay. Where can people get more details? Where can they kind of follow along, with what you're up to?


Yeah, the best way to do that is to simply follow me right now on social media. So Carl Paoli on any social media outlet that's what your fi you'll find more information about the interface eventually it will live on my website, but for now I'm kind of doing it underground style.


Yeah. And what's the, what's the date or the deadline.


Right now? The last day to sign up would be March 1st. And it starts on March 2nd at 11:00 AM Pacific standard time. And it goes for four weeks.