Man at His Best

(A Cheaper) Total Transformation

Andre Frois went out on a journey in improving his mind, body and soul. But on a budget.

BY Andre Frois | Feb 18, 2016 | Fitness & Health

Image from MandoBarista / Flickr

I’m not a boastful person, but I resent it when others mistake my modesty for weakness. I’ve proven myself stronger and more agile than most men, as well as a verified virtuoso in every sport that I’ve ever taken part in, well, except volleyball.

However, I must admit that I achieved those accolades in the ’00s. Nowadays, my closest friends are tubby gents who insist on an unremorseful supper after we finish copious towers of beer, even if it is a weeknight. A formidable layer of food reserves now protects me against starvation and physical trauma. My former self would surely have a hearty schadenfreude laugh, if he were to find out that my present-day self often raises the white flag midway during a mile-long run or a burst of 50 pushups.

Probably feeling both sympathy and embarrassment for my current state of disrepair, my caring friends at Esquire emptied their loose change jar to help me improve myself not only physically, but also mentally and spiritually. With thick enough skin to document my odyssey in the name of entertaining both my readers and coworkers, I set out to burn off this thick skin, with the goal of inspiring my fellow complacent men, who live in similar houses with no mirrors, to realise their fullest potentials, and spit in the faces of spouses’ and girlfriends’ false reassurances of “no honey, you still look great.”

Transforming The Mind
Patience is not my strongest suit. Among several virtues that I have yet to hone, my inability to keep a cool head is the primary reason why I no longer buy Ikea furniture—furniture that has always led me to swearing profusely at half-assembled pieces of wood. Besides verbally abusing inanimate objects, I also tend to wolf down my food. The latter habit eventually led me to admitting to my lack of patience, when a vengeful fish lodged a large bone in the back of my throat. “I need to find some Zen in my life,” I croaked to myself in an unintentional Bane (from The Dark Knight Rises) voice, after reaching down my oesophagus to extract the last salvo of Pisces Iscariot.

Learning calligraphy with Protégé.sg was an odyssey of no regrets, during which my Zen master Leon Lee taught me how to find inner calm while working slowly towards a long-term reward. Leon’s patience for detail never ceases to amaze. No doubt, he, like any other visual artist, has had to scrap and repurchase expensive pieces of paper more than once, because of a single spelling mistake or solitary crooked line.

“I treat calligraphy as a form of concentration and meditation, a spiritual thing,” the former national swimmer said to me as he observed my calligraphy pen vibrate like a Squiggle Wiggle Writer. “You have to focus on getting each stroke right first, one stroke at a time. Think of calligraphy as a process rather than thinking about end goals.”

“Calligraphy is about slowing down and writing with a rhythm, not scribbling,” advised another calligraphy instructor Joyce Lee. “Slowing down has helped me to appreciate the art of writing even more. I always tell my students that it’s a little like yoga or Pilates. Each stroke is slow but deliberate, and there’s a focus on not holding your breath. These things put together create a very calming effect on a person, even if it’s just a short session of practising a single alphabet.”

"Calligraphy is about slowing down and writing with a rhythm, not scribbling."

And as I drew my nib across the paper, my focus took me to a serene bastion, where worries were a distant memory. Mistakes were common, but with each one committed, the next one became less loathsome and less likely. One of the most valuable lessons that calligraphy and my teacher Leon taught me was not to force something if it wasn’t coming out. “If you are frustrated with what you’re working on, step back and take a break.”

The biggest critic of his own work, he strikes me as a purist who inwardly laughs at mildly misaligned tattoos and street art. “I accept that I can’t be perfect, and I’ve learned to appreciate minute details more.”

My practice has made me a decent journeyman at calligraphy. My written art might be impressive to the untrained eye, but because of the sharper attentiveness to detail that the art has endowed my eye with, I hardly agree with the compliments that I receive.

Transforming The Body
A principal idea of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a physically weaker man using technique to overcome a stronger man. One of the least strength-based martial arts in the world, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a skill that would change my person.

My introductory class in a submission grappling school involved a man smaller than me manipulating his body in a New York minute to make me tap out. My first tap out was an acutely humbling experience, which spiralled me into an instant torrent of internal conflict. Tapping out, which is not to be confused with one’s final act when taking public transport, is a gesture to admit to both opponent and umpire, that your life and health have completely fallen into your opponent’s hands, and you wish to end the spar before your wellbeing is wrested from you.

“What first drew me to attempting the text was the notion of ‘art’ in ‘martial art’, which implies and suggests both an aesthetic alongside a transformative aspect,” divulged Dr Jeremy Fernando, local lecturer and author of On Invisibility; or, Towards a Minor Jiu-Jitsu, of his motivations to write a book disserting the philosophical aspects of submission grappling. “Whether ‘aesthetics’ are about experiences, phenomena or constitute a notion of ‘beauty’, ‘the beautiful’ then becomes quite an important question. For instance, [Brazilian jiu-jitsu pioneer] Rickson Gracie would argue that jiu-jitsu done well is not just efficient, but also rather elegant. Much like a mathematical ‘proof’, as it were. After all, in a grappling contest, but also in a fight, you need to respond to and with the other, prevent them from harming you as best you can, and not beat them, but lead them into choosing the manner in which they lose.”

If I had to finger out one concept among the many drilled, my weeks of training were centred on attention to detail. Over some weekends, my fellow martial artists and I had the chance to watch local MMA fights, where I was often a very frustrated spectator. “Why didn’t he do this/do that?” I would rage at how various fighters’ lapses in basic technique led to easy wins slipping through their fingers. The execution and the nuances of any decision, I learned through both observation and practice, can greatly change its effects and consequences.

Besides moving more astutely, I felt myself slowly switching to the aggressor in daily life situations too. In conversation, Fernando made sense of the new senses like spatial awareness and the physical relationality of bodies that I was developing through jiu-jitsu. The grace and the silent politicking that I was picking up were certainly translatable to daily living. He also assured me that, over the course of years of grappling, I would learn the valuable difference “between being uncomfortable and being in danger”. He elucidated, “While it is never pleasant to have someone, especially someone much heavier, mounted on oneself, one is merely feeling discomfort and not necessarily in any imminent danger; having your arm extended, or having someone squeezing a rear naked choke, is when you are in peril.”

I felt myself slowly switching to the aggressor in daily life situations too. In conversation, Fernando made sense of the new senses like spatial awareness and the physical relationality of bodies that I was developing through jiu-jitsu.

“Brazilian jiu-jitsu taught me that, in all difficult situations, I will be able to come out as a winner as long as I envision and focus on the outcome,” shared my fellow practitioner Alex Lew, who at age 20 is a tenured martial artist, holding medals in Sambo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu from competitions around the world.

Focus and composure are assets that cannot be overrated. Nowadays, I don’t always make the best decision possible, but I have come to realise that only by calming the storm within can one do so as quickly as possible.

Transforming The Body, Again
I’m like you. I don’t have any fast food delivery services on speed dial, but neither do I vilify the occasional oily or carb-heavy treat. I am moderately muscular and exercise whenever I’m not on the clock or under the table.

I enjoyed good health and sporting ability up till my cousin pronounced a prophetic curse on me. “After you turn 30, it all goes downhill from there, bro.” His mother should have sewn those insidious lips shut at birth. “The belly will just keep getting bigger and bigger each year.”

His powerful hex made my body store fat in many areas. I dedicated more nights a week to running, but was powerless against this sorcery. When I got to know about Ultimate Performance Singapore, I eagerly signed up because I knew my body urgently needed a turnaround.

The Ultimate Performance Singapore programme is not for the faint of heart. I found myself pushing weighted prowlers and pulling sleds around the gym daily, and lifting weights in positions that I’d never tried before. “Put your mind to it, and your body will adapt and follow,” my trainer Firdaus often reiterated.

Group classes start around SGD45, while the gym’s individually customised programmes are a slightly costlier godsend. These hour-long workouts, which were tailored to my health issues and fitness goals, left me brain-dead and incapable of anything beyond basic tasks for hours after my sessions. My prescribed diet was the worst of all: no alcohol, no carbohydrates and no dairy.

I can confidently say that I haven’t experienced anything in life more agonising than getting used to such a diet. My vision blurred, my creativity packed up and left me, along with my sex drive. I no longer made my entrance by sliding across bar tops while double-fisting beers, but instead became the stick in the mud whose laugh sounded hardly genuine.

I can confidently say that I haven’t experienced anything in life more agonising than getting used to such a diet. My vision blurred, my creativity packed up and left me, along with my sex drive.

However, my body got used to burning fat instead of carbohydrates after two weeks, and I became accustomed to the steady energy level that burning fat provided, as opposed to the spiky energy levels of carbohydrate addiction.

My friends were ribbing me, complimenting me that my body “looked sick”, while my family too were commenting that my body “looked sick”, inferring their concerns that my rapid fat loss would claim my life. I had developed premonitions of my gym trainers smashing through the wall like Family Guy’s Kool-Aid Man, if I attempted to cheat on my diet. I have visions of them, each best described without exaggeration as a wall of muscle, appearing when I think it’s safe to dig into a carbohydrate meal, and smacking both my sandwich and teeth off my face, with one effortless backhand.

I used to crave naps and needed carb-rich snacks to pick me up, and didn’t realise that these were symptoms of my addiction to carbohydrates all this time, until my diet revealed this to me. My strict programme taught me that frequent workouts increased my body’s recovery rate, which helped heal injuries and aches in a jiffy.

It also revealed to me the harm that I had inflicted upon myself by skipping warm-ups, slouching at the office desk for extended periods, trying to save time by doing short “Insanity” and “P90X” workouts, not planning my sets and reps, and forsaking the form and the pace of my exercises. Besides these lessons, my workout also showed me that fitness articles are absolutely right about running: resistance training > running. One of the best lessons that I learned during this stint was not directly from the UP fitness programme, but from a friend who identified that my pivotal faux pas was rewarding myself with food.

My decisive stumbling block had been liquor. Body fat analyses concluded that I had been retaining fat to envelop the toxins produced from the breakdown of alcohol. Not only do the calories in alcoholic drinks go straight to problematic fat pockets, alcohol also occupies the liver and inhibits it from continually metabolising calories.

At the end of six weeks, I had dropped from 37 percent to 22 percent body fat, and I had never shined with this amount of lean muscle mass before in my life. Through my trainer, who kept me accountable for my choices and results, I came to realise the importance of having advisors, motivators and experts in all aspects of my life.

I was faced with the heavy decision of whether to shrug my diet or keep my glorious new physique, or return to my hedonistic ways. Everyone is faced with this dilemma at some point in their lives—many people unfortunately make up their minds before realising that they already have.

My friends were happy for me, they shared with me in an ad-hoc focus group, despite my acute decrease in spontaneity. I’d been chasing tight abs my whole life, and they were proud of me that I’d fought tooth and nail to finally reach my destination. One of them even caught her granddad googling “get ripped at any age” after meeting me post-transformation.

However, I have no regrets because my newfound strengths benefit those around me more than myself. And on a non-altruistic note, I get much more totty now. What had started as abs vs. alcohol ended with both sides winning—I am now a light drinker with a defined physique.

Transforming The Soul
I was a diehard campaigner for human rights throughout my teens and early twenties. While I spent my free time helping in homes for children and the aged, I also made the time to raise awareness for Tibet and North Korea. This was up till reality hit me.

After I left school, the working world hit me over the head and took my money. My love and empathy for humans faded and I gradually gave up all the social work that I was involved in.

Returning to volunteerism, with TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too), proved to be an unforgettable experience. While it was heart-warming to see so many companies and individuals donate daily items like soap, deodorant, shavers, clothes and food to our short-changed workers, this, however, simultaneously exposed how basal the welfare provided for our visiting labourers is.

While it was heart-warming to see so many companies and individuals donate daily items like soap, deodorant, shavers, clothes and food to our short-changed workers, this, however, simultaneously exposed how basal the welfare provided for our visiting labourers is.

Throngs of workers wait along Rowell Road every evening to speak with volunteer administrators, revealing the depths to which some employers can sink. One Bangladeshi shared how he was locked up in his employer’s factory for months, so that he wouldn’t file injury claims, while a group of eight, nicknamed “The Spidermen”, climbed down a high-rise building after being held against their will.

While activist groups lobby for change in favour of marginalised foreigners, employers too continually evolve their tactics to circumvent the system, often by imprisoning a migrant employee or packing him hurriedly off to the airport, rather than let our justice system resolve an injury case or employment issue.

The bad guys also include unscrupulous lawyers who represent migrant workers in exchange for a share of the settlement fee, which is strictly against legal ethics. Fortunately, the good guys include not just experienced lawyers providing free legal aid, but also volunteers labouring to expedite Ministry of Manpower cases, especially since most of these workers do not collect a salary while unable to work or are temporarily barred from doing so. Volunteer advocates are also abound in organisations like HOME (Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics), a society and charity that champions the rights of migrant workers and human trafficking victims, and ACMI (Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People), a Roman Catholic organisation that fends for the dignity of foreign workers through legal case work, enrichment courses and the distribution of provisions. Not legally trained, I was happy to help hand out supplies to our beneficiaries each evening, who were surprisingly conversational in English and exceedingly grateful.

“Policies need to keep the poorest person in the community in mind,” ACMI Chairman Mark Goh memorably remarked. Volunteering with these non-profit organisations was an inviting gateway for me to return to community work, though my exposure to the rougher face of Singapore elicited from me both hope and disappointment in my fellow man.

Beyond developing patience for painstaking goals, I’ve learned to relish the journey, and to regularly reassess what hope and charity mean to me. I’ve learned how to stay classy under pressure, and not to turn a blind eye to the dignity of others, regardless of which direction the rest of our capitalist world turns.

A prominent psychologist once told me that people, especially Singaporeans, prefer to pay for temporary and toxic relief, rather than enact permanent remedies for their ails. This rings true to me now more than ever. Address your shortcomings and better days will be coming your way.

First published in Esquire Singapore's February 2016 issue.