Passions and Obsessions

Paul’s yoga + calisthenics: ‘To be healthy and feel five to 10 years younger than my age’

'Trial by Fire' combines the two disciplines in a program that is about both movement and healing

Paul in his element – doing the handstands anywhere, anytime. (Photo by

A strong, cool breeze wafted through the open windows and door of a roof deck studio on Timog Avenue in Quezon City one November afternoon. Paul Vincent de los Reyes sat on his black yoga pad, facing his students at the center of Yoga Pod.

“Sit down with your legs stretched out in front. Keep your back straight and arms on the side,” Paul intoned in his smooth, deep voice.

It sounded easy, but not when you’re following the proper form of not slouching or hunching your shoulders. My shoulder blades and middle back started to feel the burn. My heart pounded when he had us clasp our toes, then our ankles, while maintaining a straight back. My heart raced when we got to the leg lifts and L-sit.

“Inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth,” he told us, walking around the room.

Breathing lowers the heart rate, he’d explained earlier on, adding that it’s a technique snipers employ to keep calm before pulling the trigger. For ordinary folks, it helps with concentration and control over body movements.

I picked up yoga in Singapore more than a decade ago when I attended a class with friends. They eventually dropped out, but I completed the introductory course, and later, joined other classes. My home practice began after encountering teachers contemptuous of students like myself who weren’t their idea of graceful.

Doing one of the core drills at Trial by Fire 3

Now living in Manila, I thought my self-practice needed an upgrade. So I ventured out of my cave for Paul’s “Trial by Fire” (TBF), the third in the series, held this time in collaboration with Yoga Pod, Coach N Muffins, Mōov, and Own the Day.

TBF 1 and 2 were held online. TBF 3 was his first—and biggest—face-to-face session in introducing “w8tless,” a fitness regimen he developed four years ago.

“TBF seeks to bring out the spirit, courage, essence, and heart within us,” Paul said. “The program isn’t simply about movement; it’ll be healing. Its logo, the Phoenix, symbolizes rebirth.”

‘TBF seeks to bring out the spirit, courage, essence, and heart within us’

The tables have been turned, and Paul is the teacher now. His aura, strength, and flexibility are resplendent testaments to his dedication to healthy living.

I knew him years ago as this shy, scrawny student who, I was certain, wanted to be anywhere else but my English class in high school. Then we lost touch, with only social media keeping me abreast of his photography business and eventual foray into fitness.

But here he was again, engaged in something new.

Paul was neck-deep in photo shoots before he plunged into w8tless. His running around and lugging his equipment for two decades gave him a bad back and problematic knees on top of other health issues. To get back on his feet, he overhauled his diet—”I was big then”—and worked out at home. He lifted weights, but wasn’t keen on bulking up, so he gave it up after for two months. He discovered calisthenics, liked it, and “followed influencers and teachers who were good”—until he hit a roadblock.

“The young ones couldn’t relate to my age and body issues. For example, elasticity is affected by your age and your level of fitness. I was just starting, but they kept pushing me. I got injured a lot so I stopped,” he said.

When Paul hit 42, his fitness goals became clearer: “to be healthy and feel five to 10 years younger than my age.” He turned to yoga, loving its flexibility and mobility, but, unlike others, he wasn’t quite sold on the discipline. Pondering what program could benefit him and people who aren’t professional athletes, he combined yoga and calisthenics into a wellness program he called w8tless.

W8tless focuses on developing, or regaining, balance, flexibility, mobility, and strength. Its approach of connecting a single movement to another enables individuals to ably move their bodies to complete simple tasks or Herculean feats like press handstands in a shorter timeframe. (Paul did his first press handstand in three years, unlike others who managed it in 15 years.)

The similarities between w8tless and yoga are clear, and Paul admits to modifying “certain movements because it’s crucial to open muscles.” Its low-impact drills safeguard the joints against injury because “your progress level will go down if you’re injured.” Tellingly, Paul is now off his blood pressure maintenance medication and hardly suffers from vertigo since deep-diving into yoga-calisthenics.

The similarities between w8tless and yoga are clear, and Paul admits to modifying ‘certain movements because it’s crucial to open muscles’

W8tless follows two of the three core elements of Hindu sage Patañjali’s practice, namely physical postures and breathing exercises. He codified the ancient, meditative traditions or techniques practiced throughout India between the first and fifth century CE in 196 manuals called the Yoga Sutras, said Krishna Sudhir in “Is yoga good for you?” by TedED Daily. The physical elements of gymnastics and wrestling were incorporated later.

Yoga combats the body’s tendency to constrict muscles, and thus improves flexibility and pain tolerance through stretching. In twisting the body in the postures, multiple muscle groups are stretched, making the muscles, ligaments, and tendons more elastic because of the change in their water content. The enhanced muscle elasticity is a corollary effect of the stimulated stem cells generating elastic collagen-producing cells.

The other positive effect is a better functioning heart and lungs because yoga’s breathing exercises relax the muscles of the passageway that carries oxygen and improves oxygen diffusion. People suffering from emphysema, asthma, and chronic bronchitis have constricted passageways, which “weaken the membrane that brings oxygen in the blood” (Sudhir).

Paul finds time anywhere to do calisthenic exercises like the planche. (Photo by

Calisthenic exercises, which form the bedrock of w8tless, use a person’s bodyweight, and sometimes, tools like rings and wands. Paul uses yoga blocks for the Russian twist and L-sit for beginners. The exercises—jumping jacks, trunk twists (Russian twist is a variation), planks, and lunges—develop strength, endurance, flexibility, and coordination in both men and women.

Its Spartan association can’t be denied because historically, the Greek Spartan warriors used calisthenics—known as kilos sthenos (“beautiful strength”)—to prepare for battle. Their Roman counterparts, the gladiators, and even the kung fu-adept Shaolin monks, also incorporated calisthenics in their training. But its ancestry goes back to India in 1,700 BCE, when ancient yoga (versus modern yoga) was taught to and practiced only by the warrior class. It gained traction in the 19th century when gymnastics became fashionable.

Fast forward: The popularity of calisthenics dipped when physical education teachers made students do monotonous planks and burpees, said Sam Rider in But come 2008, Hannibal Langham rescued it from oblivion with a YouTube clip of him doing “crazy pull-ups, inverted dip holds, and muscle-ups in monster sets, shirtless and rippling in Herculean muscles.”

In 2016, calisthenics, said Rider, became the no. 1 exercise trend in the United States, according to an annual survey of 3, 000 fitness professionals by the American College of Sport Medicine.

In 2016, calisthenics became the no. 1 exercise trend in the United States

Understandably, newbies are daunted about trying it, but David Jackson, in his interview with Rider, sees a good opportunity “in returning to a more natural way of getting fit and recapturing your physical potential.” Jackson is the owner of the School of Calisthenics in Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

Pre-pandemic, I lifted weights at the gym, but I suffered frequently from physical injuries. My old personal trainer was focused more on upping the weight. Now, I do yoga and work out with kettle bells daily and walk around the University of the Philippines Oval weekly, yet something is still amiss in my wellness journey. I hit the reset button with TBF to relearn proper form and breathing, and the movements.

Paul underlined the importance of core strength, which is not about whittling the waistline. “Core strength is the foundation of physical movement. It’s needed—together with mobility and flexibility—for daily movement,” he explained.

The plank is a common way to develop core strength, but it’s usually done incorrectly, with people normally performing it with raised butts. “Form is crucial,” Paul emphasized, getting down on the floor to demonstrate. With his head in neutral position, he propped himself on his elbows. Bringing his legs together, he balanced on his insteps—not the balls of the feet—while lifting his legs and lowering his butt. He tucked in his core, engaged his back and shoulders, and breathed effortlessly. All this he did in one smooth movement.

Next, he emphasized the need to strike a balance between flexibility and strength. High flexibility means lower strength and vice versa—fitness wisdom that confirmed my suspicion about my lost flexibility because of weight lifting, and that another student of Paul’s has yet to accept.

“She loves lifting weights,” he said. “I told her that our focus should be improving her flexibility since her strength is already good. She keeps contradicting me, and so her progress is very minimal.”

Paul’s frustration led to two lessons: listening and being coachable. There is no learning and progress when teachers don’t listen, but students locking horns with their teachers isn’t the way, either. The crux of the matter: Listening and being coachable are not negotiable.

Next, he talked about wrist strength, which is important in holding the drill positions. I thought my wrists were fine until I discovered that I couldn’t press my palms up, straighten my elbows, and rock to and fro while on all fours.

Paul hit a sweet spot when he zeroed in on handstands not necessarily being the endgame of w8tless. It is undoubtedly one of the jaw-dropping benefits of doing yoga and calisthenics consistently, but, he insisted, being healthy and able to move unaided is the bottom line.

The two hours of TBF 3 were ending. Before winding up, Paul assigned us leg lifts and plank at home. “They won’t exhaust you because you have your day ahead. Good job, everyone! Thank you for coming,” he said.

Special treat of banana muffins by Coach N Muffins at the end of Trial by Fire 3 (Photo by @coachn_veganmuffins)

The session wrapped up on a delicious note. Boxes of dairy- and egg-free banana muffins by Coach N Muffins were waiting outside the studio. There were no guilty feelings or the need for strong persuasion in taking the150-calorie muffins.

I unrolled my mat a day after at home. With Paul’s online/on-site one-on-one sessions lasting between 60 and 90 minutes, a quarter of an hour was short. I should be able to unlock my L-sit—fingers crossed—in a couple of weeks.

For updates on TBF sessions and wellness tips, see For info on the muffins, visit @coachn_veganmuffins.

About author


She has clocked years of overseas work and living. On the second year of the pandemic she returned and settled back in the Philippines after 20 years.

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