My friend Josey wrote a very interesting and thoughtful post called Why I Don't Leave It On the Field, which is about two theoretically conflicting trends in exercise: grueling, workout-til-you-drop regimes vs. additive movement, i.e. exercise that will "positively benefit you and support your other activities rather than eclipsing them."
CrossFit was mentioned in her post as one of the hallmarks of the first trend, along with Tough Mudder/Spartan races. I don't disagree with all of what she says, especially the part about the role that fitness plays in modern culture being akin to that of spirituality (it's interesting -- go read it!), however, I do disagree on one thing wholeheartedly: these two trends are not diametrically opposed. It is entirely possible and, in fact, encouraged, to find balance in one's intense exercise practice, no matter what that is.
One of the original stated goals of CrossFit was to help train people to be better at the activities they already engage in. The reason I started attending CrossFit classes myself was to cross-train for Roller Derby. It worked. My hits were stronger, it was a lot harder to knock me down, and my endurance, strength, and mobility on skates all improved. CrossFit was entirely additive in this respect.
I don't skate competitively anymore; however, I still find that CrossFit supports and engages me on many levels. For example, this year I decided to make having good form my goal. Instead of speeding up to get in as many reps as possible (often at the expense of form), I find myself slowing down to make sure I complete a movement with the best form I can muster. I made a list of the basic CrossFit movements in my WOD book, and I've been checking them off with a coach.
Here are the ones I've checked off, in case you're curious: Deadlift, Front Squat, Back Squat, Overhead Squat, Shoulder Press, Bench Press, Push Press, Push Jerk, Split Jerk, Power Clean, Squat Clean, Power Snatch, Squat Snatch, Clean & Jerk, Thrusters, Turkish Get-Ups, Push-Up, Dip, Box Jump, Broad Jump, Sit-Up, Air Squat, Kettlebell Swing, Burpee & Rowing
I still have handstands, rope climbs, pull-ups, chin-ups, double-unders, L-sits, Pistols, and running to go.
Checking off these goals gives me a feeling of profound accomplishment. I know that when they appear in a WOD, I know how to do them correctly, so that I won't get hurt or re-injure something. I also won't waste movement or develop bad habits. I'm not doing them for weight when I check them off for form, so there's also no comparison to other people, and that feels good. It's just about me and my own capabilities.
Working on form makes you a lot more mindful. I'm all in when I'm working. I'm totally aware of what my body is doing and how its parts work together.
It also makes me think about the big picture. When I do a WOD, I'm focused a lot more on whether I'm doing the best I can for me, and I worry less about what everyone else is doing. I've never experienced the "workout til you puke" fraternizing that apparently takes place in every CrossFit box. Perhaps it's because my internal compass is so strong, or because I've played several intense sports before, but people trying to convince me to compromise my own health and well-being just seems self-destructive and downright dumb.
The thing is, I think it goes both ways. Tough Mudders and Boot Camps and, yes, even CrossFit boxes shouldn't coach people to push themselves far past their own ability levels, but attendees also have a responsibility to look out for themselves. Exercise is voluntary. You don't have to go the gym and do burpee pull-ups until you hurl.
I'm not saying there aren't larger cultural forces at work that can make us do things not in our own best interest; however, I am saying there's a middle path: to be clear on who you are, what your goals are, and what you want. And then tune everything else out. There will always be someone yelling at you to do more, be more, hurt more. It's your job to figure out when to push and when to pull back. Use your intense workout to make you better for you, not someone else. And not the expense of your own well-being.
There will always be a new religion, a new trend, and it will always be polarizing. You pick what you want to do and make it work. I'll be here with you.