Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Posted by on in Health

I used to punish myself with exercise. For most of my 20s, exercise was little more than a way of dealing with the negative feelings I had about my body. It was my way of coping with having eaten too much or having eaten the 'wrong' things. When I felt too fleshy, too indulgent, I'd try to 'work it off,' to shed those bad feelings.

I've never been much of a gym person, so going out for a run was my punishment of choice. But it took a lot just to get out the door. I dreaded my runs and would find any excuse to delay. I usually felt pretty good when I was done, but mostly because I had appeased my feelings of self-loathing. I had paid the price for my wrongdoings (at least for that day).

Just as a child who is accustomed to punishment will continue to act out in order to get the expected result, after my workout I'd feel like I had earned a reward, so I'd allow myself a big bowl of ice cream. But as I ate, feelings of guilt and obligation arose because I was anticipating the next day's punishment. And since I'd already been 'bad' with the first bowl, I helped myself to a second (with chocolate syrup this time), thus feeding the cycle. The next day I'd have to run harder and longer to feel okay, then I'd rebel again the day after by polishing off the rest of the container of ice cream. And so on.

Having grown up as an athlete and dancer I couldn't understand why fun exercise was so hard to come by as an adult. In high school I went to volleyball or softball practice every day after school, running, jumping, playing, playing. In college, dance classes were an integral part of my day and a way to express my creativity. My body liked movement, so why was it so hard as an adult to find a way to 'work out' that felt good?
 
I soon realized that the big difference from the days of teams and dance classes was that back then I pursued purposeful movement rather than a goal-based activity of logging a certain number of miles to get a sufficient workout. When my kids play they roll around on the floor, crawl under or over me as I practice yoga, jump over cracks in the sidewalk, and always find ways to express themselves with their movement. As an adult, my exercise routine had become punitive rather than joyful and purposeful, and I was determined to change that.

I decided to take the leap and stop 'working out.' It was a little rough at first. It was hard to find a way to get enough movement to satisfy my body's needs, and I worried that I would gain weight. But I stuck with it because it just felt awesome to go for a nice walk, to swim, to get on the mat for the joy of it instead of pumping out a ton of mindless vinyasas.

The funny thing is, when I stopped punishing myself and focusing on negative body image, I felt less of a need to eat compulsively or overeat on unhealthy things. Emotionally I was more satisfied, and I knew that I could enjoy a delicious brownie and a big glass of creamy whole milk without feeling the need to 'work it off' later. I was practicing balance and joy, and it felt great.

Now that I've stopped 'working out,' I've realized that I don't want to compartmentalize exercise. Movement is part of who I am, not just something I can do at a gym. Going for a walk is not about burning calories, but rather about getting me from home to the grocery store, about moving and breathing and being part of my community. My yoga practice is part of who I am, not something I have to force myself into doing because I've been 'bad' and had too much dessert. Movement just feels good, so I do it. To me that's what exercise should be - it should answer a physical, mental, and emotional question, a need we all have to be mobile beings.

I believe that even when yoga is practiced vigorously, it's not a 'workout.' Rather you're 'working in,' going deeper into yourself on all levels. When I step back from being compulsive about exercise and eating, when I choose to move my body in ways that bring me joy, I feel healthier and happier. And I'm actually in better physical shape now than when I was beating myself up with exercise.

Yes, it's the New Year. Yes, this is traditionally the time to make health and fitness commitments. But if exercise becomes a chore and a punishment, it's something that you will inevitably fall off from. When you instead recognize your body's innate need to move and you find the ways that feel best to you instead of just dragging yourself to the gym, movement can be as joyful as you remember it as a kid. And that brownie you enjoy without fear of retribution will be even sweeter.

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