Living Your Life: Exercising

Oh man. This was something I used to avoid at all costs. I can’t imagine a person more sededant than the person I used to be only a few years ago. The most exercise I got was walking from the car, to go to the liquor store and then back to play video games. I was the picture of unhealthful living. But something changed in me soon after a major shift in my life happened.

Shortly after my divorce, I started to run. I began with two miles in my local Commons every few days. I had quit drinking at the time and was looking to get in physically better shape than I had been. Which wasn’t difficult because anything was better than the shape I was in when I started running. I didn’t really have a goal or a focus when I began my workouts, I just began. No training regiment, no plans to run a race. I just got it in me one day and started.

Looking back on it now, my ex-wife had began running shortly before we divorced. I feel that this may have been a way for me to process some of the emotions I wasn’t able to feel yet around our separating because I was still numb from the un-dealt with trauma from my parents divorce. Knowing what I know now, I would have done things differently. But you don’t know what you don’t know, and I was pretty much clueless.

But running has been a way for me to stay connected to myself, in taking care of my health, to friends, by picking up running buddies along the way and also a way to stay connected with something positive through the different stages of my life. An anchor so to speak. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been a good way to connect, and stay connected. Which has been worth all the while.

As I continued to run, I picked up some milage and started running races. 5ks at first. Nothing to difficult, but it felt good to put a goal to my training. To give myself some much needed structure. I eventually worked my way up through 10ks, 10 milers and finally half marathons. These were fun, and I got to run with friends I made along the way and old ones I reconnected with. But part of me felt I was doing it more for the t-shirt than the achievement. Or maybe I needed a physical counterpart to my achievements. Either way, physical fitness was something that was part of my routine, but not quite self-care yet.

Yoga is another way I’ve learned to connect to myself in a healthy way. I started by taking classes at my local Y. The classes were held in a ballet studio. The walls were lined with mirrors, and I would go during the evenings. The instructor would put LED candles around the studio for ambient lighting and we would practice our flows in the soothing environment.

More recently I’ve begun doing yoga at my home, before the pandemic. I wasn’t able to get to the classes regularly anymore for a variety of reasons, but have found a routine that works for me after some trial and error. But the same ways I was feeling about my running routine, I was feeling about my yoga practice. I didn’t have a goal when I started doing yoga, and I feel the same reasons for starting running applied to my yoga practice as well.

This was because my goal, when I started working out, was to look good naked. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best, but this was my main goal. Not to be healthy or to take care of my physical health. I wasn’t even sure what the physical benefits of exercise were at the time. I knew that it was healthy, but that was about the extent of my knowledge on the subject.

So now that my perspective has shifted on the subject of exercise, and most of the things I’m doing now, what are my goals now? To be honest, I haven’t really given it much thought beyond “it’s good for me”. And this makes me a little sad. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into these hobbies, only to find out that, first I was doing them to look good naked, and second, I couldn’t find a reason why I kept doing them after I had realized that wanting to look physically fit isn’t the healthiest reason to be exercising, because beauty fades. So how do I reconcile the time and energy spent on these hobbies?

Well first, I had to take a look at how I was feeling about myself. I had previously been about 40 to 50 pounds overweight before I started exercising. I was drinking a lot of alcohol and eating unhealthy, so this was no surprise. But what I hadn’t thought about was the standard I thought I needed to live up to, that had been drilled into me by my caregivers and society in general. These images mostly revolved around what it means to be and look like a man.

For a very long time, I thought that a man had to look like Brad Pitt from “Fight Club”. How unreasonable is that standard! But my caregivers were not confident in their own feelings of security of how they looked, so there was no way they could pass on a healthy self image to me. So in turn, I picked up the unhealthy version of what it meant to look like a man by society, advertising and the entertainment industries. I know this is something that women usually struggle with, imposible beauty standards, but men are also inundated with unhealthy messages of how we should look as well. And what’s worse is, we are the ones who are putting out the standards for everyone. So it’s difficult to garner sympathy for men’s image standards when we’re the ones setting them.

So now that I know the standards that I’m up against, how am I dealing with them? I think for me that I need to remember the good times that I’ve spent out on the road, or in the yoga studio. How do I feel when I’m actually doing, instead of what the outcome will be. For example, I don’t know if I’ll ever stop checking myself out in the mirror before I hop in the shower, but it will be better to focus on the times I remember enjoying my runs. Or a relaxing time I had a yoga session instead of how I look here and now.

And this is more difficult than it may appear to be at first glance. Everybody wants to be in shape, but the image of health, i.e. the perfect, chiseled body, seems to be more important than actually being in good health. This is why it is so dangerous to focus solely on how you look naked. A well sculpted body does not always translate into the picture of health. It’s a step in the right direction, but not the sole indicator.

For me, the picture of overall health is determined by a few varying factors. Regular exercise being one of them, but also a healthy diet, clean and organized living space, healthy attitude and relationship to my work, and tending to and enjoying my hobbies. Staying physically fit is just one aspect of my overall health.

When I began working out in my early twenties, I started with lifting weights with a few friends. The goal was to get as ripped as possible so we could pick up women at the local bar. Looking back on our plan now, it seems a bit ridiculous. But we were also in our early twenties. So a lot of the things that we were doing and thinking were on the ridiculous spectrum to some degree : )

Lifting weights did not last very long, and my next iteration of exercise became running. As I said above, I started about ten years ago, after my ex-wife left me. I’ve been running ever since, and this is something that is a bit more sustainable than trying to lift as much weight as possible. It was with running that I learned how to push myself beyond my limits of what I thought I was capable of achieving. This is where I learned stamina. And after running, I picked up yoga.

Yoga has been a go to choice of exercise for me for a while now. The first time I went I was hungover, and went with my sibling to a class at our local gym. It was an unforgiving 40 minutes. Since that day however, I’ve learned to enjoy getting in touch with my body through yoga. Where I learned to push my limits with running, I learned how to sit with the discomfort in yoga. If I was having a particularly difficult day on the mat, I learned how to stay, until the difficulty passed.

Running and yoga taught me patients with myself, and how to stick with what I was experiencing. Regardless of how difficult it seems to be at the time. Because life gets difficult at times. And we don’t always have the patients or resources to sit with ourselves when times get tough. But the good news is, that this is something we can cultivate through practice. And exercise is a great way to begin to cultivate these attributes in ourselves.

In case you’ve never thought about the prospect of getting a workout routine started for yourself, let me give you a run through of how I got started. So you’ll at least have a reference point to get involved if you’re feeling up to it.

I started with running, which was fairly easy. All I needed was a pair of running shoes, some workout shorts and a T-shirt and a stretch of road. As I said above, I started working out in my local commons. For me, two laps around equals one mile. So when I did four laps, I was at two miles, no extra equipment needed.

But I eventually graduated to longer runs and runs with friends. For these runs I didn’t need to buy any special equipment, but having an app that keeps track of my workouts for me has been invaluable. I use MapMyRun to track and keep a record of my runs now. Currently I’m also using it to keep in touch with a friend of mine who is training to run a marathon. It’s a great way to stay connected while also offering a bit of moral support during what can be a tough process.

It’s also nice to look back at your runs and see how you’ve changed over time. How your runs have evolved during the evolution of your running journey. You are able to track times and miles, through time. Remembering old routes and old split times can be a fun way to remember your connection with the sport.

For yoga, I started off doing classes, like I said above, at the local Y. There are likely many studios where you live, and yoga has a good reputation for being all inclusive. Also, practicing with a group of people can be a great way to keep yourself motivated to get out of your house, and on to your mat. For me, as I said above, remembering those times when I was on the mat in the intimately lighted room was what brought me a sense of calm and ease. I have fond memories of that studio and that community. And those are the memories that last.

But if you’re more the type to practice on your own, there are plenty of places to find videos online to help you start your own yoga practice. I like Yoga with Adriene for my practice. She has a ton of free videos, and is definitely experienced at her craft. I’ve been to a lot of studios, and Adriene is one of the most positive and knowledgeable yoginis teaching.

Adriene often does 30 day yoga challenges, or journeys, as she calls them. These are great ways to jump into a workout that will keep you moving through a set amount of time. If you’re feeling motivated, these journeys can be refreshing as long as you’re willing to commit to the time.

If you don’t have the time to squeeze a practice into every day for 30 days straight, she also has videos by length, and by skill level. For example, she has a playlist for yoga basics called, “Foundations of Yoga“. These are videos that go over the basic shapes, or asanas of a yoga practice. So when she says “we’ll be meeting in downward dog”, you’ll know exactly what she means.

Adriene also has playlists organized by length of time and by skill level. When you go to most classes in a studio, the length of time usually extends from 45 to 60 minutes. Sometimes these are just what the body is asking for. But we don’t always have that much time to put into a class. I know for me and my schedule lately, I’ll be lucky if I can find 30 minutes to get in a workout.

Adriene has a few playlists that have practices that are anywhere from 10 minutes, to 50 minutes. These have been great for me lately where I find I only have about 30 minutes to hop on the mat. And if you do some searching, you can also find practices that are specific to different areas of the body.

For me, I’ve been working mostly on a total body experience. But I’ve also wanted to focus on areas of the body for preventative care. Areas such as the back and core. So I can keep my posture and body in good working order as I age. She also has videos for yogis that are also runners like me. So I can get an extra stretch in my hamstrings, to help keep my runs injury free.

Next, it’s important to find a block of time for you to practice. Something you can commit to, so you’ll know you have a certain time each week to get into your workout. For me, I try to keep the time as static as possible. I know that my best time to workout is directly after work, and before I jump into the rest of the day. I try to keep my days off workout free so I have some rest time.

I currently have three days in a row blocked off for my workout. One day running and the following days yoga. It helps me to keep the days static during the week, but if you have a crazy schedule, like my friend training for the marathon, you may find yourself out on the road at ten o’clock at night, rounding off that eighth mile. Whatever your schedule may be, find something that works for you and something you’ll want to stick with. Workouts can get derailed pretty easily if you don’t stay on top of them.

If you’re more social, find someone to go on your workouts with. When I was running in the upper miles, I had a running buddy who I would consistently run a five mile route with on a weekly basis. This was a great way to connect, but also have some company along the way. Although I gotta say, it gets difficult (for me anyway, my running buddy had no problem with it) talking after the second mile in 😀

And don’t forget, these are only my workout routines. There are so many different ways to get involved physically. I have a friend who boulders and swears by it. That has always seemed a little intense for me, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t look like a good time. Tennis is another great way to expend some energy. I tried to pick up swimming while I had my Y membership, but to no avail.

The key is to find something you enjoy and stick with it. That way you can enjoy all the health benefits that go along with your new practice. Speaking of health benefits, both yoga and running improves cardiovascular health. Yoga helps to improve strength and flexibility. While both practices leave you feeling in a better mood over all. There are so many benefits to exercise that it is in your best interest to find something you connect with and do it regularly. And don’t worry, the more you do it, the easier it gets!

So if you haven’t thought about starting an exercise routine, maybe now is the time you find something that suits your lifestyle and disposition. Maybe you’ve always wanted to get into hiking. With fall right around the corner, there is no better time to get out into the mountains. Just remember to find something you enjoy, make time for your new practice and stay committed. It’ll be worth the effort, and you’ll feel better in the long run. Peace : ) and thanks for reading!

Image Credits: “DIY Yoga” by timsamoff is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Reparenting-Resistance to Training: Why Working Out Builds More Than Just Strength

I’m an avid runner and yogi. I love the feel of being out on the road, ending my fourth mile at the top of a hill. Also knowing that the ocean and its breeze is just ahead of me, waiting on the other side. I love the calm on my mat right after we finish our vinyasa. And when I’m lying prone in savasana, letting the energy from the workout settle over me. But it wasn’t always that way.

For a long time I avoided exercise at almost any cost. Even though I played baseball and soccer in my youth and also took taekwondo lessons, I’ve struggled with any form of physical activity since I started middle school. With the exceptions of when I decided to lift weights for stints of two months every five or so years. So it was to my complete surprise when about four years ago I took to running as a hobby and practicing yoga fairly regularly.

I’m not sure what got into me. But I took to both yoga and running so quickly that I was running half marathons in a little under a year’s time and I was doing yoga twice a week. Making great strides in my overall health and fitness levels.

I attribute much of my motivation levels to my quitting smoking, drinking and playing video games. But also as much credit goes to my living situation being the most stable it has been since my early childhood. Probably around the time I stopped playing all the sports I used to engage with in the first place. I had been so worried about my survival first, and belonging second, that any energy I had went to those two efforts. These thoughts consumed my thoughts and actions.

As I would come to find out I had been hyper vigilant due mostly to my past abuse that lead directly to my developing PTSD. I didn’t realize it then but I was expending great amounts of energy keeping my feelings guarded and isolating from others. I was so guarded that I was dissociating from both my feelings and body almost constantly.

Once my living situation stabilized and I was able to take stock of what personal resources and achievements I had to build from, I realized I didn’t have many. I had spent so much of my time running from every aspect of my life that I had maybe two friends that were well adjusted and stable. I had loads of debt and was pretty unhealthy as well. So I suppose it was only natural to use something like running (because it was already second nature to me) to get in touch with my body and take control of my health. Yoga helped to slow me down enough to feel what was here as well as getting acquainted with the parts of my body I had been neglecting for so long.

Running specifically was a source of pride and accomplishment for me. I could track the progress in mileage in time and with tangible results. As I said above I was running 13.1 miles from 2 miles inside of a year. Also the neighborhoods and scenery I was running in and around were beautiful. It helped that I had some running buddies along the way as well.

I remember running my first rely-marathon with a friend of mine from Vermont. The course carved through downtown Burlington and the views of Lake Champlain while running up and down the city’s hilly roads were lined with rows of vibrant green conifers. This was set behind the clear, glassy lake which was reflecting the sapphire sky and its low lying supple clouds. It was beautiful. And along with so many people running along side of me which was more supportive than I would have thought. There’s always an excitement on race day, like this run REALLY matters. No matter how many times you’ve run the course or the race, it feels special knowing there are so many like minded people gathering to achieve the same goal.

The feelings of support and community are also true of yoga classes. The dimly lighted room, the open space filled with yoga mats politely distanced to give room to the people surrounding you. And soothing music softly playing as people prepare for the class by coming to stillness and quiet on their mats. The quiet flow of synchronized movement while each person follows the instructors direction to the best of their ability with focused intentions and minds. And finally the release of the session’s work as it melts away from your body leaving you feeling relaxed and filled with life, as you finish your day’s practice in savasana.

These two hobbies have been a large influence of my healing path as well. From the time of my abuse till I was in my early thirties, I had no real goals or aspirations to rise to in my life. I was listlessly floating around from situation to relationship to circumstance, completely uncertain about what was going to happen to me or my future. I didn’t feel as though I really had a future to speak of. After I woke up into my emotions, running and yoga were the two ways I was able to give some structure to my life.

Running was a way for me to understand that I could achieve something, however small. The distances I ran and the connections I made with the people I ran with were markers for me. Markers that allowed me to cultivate a sense of accomplishment. Even if it was only making the jump from mile six to mile seven, I was proud of that mile. As though that mile showed me I could overcome something. Achieve what I never thought I was able to accomplish. Or the five mile buddy runs I used to run with my friend Jenny, around the neighborhoods of my past. The unconditional friendship and feelings of accomplishment of consistently running five miles that accompanied me through the streets that I had so associated with past failures. They gave me the strength to feel better about the choices I was making. Instead of the choices I had made.

And with yoga it was a way for me to feel comfortable around people again. Something I was having trouble with while being present in my body. I had been so used to drinking and using medication to soothe myself while around others that I forgot how to be around someone while in an unaltered state. Yoga with its comforting setting and gentle flow while being a challenging workout, showed me how to be in my body. And to experience these emotions not only in my body, but while being surrounded by supportive, like minded people.

As I’ve mentioned above I had maybe two friends who stuck with me and were supportive. Most of the people I had surrounded myself with before I woke up emotionally were critical, angry and viciously mean. Both my friends and especially my family were very cold and very cutting. It was no wonder that I was so detached from my body and feelings. Every time I stepped foot inside myself I felt as though I was under attack!

Running and yoga were also ways for me to know I could achieve physical health goals if I committed to them. And that they were ways of being in my body and surrounded by people and feel safe. Furthermore, I felt that I could choose to make these healthy choices and choose to surround myself with people who felt safe to be around. That helped to show me that I had the agency I felt I lacked for so long. I could choose how my future would unfold. I could stop wandering so listlessly and find some focus. Some footing to regain control of my life.

I suppose this is why sports are so important for some young people. Something to give them the stable, supportive, community that they may be lacking elsewhere in their lives. A younger me would have scoffed at the idea. But looking back on what the self-driven, dedication and support from loved ones has given me, I could only imagine what it would do for someone who was hanging on by a thread. Who felt like they were just trying to survive.

Fortunately for us we don’t have to be experiencing some great trauma to develop a new healthy hobbie like running or yoga. The benefits are equally as gratifying either way. The more we make showing up for ourselves a habit, by way of commiting to our workouts and physical health, the greater the trust we nurture in our own lives will be. Tara Brach a Buddhist psychologist who I’ve mentioned before on this blog, gave a talk related to this subject. It’s about how “it’s not the survival of the fittest, it’s the survival of the nurtured.” And for me the more often I reflect on this piece of wisdom the truer it becomes.

So if you haven’t started a hobby like running or yoga, or maybe swimming has always appealed to you, I urge you to pursue your interests. Be inquisitive and explore your personality some. Maybe hiking has been in the back of your mind waiting for the time to be right to pick it up and see where it takes you. Make the time for yourself and show up. But be kind to yourself on the way and be consistent. One of the reasons yoga is so healthy is that there is no competition, no judgement. You show up just as you are. And that’s always be enough. Whatever interest or predilections you have, foster them. Who knows where they’ll take you but wherever it is it will be satisfying. And you’ll be building confidence and trust in yourself along the way. Happy trails and Namaste :]

Walking in Nature: The Netflix Alternative

Lately I’ve got it in me to hike more of the local trails. Ones I’ve never hiked before or have already done only a few times. It started a couple of weeks ago when my stepmom told me our town had a forest. I’ve been hiking in general for a while and have done a few of the local hikes but our town is a small one and on the outskirts of Boston. We barely have a commons let alone an entire wooded area enough for a forest! But rest assured it’s here. 47 acres or so the sign informed me. It is also deer tick season, FYI.

So on one of my days off I set out for the forest. The trail was about a mile long and the walk to the woods I believe was slightly longer than the actual hike itself. But all in all it wasn’t a bad hike. It abuts some swampland and off in the distance I could here the machinery of the local aggregate industries hammering away. It was surprisingly hilly for its short distance and halfway through there was an old derelict car from the 50’s or 60’s. Rusted out and adorned with broken bottles and what I think were old roofing tiles.

Not the prettiest hike I’ve done but it was nice to get out into nature and enjoy the first few warm days of spring. Since I’ve done a few more hikes all within a few miles of where I live. But just being able to get out and enjoy the warmth of the sun, to hear the birds calling and see the forest come to life after what always seems to feel like too long a winter is good for the spirit. It reminds me of how connected we are to our environment. Which got me to thinking how our connection to nature has been a particularly pointed perspective. Especially with climate change and how obsessed we are with our technologies.

I commute into work now, Cambridge MA. And since the Corona virus the commute has been a lot less crowded. But before we had to stay home the trains were packed. hundreds of people all sitting next to one another, shoulder to shoulder. But if you were to close your eyes it would seem as though you were completely alone. Not a sound. Only the busy typing on touch screens and so many headphones that if they had cords, they would probably wrap around the length of the train a few times.

I’m not saying this to take some sort of moral stance against technology. I enjoy it. I’m typing outside on my porch right now listening to music while in the distance I can see and hear the sounds of waves scrubbing the beach. But it seems to me as though our priorities have been skewed.

The outdoors used to be a place that we would go to wake up into our senses. Be in the body and feel the wind on our face. Smell the ocean and trees in bloom and feel the sun on our skin. And now, for some, it’s a place to store our garbage and impromptu garage. Collectively we’ve become so dissociated from our surroundings by shutting ourselves in and cutting off from the rest the world that it feels like if you didn’t see it on social media, or didn’t watch it on Netflix, it didn’t really happen. So much so that we’ve became a culture raised on anything we can binge on. From fast-food and television.

And again, I’m not trying to take a moral stance against takeout and television. Both have there place. But when we use tech to completely disconnect and binge on television or takeout, or anything bingeable, here is where the problem lies and the dissociation starts.

Now I’m not suggesting that we reinvent the wheel or anything. By going completely apeshit and swinging in the other direction by throwing out or T.V.’s and become urban homesteading fascists. Instead why not search for local green spaces to explore. Then some Sunday instead of tuning into Netflix and stuffing yourself full of things you’ll probably feel bad about later, and possibly while you’re doing it, you could reconnect with yourself. And appreciate the natural world that has been going largely unnoticed as of late.

So again, I’m not saying tech, takeout or television are bad things. They have there place and I know I for one am grateful for them. But they aren’t the pinnacle of our cultural achievements. They’re just things that make life a little easier. If we make some small changes, like getting out and exploring some local hikes, we’ll probably come to appreciate them a little more. And this will lead to having a greater sense of fulfillment. Being a part of the world we are living in instead of cutting off from it.

Image credits: Adam Sergott, a photo I took atop Mt. Mooseilauke NC.