Living Your Life: Exercise

Oh man. Exercise was something I used to avoid at all costs. I can’t imagine a person more sedate than myself 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.

Making Changes

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

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. This was due to me still being 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 clueless.

But running has been a way for me to stay connected to myself. In taking care of my health, staying connected 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.

Making Goals

As I continued to run, I picked up some mileage and started running races. 5ks at first. Nothing too difficult and 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 the friends I made along the way, as well as reconnect with some old ones. But part of me felt I was doing it more for the t-shirt than for my health. 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 this soothing, dimly lighted 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 number of reasons. Though now I’ve 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.

Why am I Exercising?

This was due to my goal being, when I started working out, to look good naked. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best, but this was my number one 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, from a focus on aesthetics to healthy living, 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 isn’t the healthiest reason to be exercising. Because beauty fades. So how do I reconcile the time and energy spent on these hobbies?

Looking Inward to Find Answers

Well first, I had to take a look at how I was feeling about myself. I had previously been about 80 pounds overweight before I started exercising. I was drinking a lot of alcohol and eating unhealthfully. So this came as no surprise. But what I hadn’t thought about was the standard I thought I needed to live up to. The one that had been drilled into me by my caregivers and societally. The images mostly involving what it means to look like a man.

For a very long time, I thought that a man had to look like Brad Pitt’s character from “Fight Club”. How unreasonable is that standard! But my caregivers were not confident in their own feelings of security in how they looked. So there was no way they could pass on a healthy self-image to me. And in turn, I picked up the unhealthy version of what it means to look like a man by my family and society. Advertising and the entertainment industries being two major contributors.

Unhealthy Standards

I know this is something that women usually struggle with. The impossible beauty standards they are measured against. But men are also inundated with unhealthy messages of how we should look as well. And what’s more is, we are the ones who are putting out the standards for everyone to get behind. So it’s difficult to garner sympathy for men’s image standards, when we’re the ones who are setting them.

So now that I know the standards that I’m up against, how am I dealing with them? For me, I need to remember the good times that I’ve spent 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 on my runs before the shower. Or a relaxing time I had a yoga session while in shavasana, instead of how I look in a particular shirt.

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.

What Does Healthy Look Like?

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, a clean and organized living space, a healthy attitude and relationship to my work and enjoying my hobbies. Staying physically fit is just one aspect of my overall health.

Finding a Sustainable Workout

When I began working out in my early twenties, I started with lifting weights with 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 was 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 : ) Oh to be young!

But lifting weights did not last very long and my next iteration of exercise turned into 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 in inconsistent intervals. 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.

Learning to Stay

Yoga has been my go-to choice of exercise for a while. Although my relationship to yoga had a tough start. 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. I was practicing while the sun was beating in through the picture windows on my hot, sweaty mess of a mat.

Since that day, I’ve learned to enjoy getting in touch with my body through yoga. Where I learned to push my limits while running, I learned how to sit with the discomfort in yoga. For example, if I was having a particularly difficult time on the mat in a pose, I learned how to stay until the difficulty passed.

Running and yoga taught me patience with myself. Also how to stick with what I was experiencing. Regardless of how difficult it seemed to be at the time. Because life gets difficult at times. And we don’t always have the patience 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.

Starting Your Own Routine

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.

Starting a running routine is fairly easy because you don’t need much to get up and running. All I needed was a pair of running shoes, some workout shorts, 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. And start small. No need to try and push yourself too hard on your first run.

Eventually, I graduated to longer runs and also picked up a few running buddies as well. 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 Map My Run to track and keep records. 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 support during what can be a difficult process.

Appreciating Your Achievements & Finding a Place to Practice

It’s also nice to look back at your runs and see how they’ve changed over time. How your runs have evolved during your journey. The ability to track times and miles and remember old routes and split times can be a fun way to connect with what you’ve accomplished.

With yoga, I started in classes at my local Y as I’ve said above. But there are likely many studios where you live, if you aren’t a member of a YMCA. Also, yoga has a reputation and history of being inclusive. And 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 the community. And those are the memories that stay with you.

Practicing at Home

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. For me, I like Yoga with Adriene. 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. If you’re feeling motivated, these journeys can be refreshing as long as you’re willing to commit to the time.

Finding Time

When you go to most classes in a studio, the length of time usually is from 45 to 60 minutes. Sometimes these are just what your body needs. But we don’t always have that much time to take a class. I know for me and my schedule, I’ll be lucky if I can find 30 minutes to get in a workout. If you don’t have the time to commit to that length of time, she also has videos by length and 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. She also has practices that are anywhere from 10 minutes, to 50 minutes. These have been great for me lately, as 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.

Making a Schedule

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

Currently, I have three days in a row blocked off for my workout. One day for running and the following two for yoga. It helps for me to keep the days static during the week for consistency. But if you have a crazy schedule, like my friend training for his marathon, you may find yourself out on the road at ten o’clock at night, rounding off that eighth mile. Whatever your schedule is, what’s most important is to 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. So make it easier on yourself by finding a routine that’s not overwhelming.

Workout Buddies

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 with my friend. But also a way to have some company along the way. Although I’ve gotta say, it gets difficult (for me anyway, my running buddy had no problem with it) talking after the second mile in : D

Other Types of Workouts & Health Benefits

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 it wasn’t for me.

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 to 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. In New England anyways. 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 : ) & thanks for reading!

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

Updated: 10/21/22

Reparenting Resistance to Training: Why a Good Workout Builds More Than Just Strength

My workout of choice is running and yoga. I love the feeling of being out on the road, ending my fourth mile at the top of a hill and also knowing that the ocean’s breeze is just ahead of me, waiting on the other side. I also love the calm on my mat right after we finish our vinyasa and I’m lying prone in savasana, letting the energy from my workout settle over me. But it wasn’t always that way.

Building Healthy Workout Habits

For a long time I avoided working out at almost any cost. Even though I played baseball and soccer in my youth, while also taking taekwondo lessons, I historically have struggled with any form of physical activity since I started middle school. There were some exceptions. Like when I decided to lift weights for stints of two months, every five or so years. But nothing that lasted for very long. So it was to my complete surprise when about four years ago I took to running as a workout and practicing yoga on a regular basis.

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. I was making great strides in my overall fitness level and it felt good.

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 my youth. I had been so worried about my survival first and belonging second, that any energy I had went to those two efforts. These worries consumed my thoughts and dictated my actions.

Finding Stability, Finding Healthy Workout Routines

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 physically unhealthy as well. So I suppose it was only natural to take to something like running to get in touch with my body and take control of my health. Yoga helped to slow me down enough to feel what was happening in my body, as well as getting acquainted with the parts of my body I had been neglecting for so long.

Turning Exercise Into A Resource

Running specifically, was a source of pride and accomplishment for me. I could track the progress in mileage and in time, with visible results. As I said above I was running 13.1 miles from 2 miles inside of a year, so I began to look much healthier pretty quickly. 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. Thanks Jenny : )

One such beautiful run filled with both scenery and running buddy was when I ran a rely-marathon with a friend from Vermont. The course carved through downtown Burlington and the views of Lake Champlain, while running up and down the city’s hilly roads which were lined with rows of vibrant green conifers. This all set behind the clear, glassy lake that reflected the sapphire sky and its low lying supple clouds. It was beautiful.

The run was beautiful, but also running along side so many other people 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.

Finding Support, Finding Direction, Finding Connection

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.

My workout routines have been a large influence on 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 and realized I hadn’t any shape or form to my life, running and yoga were two ways I was able to give some structure to my life.

Running and Support

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 before. And I didn’t feel it in the moment, rather it was looking back where I felt the accomplishment of my actions.

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, while building tighter emotional bonds with friends.

Yoga

And with yoga it helped 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 also being a challenging workout, showed me how to be in my body, while I was experiencing discomfort. And to experience these emotions, not only in my body but while being surrounded by like minded people, felt good. Supportive.

Reconnecting To My Body

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 emotions. Every time I stepped foot inside myself I felt as though I was under attack!

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

Becoming a Healthier Version Of Myself

I suppose this is why sports are so important for young people. Something to give them the stable yet supportive community that they may be lacking elsewhere in their lives. I know it was for me and I was in my thirties when I started. A younger me would have scoffed at the idea of finding support and feeling good about building healthy habits. But looking back, on what my dedication and the support from loved ones has given me, I could only imagine what it would have done for a younger version of myself.

Fortunately, we don’t have to be experiencing some great trauma to develop a new healthy workout routine such as running or yoga. The benefits are equally as gratifying either way. Also, the more we make showing up for ourselves a habit, by way of committing 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 the support I’ve been talking about. The way Tara puts it is, “that 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 workout such as running or yoga, or maybe swimming or tennis has always appealed to you, I urge you to pursue these 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. The more you practice, the better it becomes.

One of the reasons I like yoga so much is that there is no competition, no judgement. You show up just as you are. And that will always be enough. Whatever interests 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 support, but also confidence and trust in yourself along the way. Happy trails and Namaste :]

Image Credits: Hot Yoga at The Mat in Liberty Lake, WA. by LibertyLakeAnne is licensed under CC0 1.0

Edited 5/27/22

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