The penny really dropped for me in a roundabout way. I’d decided to try giving up cigarettes, and it would take me three rounds (gum, patches, and finally Champix, as well as an extraordinary nurse and very supportive partner all along the way) before I really and truly got there. But when I did, I was immediately struck by how much less my chest hurt and how many more stairs I could take than I could whilst I was still lighting up (duh).
But there were other pains: back pain, which came and went and was debilitating; pain in my ankle and knee from a lack of physio after my 3 surgeries following my broken leg; and then just the normal aches and pains that go along with carrying 60 lbs too many around with me everywhere, every day, all the time. This giving up smoking thing was very much connected to my well being in three ways: vanity (I was sick of yellow teeth, being stinky, and worrying about those horrible lip wrinkles), fear of death (kept picturing myself on my deathbed with lungs that would never clear out again, having to look my loved ones in the eye), and the anger that came with constantly feeling a lack of control over my situation (nothing took precedence over making sure I’d had a cigarette when I needed one). Giving up cigarettes is something that occupies every free moment of thinking time when one is going through the hardest bits, and consequently, I spent lots of time contemplating the function of the body I was healing.
Then suddenly, C suggested we join a 6-week yoga class. This was something I’d never have been able to do on my own, due to my body issues and what have you. But doing it together was feasible, and so we did. And I fell in love with it. I’d done yoga a few times with friends in San Diego years before, and I had really enjoyed it, but it was a bit out of my price range as a student, and I couldn’t commit to regular class times anyway. This time it was difficult. There were lots of poses I couldn’t get into, and my out-of-shape body had to work a lot harder than the yoginis around me, some of whom seemed to be made out of rubber. And yet somehow, though I must admit that I can be prone to envy in such situations, something about yoga doesn’t trigger that in me. Instead I felt awed by their bodies’ beautiful elongations and arcs and twists, and they just inspired me to continue on with the course. At the end of it I asked the instructor to recommend a book on Ashtanga as I remembered having really enjoyed it in San Diego, and so Tara Fraser’s Ashtanga Yoga for You (called Total Ashtanga here) became my bible for yoga while we were in the Philippines.
At least two, and sometimes four, five, and even six times a week, I did yoga. I would sweat so much in the Filipino heat and humidity that my yoga mat would be slick by the time I was half-way through my practice. Ashtanga is all about repeating the same poses in the same order each time, focusing on prescribed points (nose, toes, third eye, etc.), “lifting” or activating the bandhas, and ujayi breathing. As with all forms of yoga, it offers the same opportunity for mindfulness we associate with meditation, and there are, of course, a million modifications for every pose such that literally anyone can practice yoga (even those who cannot move at all – yoga’s much bigger than sun salutations). This was and still is what makes it so wonderful for me – if you watch a youtube video of the primary series, you can rest assured that this looks nothing like what I do!
And, as I familiarized myself with these poses, as I dripped sweat and ached in places I didn’t even realize had muscles, something magical began to happen: I started to love my body.
This also coincided with entering my 30s, so I’m sure there’s a connection there as well, but it was really pivotal for me. I’d already started addressing my eating habits – something I’ll go into in far more detail as this series continues, and that worked its way directly into the same mindset. I was no longer working out to be skinny. That was a secondary benefit that would come if it came and if it didn’t, I’d stopped caring so much, because I was finally beginning to marvel at the extraordinary machine that carried me around all day, bearing my burdens, forgiving my transgressions, and doing the things necessary to allow me to participate in all the monotony and miracles of life.
This leg, scarred, freckled, a little hairy (whoops – missed a spot!). This arm, sun-spotted, a little flabby, long and strong. These fingers, nails bitten, fingers stubby, fully functioning and capable of changing the world around me. This chest, these feet…all mine. Broken, bruised, beautiful. Mine. Aside from my heart and soul, the only thing that’s truly mine. The best tool I’ve ever been and will ever be given.
If you are out of shape, even if you’re not as overweight as I was, exercise will not be easy. But we have to move. Our bodies were meant to move. Sitting kills us. Obviously we have to do it a lot of the time, but we must make up for it. We all have our time limitations, and sometimes working out in the traditional way isn’t possible. I don’t work out nearly enough, and the less I do, the more my body aches. Some ideas that may or may not work:
- Walk. To work, to the grocery store, to a friend’s place, to the movies…if you can get there in under 20 minutes, if the weather permits (light rain included!) and you’ve got the time (make the time if you can!), walk.
- Clean. I’ve worked in supported housing long enough to know that humans function better in clean and tidy spaces. This lady can tell you all about it. And cleaning offers that extra opportunity to move!
- Do something different. When we go out with friends, the first two instincts are food & drink. Go bowling. Play miniature golf (does that still exist?). Go hiking. Find something to do that involves movement.
- Offer to help. Be that person who offers to help a friend move. Check in on your elderly neighbors from time to time to see if they need things done. Volunteer. You will most likely find yourself moving.
I realize that regular exercise and any of the suggestions above mean finding spare time that may simply not be there. A lot of what I’m going to discuss around food will also necessitate finding time that seems to not exist right now. It will mean giving up some things for others. And I’m not going to assume that’s even possible for everyone. I definitely had to make some very significant life changes to make time for my health, but the alternative wasn’t an option.
For me, long-term well being was never going to come until I accepted how wonderful and powerful my body was. It is not a meat puppet – it is an ordinary and marvelous stage in thousands of years of evolution toward wherever it is that we’re going as a species. It plays a very important part in determining how we feel emotionally and psychically throughout the day, and with all that’s expected from us in this life, I personally think we owe it to ourselves to try to feel as good as we can while we’re living it.