Friday, July 14, 2017

Reclaiming The Body’s Wisdom In Exercise

The first half of my adult life was spent engrossed in the realm of the physical. As a choreographer and dancer in the contemporary NYC dance world, I lived and breathed in the world of movement. To my very core, I was a mover. What I and others asked of me was repetitive and often relentless. I dove in with passion, hurling my body from standing to the floor, jumping endlessly, lifting other bodies and being lifted. When the aesthetics of the choreography called for it, my back would arch and curve in extremes, my ribs would jut front and back and to the sides and my frame would be asked to hold weight equal to or more than my own. It didn’t occur to me at the time just how much demand I was putting on my body. People thought I lifted weights because my arms were cut and toned and I would laugh at the prospect, having never lifted a weight in my life. Gradually, the dancing lifestyle started to wear on me emotionally and all I wanted was time to walk in the woods. 

As I faded out of the scene, I needed something to replace that physical emptiness. After all, I was a mover and there was no taking that out of me. What did I do? I started running. It was the closest I could get to the adrenaline rush that dance had given me. It wasn’t artistic, but it was continuous, demanding movement. When I started, every few minutes, I would stop and do something else, like battements (kicks) in all directions, jumps in first and second position, chassés, or other dance-like moves to mix it up. Just running didn’t make sense to me. Then over time, I began simply running and lost that natural inclination to vary what I did. When I went through my divorce, my running was at an all time high. I ran hard and escaped in it. There was a fire inside that I had to let out. It felt great. And then I met Mike, a local personal trainer, now my fiancé. It all changed again.

I would see Mike as I ran in the woods. He would be walking his dog, Sam, or he would be doing Thai Chi-like movements by the river’s edge. Then I noticed that he worked at the personal training gym across from my apartment, Longevity Personal Fitness. One night, walking my dog by the gym’s tall glass windows, I saw him doing something on the ground inside and I felt the spark of something warmly familiar. The gym floor had little equipment. It reminded me of a dance studio with its clear, gray floor of open space. No one else was around. I gathered this guy wasn’t a typical trainer and that he moved in some form. When we finally did introduce ourselves passing in the woods one day, I was excited. But this isn’t a love story post; I already wrote that one. This is one about returning to movement and rest, getting stronger and feeling whole, doing less in better form, and remembering the loving-kindness that needs to be in everything we do.

Mike understood that I was a runner. He didn’t try to talk me out of it. After we got together, he offered to “train” me, a phrase my ears found and still find funny. In all my years of dance training, I didn’t think of it as training. I just thought of it as movement and learning. But I would listen to Mike and slowly adapted my ears to accept this new language. He helped me get back to a perspective on exercise that I intrinsically knew, but had gotten away from. And when my back finally gave out, I had no choice but to rethink what I had been doing. I started listening better and changing the way I approached being in this body. I became more physically mindful as I recognized that all of the messages Mike was sending me about how I approached my body resonate with all of my life’s work as a Mindfulness Facilitator and years of work as a Massage Therapist and Bodyworker. Here was what came from my “training”with Mike…

Stop When It Feels Good
This was the first revelation Mike made explicit to me. Though I had years of training in Feldenkrais Method work, which is a system of learning through movement based on doing only what feels good, not going to the end range of your movement, stopping if there is pain, etc., when it came to staying “in shape,” I often went hard. Truthfully, I often pushed myself in all areas of my life past the point of what actually felt good. Whether it was organizing a closet or staying up to do one more thing, I knew how to keep going. There was a rush in that push that I was afraid to give up. The day Mike said it to me…“stop when it feels good”, though it challenged every ounce of my being, I knew he was right. My objections emerged like a monster out of the mud. “How will I know if I have done enough? What if I get lazy? I’m going to get fat if I do that.” Fear, fear and more fear. The answer to all of these objections was simple… trust in feeling good and let that be enough. In my world, this touches on the practice of loving-kindness and gratitude. When we treat ourselves with tenderness, with kindness, we awaken to the world we ultimately want to live in. In this worldview, we come from a place of goodness and gratitude and we start with ourselves. From there, we have a greater capacity to receive, to give, to feel full and to be happy. If we are always pushing, striving, we never feel satisfied (and lose a sense of gratitude). It is like filling a tub with a leak in the drain. I re-learned the value of stopping when it feels good in exercising and enjoying the goodness.

Rest & Recover
When I danced, I had it ingrained in me that if I didn’t keep dancing at least 6 days a week, my ability would diminish, or I would get out of shape, or somehow off track. On the day I graduated high school, rather than go out and celebrate like the rest of my class, I went to dance class or rehearsal. Maybe it was passion, but maybe it was just fear. Fear that if I rested or took a day off, I’d fall apart or I’d miss something. It took me a long time to change this way of thinking. To not act on fear, but to acknowledge it gently. Now, I resonate more with the monks and nuns in my teacher's lineage who take a “lazy day” each week where they don’t have to do anything. Our body needs to rest and when we truly let it, without guilt, we refuel ourselves, not deplete ourselves. So when Mike says to me…watch what you do today…you did all of that yesterday, I take heed of his advice. And, if I did something well yesterday, I don’t need to repeat it today or even tomorrow. I can do something else. This is another form of loving-kindness practice — taking care of our bodies and respecting ourselves. Once again, we can trust that we will be better off for it.

Form Not Quantity
I used to run for 40 minutes, 5 times a week. That was on top of giving 12-15 massages, walking the dog, walking to the train, through the city and up multiple subway steps and taking care of twins. So when I started working with Mike and after a half hour and just 2 sets of a few reps of each task, I would say, “that’s it; that’s all I get!” He’d roll his eyes and walk away from me, giving me his usual wave of a hand in dismissal at my lack of understanding. He has trained me well. I still say it, just to get his reaction, but now I know…stop when I feel good and do what I am doing well. If the exercise I am doing isn't helping me to organize myself in my body (i.e. have good alignment), then it is not very helpful to me. Do less and do it better. This is what Mike has gotten me to see through the details and focus of his sessions. You can see it in the way he works…his attention does not waver from his clients who are likewise, deep in concentration for 30 minutes. In meditation, it doesn’t matter how long we sit, but that we do it and we apply as much focus to stay in the present as we can. These days, I go to the high school track and mix up my running, with squats, sprints, crawls, rolls, jumps, stairs, balances. It's only a matter of time before I’ll be adding dance moves back and making my kids cringe. It all takes under 25 minutes. I look and feel like an athlete and when I sprint up to the top of bleachers, I feel a bit like Rocky and I know I have done enough because I feel good. 

Feeling Whole
When we think of ourselves as separate individuals and forget our inter-connection with everyone and everything around us, we end up suffering and we perpetuate suffering in society, in the environment, in the world. We cannot exist alone. Everything we do, eat, wear, depends on countless others all over the world and the choices we make effect countless others. This same understanding applies to our body. When we think of our body as an “it” with separate parts, we misunderstand how the body functions. We are not separate, independent parts. Each organ, bone, muscle, tissue, fluid depends on another and when we come out of homeostasis, the whole thing starts to collapse. It may happen slowly over time, but eventually we break down. We need to think of movement in the same way. When I only ran, I wasn't using all of me. I was moving in one plane and strengthening only the muscles that helped me run. It wasn't making me strong in a holistic way. Mike gives me movement that utilizes all of me…it brings me back to dancing where all the aspects of me were asked to function together. I appreciate that he doesn’t want to strengthen my hamstrings one day and my pecs the next. In fact, I believe he doesn’t even know how to think that way. He has me move in all planes and in all dimensions from the floor to standing. He helps me remember to move from a place of connection, not disconnection. Herein lies our true strength. When we remember our connectedness, we are whole.

I know this is not a love story post, but I knew I had found the right person when I saw that the way Mike approached his work and his passion was aligned with everything that I knew about feeling good, whole and happy. We should all be so lucky to find people like this in our lives…whether a trainer, a partner, an employer, or a friend. We could all choose to ally ourselves with who and what resonates with our life’s values and helps us stay close to them. Our approach to our body and mind would do well to come from this place also. We can ask if the physical practices we do resonate with what we value. Does it bring balance, connectedness, and does it make us feels good? If it does, can we trust that it is enough? And when fear arises, as it will, we can do what we do in meditation and “invite it to tea,” hear it out, and then choose an action. The action might be different than our habit energy might otherwise have us do. There is so much freedom and power in that.

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