Sunday, April 5, 2015

An Ode to Exercise

“Our goal is that more people begin to follow their inner guidance, in diet [and exercise]
 as well as all areas of their lives. We offer encouragement for [you] to make the changes
 that ultimately support a life of kindness and compassion.”
 –Paul Pitchford, author of Healing With Whole Foods

At the top of a hike with my good friend (and hero) Tim.
If it weren't for the gym, I wouldn't even know him.

I have been wanting to write this post for awhile now. I did a first draft, but it didn't convey the fullness of the message I wanted to share. So here’s my second attempt.

What I really want to say is that this body, this life I’ve been given is an enormous gift. Gene Gendlin says, “your physically felt body is, in fact, part of a gigantic system of here and other places, of now and other times, you and other people, in fact the whole universe.” Rumi also tells us, “do not feel lonely, the entire universe is inside you.” If this is true, if our physical presence is the most valuable thing we own (at least as valuable as the whole universe), then wouldn't it make sense that we would try our best to take very good care of it?

But when I look around, I don’t see a society of people who are nurturing and tending to this precious gift. I see a society deeply disconnected from itself. For a society obsessed with health, we are awfully unhealthy. We have reduced our diets to calories and isolated nutrients and have vilified one of only three macronutrients available to us (carbohydrates, which we’ve turned into a four letter word “carb”).

As far as fitness, we have turned it into a strange pursuit wherein we objectify the body, prioritize achieving trivial goals, and ultimately push, prod, and punish ourselves and wear the result as some sort of badge of honor. While I love exercise, there are many reasons why I don’t want to associate myself with the term “fitness."  As Edward Yu says, “I’m unsettled about associating the human body with the word, fitness, because of its link to the term, survival of the fittest. Nature kills off those who are “unfit” and in doing so, separates the chaff from the wheat, so to speak… A question that we have forgotten to ask is: “Fit for what?” If I am deemed fit to be on a magazine cover, does that also make me fit for the rest of life, which occurs outside of the confines of a photography studio? Should Albert Einstein, who probably never performed a single push-up, be deemed “unfit”?"

And yet, I deeply love exercise.  In many ways it has saved my life and is a priority to me.  I have given it some thought and come up with this clarification on what exercise IS and IS NOT (at least in my opinion).

At the finish line with my parents after their first half-marathon ever at age 62.

Exercise IS:
  • A chance to socialize. 
  • A chance to be alone, hear my own voice, and deepen my connection to myself.
  • A time for fun and play. 
  • An immediate connection with nature. When I am walking or running or biking through the outdoors, I get the sense that the life force I see in a rushing river or hear in a bird’s song, or feel in a gust of wind is the exact same life force pulsing through my veins. The more I workout, the more I prefer the church of the great outdoors to the confines of a gym. 
  • The chance to clear my mind and blow off all the stress of the day. It is a practice guaranteed to clear and energize my body so that my spirit can thrive. It cleans away the sticky “gunk” of everyday living.
  • A reminder of how strong we are. Life is a great and challenging adventure, but I believe with the right care, we are up for the task.  Workouts (especially ones that push our boundaries) are reminders of how much is possible.  We are capable of so much more than we realize. 
  • Exercise is a chance to practice self-care by honoring myself and moving in a way that embodies wholeness, grace, strength, and ease. (Yes, I believe ease and exercise belong in the same sentence.) 
  • Exercise is an easy way for me to step out of the stream of my own thinking and actually embody my body. 
  • Finally, exercise builds my strength, confidence, flexibility, endurance, power, and grace which (if you think about it) have more to do with the natural qualities of the human spirit than with the attainment of a temporary fitness goal. 
Spinning out some major watts with friends at Plan 7 Endurance Training.

Exercise ISN'T:
  • Exercise is not a punishment. It is not a whip with which to beat yourself when you eat a doughnut or have gotten out of shape (probably because of life circumstances that took over).
  • Exercise is also not a measure of your worth as a human being. Some of the greatest people I’ve ever known have not been in the greatest shape. I am slowly learning that a fit version of me is every bit as worthwhile as an unfit version.
  • Exercise is not about pleasing anyone other than yourself. I have a hard time when exercise instructors use the phrase “I want” as in “I want to see your legs up high” or “I want to see that core pulled in.” Excuse me. My workout has nothing to do with what you want. It is a time to listen to my body. 
  • Exercise is not a form of brutality. I began noticing that there were few workout classes where the participants were actually smiling. Furthermore, I noticed many instructors who spent more energy pushing their students rather than encouraging their students. Exercise is seen as some sort of horrible chore which we must force ourselves to get through. 
  • Finally, exercise, for me, is NOT another way to objectify our bodies. When we turn ourselves into objects, we become separated from the whole structure of living things of which we are a part. Once we have created that division (our body vs. the rest of our lives) it is so much easier to treat the divided entity with violence (because it’s not part of ourselves, obviously). I feel like in many ways we can’t see the forest for the trees. We overemphasize being fit and working out, but have completely lost touch with the essence within.

Playing around with an assisted handstand

When exercise and other practices of well-being (such as a positive attitude and balanced diet) are practiced, there is no limit to the vitality and joy we can experience. Ultimately our bodies are the physical foundation for growing our awareness (and the qualities of awareness- gratitude, vitality, joy, kindness). I hope with all my heart that you will join me in allowing ourselves to spend more time feeling good. Our bodies are a gift, a miracle in motion.

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