Radical Movement: Re-framing Exercise

[cross posted to The Body is Not an Apology]

Exercise and loving my body don’t always seem to go hand in hand. Oh, my body needs it, no question. I do love reminding myself that my body can do more than sit in one position all day in front of my computer, but trying to find a way to get active without falling into the diet/weight-focused/six-pack-centric mind set is sometimes a challenge. When I hear “exercise,” I immediately think of the gym and crunches and being uncomfortable, which isn’t the image that’s going to get me moving. Finding a sport or activity I can get excited about – that I can feel great doing! – makes a world of difference.

What sport do you love? I hate to run, unless it’s a soccer game and then I’ll run until I drop. What kind of music makes you want to dance? I never notice the exhaustion or sweat when I’m dancing around like crazy to my favourite songs. What kind of movement makes you smile accidentally? Do you like the serenity of a walk on your own, or do you like the friendships that spring from team sports? Maybe you’re into swimming or mountain biking or tap dancing, who knows. There’s so many incredible ways to move your body, and a lot of them feel great. The challenge is finding something that works for you, not against you.

It’s easy to think that other people’s strategies are going to work for your body, but often the solutions for others weren’t built for your body. When I first started doing yoga, it was based on many recommendations. I had avoided it previously because a) I’m dangerously inflexible b) I’m not very strong, and c) I can’t stand on one foot, and I understood yoga to require flexibility, strength and balance. Headstands for hours? Yeah, not my thing. Of course, the fact that I was dangerously inflexible, unaccountably weak and my balance was laughable meant that maybe yoga was the perfect challenge for me! Plus, my chiropractor said some core strength might mean fewer visits. So, off I went.

Although I initially enjoyed getting to know my body in a totally different way, it quickly became clear that there were some obvious issues. Some people are into crying during yoga, but I don’t think it was supposed to be physical pain causing the waterworks. Maybe this was not my solution, I thought. It certainly wasn’t decreasing my daily pain (more the opposite). Still, I didn’t stop because, hey, no pain no gain, right? Wrong answer.

This highlights the second challenge when choosing exercise for self-love. So often, we are unconsciously (or consciously) operating on the assumption that exercise is punishment, penance or necessarily painful. Activity should be in support of your needs, not an act of punishment and certainly not in direct denial of your needs. Those who have done rehabilitation or physiotherapy might talk about the pain of those exercises, but I think in general we need to approach activity with self-love and self-awareness. We can aim for joyful movement that prioritizes well-being first. Professional athletes might speak to the painful challenges of training, but they can also share stories of the injuries resulting from that kind of activity. I think it’s more of a warning bell than an example to follow.

When it came to yoga, I was saved when someone mentioned that maybe I was doing the wrong kind of yoga. Word to the wise, all yoga is not practiced in the same way.* The style I started with (Ashtanga) required a great deal more of what I lack, while Hatha (what I dabble in now) tends to be slower, gentler and generally kinder to my particular body. Suddenly, I wasn’t crying during class. Through yoga, I found that stretching and using my body in new ways can be both physically helpful and emotionally calming. It even made me more flexible! While I’ve largely stepped back from yoga, I have taken what I’ve learned with me.

Activity and movement is something to start with you, your body and your skills, so there’s no approved work out routine or ideal strategies that work for every body. Movement can be about enjoyment and self-satisfaction, not punishment or (worse) self-hate. In fact, moving your body can make a statement and help form a community. For example, The Olimpias project is actually a performance research and artists’ collective engaged with the disability community that brings dance into their work. It may take some looking around, but there’s people practicing unapologetic, positive movement that contributes to wellness, not the diet industrial complex. We can make a move towards self-love and well-being by finding activity that fits with our bodies, our lives and our communities.

* I think it’s important that I recognize here that yoga is an example of cultural appropriation by the West and often, just at a basic level, a practice that has been heavily commercialized and marketed to privileged communities. There’s a lot of thoughtful critique of yoga in the West that has definitely changed how I approach it.