Movement is Medicine
Movement is medicine.
With my mind space no longer completely consumed with thoughts about my body, I have started to use my body to create space in my mind. My mind is no longer a tool to fix my body. The roles reversed, utilities flipped. For seven years, I was using my mind to change my body. Now on the other side of ED recovery, I am bearing witness to a paradigm shift, a rewriting of my mental models; my newfound love for movement is a liberation through the very means that I had used to restrict and punish myself.
Since I was fifteen, nearly the entirety of my mental capacity was spent whirling and whizzing on calorie counts, planning my next meal, looking at restaurant menus, reading dieting blogs, and scheduling workout classes. In college, the ED voice in my brain bellowed into a dull roar, percolating and interjecting itself into my daily mental chatter. During an exam, my mind would wander to planning my next meal. With friends at a pregame, I would be 80% present in a conversation while simultaneously calculating how many calories were in the glass of wine I was holding.
One of my college professors recommended I try yoga, to get out of my head and into my body. As I have written before, yoga began to heal me, as the combination of extreme physical activity without competition, a complete release from the day-to-day mental chatter, and the surrender of self-consciousness hooked me. We spend so much time caught up in our heads, in scenarios far in the past, cloaked in shame, or projecting into the future with stress. Those hour-long yoga classes became my recluse, anchoring me into the present, a release from the self-imposed suffering of my own mind’s creation.
How we do anything is how we do everything. In the safe confines of a yoga room, I watched how I reacted to physical stress on the mat, and saw the read-through to how I respond to emotional stress. The critical and scathing thoughts and shaming emotions that came up when I couldn’t do a pose or needed to take a break… I called attention to how I spoke to myself in these moments, the constant narration of our mind that is our experienced reality. Facing my ego, the dynamic movement “exploded my volcanoes,” as my yoga teacher Kara liked to put it. Like shaking up a snow globe, I learned how to sit with myself and let things settle, to return my breathing to normal, to respond instead of react.
Now in a big girl job, in a big city, I find that my mind still can run rampant, ten thousands steps ahead of myself, ruminating on a mistake or restlessly trying to control the future. I find myself at times, as anxious as I was in my early college days. Yoga was the tool I used to get out of my head then and is still my main anchoring tool. But in the past 9 months, I’ve gone on an exploration of the mind body connection that has brought me more tools. Now, getting out of my head takes the form of vigorous movement, in the form of long-distance running and The Class, and complete stillness, with meditation.
If you have never been to The Class, I recommend you try it. There really is no explanation that I can give in words, other than that it is the ultimate snow globe. It is a lived experience, that I cannot accurately articulate because it is so different for each person. You might hate it. You might feel nothing. You might feel everything. I personally love it. I crave it. Savor it. And now go every Sunday to set my energy for the coming work week.
This craving for movement, it is a relatively new sensation for me. I can confidently say that I used to hate movement. Loathed it entirely. I can’t remember the exact moment in my childhood when my enjoyment of movement started to fade, when my self-consciousness about how my body filled my leotard tainted my love of dance, when running became my most-resented activity. When did exercise become punishment? When did my body become a prison?
On the lacrosse team I was the slowest runner, so much so that a coach remarked I looked like a Tyrannosaurus Rex running through water. I used to cut every corner when we ran laps. A dance coach, she once told me that I would have a flatter stomach if I stopped eating bread. So I stopped eating bread. And danced even more. Exercise was punishment. Something I needed to do because I was unworthy unless I did it. I wanted to be thinner, smaller, less. Exercise was the means to an end.
My boyfriend Oliver often says, “Man is happiest when he finds something that once was lost.” He says it often, because I am often losing things. The week before TEDx was an extreme case of the absent-mindedness. I left my key fob at home three times, emailed someone named Greg calling him George, and most tragically, lost my two most beloved sports bras and pairs of leggings. I grieved the loss of those beloved athleisure pieces, self-flagellating for being such a dingbat and told myself to just make do with the clothes I still had. And then two weeks later, I caved and added $250 of Alo Yoga gear into an online shopping cart. I let it sit there overnight, building up courage to push “Buy.”
With the merchandise still in my shopping cart, I came to the yoga studio on Monday to uncover that my beloved clothing items were in the donation pile. Four wonderful pieces of clothing were returned to me. My face stretched to hold my massive smile; I came into work bursting to tell everyone about my good fortune. The euphoria of finding those yoga clothes was a joy like Christmas, finding the golden Easter egg, and getting a free coffee all wrapped in one. A person is happiest when she finds something that once was lost.
Today, in the middle of The Class, with the mirrors fogged, my heart nearly bursting out of my chest, forty-some sweaty bodies moving in sync, I felt that same-once-lost-but-now-found joy. It was the movement. My long-lost joy of movement has returned to me in the past few months, a homecoming. I had forgotten the sheer euphoria you experience in being fully embodied in your body, where your attention is nowhere but exactly where you physically are. Your body is working so hard physically that your mind cannot wander and you fully feel every bit of your body. The cacophony of mind chatter is cessated. You can only hear your breath. This is the magic of movement.
I went to a ballet class three weeks ago, the first time in over five years. I admit I was really nervous- what would I do when my mind started narrating how bad I was and the body shame started creeping in? Yes, it was hard, humbling, and brought me back to that 12-year old girl standing in a mirrored room feeling like a duck among swans. My legs were flailing and I could not for the life of me get the across-the-floor combinations down. But it felt good to move, not for mastery or perfection or performance. To surrender into the fact that I was doing the very best I could and that was enough. I celebrated my body’s ability to move instead of berating it. The week prior I had gone to a talk with founder of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani, and Debbie Epstein Henry, and they discussed how seldom we do things we are bad at. If it isn’t easily mastered, we stop. They urged their audience to keep doing those things, not to get better at them or improve the outcome, but for the experience. I relished my moments of mediocrity and instead of fighting with my body, I celebrated this hour and a half of moving my body in a completely different way.
See the thing is, our brains are these wild and crazy and magical black boxes. In goes a stimuli, and out comes the experience, in the form of the story we are telling ourselves about what is happening to us. Our lived reality is the perception we have of the world around us. I have come to terms that I have a very critical author writing my story for me in that black box brain of mine. She is like the worst backseat driver in the world. Imagine you are driving down the road with someone constantly chattering in your ear about what you could be doing better, how you should have used your blinker there, and stopped more fully here, and did you remember that mistake you made 15 miles back? Think about it… that is how we talk to ourselves. That hyper-negative, critical, judging voice of ours. We all have that backseat driver living in our head, narrating our experience for us. If this was in real life, and your little brother was being the world’s most annoying backseat driver, what would you do? We would tell them to get out of the car or ignore them completely. We wouldn’t let their droning on impact our journey.
We can’t stop the narration in our head of the world around us, but we can call attention to the story we are writing as we are writing it. Is that backseat driver being overly critical? Are we letting ourselves catastrophize and take things out of context? Are we living in our heads, stuck in the past or projecting in the future? If you do that self-check and realize you are fully wrapped into your mind, ask yourself how you can get into your body.
So why do I share these anecdotes? No, I am not peer-pressuring you to go to The Class or meditate for ten days. I share this with you so that you might explore what movement feels like for you. How do you get out of your own head? Move not to change your body, but to free your mind. Whatever movement looks like to you. It doesn’t have to be in the form of boutique fitness classes or miraculous athletic feats. It can look like putting one hand on your low belly and one hand on your heart space and feeling your body and breath. Movement can look like you noticing the ground beneath your feet as you walk to pantry at work. Instead of using movement as a way to fix or change or punish our bodies, let it free you. You don’t need to work on your body. Have your body do the work for you, through you.