Exercise and Our Emotional Health: Is what we do physically good for us emotionally?

Throughout my (almost) 34 years on earth (birthday next week!), I’ve engaged in many fitness activities. Yoga actually wasn’t one of them until much later on! While the other activities come and go, yoga has been the one that stuck it out with me. I want to explain an important reason why.

These are the fitness activities I enjoyed in my early to late 20’s:
Hiking
Running
Trail-running (that’s basically running long distances on hiking trails)
Kickboxing
Aerobics
Power-lifting (deadlifts, squats, bench press with large weights)
Pilates
Backpacking/wilderness trekking
Spinning

In between all these fitness activities, I continuously tried yoga because I had heard how amazing it was. It never grabbed me. I never got into it. Eventually I found the right style/instructor and I got hooked. I wrote about that here.

Thank goodness I fell in love with yoga eventually, because through all these loves of mine, my fitness loves, yoga has been the most lasting relationship of them all due to its versatility, amazing benefits and, perhaps most importantly of all, how emotionally healthy it is.

FIRST: THE PROBLEM WITH EXERCISE

With all the other fitness activities I had enjoyed, there was a common element: PUSH YOURSELF. NO PAIN, NO GAIN.

Go farther. Go faster. Two more reps. Hold it longer. Go higher. Add more weight.

It always felt like ME v. MY BODY.
Like we are two beings, separate from one another, and I had to use my mind to OVERRIDE my body.
Tell it to do more. Tell it to work harder!
“Body, you aren’t really tired! Keep going!”
What is the assumption from that? That your body is weak and needs to be told what to do. If we feel tired, we must push ourselves more.

Something is seriously messed up with that.

Now, this was perhaps fine when I was in my 20’s, in that stage of my life. I loved that feeling. That accomplishment of pushing myself another 10 minutes, another mile, pushing out another set, adding another plate to the barbell. I’d smile and feel so proud. I am not dissing how great this feels and how great this can be.

But it is sometimes physically dangerous, possibly leading to injury; it is most often times unnecessary; and it can be emotionally, psychologically and spiritually harmful to be disconnected from our bodies.

In a world where we need to embrace female body-positivity, I find most modern exercise to exacerbate the problem of feeling like we have to change and mold our bodies as though they are pieces of clay. That we exist outside of our body and need to force it to comply to our will. That mentality does little to improve self-esteem.

HOW YOGA IS DIFFERENT

Yoga provided me with a different avenue. Yoga (at least how it’s supposed to be practiced) is about working WITH our body, and not AGAINST our body.

In fact, we shouldn’t even look at our body as being separate. It is not something to subjugate, to override, to overcome. If we feel weak, we rest, we stretch. We nurture our body, our self.

We push ourselves into poses that feel good, where we feel a stretch, and once we find it – we stop! Hold it, breathe into it. If it’s too much, we pull back and wait. If it’s not enough, we continue going further into the pose.

And we also learn to appreciate our bodies, not to feel disappointed in it. We improve our self-esteem because we learn how to be nurturing and understanding towards our body.

“NO PAIN, NO GAIN” attitude should NOT EXIST in yoga.

We listen to our bodies, we cradle it, we nurture it. We give ourselves a workout – YES! – but we also listen to our bodies, what our bodies are communicating to us, we move gently in and out of poses, and we integrate OURSELVES with OUR BODIES.

Because they aren’t separate entities. We use language as though they are, but it’s a false concept. It isn’t just our soul’s external house that we do renovations and repairs on. Our body is us and we are our bodies. Not an easy concept to even write about because of how limited we are by our language/mindset.

For every yoga pose we do, there are beginner stages to start with. We practice them, and observe that with time, patience and understanding, our bodies open up and strengthen to hold the deeper and more advanced poses.

When I present a pose in class, specifically the more intense ones, we go in stages. We start with the baby back bend, for example, and I show each stage. Each person continues until it feels good. If they feel pain – you go back a step! Stay there. Maybe next time we do the pose they can go a bit further. We are exercising our muscle of nurture and patience and not just the physical muscles of our body.

So relax, enjoy the pose, with practice and patience you WILL get to the advanced poses.
But you never will arrive if you hurt yourself, that is for sure.
And you may be hurting yourself emotionally and spiritually in the process as well.

Keep yoga-ing on.
Strengthen the body.
Ease the mind.
Heal yourself from the inside out.
Happy to answer any questions and see you on the mat!

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