It was early morning on a Saturday and a group of us were gathering in the parking lot at the lake. There was a slight chill in the air and a layer of light fog was hanging over the water. Some of us wore gloves and hats. A few people were jumping up and down, doing short jogs and stretching out their muscles. Others were less energetic, standing still and allowing the odd shiver to ripple through their limbs knowing that soon they would be running and warm.
Each one of us that morning held a coloured duo tang in our hands. This was a sign that we were all in the “weight loss program”. On the first page of our duo tangs were written our starting measurements. Body weight, bust size, waist size, hip size and calf size. A list of numbers that added all together supposedly made us a person (And in this particular situation, a person who needed to become smaller). From there, the duo tang turned into page after page of food diaries. Daily records of every morsel of nourishment that had entered our mouths each day for the past week.
I remember my perfectionist side having a great deal of trouble actually writing down any “bad” foods I had eaten because once I did, it would be there permanently, in ink, reminding me that there was a reason my ass was big. A reason that I wasn’t acceptable. A crystal clear reminder of my dreadful lack of willpower and control.
Our instructor, Suzanne, arrived, scale and red marker in hand. She laid the scale down on the pavement and one by one we jumped on to see how successful our efforts had been. The scale would let us know our worth and we all looked to it to do just that. Once the weights had been recorded it was time for Suzanne to go through our food diaries. Now if you thought weighing yourself in a parking lot in front of a group of near strangers was humiliating, it was nothing compared to having the intimacy of your food choices judged and assaulted with a red pen.
I was up.
I thought I had had a pretty good food week and was secretly hoping to receive the “good girl” praise that I had missed out on in my youth.
Chai tea latte- Red X
Bagel- Red X
Cream Cheese- Red X
Chocolate- Well duh, of course that was a Red X….
On and on it went. My smallest food transgressions highlighted to the group and labeled as weak and wrong. Those fucking red X’s. They haunt me to this day. They make me angry. How dare someone play judge and jury on something so personal. How dare someone sum up my worth as a human being in a goddamned cup of chai tea!
And yet that was not at all how I felt at the time.
I was there voluntarily. I had signed up knowing this would be the drill, thinking this kind of structure and shaming would lead me to the promised land. A land where I felt good about my body and about taking up less space in the world. I was paying for those red X’s!! God, if I was looking for shame and criticism, there was plenty of that available for free in my own head.
Looking back on those years I can now see that I was desperately seeking solutions to the wrong problem. In my late teens and all through my twenties and early thirties I had always believed that my biggest issue was the size and shape of my body and that if I could just put enough structure in place and summon a sufficient amount of will power, my problem would be solved and I would be free from my misery, my anxiety, my despair.
But, just like the industry experts who continue to peddle these same ideas, I had it all backwards. The misery, anxiety and despair was what was crying out for the attention, not my body. Those emotions (and many others) needed to be investigated with a tender and compassionate lens and also felt in the presence of a open heart. The roots of them dug up from the deeper soil of my childhood and brought into the rays of sunlight in order to allow for true healing.
Pitting me against my body was simply a convenient and culturally supported distraction from the deeper work. The red marker, the food diaries and yet ANOTHER RUN AROUND THE LAKE were not the solution to my soul’s pain nor my broken body image. In fact, those things and the many many other fitness and food configurations I tried only served to disconnect me further from my buried self, the one that actually knew the truth.
That it had nothing to do with my body.
It is my greatest hope that the red marker has been retired from not only Suzanne’s practice but from all fitness programs around the world.
I want the tired old reactions to food, fitness and body size to be replaced with words of compassion and curiosity and also with the realization that shame is never ever a solution to food or exercise struggles.
Will power and structure do not equal a cure for the pain of being human and the sooner that the fitness industry as whole truly understands this, the more we can all begin to seek and experience the freedom that comes with and honest love of self and liberation from any ideal physical form .
What is my story on embodied movement?
It’s about presence and beauty. The grace of a dancer in motion completely unaware of anything beyond that very next step. What is it about dance in particular that makes it so compelling to behold? Is it the stimulation of our visual and auditory senses together? The musical accompaniment coordinating the dancer’s lines and flow? What is the difference between a performance that evokes emotion from within the observer versus one that does not. Is it the presence? the spirit if you will?
What happens when I’m fully inhabiting my body while I move. While I exercise. What happens in my soul and in the way my neurotransmitters spark and sizzle when I really believe I am punching a heavy bag in a gritty, sweaty Rocky-esque gym in the bronx somewhere rather than simply punching air in my living room? What happens when all thought drops away and I lose myself in the natural landscape that surrounds me until there is only me and my foot fall on the trail? Do I hear the rocks whisper my name? Do the trees share with me a message of peace and enlightenment?
Letting all the nonsense drop away, fully and divinely inhabiting my body. It doesn't happen all the time but it happens just enough. Enough to light up every cell of my being, so each one glows as if warmed by a sunbeam. Enough that I know I will return again to these movements and this space because it feels just that delicious. Pleasure in motion. A vibrational match between movement and the divine. Is this not what we truly crave? More so than numbers on a scale or calories burned, it’s about SO MUCH MORE than that. It’s bigger, more expansive and deeply meaningful when we allow it to be that way.
Movement can heal the most profound level of wounding, connecting us to ourselves and also to that which is greater than than us, moving us beyond the minutiae of our lives. As an elixir of sorts, a magical incantation that allows us to be visible to ourselves in a different way than before. Seen as both animal and spirit. Awakening the animal spirit within.
We’ve removed the sacred from our movement practices. We worship seated and still. We exercise without intention or connection. Just another task on our overcrowded to do list, void of any presence or meaning beyond the check mark. Many of us are running scared, running away from rather than into deep connection and understanding of what drives us. Of what this existence is really about.
How do you begin to create more presence in your movement? Maybe surprisingly, it begins with a pause. A moment to connect and check in with how your body is feeling as a whole, to ask it once you’re truly listening what it’s needs and desires might be in this moment. Then breaking it down and feeling your way forward as you go. This is an expression of trust in your body. I know I want to listen to music. I know I want to be outside. Once outside where am I being called to? The stairs? The ocean? The playground? Allowing my body to lead me and trusting. Sometimes I’m not sure and it starts with putting some workout clothes on. Maybe I put something in the dvd player or look at a class schedule. I begin. Maybe it feels good and I continue. Maybe it doesn’t and I stop, change direction or simply allow for my body’s needs to surface through the contrast of what it isn’t aligning with today.
So what’s different?
I mean now that you’ve healed. Now that you’re no longer addicted to exercise, obsessed with your body, feeling a deep sense of repulsion and despair every time you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror.
What’s different is everything. And also nothing. For on the surface the only behaviour change really noticeable to the outside world is the fact that I no longer exercise several hours every day.
The everything remains mostly invisible to those around me. Things like;
I no longer panic when I gain weight.
My brain is not on a constant loop of calculating the amount of exercise I’ve done and the amount I still need to do each and every day.
When I look at myself in the mirror, I see beauty. I see a whole person with a soul rather than fragments of too big, too jiggly, too soft.
When I exercise, it is about the pleasure of movement. There is no longer any level of punishment involved.
My weight has stopped swinging erratically 25-30 lbs at a time because there simply is no “diet and exercise wagon” to be on or off. Things are level. More balanced.
I no longer vilify rest. I embrace it. And I do it a lot.
I inhabit myself and my body more fully than I ever have.
I am at ease when I walk into a room. Free from the anxiety of the constant comparison of my body to others and the judgements I once placed in their heads.
So while its true I no longer exercise obsessively and in many ways it may not seem as though not all that much has changed, in reality nothing is the same. Much like an iceberg, of which you see only 10 percent of it’s overall mass emerging out above the water, the majority of my substantial transformation remains hidden.
What’s palpable to you when you read the statements above?
Does resistance show up? Do you scoff? Or can you feel a sense of peace? Maybe even a small drop of freedom? Is there somewhere deep inside you where it also might feel like the truth?
These feelings, this expansion of consciousness, this dropping of the emotional and mental weight of using exercise to correct something you believe to be wrong…it’s available to all.
And with this note, I just want you to know that it’s possible. That there is a different way to invite movement into your life. A different way to inhabit your body and a different purpose for exercise that's far more expansive than simply attempting to change the shape of your body. And it’s where the real juice is.
It’s where almost nothing but mostly everything can change.
Lori Race is a healer, health clinic owner and writer with a passionate message to share from her past as a fitness instructor suffering from compulsive exercise disorder.