Trying Too Hard

I can feel myself getting frustrated again. Picking at all of my perceived imperfections. Comparing myself to everyone I see, and feeling like I come up short. This cycle has become so familiar, but it doesn’t get any easier with repetition. One week I’ll feel good, motivated, like I’m making progress. Then the next I’ll feel utterly desperate about the futility of all the work I do for personal growth and self improvement. It’s particularly pronounced when it comes to my life-long struggle with body image.

Despite my best efforts to avoid the triggering, toxic images I used to purposely flood myself with online, somehow they’ve started creeping back in again. Perfect little vegan fitness models and casual yogis. It’s bad enough that they have bodies I could only dream of, but it stings in an especially painful way when I see just how much MORE work I put in for so much less satisfying and aesthetically pleasing results. I know I have a distorted view of my appearance to some extent. And I don’t think I look bad. But after years of diligent, intense, advanced exercise routines, I expected to actually look like someone who prioritizes fitness in their life. Not just someone who works out for 20 minutes once or twice a week.

Even when I’ve felt for years like I couldn’t possibly do any more exercise in a day, I’ve slowly added on more and more things. It never makes any significant or noticeable change though! All it does is make me feel obligated to continue at this more draining routine for fear I’ll somehow gain weight if I stop, even though I didn’t lose any when I started. I’ve recognized for a long time now that this is an extremely unhealthy mindset that impacts my self-esteem, my physical health, and my social life. Still I feel helpless to change it. My fear of looking worse than I do now is all-consuming. I feel resigned to this unsustainable, ever increasing physical workload that will never do anything for me besides keep me where I already am. A place that does not even bring me satisfaction or happiness. It’s no longer about progress, it’s about avoiding an even more pronounced level of self-hatred and disgust.

One thing I have been trying to convince myself of, is the importance of slowing things down/lessening my reps and speed in order to focus on truly good, mindful form and activating the right muscles when I’m moving. Logically I do believe this would be more beneficial. But that disordered, self-hating, fearful side of my brain panics at the thought. But what if I slow down and gain weight? What if I can’t pick it back up again? What if I do go back to what I’m doing now, but am stuck with whatever weight I may put on forever?! It’s these unhealthy thoughts that keep me from changing anything despite my dissatisfaction with my results or lack-there-of.

In the last ten or more years, I’ve never allowed myself a proper “rest” day from exercise. There have only been a handful of days I haven’t worked out, but even those days are not true rest because I workout extra the days before and after to “make up for it.” My ego takes some form of pride in this fact, while also cursing all the people I see taking regular rest days multiple times a week and looking 50x better than I ever have. I’ve just been believing that there is something wrong with me. Their bodies just work better than mine does somehow. Surely if I took rest days, I’d have made even less progress.

I’m beginning to finally open myself up to the possibility that isn’t the case. I was already toying with the concept of rest being valuable and important so that my muscles actually get a chance to heal and build themselves up stronger. I don’t really notice myself gaining muscle mass or strength with the way I’m doing things now. I basically stay where I am. In addition to that, I’ve been reading a lot about the effects of cortisol and weight gain.

I assume I have ridiculously high levels of cortisol in my body at all times, just based on my stress level. What I didn’t realize is that this may not be solely due to my anxiety disorder. Exercise naturally raises cortisol levels, which isn’t a problem in moderation and can even be beneficial. However, excessive exercise can lead to unhealthy levels of cortisol. I don’t think it’s up for debate whether the amount of exercise I’ve been subjecting myself to for the past ten years is “excessive” or not. Have I been shooting myself in the foot this entire time?

It seems too good to be true to imagine that I could do less and have the same or an even better body. My self-flagellating mind simply cannot accept that possibility. Then again, working harder hasn’t seemed to work out at all the way I thought it would. Maybe I really am doing myself a disservice by pushing myself so much. What if I was able to do less, better quality exercise, enjoy my workouts again, have more free-time, feel less tired and stressed, AND look/feel better in my body? It’s so difficult for me to contemplate, let alone begin to test.

I know if I really want things to change in my life and in my body, I’ve got to actually start doing things differently. One of the big road blocks in my way is the fact that to truly know if the changes I implement are working, I need to see where I am right now and monitor that moving forward. It’s so unbearable for me to weigh myself or, god forbid, take photos or measurements. *shudder* But I’m afraid if I don’t, I’ll be too afraid to change anything because I might gain weight without realizing it. Dear god, I need a therapist so badly. Unfortunately I live in the greatest country on earth and that isn’t a feasible option for someone working full-time in the MENTAL HEALTH INDUSTRY!

My sheer ability to ramble on for so long about this topic is evidence that there is a problem. I want to follow that little spark of excitement and curiosity that tells me to switch things up. I know it’s worth it. I know it would be good for me mentally at the very least. I wrote something that struck me as profound last night while I was journaling: Fear is a powerful motivator. I am just afraid of the wrong things.

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5 Things I’d Wish I’d Known at the Beginning of My Fitness Journey

1. It Can’t All Be Cardio

For the first five years of actively pursing a healthier, more attractive body through exercise, all I did was run. I ran for over an hour every day. Around 8 miles EVERY DAY. It seemed simple enough. Exert THAT much energy and effort, and you’re bound to have a perfect, slim figure, right? Well apparently not. I did lose about 40-50lbs. in the first year or two. But then I quickly hit a plateau. What was I gonna do, run MORE?! Honestly impossible. I was going through running shoes every single month and my shins were splintering into nothing. I had constant blisters on my feet and marks where my tank tops rubbed against my upper arms. Near the end I did switch to the elliptical instead of the treadmill, but not much changed in my body.

2. Don’t Be Afraid of Strength/Weight Training

I only began to make progress again about six years ago when I started doing HIIT workouts. Even though these are still primarily cardio, they also incorporate a lot of weighted, complex movements. I was engaging muscles I never knew I had, instead of just pounding my legs relentlessly. Gaining muscle wasn’t the scary, bulky nightmare I had imagined it to be. Unless you’re lifting ridiculous amounts of weight, you’re likely only going to be gaining lean muscle which will give your body a tight, well-formed shape. Before I just looked like a slimmer, although still soft and pudgy, version of myself. Not only that, the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you are going to burn even while resting.

3. You Can’t Beat Diet with Exercise

I really believed in the beginning, that if I just worked out an insane amount, I’d be able to eat as much as I wanted. I fell even more into this trap when I became vegan. You can’t gain weight with vegan food! I stupidly thought. Maybe if you have a naturally fast metabolism, this could work out for you, but if your metabolism is a snail like mine by default, you’re going to have to pay attention to what/how much you’re eating if you want to see lasting results.

4. Good Form Over Ungodly Fast and a Gazillion Reps

After years of just trying to breathe as I ran for miles and threw myself through unfamiliar HIIT exercises, I’m still struggling to undo the poor form I’ve adopted in a lot of my movements. In my eagerness to go as fast as possible to burn as many calories as I could in a short amount of time, I ended up wasting time. The more you focus, slow-down, and engage the right muscles in an exercise, the more beneficial it is going to be in the long run. If you let yourself have poor form, you are not only going to burn less calories, but you’re going to hurt your body and develop bad habits that are hard to break.

5. Listen to YOUR Body to Find the Right Alignment

“Don’t round your back! Don’t round your back! Keep your back straight!” I would always hear instructors repeating this like a mantra whether it be in a workout or a yoga class. I guess for most people, this might be important to hear. If your natural tendency is to round your low back, you’re going to pull a muscle or hurt something. HOWEVER, I’ve only recently come to realize that I personally have an anterior pelvic tilt. This means that my pelvis tilts forward causing my low back to arch. For me “flat back” was an arched back. I couldn’t understand why doing the “correct” form always left me with pain and/or discomfort in my low back. Finally understanding my natural alignment has given me the ability to do what feels like rounding my low back to me, but in reality is just bringing it back to neutral. It has been a total revelation to my workouts. I’m able to engage my core far more and prevent my back from aching after doing certain exercises. Another one I’m beginning to work on is the cue “don’t let your knees cave in.” I have naturally exteriorly rotated thighs. This instruction has caused me to put WAY too much of my weight into my outer feet and lead to a weakness in my inner thighs/an inability to keep my weight evenly spread through all four corners of my feet in my workouts.

Regardless of what an instructor in a video might say (I imagine an in-person trainer may have realized these things before me and altered their instruction) listen to what your body is telling you. It is going to save you a lot of grief and possibly spare you serious injury down the line.

Loving Kindness & Our Bodies

Even though I began intensely working out every day over a decade ago in an effort to lose weight while still being able to eat as I pleased, it’s no longer only about weight loss. What I once use to dread each moment of has become one of the things I look forward to most days. It is incredibly invigorating and empowering to witness just how much my body is capable of. I may not have every achieved the body that I had been seeking, but I did discover something even better: a newfound love and respect for the body I have.

I once saw a quote that read: Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do, not a punishment for what you ate. I think about those words a lot. They have almost become a mantra. When I begin to feel frustrated that my body still doesn’t look the way I want it to and wonder why I even bother with all of my exercise, I remind myself that regardless of the end result, I’ve come to enjoy my daily workout.

For me, exercise has practically become a moving meditation. It helps me reach that blissful flow state. I lose myself in exquisite motion. I don’t really know how to dance (nor do I ever really try to), but to me my workouts are almost like dancing. It truly does feel like an act of celebration for what my body can do. It is so fun to witness this body become stronger, faster, more coordinated. It’s truly incredible. Just like in my yoga practice, I am now able to do things I never imagined I could ever be capable of. It makes me feel proud of this wonderful body of mine.

It’s a rare thing for me to acknowledge the beauty of my own body, not necessarily for what it looks like, but for all that it does. Besides that, it is a perfectly beautiful body visually as well. I know I am too hard on myself, accepting nothing less than perfection, a mirror image of the models and actresses I see everyday on my screens. When I take a step back though and imagine how my body would feel, being taken for granted and criticized and belittled at every turn, never acknowledged for the marvel that it is, it makes me very sad.

Today I wanted to take a moment to be mindful of just how lucky I am to have such an amazing body. It does so very much for me every day, and I don’t give it the credit it deserves. I want to carve out more time in my life for sending loving kindness to this physical form I have been blessed with to house my soul. I would not trade it for any other body in the world. It deserves to be treated so much better. Sometimes I like to think of this body as a precious animal that I have been charged with the care of. I have certainly not been giving it the care that it needs or deserves, especially this past year.

I am always so worried about how others judge my appearance. Even more than usual today since I am going on my third date with my vegan guy. I am always worried that I’m not good enough. That I will miss out on opportunities, friendships, love because of that inadequacy. Today I am reminding myself just how absurd that notion really is. Do I really want friends or a partner that love me only for my looks? Or who would think less of me if I looked differently? If the people I meet in life can’t accept and appreciate me for who and what I am, that is their loss, not mine. I will love myself boldly, inside and out, even if no one else in the world will do the same. I can’t control how others perceive me. All I can do is keep working to cultivate a more positive perception of myself. In the end that is all that matters anyway. Learning to love myself exactly how I am is all I’ll ever need to be happy.

The Difference Between Yoga and Other Exercise

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Some of the first things anyone I meet learns about me are that I am a vegan, I workout a lot, and I am a yoga instructor. It seems like everyone always wants to combine the latter two into one. I get asked all the time, “Oh, so you do yoga for your workouts?” No matter how many times I get asked this question, it always surprises me. I forget that for a lot of the western world, yoga is just another workout routine like aerobics or Pilates. But it is so much more than that.

When people hear the word “yoga” all they think about are the asana, the physical poses. In reality that is only one small limb of the yoga practice. It is merely a nice bonus that the physical practice can double as a form of exercise. However, yoga isn’t about the physical body at all. When someone begins a workout routine, there is usually a goal in mind. “I want to lose weight,” or “I want to build muscle.” And while a lot of people may get into yoga with a similar mindset, I’d say most stay for the mental and spiritual benefits instead.

I started yoga primarily to become more flexible, but also hoped it would help my anxiety. Now, even though I am more flexible than I ever dreamed I would be, I couldn’t care less about that part! Yoga has given me so much more than the ability to do the splits. Yoga allows us to use the body as a gateway to our souls, our higher selves.

At the gym, you push yourself so that you can achieve results, run faster, look slimmer, lift heavier weight, etc. But when we push past our comfort zone in yoga it isn’t about that at all. At first we may be fixated on the idea of molding our bodies into perfect poses. Eventually we begin to see our practice through new eyes. In the end it doesn’t matter how close we can get our head towards our toes. It is about seeing how the mind reacts to not being able to do a pose perfectly, or in fact even how it reacts to doing the pose perfectly. What does the ego whisper to us in these moments? Can we learn to accept where we are in our practice, in our lives? Can we breathe through discomfort? Can we honor our limits?

It is these questions and many more than we explore and grapple with on our mats, with the hope we will be able to take what we learn with us into our daily lives. While the asana practice may result in some incredible physical feats, it was never about that. It is about the journey there and what we are able to learn about ourselves along the way. So no, my yoga practice is not my workout. I usually don’t think of it as exercise at all. It is a spiritual practice, a moving meditation, a beautiful celebration of life.

Mindful Movement

Have you ever noticed how most animals, particularly animals in the wild, have seemingly perfect figures? As in, they look sleek and muscular and uniform. I’ve often wondered why human beings have such a huge variation of strange physical differences or “imperfections.” I won’t list any because I don’t want anyone to feel self-conscious about their bodies in any way, but you may be able to think of a few examples on your own. I certainly have personal grievances with my own body that come to mind and led me down this train of thought to begin with.

This could be solely because we have more diversity in our genetics than different animal species. But I don’t think it is solely genetic. I’ve seen people with very similar genetic makeup have vastly different appearances. I’ve wondered how much the way we hold ourselves in our daily lives comes into play. Our posture, for example. Is that determined by our genes? Or is it a largely unconscious result of a multitude of factors like our confidence or merely years of bad habit? Is the internal or external rotation of our femurs in relation to our hips inherited or perhaps created as we grow due to the way we walk? Does my lower tummy have that stubborn pooch because of genetics or has my mental avoidance of that part of my body contributed by allowing years and years of disengagement with those muscles? Does my pelvis naturally tilt forward, or has it been allowed to slip into that position because those stabilizing core muscles have been ignored?

How much could we change about our appearance by simply staying mindful of the way we move throughout the day? Even more importantly, how much degenerative pain could we avoid in old age by adding a loving awareness to each movement? Strengthening my mental connection to my core all day, rather than just during exercise, may not solve my insecurity, but it could definitely prevent the low-back pain I occasionally experience.

What’s the main difference between humans and other animals? They live in the moment, they remain present, while we humans are always miles away, lost in our own heads. Maybe other animals are just more connected to their physical bodies than we are.

Most of my waking hours are spent flailing my body about, mechanically falling into deeply ingrained patterns of movement I’ve developed from years of mindless repetition. Locking my knees, slouching at my desk, mentally disengaging from my midsection, rounding my shoulders forward as I grip the steering wheel, tight lips, tense face. I hold myself so much differently, so much more intentionally, while I’m working out or doing my yoga practice. I began to wonder what a huge difference it might make if I kept that mindful body awareness during the rest of my day. After a few years of that, I can’t imagine not looking different. And I’m nearly certain you’d feel different.

We all have so many bad physical habits that we remain mostly unaware of which manifest due to stress or other mental states. Not only can my anxiety cause me to tense my shoulders, face, and neck, but relaxing and releasing those same areas has the ability to alleviate the anxiety. The hard part is being able to step out of my head long enough to remember this in the moment. Perhaps being more mindful of my body will even reduce the amount of anxiety I experience day to day.

I think it is a fascinating theory worth trying out. It is definitely challenging to keep bringing your mind back to what each little part of the body is doing. But even if it doesn’t ultimately change outward appearance, it is still a valuable mindfulness exercise in its own right and would undoubtedly make a difference mentally.

Breathing Through Discomfort

As my yoga practice continues to grow deeper, it is slowly saturating every corner of my life. It is amazing to be able to integrate this knowledge into my day. One of the invaluable things that yoga has brought to my life is an awareness and connection with the breath. There is so much power in the breath.

At first I began to concentrate on my breathing during my daily workout. Just like in yoga postures, I am often able to find a beautiful balance of effort and ease (sthira and sukha) as I am doing vigorous exercises. The connection to my breath assures that my muscles receive all the oxygen they need. Instead of focusing on how difficult my workout is, I am able to focus on full, deep, and steady breaths. I experience less discomfort (often even finding pleasure) as I push my body to its limits. In addition, time seems to fly by as I find a flow-like state. I find excitement and gratitude for what my body is capable of.

After seeing the benefits mindful breathing could have in my physical experiences, I began to utilize it to benefit my mental state throughout my day as well. I started to notice my breath in moments when I was experiencing something emotionally difficult. I realized that when I am feeling extremely stressed my breath is very shallow. Sometimes it even feels as if I am holding my breath! Once my mind has shifted to my breathing and I begin to breathe slowly and fully, I immediately feel much calmer and less overwhelmed. It’s incredible how much this has helped me cope with challenging emotions. Even my experience of mundane daily tasks, like vacuuming and doing the dishes, has become more pleasant.

I am still struggling with and improving my awareness of my breath every day. I am so grateful that my yoga journey continues to give me new perspectives and new things to focus on in each moment. I am so excited to be able to share the things I learn and give my future students the life changing gifts that yoga has given me. I am so lucky that in a few months I will be certified to teach this ancient, beautiful, and profound practice. Until then I am going to continue learning and growing and enjoying this beautiful journey.

Just breathe. ♥

A Daily Dose of Play

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Most people understand that for their animals to remain healthy and happy that they must make sure they get enough exercise. Whether it be going for a walk, playing fetch, or chasing a string, animals need physical exertion to be a part of their day to day routine.

What many people don’t seem to understand though, is that we are also animals. I believe that this means we also need to get a fair amount of exercise. For the past few years I have been running close to nine miles everyday. Granted, that may be a bit excessive for most people, but it has completely transformed my life. 

I feel more alert, stronger, and happier. Daily exercise is almost a form of meditation in a way. The hours I spend at the gym, listening to my favorite music, helps me to clear my mind and burn off all of the stresses of my day. My body and mind feel refreshed and renewed. Now instead of a lethargic and tired, my body feels awake. It is a high-functioning, synchronized machine. Daily exercise has allowed me to be more positive and optimistic than ever before. Also, after 20 years, I can finally say that I love my body.

So, let your inner animal out! Give yourself at least an hour of some type of physical activity every day. I promise you will not regret it!

Stay active, dear ones.