Physical exercise for me, from asana yoga, to running, to Pilates, to dancing, is not an optional part of my self-care. Yet I still act sometimes like it is. And end up back in the place that I find myself in, at this very moment; my spine aching in a certain place, one well known to me.
It’s the place where I start hurting when I’m not taking my physical practice as seriously as I need to.
That spot has moved over time, slowly moving up my spine like so much blocked kundalini. It was in my sacrum. Then it moved up to my floating ribs. Now it starts out as a whisper between my shoulder blades, mirrored by a pinch over my sternum.
When ignored, it slowly inches up my spine, working its way toward the base of my skull. Once it’s spread to my neck, it means I’ve waited too long, and now I’m healing from an injury, not preventing one.
But this injury is not one caused by over-doing. It was caused by NOT doing.
There are many points to physical practice for me. In the first place, to separate physical out from the other forms of practice is a blind. Physical is mental is spiritual is physical, etc.
On a more grounded level, my exercise regimen is one of the central focal points of my personal mental health treatment plan. Yes, I have one. Living with bipolar disorder makes a treatment plan a really good idea.
Bipolar disorder has edges to it. Along with my other mental-health commitments, regular exercise ameliorates many of the less-desirable ones. Depression is treated more effectively by physical exercise than by talk therapy. Mood stabilization is greatly increased by regular exercise.
When I exercise regularly, I feel better. And if I work up to it properly, the more I exercise, the better I feel.
There are many ways this works.
- Exercise increases the release of feel-good chemicals in the neurological system.
- When I make a realistic exercise commitment and stick to it, it’s good for my self-esteem.
- When I exercise I feel stronger and more capable.
- When I exercise regularly I feel better in my skin.
- When I feel better, I look better, and when I look better, I feel better.
Some of these incentives to keep to a wellness regimen might seem shallow, perhaps, from the perspective of practice. Or at least something I might not want to admit to out loud – whether in a spiritual context, or in feminist circles.
While I believe our culture has an absolutely unrealistic and unattainable “beauty standard”, it still affects most of us. So, good, bad or neutral, I have to admit that my desire to “look better” is part of what fuels my personal commitment to fitness.
But that desire alone is not enough to predict follow-through.
It is only when I pull all the following elements together that my commitment becomes strong enough to withstand the lackadaisical attitude of indulgence that can so easily descend:
Body: health, fitness, feeling how I want to feel and looking how I want to look.
Mind: mental health, mood balance, energy, mood elevation.
Spirit: engagement with and in my body as spiritual practice, in itself. Coming conscious in the now of BEING. Finding the eternal in and trough the temporal.
Yet, even when all these are in play, sometimes my focus falters. I miss one day. And then another. And then another. And before I know it it’s been a week.
I obviously have a few lessons to learn here. And I know what at least some of them are.
1. The physical part of my practice is not optional.
2. Each time I forget that, and end up in the same place (shame, a sense of failure, and often physical pain, which adds in to the feeling of shame – because, goddamit, I know better than this!!!), I need to drop it, get back to the mat, or get out on the road, and put myself back in the game.
3. I can’t just start where I stopped. The older I get, the more careful I need to be in paying attention to what my body is capable of. Just because last time I did yoga I could touch my face to my shins in uttanasana doesn’t mean I can do it today. Whether “last time” was yesterday or a week ago, this it still true.
And, the final lesson, the biggest lesson in all of this, is temperance. Work hard, but not too hard. Be committed, but don’t over-reach.
When you fall off the horse, get back on. Don’t beat yourself up for falling. Just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, get back on, and ride.
You can’t just sit this one out; living in a body is not a spectator sport.