On Living in My Body

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Back in my body after years away.

by Karen Frazier

I used to think it was difficult having a body like mine. Then, one day I realized, it wasn’t difficult for me to have my body – it was difficult for my body to have me as the driver.

Until recently, I never did a great job at listening to my body’s signals. As it tried more and more frantically to get me to pay attention and treat it with the respect it deserved, I gathered my will about me like a defiant six-year-old girl (with apologies to any non-defiant and well-behaved six-year-old girls), stomped my foot, and figuratively told my body I wasn’t about to let it boss me around.

That was one battle of wills I was bound to lose.

My body told me (and so did my doctor) I was allergic to dairy. I ignored it and ate dairy. I got sicker and developed chronic inflammation and autoimmune disease.

My body told me it wouldn’t tolerate gluten. I ignored it and continued eating gluten. I developed chronic, severe digestive orders and malnutrition.

My body told me I was pushing it too hard with long, punishing hours at the gym. I ignored it and pushed even harder. Like flipping a switch, one day my body said, “Nope, we’re done here.” I developed chronic exhaustion, pain, and exercise intolerance.

My body longed for gentle, supportive movement. I sat sedentary in my chair and moved as little as possible for more than 20 years. I grew fatter, weaker, sicker, and more exhausted.

My body told me it wanted fewer chemicals and toxins in my food and environment. I ignored it. My hormonal and autoimmune disorders worsened. My health became a gordian knot.

My body told me it wanted fresh, organic, sustainably raised unprocessed foods. I ate processed and fast foods instead. I developed regular migraine headaches and found it virtually impossible to lose weight, no matter how little I ate.

The more I ignored my body’s signals, the more my vitality and life force drained away and the more limited my physical world became.

During my years of illness, and even before I got sick, I often told people, “I don’t really feel like I inhabit my body,” and this was certainly true. Because I felt my body betrayed me, I lived in my head, inhabiting spiritual and cerebral while ignoring the physical. I reasoned that what was important was the core of who I was – my personality, my creativity, my spirituality, my kindness and compassion, my friendships and relationships, and all other aspects of the mental, emotional, and etheric realms. I figured as long as I focused on those things, what was happening in my body didn’t really matter. I wouldn’t let it define me.

Yet, regardless of how I desired  to not let my body define me, my physical limitations kept me away from doing many things my soul longed to do. Like dance (“I’m dancing in my head,” I’d reason), or walk on the beach and dip my toes in the water (“I can see the ocean from here and that water is probably cold,” I’d tell myself), or spend time with loved ones doing much more than sitting and chatting (“At least we’re connecting,” I’d think).

While I thought I was content, living in this world that existed outside of my body, the universe was sending me other signals. Many mornings, I’d awaken from dreams where I’d be running again (I used to do 10-mile weekend runs for fun), lifting weights, dancing, riding bicycles, or just moving freely, joyfully, and without pain. A vacation with my extended family found me sitting on the deck of a lake cabin in Idaho with my parents instead of inner tubing and jet skiing on the lake with my siblings, husband, kids, nieces, and nephews.

I was missing out on life in very real ways because I had created the belief it was okay if I didn’t live in my body.

I wish I could tell you what changed. I can tell you the moment when the switch flipped more than 25 years ago and my health began to crumble. I was 23 years old. I was at the gym early in the morning on a leg extension machine. I started my morning feeling mostly fine, if a little tired.

I was wearing a neon pink ball cap (it was the 80s) with my hair in a ponytail out the back, size three shiny spandex tights, and a black patterned spandex tank leotard (80s, people – 80s – and thank God there were no leg warmers involved – although I was wearing white high-top Reeboks). I’d finished teaching a 6 AM step aerobics class and was getting some weight training in before my 9:30 AM class. I extended my legs, and I felt something somewhere in the core of my body snap. It was as as if my life force drained out of me into the seat of the weight machine.

Suddenly, I was exhausted and overcome with emotion. I started to shake. I got up from the leg extension machine, went into my office, and sat with my head down on the desk. I was overwhelmed and sat shaking and crying – not understanding why – for quite some time.

Nothing was ever the same with my physical health after that morning. Working out made me sick. I gained weight rapidly no matter how little I ate. I developed all kinds of health issues doctors could never quite figure out. And I slowly left my body and moved into my mind and spirit.

That moment remains so clear in my memory, but the moment I decided to move back into my body is a bit murkier. I’m not sure how I made the choice to do it, although I understand the reasons why it happened.

For years, I’d try to lose weight with various diets. Looking back, I understand the attempts to lose weight arose from a feeling of lack or of not being enough. I felt tere was something about me (my weight) that wasn’t good enough, so there was something about me that needed fixing. I’d have success for a while, until something else would happen in my life and I’d start to feel I was somehow lacking again. The weight would come back on.

This time, there was no decision to lose weight, although there was a growing sense of truly choosing to be healthy because I deserved to feel well and live a full life. That choice came not from feeling like I needed to be fixed, but from a place of self-love where I desired to be whole. It’s a subtle distinction – choosing to fix something that is wrong versus making a self-loving choice not out of a feeling of brokenness, but rather a desire to treat myself with care.

Once I made that choice, it became easier to pay attention to my body’s signals. The gluten and dairy were the first to go. As I felt a little better, I replaced processed foods with healthy whole foods. I removed chemicals from my environment and my food supply. I listened to what my body asked of me for the first time in years. I started walking a little. I started participating in my life in physical ways I had been unable to do for more than two decades.

Slowly and deliberately, I moved back into my body. I started to heed its signals. I sated its hunger with wholesome foods. I honored its desire for movement with Nia, dance, walking, yoga, and other activities. I listened to its desire for recuperation with plenty of restorative sleep.

Now here I am today. I live in my body, my heart, my mind, my emotions, and my spirit, and my life has opened up. I engage in joyful exercise, I eat delicious foods, and I participate in life. I understand now that in order to truly be whole and fulfilled, I can’t ignore any part of the triad of body-mind-spirit. I have to honor and love each exactly where and how it is in order to walk my path.

 

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9 Fun Workouts That Don’t Feel Like Work

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Getting ready for some tribal belly dance.

by Karen Frazier

When I was a 20-something, I’d beat my body into submission with hours of grueling weight training, running, and cardio equipment. While I liked how the exercise felt when I was done, there was something joyless about it. I didn’t love it. I didn’t even really like it. But I did it day after day because I felt like I had to. It became just another thing I had to do, instead of something I looked forward to doing.

I also believe it played a role in developing 25 years of autoimmune disease that caused me to gain weight (lots of it) and rendered me unable to work out. During those years of heavy exercise, I failed to heed my body’s signals. I believed in the mantra, “No pain, no gain,” and I worked myself past exhaustion and pain in pursuit of a physical ideal. There was no joy, just work as I grudgingly rose at 4:30 every morning to get to the gym for hours of exercise.

And then I was ill for 25 years. I developed exercise intolerance. When I worked out, my body rebelled, and I was left feeling even sicker and more pain-rideentn than if I didn’t exercise at all. I was trapped in a downward spiral, all because I failed to listen to my body’s request for activities that brought pleasure and joy instead of pain and drudgery.

I’m not saying that for everyone, conventional workouts are drudgery. I know many people who love weight lifting, cross-fit, cardio machines, and similar exercises. If these workouts bring you joy, then by all means keep them as a part of your life.

However, what if you’re like me, and you don’t really like it? What if your body is sending you signals begging you to engage in activity that brings you pleasure and allows you to experience joy? What if you found a workout you loved so much you couldn’t wait to get to it another session, and another, and another?

For me, finding those joy-filled workouts has been just the key for regaining my health (along with the foods in the recipe articles on this website, of course.) And so, while I encourage you to seek your own joy in finding unconventional forms of exercise, I offer a few suggestions as a place to start.

#1: Nia

This is the workout that brought me back into daily movement. It’s a combination of dance, playing like a kid, martial arts, and many other forms of exercise. Nia, which you take in a class (or you can order videos) emphasizes working the body’s way, tailoring movements to your own level, bringing your own style of dance to the routines, and experiencing the pleasure and joy of movement. It’s also a great cardio and strengthening workout, and I love the way it feels in my body and my soul.

#2: Belly Dance

I never saw myself as a belly dancer, but here you have it. I adore belly dancing. I’ve recently started taking tribal belly dance classes, and I love it. The movement comes from learning to isolate muscle groups, and it’s great for your core muscles. It’s also all about women dancing together and engaging in the Divine feminine, so for me there’s a lot of joy associated with it. Plus, you get to dress up in cute, swishy hip scarves that jingle.

#3: Swinging

I’m talking about the kind you did when you were a kid – not spouse swapping (although that’s probably pretty good exercise, too). Head to the park and hop on a swing set. Pump your legs to go as high as you can. It’s great for the core, and it feels freeing and fabulous.

#4: Dancing – of Any Kid

While I list tribal belly dance and Nia separately, I think any kind of dancing is a wonderful workout. Sign up for ballroom dance classes or salsa lessons with your partner. Turn on music and dance around the house in your underwear. Go out dancing with friends. Just move. To music. It feels fantastic, joyful, freeing, and fun.

#5: Sports

It doesn’t matter if it’s tennis, racquetball, ping pong, kick ball, basketball, dodgeball, or any other sport. Find a sport you love and participate. Join a recreation league. Run around like you did when you were a kid.

#6: Playing

Remember when you were a kid and you’d play frisbee, roll down hills, climb on the monkey bars, spin in circles, fly kites, ride bikes, roller skate, and dozens of other activities that were fun and allowed you to blow off steam? What’s stopping you as an adult? Take time every day to engage in active play – with your kids, with your dogs, with friends, with family, or even by yourself. Move with joy, and your body will respond. So will your spirit.

#7: Hiking

Get outside and move. In nature. While appreciating nature. Taking local hikes or walks is a great way to gently encourage your body to move.

#8: Water Sports

Whether you’re kayaking, canoeing, waterskiing, swimming, or rowing a boat, you’re exercising. But it’s so much fun, you hardly realize what you’re doing. Water sports are great exercise that can also provide you with moments of zen if you remain present time focused in what you’re doing.

#9: Biking, Skating, and Scooting

Whether it’s a skateboard, scooter, inline skates, bicycle, unicycle, or long board, if you’re making something with wheels and no engine move, you’re getting a great workout.

Just Move!

What’s the trick to bringing joy to your exercise routine? Just move. Move while it feels good in ways that feel good in your body. When your body tells you it’s time, stop. If your body wants to work harder, play harder, slowing down or stopping as your body signals you it’s ready. By finding activities you love, you can give your body all the exercise it craves without needing to engage in workouts that feel like work.