Move your body; move your mind

11c0c0a2aeb9bff97e3827b05f593d85I remember when I decided to start running again (since my days of college track and field). It was almost three-and-a-half years ago, I had just returned home from living in Ecuador for two years. I felt like an alien, I missed my boyfriend there, I missed a lot of things, and I had no job, nor any prospects. I was sitting down to lunch with my dad and my sisters. Ellen was talking about the half-marathon she was running in September. I hadn’t run in years, but I suddenly found myself interrupting their conversation to ask if she thought I could train for a half marathon in three-and-a-half months. She said yes. So I said I’d do it. At the point in my life, I needed a goal, I needed something to do, to focus on, to work toward. It was a lonely, confusing time, and much to my surprise, running gave me the space to work through a lot of those disorienting and often isolating emotions.

It was a rough start, and I didn’t think about much in the beginning except about how I wanted to stop, and when was the next time I could? But as my ability to just-keep-going improved, I found that running allowed me to reflect upon and understand experiences that had been chewing away at me for a while. It got to the point, where, long after my first half marathon, I’d find myself putting on my sneakers and heading out for a run because something was bugging me and I wasn’t quite sure what or why, but I knew a little jog might help shake things loose.

And let’s not forget the feeling of accomplishment associated with completing a half-marathon in just under two hours with less than four months of running under your belt. For an unemployed, but highly qualified and bilingual teacher, it was just the reminder I needed: that things were not hopeless, that I was not hopeless, that I was indeed capable of achieving things.

I ran a lot for a solid year, including a second half marathon. And, honestly, I’m not sure I would have held it together as well as I did that year had I not been running. Running got me back into yoga, too, which helped me in ways the road could not. That year, I faced a rather ugly cycle of obsessive anxiety, dozens of rejection letters, failed interviews, failed demo lessons, and the embarrassment of paying for my groceries with a Benefits card. It was not a happy time. It was the only time in my life when I truly lost hope that things would all work out in the end. I wouldn’t wish that kind of darkness on anyone.

But then I stopped running. I ran a few times while living in Boston and came to exciting points of understanding while on those runs (which reminded me of how important it was for my mental health), but, life had other plans. I ended up getting a job teaching, became a work-a-holic, and really only did yoga regularly. Running took a back seat to all of my other “superior” needs. That was two years ago.

The other day, I read this. It is a blog post written by a yogi on how she used to be a competitive figure skater, and how, in fact, it was actually figure skating that brought her to yoga. She said something that got my attention:

“It was the first time I understood that in order to process my emotions; I had to move my body.”

That sentence stopped me in my mental tracks. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I do a lot of sitting around and thinking about what I want to do and not a whole lot of doing it. I’ve been thinking lately how this particular round of anxiety is affecting me more deeply than previous ones. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I miss being more competitive and physical. I’ve been thinking way too much. My head is a cup runneth over, and not in the good way.

The yoga helps–it does. It slows me down, it centers me, it helps me be in my body rather than my head or on an emotional roller coaster. I love yoga. Like, a lot.

But I miss moving. Really moving. I could do vinyasa yoga, I suppose, but I don’t really enjoy it. I love yoga because it slows me down, centers me, and I don’t want to turn it into something else. I have to move in some other way. I miss moving through space, I miss feeling my body being carried forward, I miss the ease with which my lungs moved large quantities of oxygen through my body, I miss that determination, that focus.

So this afternoon, I was mystified by my emotions. And worse, I was stuck in them. I was already wearing spandex and a thermal top. My sneakers were by the door (I’ve been thinking about getting back into running for about two weeks, now), and the weather was beautiful. The only thing stopping me… was me. I was hesitant thanks to a bizarre knee injury (obtained last summer, during my one month of running), but decided to go for it. (If my knee decides to not cooperate, I’ll have a reason to sign up for the modern dance or adult ballet classes that I’ve been mildly intrigued by for the last year.)

I only ran about a mile and a half. It’s been a while. My lungs hurt, and my hips hurt, but I felt good. I felt better. I sensed that my emotions were no longer sinking into a pit in my gut, but were being processed, moved about, dispersed. It suddenly made sense to me why I felt the way I did–and what elicited those feelings in the first place. I did not run from my emotions, I ran with them, through them, and without so much thinking about them. Some people do perhaps exercise to get out of or away from themselves, to keep anxiety or stress at bay, but I think that running, or any exercise really, can also provide us a space in which greater understanding of emotions, stress, and anxiety can be experienced. I remember my year from hell. I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been if I hadn’t had all those miles alone, allowing the movement of my body to shake loose from its hinges all of the shit I was hanging onto needlessly. Moving my body like that, moving forward, exerting some amount of force, that helps me drag stuff out of the dark corners I’ve left it in, process it, and let it go.

Running may not be the most exciting thing in the world, but, like all my years as a swimmer taught me (staring at the bottom of a blue pool for 2 hours a day) there is peace in that place of relative boredom, and rhythm. It takes some serious self discipline to get myself out of my warm apartment and into the cold, to run, to move when I’m feeling lazy or achey or tired, but, as long as my knee doesn’t misbehave, I’m going to keep doing it (and if it does, it’s dancing time!). I remember: the more I ran before, the easier it got. It might be different for everyone, but I think I need that movement, that rhythm, that boredom. And I need that narrow focus coupled with the expansiveness of the air all around me, the ever-changing scenery–external forward motion helps all kinds of internal things get un-stuck, at least in my experience. The boredom dissipates after a while anyway. If I remember correctly–if the boredom stays, you’re not doing it right.

So, here’s a little thank you to that blog post that reminded me how much I need movement to help me process what’s going on inside. And here’s a little thanks to my sisters for getting me into running in the first place. And here’s to hoping  that this, coupled with my beloved yoga and meditation practices, leads me to a place of greater peace, understanding, and movement forward. Literally and figuratively, amigos mios.

(And yes, I know I know what the buddhists and mindfulness people say: that we’re already here in a place of peace and contentment, that we’ve already got everything we need: and yes, I believe that I do, that we all do. But I also believe that we don’t all have access to it all the time, and various physical and mental/emotional practices can act as the key that at last allows all of those tiny little locks to be opened.)

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