Thursday was a sad day.
This may seem like a silly thing for me to say, given that many of you know that on Thursday my thesis had been approved by grad division at UCLA, AND I had gotten asked to interview for a really awesome job (I had a phone interview Friday! Think it went well but still waiting to hear.)
So ok, Thursday wasn’t totally sad. But I was genuinely bummed to have to say goodbye…
…to my exercise classes.
Seriously. I took yoga and an “intro-to-weightlifting” class at my school gym this quarter, and sadly everything ends before week 10. (1 quarter = 10 weeks + finals week. So I’m almost done!) They were awesome, and I’m going to miss them so much. And on a practical level, I really need to get on top of replacing them with new exercise routines sooner rather than later.
See, exercise is an essential component of my “staying sane” plan, an essential tool in my ‘moving forward’ toolbox. It helps get the tension out of all my muscles so I sleep better at night. It makes me feel alive and strong and it helps keep my depression at bay. It’s something to do when I’m crawling out of my skin with nervous energy. And you guys, yoga has done so much for my anxiety levels and random stress-related back pain.
But you may have noticed… exercise was NOT in the ‘moving forward’ list of tricks. And I have to tell you: that was a very deliberate choice.
It’s not that I don’t like exercise, obviously. But I left it off the list because exercise is so so frequently suggested to people who are struggling, particularly with mental health issues… and I think that sometimes that’s not a great thing. See, while my other tips, like “be nice to yourself” and “make some comforting rituals”, seem pretty broadly applicable and innocuous, I know that isn’t true of exercise.
For a significant number of people, “you should exercise more” can be a really problematic prescription. If you have the right brain chemistry, exercise itself can become a dangerous obsession or means to self harm. If you’re out of shape or recovering from physical illness or just have always considered yourself ‘bad’ at athletic activity, exercise can be incredibly stressful, and sometimes becomes just another Thing You Are Bad At to beat yourself up about. (This is particularly true of those of us who are [recovering?] perfectionists.) If you’re also heavy or self-conscious about your weight, “exercise more” can feel like fat-shaming.
Basically, there are all sorts of situations where this advice sucks (feel free to brainstorm more in the comments). But let me put a less abstract spin on it–a brief story:
I have always been ‘the klutz’. I was the kid who always spilled her milk at lunch. I was the desperately uncoordinated one in gym class. I was always covered in bruises and scrapes. I sprained my ankles multiple times before middle school and once as an adult, and I’m still clumsy on crutches.
I was teased for this, as you might expect, though the vast majority of it was intended to be good-natured. It didn’t matter though. I either identified with the label so much that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, or I was biologically predisposed to this, or both… but regardless, I’m still The Clumsy One and am still terribly self-conscious about it, and that plus my perfectionism have melded to form this horrible um… tic?… of mine that I still haven’t completely gotten rid of.
Learning any series of coordinated movements or new physical skill, even relatively simple ones, is very hard for me. Or at least, my brain expects it to be. So a great deal of the time, when I am asked to do this, I panic/get frustrated very easily. And often if I’m being watched, I freeze entirely. My mind goes blank, and suddenly I’m the scared kid in front of a class with everyone staring at me. If someone tries to help me, I can’t even respond properly–I just shake my head and stammer “I…I can’t.”
Once, early in a relationship, I went on a date where the guy attempted to teach me how to play pool. I was excited! I really wanted to learn, I really liked the guy, and it was a fun idea for a date! But I was SO BAD at it, and suddenly I hated my stupid body and my stupid brain and I was panicking and trying not to cry because what kind of crazy person/jerk gets upset about being bad at something I was just learning?
So anyhow, this thing that I do… has a tendency to be a problem in exercise classes. I’ve gotten way, way better at controlling it/hiding it, but when I’m exhausted or under a lot of stress… sometimes I fail at that.
And no, that isn’t the end of the world, as embarrassing as it is to burst into tears while in downward dog*. But it does mean that on that day, exercise might end up being a net loss for my mood rather than a net gain. Which sucks.
These days, I can usually afford the risk of occasionally getting all weird and panicky–it’s worth it for the benefits I get from the exercise. But there have been times in my life that the equation certainly did not balance out that way, either because a specific activity stressed me out too much, or because I was just overall not holding it together very well, and could not take One More Thing. And at those times, telling me to exercise more would have just made me feel guilty and pathetic.
So anyhow, getting back around to my point. If exercise is a totally un-fraught thing for you that makes you feel good, that’s awesome and you should keep it up. But it just isn’t that simple for some of us, and I therefore have a problem giving “exercise more!” as un-qualified advice.
That isn’t to say that if you’re a perfectionist or prone to excessive/obsessive exercising or have physical limitations or whatever that you shouldn’t try to exercise as a means of improving your health/stress release. What I am saying is that you should know yourself and take whatever steps you need to to make exercise an actually enjoyable/beneficial thing for you.
Don’t work out in ways that make you miserable. If you hate running, try something else. If you’re prone to pushing yourself too hard, get a trainer or at least a workout partner who can help keep you in check. For anyone who gets easily frustrated/worked up when your body doesn’t work the way you want it to, I highly recommend including some activity that will help you become more aware of and comfortable in your body–yoga and other sort of mind-body focused practices can be good for this. A nice dose of self-compassion doesn’t hurt either. I don’t have all the solutions here… but if you’re going to put the energy in to exercise, make it something that works for you, not against you.
I’m sad that yoga and lifting are over, (and even sadder that graduating means replacing school gym courses with more expensive private alternatives or going without) because they’re damn good for me. They make me feel good. But I work hard to make that true–it’s takes effort to be kind to myself when I feel like my stupid clumsy body is sabotaging my idiotic pursuit of perfection. And I know I’m not alone–lots of people turn exercise into a stick to beat themselves with, either out of guilt for not doing it enough/doing it ‘wrong’, or by OVERdoing it.
So yes, exercise! (In particular, do yoga, because I swear, stretching and mindfulness are fucking magic!…. Ok, not really, but they make me feel awesome, so forgive my cheerleading, ok?) But being kind to yourself and your body needs to be a priority, and that requires different things for different people. So even if exercise has done awesome, awesome things for you, be mindful about your evangelizing–what works for you is not everyone’s magic bullet.
*This actually happened to me this quarter… my neck muscles were spasming and I got so mad at myself for not being able to hold poses because of the pain that I started sobbing. Flattering story, I know. My adorable sweetheart of a yoga instructor handled it so well though, and I’m quite grateful for that. Mr. Adorable Yogi is also a musician, if you’re so inclined you should click over and check him out.