I was a college swimmer. Backstroke, specifically.
I love swimming. . I remember learning to swim when I was four years old. From that moment on it was virtually impossible to keep me out of the pool. My earliest involvement in competitive sport was swimming. Tuesday night races during the summer at our community pool. Then, I discovered synchronized swimming and that absorbed my time for many years. I loved going to practice all year long because it meant being in the water. This was the 1970s and synchronized swimming was not yet an Olympic sport. As a seventh grader I dreamed of that possibility, and pondered whether I could make a life in synchronized swimming, after all Esther Williams did. Our team made it as far as the Junior Olympics one year. Life became busy after that and sports shifted to only what I could do at high school.
I went to a small Division III college and was presented with the opportunity to return to competitive swimming. It felt so good to be back in the water as a part of a team with a purpose around sport. Collegiate swimming provided me with so much that was good and positive but it also came with a framework to fully absorb and integrate all of the unhealthy and unhelpful aspects of fitness culture into my life, distorted body image, patriarchal standards of beauty, and all. Although I had been internalizing those messages my entire life, prior to collegiate swimming competitive sports had not been one of the areas that provided those messages. Not until collegiate swimming.
Collegiate swimming taught me to workout. To push myself to the edge. This was the 1980’s and one of the slogans was “No pain, no gain.” The mentality permeated the workouts. It did provide structure and clear expectations for me . That was something I understood and could work with. And, so I did, for the next 25 years or so.
During those years my workouts fluctuated from rigorous to non-existent. It really depended upon my motivation at the moment. I was on a winning triathlon team because a cyclist friend needed someone for the open water swimming portion. When I decided to become an Outward Bound instructor, I had to meet the running standard and so I did. When I decided it was time to have children, it was time to lose weight and get in shape as a means of preparing my body for pregnancy and afterwards, so I did. When I didn’t have a concrete goal I would take a hiatus until I found one. And, then I would feel guilty about the hiatus. Underlying it all were the those three trappings – fitness culture, distorted body image, and patriarchal standards of beauty.
Over time my words began to change. I dropped “athlete.” I dropped “fitness.” I dropped “exercise.” I dropped “work out.” I dropped “diet.” I began to think about a new word – movement. I reached out to yoga in 1999. Yoga has been slowly and gently seeping into the fiber of who I am and my relationship with my body. My relationship with movement has been evolving over all of these years and I didn’t even realize it.
One day right before COVID19 lockdowns began I was running and my brain was swarming with lots of thoughts related to body image, exercise, food, especially around the idea that nothing is wrong with my body and that my body knows intuitively what it needs. While running that afternoon my mind began to consider the question: why do I run? And suddenly, with crystal clear clarity, I heard the response: “I run so I can roam freely.” I run so that I can roam freely. What I meant by that is I run so that my body can eat what it wants to eat, drink what it wants to drink, and feel how it wants to feel. But most importantly, I run so that my body can do what it wants to do. I run so that I can climb a mountain, hike, swim the Bay, dance with my husband, play with my kids and some day grandkids, work the land in our garden. Roaming freely also occurs in my mind and my imagination. I run so that I can clearly receive messages, so I can unleash my creativity, so I can see possibilities.
I use to say I was training to be 85. That is still part of it but now it is more defined by the interrelationship of mind, body, spirit, community, and world that I want to be able to experience when I am 85. I run so that I can roam freely; so that I can do those things and not think:, “I can’t.” My body is all right as it is; and, it knows what it needs. It is truly my partner in this life, if I am willing to listen.
The moment that I listened to and clearly heard my body’s answer my relationship with “working out” shifted. It became about movement. It became about listening to my body and asking it what it needs.
How do I do this?
- I ask questions and listen for answers. Sometimes the answers come in the moment and sometimes they appear later. I try not to set my time schedule on the answers. I endeavor to remain patient and know that I will receive the answers when the time is right.
- I awaken slowly. I have been getting up at 4am for so long that I often awake before my alarm clock so I am able to turn it off before it announces itself. I check in with how I am feeling. I stretch while still in bed and take account of any aches and pains I may have developed throughout the night so that I can address them throughout the day.
- Once awake and up, Winston (our bull mastiff family member) and I head out for our morning walk.
- I get up and move around every hour throughout the work day. Short or long. Walking or free flowing movement.
- I rest and breathe. As often as I feel is necessary.
- This body of mine is meant to move so I look for opportunities for movement in the things I love to do. Some are easy to see like gardening or hiking or yoga. Others are more subtle like moving to a song I love or moving while cooking or stretching in the shower or playing with Winston.
- When I am stressed I may go for a run or bike. That pent up energy needs to be moved and released and sometimes that is the only way to do it.
I still swim. No longer competitively and no more strenuous work outs. Now, I swim to silence the noise and move my body in a way it likes and in an environment that feels like home.
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