Several years ago, my husband asked me what I would want to do if money weren't a consideration--if I had infinite funds. For the next hour, I removed all barriers and allowed my mind to weave my passions together and create a vision for my ultimate project. At a high level, here's what it looked like: Develop an amazing piece of real estate (think beautiful, serene setting, either wooded or ocean) into a wellness retreat where people could come to recharge or reboot their physical and spiritual well-being. A place where we can do the work to start breaking down old or new limiting beliefs we may be carrying around (we all have them) and then--this is KEY--leave with some transformational tools to carry out the daily practices after leaving.
Two tools I would want everyone to leave with would be: 1) Connection with the power and joy of movement. 2) Connection with the power of the breath through breathing techniques, meditation, and yoga. These two tools of breath and movement have been such a game-changer in my life. However, it was the power of movement that I first discovered to be a Super Power before I ever discovered breath work and meditation. Discovering that I can self-regulate my mood and sense of well-being through movement and exercise has been my greatest source of empowerment.
I suppose it's because movement has been such a major force in my life that I have such a strong desire for others to find a form of movement that sparks joy and empowerment for them. For me, it's my daily physical and emotional foundation. And before I learned to add breath-work and meditation to that foundation, it was my sole tool for regulating my well-being. It's not a "should"for me and my heart genuinely breaks a little when I hear people talk about exercise from a place of guilt....like, I really "should" do that. Or they just think of movement and exercise as a necessary (evil) punishment for what they choose to eat.
I am a relatively disciplined person, but there is no area in my life that I have demonstrated more discipline than movement and exercise. Consistently. For years. I'm up at 4:30 am most days so that I can start my day with movement. I'm a self-proclaimed exercise enthusiast, but it goes much deeper than a desire to wear a certain size of clothing or hit a running PR. For me, it's my mental health lever. It's therapy. It's my daily happy pill. It wasn't always like this though.
Around the age of 20, I found myself in a total shit storm of my life. (I am so grateful for that shit storm today, but it was intense, painful, and awful for several years). I was in recovery for alcohol addiction, a 105-pound anorexic-bulimic, and on anti-depressants for what the doctor labeled "chronic depression". Oh, and newly married. (Congratulations, Chris! You just walked into the eye of the shit storm). As I began the journey of treatment and healing, I still always felt a sense of being so fragile and helpless -- like, even though I was making progress, I could self-destruct at any moment. Perhaps it was that fear and awareness of my own fragility that kept me moving forward--that kept me sober--but it still had a disempowering hold over me.
And then I found a magic Super Power within me that I could tap into**. At 26, I discovered running for the first time in my life. Running provided me with a powerful mental health tool to change my mood and my sense of well-being, pretty much any time and any place. It was like having a built-in therapist and pharmacist on-call within my muscles. It was a magical feeling. No more happy pills. I was my own happy pill. I don't mean for this to sound like everyone has to enjoy running. In fact, I have almost entirely replaced it with other things today. Running was really just a very welcome "gateway drug" for me to recognize the joy that movement brings out in me. It doesn't matter if it's a HiiT class, Barre, yoga, bootcamp, or a trail run, I find joy, empowerment, and a sense of community in all of it. And I would love to help others tap into that source of joy in movement, whatever it may be for them.
There's a new book out by Kelly McGonigal called The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage. When I first saw this book, I thought Whoa! Someone just wrote the book that I would have loved to have written. She discusses the importance of movement as a means to self-regulate mental health, as well as a catalyst for bringing people together as a community. She's an exercise enthusiast, but her primary line of research is actually in meditation and anxiety, which adds to the depth of her research on movement. She dives into the science behind it, which is fascinating to me.
There's actually science that goes deeper than just the endorphins or "runner's high" we often hear about. Kelly talks about a molecule that has so fittingly been labeled the "Hope Molecule". These little myokine molecules are pumped out by our muscles when we engage in movement like exercise. It's like having a pharmacy for our brain that can release natural anti-depressants. You've no doubt been told that lactic acid is responsible for making you sore after you exercise. Well, did you know it also has anti-depressant properties?
This may seem obvious, but there's also a sense of accomplishment that comes with exercise and movement that naturally makes us feel good. And while I'm working really hard to untether my sense of self-worth from accomplishments; I will gladly hold on to the positive sense of accomplishment I feel when I wrap up a sweaty workout. And it's a bonus to me if I'm with other people because we are all having fun and accomplishing something together as a community. The group energy will keep me going long after my mind tells me to stop.
I know group fitness classes or group sports are not everyone's jam. I thrive with the group energy and the loud music. I wouldn't show up consistently without it. My husband, on the other hand, would probably opt for a root canal over joining me for a HiiT class, but he will gladly design an intense workout he can efficiently do at home. He likes quiet and focus. I like music and high energy. [I'm pretty sure I have always gravitated toward this, as I have memories of doing old-school step aerobics classes with my parents around the age of 12. Then I was my dad's gym buddy when spinning was first introduced. I've tried pretty much every new type of class since.] The key is just to find something that sparks some joy -- even if it's small at first. There's no reason to torture ourselves doing an exercise or activity that we do simply because we think that's what we are supposed to be doing to be "fit" or in shape. Find movement that creates a sense of well-being.
While running was the gateway to finding my power in movement, my "one true love" of movement today is my yoga practice. For me, it's the convergence of movement, mindfulness, community and breath work. Yoga literally means "union". It's the whole package for where I'm at today. It interweaves the physical and spiritual. It embodies practice; not perfection. There is no finish line. Just breath and the joy of movement. Maybe someday I will learn to find that same joy simply in the movement of breath alone -- without the physical movement. It's a practice.
My wellness sanctuary still only exists in my mind. But I also realize it doesn't take a wellness retreat to find the power of movement. It might just take a willingness to try something new if you haven't found your jam yet. I don't view exercise as a "should" or a punishment for the box of Valentine's chocolates I'm enjoying at the moment (mmmm), but that's because I have found joy in the way it makes me feel. When I start doing it out of obligation, I move on and find something new. It's not static. I'm always curious to try new classes or new activities. If anyone ever wants a buddy to get started or try a new exercise, sport, or class, I would gladly be that person. Don't hesitate to reach out.
**As a side note, I know first-hand that mental health issues are no joke. And I don't believe exercise is a cure-all. I just believe it's an often under-valued tool in our society where we prioritize quick fixes.