The Sensations of Exercise

21172688_sAs a yoga teacher one of the lessons I teach over and over and over is how useless and detrimental pain is during exercise. According to Wikipedia the phrase “No pain, no gain” is a Jane Fonda phrase that came about in her exercise videos. I do believe Jane Fonda was doing something right as she kind of started exercise in America and just happens to look like a million bucks at every single decade marker she passes. However I do believe she also did us a great disservice of not articulating what she was describing when she invited people to move beyond their point of comfort.

I do a lot of one on one therapeutic work with both acupuncture and yoga. Over the years the lesson I teach to almost every patient or student is what is pain and what is stretch. This lesson, in addition to the encouragement to avoid pain is the only certainty on the path to recovery. Those who are willing to slow down, listen to their body and become deeply intrigued by the sensations of the tissues will be able to transverse the path to recovery. Those who are disconnected and checked out from their body sensations are much harder to treat with any healing system.

This morning I woke up before my alarm and immediately started fantasizing about a sunny cold morning and the sensations of running to start my day. I have a complicated exercise background that I have talked about on numerous occasions in this blog, but for those of you who don’t know, I was a competitive rower and cross-country skier through high school. Now I always hated the skiing, but I was a VERY serious rower.

Rowing was the first time I became aware of sensations of exercise. It is a highly sensual experience. Any rower out there can tell you about the sounds that happen in a shell (or crew boat). The click of the oarlocks, the buzz of the 8 slides gliding back up to the catch and the sound of the blades (oars) slicing into the water. It is intoxicating. Add to the sounds the vibration and physical pressure of 8 people moving together and the moment of complete balance when the weight of 9 people suddenly moves fluidly without even so much as a whisper of a wiggle to one side or the other. Rowing was also the first place I learned about really entering into and past pain. Eight other bodies and spirits to contend with allows one to very easily move beyond their physical threshold.

When a row is really good it is euphoric with the synergy of eight people’s power uniting in that single moment of push, but when it is bad it is a cacophony of the senses. Every other exercise out there can be euphoric and provide an amazing wash of endorphins into the body. And every exercise out there can destroy muscle tissue, digest the proteins of the body depleting strength and cause injury. There is only one way to stay safe—pay attention. It is almost physically impossible to hurt yourself if you are paying attention. While you could still trip or twist something, you will never overexert or overstretch a muscle if you are paying attention and practicing self-love.

This morning on my run I was appreciating how much stronger I am than when I last ran in November. Even though I haven’t run in five months, the level of deep rest actually paid off in strengthening my Qi and allowed me to be more comfortable breathing while exercising. Having a touch more endurance and strength allowed me to relish in the sensations of the cool morning, my happy muscles and my delightfully challenged lungs. When the sensations became too overwhelming and it moved to discomfort I slowed to a walk and cooled down on my way back to my house. That way I enter into my day with the right amount of resources and won’t fall asleep on any patients.

When I was rowing I didn’t have the capacity (or the guts) to fully listen to my body. If we had a race day when it was pouring rain and I was three days into a cold, I rowed. If I had my period and felt faint and the coach said that we were going to have an extremely vigorous practice, I rowed. In each circumstance I had 8 other people depending on me. Most of us are not accountable for a fleet of teammates. Yes we have to lift children, grocery shop, put shoes on, mow the lawn, etc. There will always be tasks that feel like they can’t be avoided, but really you have the option to listen to the sensations every time you move your body and approve or disapprove of what you are doing to it.

When you are exercising turn off the tv, the music and the to-do list dialogue in your head. Show up fully in the present moment. Quiet all the self-criticism of how healthy and strong you are supposed to be and just experience what is happening in the body. Every day you arrive on the mat or in running shoes or in the water you need to treat your body as if you have never experienced it before. If you are even slightly dehydrated or a little tired you really can’t practice the way your normally would. You need to adjust, reconsider and accommodate this different body. Every type of exercise is a practice. It is a daily ritual of noticing changes and appreciating where you are on the journey to wellness.

The more I listen to my body and avoid pain, the more I can challenge and strengthen my body. I know this sounds crazy and in opposition to everything you hear out there. But I encourage you to contemplate this; avoiding pain sends a powerfully message of self-love to the body and encourages trust and release.

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