Rethink Physical Health: A Different Way to Look at Exercising's Benefits
I wasn’t the fittest kid in school. Not even close to it. Physical Education in Vietnam, aka exercises and sports, is always considered an extra thing, much less important as Math, Literature or Physics. Kids almost never experience the rush of adrenaline after a run, and the exhilaration afterwards. Exercising, much like reading, is a learned preference. Do it the right way and you will learn to like it gradually with time. But in school, most of us learn to hate it instead. As a result, we grow up with the ignorance of what works and doesn’t work for our physical health, zero awareness and sensitivity about our bodies, and how interconnected all these stuffs are to every other aspects of lives.
And then at some point in our lives someone tell us that we are 20 kg overweight. So we start feeling bad about our bodies. We look at ourselves in the mirrors with repulsion; and look at underwear models, body-builders, so-called fitness gurus with admiration and desires. We then begin to put ourselves in all sort of special diets juice-only, meat-only, no-carb, and so on. We also pay for a gym subscription and in the first day we run for 60 minutes. This of course, never last long. Most exercise regime die within 6 months. Let me summarize what’s just happened: we starve and work ourselves out to exhaustion, all for nothing, because we hate ourselves.
I’ve observed that most of us follow two extremes when it comes to our relationship with our own bodies. We either worship it or punish it. We treat it either as our master or our slave. But the truth is: it shouldn’t be either way.
Now I can write all these stuffs down because they happened to me in the past. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this nonsense. I’m lucky enough to have found the middle way. Having been trying to walk it, I hope my experience can shed some light on your path to a more holistic health. In regard to the relationship we should have with our bodies. It is our tool, in many ways:
I like how Yoga Master Erich Schiffmann compares our bodies to our cars in his famous book Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness. He wrote that when our cars work fine, we barely notice its existence. But when some dysfunction happens, let say a flat tire or a noisy smoky engine, you can no longer enjoy the drive. Sadly, many of us spend more time taking care of our cars and taking care of our bodies. When you are normal, you don’t notice your body. When you have stuffed-nose, sore eyes, or headache, you can’t pay attention to anything else. This means that a fit body frees you from body-awareness in order to have the un-divided consciousness to enjoy life.
I started yoga and swimming in 2012 as a prescription for back pain. I also suffered from incessant afternoon headaches due to low blood pressure. Now both of them have disappeared. I’m the fastest female runner in my running class, and I can write in the afternoon without back pain or headache. This is the first and most basic, though essential, benefit of exercising.
However, it doesn’t stop there. This amazing tool that we were born with and will die with, can do much more. Neuroscience has made quantum leap in the last decade. Never before have we known so much about our brain. In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain – an exquisite compendium of neuroscience studies – Harvard Medical School’s clinical professor of psychiatry John J. Ratey outlines 8 neurological elements that are interconnected and influenced by what we do to our bodies: Learning, Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Attention Deficit, Addiction, Hormonal Changes, Aging. Positively, or negatively influenced, take your pick.
It turns out that the brain that helps us to run with out breaking out legs is also the brain that helps us to learn Spanish without offending Spanish people. (Surprise!) When we exercise, we activate certain areas of the brain, and – to be very simple – help them to stay in good shape, and stay young too. Besides the substances that are released through us flirting with out physical limits are like “brain food”. It helps us stay concentrate, clear, calm. Thus, tasks are handled with higher accuracy, ease and speed. Therefore, the whole “body and mind are one” isn’t only spirituality – though I’m convinced with this dimension – it is also science. In short, a fit body keeps the brain fit.
This leads to the third benefit. Now science aside, I will speak directly from my experience. When I started training my body, a transformation begun to happen. The goodness of exercising, to my very surprise, spills over every facets of my life: my self-discipline, my diet and my soul.
There is something about waking up at 5:30 in the morning. (It used to be 6:15) It is like the highest demonstration of willpower and self-discipline, a way to shout aloud to the world that my life principle is stronger than my impulse, that I can cut through my own resistance like a samurai with the blade of his sword. What a way to start a day! I feel that the rest of the day just fall in to placed more easily.
There is something about committing to a new way of living. It occurred naturally inside that I preferred vegetable and lean food over greasy and trashy one. A plate of boiled carrots and broccoli looks tastier than a plate of fried chicken. So a clean diet will come without force, without struggle. This happens to many many other people. There is actually research study that proves the high correlation between exercise and clean diet. It takes time though. But everything meaningful takes time.
Not least, there is something about the solitude practice, the movements, the breaths. The whole experience of exercising makes me sensitive to my body - the manifestation of my being. I’m sensitive to the energy that flows within it and its center. I know when it flows harmoniously, when it blotches, when I’m off-centered, and how to gain back my center. This brings joy, calmness, stillness to my day. I bet it will also happen to yours, with time.
Please notice that what I wrote applies to non-athletes. The benefits of a strong body are obvious if your vocation is sports.
Now let talk about the most common, but largely distorted reason of body training. Maybe you’ve noticed the lack of any “appearance” benefits, because for me they are all – excuse me – superficial nonsense. Your body is a good tool but a poor master. An attractive body is the added values, it might come with the exercise, it might not. Besides beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. And beauty isn’t about how your body look, it’s about how you shine from inside. Whoever disagree with that can – excuse me again – fuck off. He doesn’t deserve the little time you have on this earth.
If your motivation to exercise is fear, insecurity, self-hatred, nothing good will ever come out. You might fit in that wedding dress or that bikini this summer. So what? You will never find peace. You will never be free from body-awareness, in fact, injury will be lurking in the corner. The exercise won’t feel good for you. Your brain will be filled with stress instead of relaxation. Look at supermodels, who have the skinniest things and the flattest tummies, they are the most insecure, fearful creatures. Don’t do it to yourself.
Exercise from a place of self-compassion. You deserve love and belonging now. And you exercise because you love your body, and because you want to raise yourself to your highest potentials, and because it brings joy to you. Have patience. Everything meaningful comes with time. This is the practice of a lifetime.
Lao Tzu once said “The master sticks to her tools”.
Are you sticking to yours?