Can you love exercise?
A lot of people struggle to do exercise with any regularity … even though they know it’s good for them and they’ve noticed that they feel better afterward. Maybe they see it as a boring waste of time that is nevertheless obligatory, sort of like washing the dishes. It’s the rare person that feels enthusiastic about washing the dishes.
There’s more than one way to approach the practice of exercise.
I actually prefer the word movement, but a lot of people relate to the word exercise, so I’m gonna’ go with that.
Have you ever heard the term spiritual materialism? It shows up in groups exploring various paths to right living and connection with the underlying source of the material world. What it refers to is this overwhelming tendency to want to achieve an outcome with our actions. For example: I want to meditate in order to be calm in the face of adversity, or I pray in order to get what I’m praying for.
Allow me to coin the phrase exercise materialism.
Exercise materialism is when we put in the time in order to achieve an outcome. For example; I exercise in order to be healthy, to be fit, to be aesthetically acceptable, to run 26.2 miles or to do a perfect sun salutation. This materialistic approach is currently the primary way that our culture relates to exercise. The problem is that going through the motions in order to achieve a goal makes the process boring…and demoralizing if the goal feels far away.
There’s another way.
Exercise is, or could be, a practice of personal exploration. It’s a form of meditation or spiritual practice. It doesn’t need to be performed in a slow, solemn way, it could be rambunctious and bouncy.
It’s a way to explore our current limits and see really deeply the body that we live in and that has been serving us faithfully for decades. Even though this body may be cared for, it may not necessarily be being celebrated. Exercise is a way to really see, acknowledge and celebrate our body.
In order to do that we have to be curious…and we have to refrain from shame and blame. “Hmmm…I wonder what I can do? Hmmm…I didn’t know that would be so hard, why is that so hard? Is there a way I could do it differently, or maybe work up to it by doing something similar?”
If we start to explore, and let go of goals, we can begin to move in all sorts of ways without fear of hurting ourselves. I think it is the lack of engaged curiosity and the attachment to the goal that causes all these exercise injuries we hear about. For example; what if you’re at mile 24 of your marathon and your leg really starts to hurt? Do you stop and say, “Enough for now.” or do you power through? It can feel really important to get something checked off the list.
There’s nothing wrong with running a marathon. Maybe you just want to see if you can run a marathon? But it’s really easy to slide into wanting to get that goal checked off the list. I really like what I once read in an alpine mountaineering book, “My goal isn’t to make it to the top of the mountain. My goal is to make it back down again.” Maybe while you’re running the marathon…or whatever it is…your goal can be not so much to run this marathon, but to be able to run the next one?
There are goals where we’re comparing ourselves to others or to some established structure, like the “right” way to do crunches or the “right way” to do a sun salutation. Or there are the challenges we envision for ourselves, to see what we can overcome.
What if we just spent some time with our bodies each day…exploring…playing, without anything to compare ourselves to? “Hmmm…I wonder if I could do that? I wonder if I could jump up onto the bed with both feet at once? I wonder if I could jump from here to there and land gently, without the china cabinet rattling? I wonder if I could hang from one arm?”
The Ultimate Benefit
The benefit of this approach is that exercise or movement goes from being a boring, repetitive obligation, to being a fascinating process of discovering connections, both with ourselves and with our world, that we didn’t even know existed, of encountering fear and finding our way through it, or of being surprised…perhaps at first by our unexpected limitations and later by our unhoped for, unplanned competence and confidence…by our wholeness and our strength.