Six weeks in to the Joy In Motion Project, I am beginning to notice some important shifts - most of which feel positive and empowering, and one pesky one that I’m tempted to view as a setback, but that I know will end up serving me in the long run.
Exciting Shift #1:
Last week, fueled by the motivating energy I always feel around the start of a new year, I embarked on a cleaning frenzy. I’ve never been one of those people who think cleaning is fun (and honestly, I worry about them), but I went all in nonetheless, going so far as to scrub the top of the refrigerator - a long-neglected place indeed. And a few hours later, everything looked and felt miles better.
When I woke up the following day, I was prepared for the worst. For years, a pain-ravaged body is the price I have had to pay for a clean home. My lower back and my feet, specifically, give me the most trouble if I’ve been standing a lot the day before.
I hesitate to talk about the pain in my feet, because I know so many people will take one look at me and prescribe weight loss as the ultimate solution. Thing is, I’ve had problems with pain in my feet since I was a child - and a straight-size one at that. I have entirely flat arches, which may have something to do with it. I think I was somewhere around eleven or twelve years old the first time I went to the doctor with foot pain, and ever since then I have relied on gel inserts, arch supports, and, during all those years of active restaurant work, orthopedic shoes whenever I could get my hands on them.
No, pain in my lower extremities is nothing new. Let me be clear: I’m sure the downward pressure from my fat body isn’t doing my feet any favors - but I am also sure the problem existed long before my weight began to fluctuate to such extremes. However, I don’t feel like explaining this all the time - it’s exhausting (and unfair: would a thin person feel obligated to divulge her medical history to explain her foot pain and prove she’s not actively destroying her own body by existing as she is? Probably not). So most of the time, I don’t mention the pain in my feet, even when it gets extreme. Rest assured though, that if you have witnessed me standing for more than fifteen minutes at a time, I’m feeling it.
Similarly, I’ve been experiencing chronic lower back pain since I was in my early twenties, rail-thin, and trekking through the steep and unforgiving terrain of the Rocky Mountain wilderness on a regular basis. It’s something I’m just used to. At this point, it almost feels like the pain itself is a part of my body; an organ whose sole function is to make me miserable from time to time.
As I mentioned earlier, the pain in my feet and lower back is generally exacerbated by standing for longer periods of time. And once it gets bad, it tends to hang around for a few days, which is why I fully expected the morning after my cleaning spree to be a particularly rough one.
So imagine my surprise when I got out of bed and put my feet on the floor, only to find that they didn’t feel like they were being sliced open with tiny razor blades! The shock only compounded when I took my first few steps across the bedroom and realized I wasn’t hobbling around like a Disney witch due to pain and stiffness in my back! I wasn’t pain-free, mind you - my feet were sore and my back ached a bit, and honestly I can’t remember a single pain-free morning in many years - but compared to the way I’m accustomed to feeling after a day of intense cleaning, the difference was significant, indeed.
What this means for Joy In Motion:
I can't say any of the activities I did while cleaning the kitchen brought me joy. However, I’m beginning to recognize the extent to which my pain acts as a barrier to movement. The discovery that I was experiencing notably less pain than usual felt like a massive leap forward, as lessening the pain will undoubtedly help contribute to more enjoyable - and hopefully even joyful - movement experiences going forward.
Exciting Shift #2:
I never really got in to yoga. I took a few classes, back when I was working out all the time, but I found them highly stress-inducing - which, as far as I can tell, contradicts the whole point of doing yoga in the first place. The whole time, the instructor would be calling out positions, which I would try to do, but I would barely have figured it out before we were moving on to the next. It was like a continuous game of catch-up, and it made me feel anxious, rather than peaceful.
About a year ago, I found myself thinking yoga might be a good thing to try for my body, but I knew I didn’t want to do a class. If I couldn’t keep up back then, when I was thin and a lot more mobile, I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to now. And I didn’t want to be the lone fat person in a room full of thin yogis (which may sound like an exaggeration, but I assure you is not, as the city I live in is, according to Forbes Magazine, one of the top three fittest cities in the United States; I’m accustomed to being the lone fat person everywhere, not just in fitness-related environments). I’d stand out like a sore thumb - and that was the last thing I wanted.
So I pulled up some “yoga for beginners” videos online, got out my old yoga mat, and pressed play…and found that, due to various combinations of my bulk, my mobility, my pain, or all three, I could only successfully execute about 20% of the positions that were demonstrated (one of which was child’s pose, which I felt I couldn’t even give myself credit for, because anything that can be mistaken for sleep certainly didn’t count). You guys - I couldn’t even do corpse pose! Corpse - as in, even people who are no longer alive can handle this really simple position. Everyone but me.
I tried a few other videos, but everything I found yielded the same result: I can’t do this.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I walked away from that idea and didn’t spend a whole lot of time looking back.
The surprising part came last weekend, when I received an open-ended invitation to a yoga class and I actually considered going someday.
Yes, I am aware that considering going is not the same as actually going. Still, believe me when I say that this is a huge leap. The very fact that my response wasn’t a hard and fast NO is nothing short of miraculous.
What this means for Joy In Motion:
I’m building more trust in my body - or, possibly, more trust in myself to be able to give my body what it is asking for without worrying so much about what other people think. Either way, it signals less of an aversion to movement, which can only be a good thing.
Exciting Shift #3:
I’ve been noticing something new: stiffness in my legs, the kind that makes me feel like I need a good thigh stretch.
I wondered why. Vanessa and I haven’t been doing much work focusing specifically on the legs; it’s not as though I’ve been putting them through the wringer. Why the sudden tight muscles and overwhelming need to stretch?
Then it dawned on me. My legs have probably felt this way for so many years. It’s not that the stiffness is anything new…it’s that I’m actually beginning to feel the lower half of my body.
So I’ve been stretching and stretching and stretching, and sometimes it floods me with this gorgeous, blissful feeling, like sinking slowly into a hot tub and feeling the warmth envelop me. Other times, inexplicably, I cry, and I believe those are the times in which all the trauma that lives in my body is being excavated, worked through, and released, cell by cell. In this way, stretching has become the emotional equivalent of an archaeological dig, bringing long-buried artifacts into the light of day.
What this means for Joy In Motion:
I’m beginning to come back into my body - a place I have not fully inhabited for many, many years, which leads me to…
The Not-Quite-As-Exciting Shift:
I’m noticing that I’m experiencing a slew of critical thoughts about my body, which just confirms what I wrote in my last post: my previous idea of what it meant to love my body was entirely dependent on my dissociation from it. Now that I am spending more time fully inhabiting and being present to my physical form, a lot of my old conditioning is returning.
I’ve caught myself thinking things like “maybe I won’t eat anything today” - thoughts I used to have on a regular basis, before my departure from diet culture. I was on an ever-present quest to make myself smaller, and severely restricting my food intake was an effective method. It’s been years since I’ve had persistent thoughts like this, and I don’t like that they’re back. I don’t like having to convince myself that it’s a good idea to let myself eat.
It would be easy to believe I’m backsliding into diet culture. I am, after all, doing the same things I used to do before I reached a place of acceptance for my fat body: critically judging my reflection in the mirror, looking at photos of myself and thinking all kinds of horrible thoughts about the way I look, noticing how wide my thighs are, how far to the sides my hips stick out. It’s tempting to tell myself I’m right back where I started.
But in some deep, ancient part of me, I know that’s not true.
I know these tough thoughts and feelings that are coming up are, though unpleasant, a necessary part of the healing process. And I know that, if it gets to be too much, I have the option to stop trying to be connected in my body. I could keep on using dissociation as a tool to keep the fatphobic, critical, self-loathing thoughts at bay.
Or…I can make the choice to keep moving forward, one step at a time, and deal with the hard things as they arise. And I know, now, that this is a choice I am strong enough to make.
What this means for Joy In Motion:
Ultimately…I think it means this project is giving me exactly what I need. Navigating through the tough stuff is an opportunity for me to break down so many barriers…and I’m really, really excited to see what life - and movement - is like on the other side.
Joy In Motion is a collaboration between myself and movement coach Vanessa Leigh Aschmann. The sole purpose of this coaching is to help me re-learn how to experience joy in my body. That’s it. It’s not exercise. It’s not a workout. It’s movement for movement’s sake.
I know I cannot be the only one who struggles to find joy through movement. I know I am not alone in the lifetime experience of exercise as little else than punishment. And my hope is that, as I navigate through my fear and learn more empowering ways to connect to my body and give it the movement it craves, I can help others who may be struggling in similar ways by sharing my experience.
Want to follow along? I’ll be posting regularly here on the blog, and you can also connect with me and Vanessa in the following ways:
My Instagram: @aliowensempowerment
Vanessa’s Instagram: @vanessaleighmovement
Vanessa’s Facebook page: Vanessa Leigh Movement
Vanessa's website: www.vanessaleighmovement.com