One of my most powerful motivators for wanting to welcome more movement into my life has been this: I want to be able to enjoy nature again.
Once upon a time, I was a veritable mountain goat. Every week, I would embark on some kind of outdoor adventure in a stunningly beautiful location. I lived in the mountains at the time, and when you live in the mountains, there's no shortage of such places, right in your backyard. I used this to my advantage.
I stood on top of snowy peaks and gazed out over stunning views that brought tears to my eyes. I trekked deep into the backcountry with the most minimal of provisions and slept beneath the stars. I saw sheer mountain faces, breathtaking in their enormity, rise from the valleys before me. I wandered in places populated by an abundance of animals and precisely zero humans.
I loved it.
I loved it for different reasons, one being, of course, the sacred, intimate connection to nature. Despite my epic adventures, my life was honestly pretty terrible during that era, and the mountains were someplace I could go that felt safe. They were my escape.
Another big reason, however, was that being fit and moving my body outdoors made me feel like the right kind of person. I'd recently lost a lot of weight, you see - a combination of illness, poverty, and, eventually, disordered eating and self-starvation - and in my new, thin body (which I never did believe was thin enough), I felt...worthy. Or at least, worthy-ish. Finally. For the first time since those confident days of childhood.
There's a lot of pressure, here in Colorado (one of the fittest states in the U.S., second only to Utah) , to live an active lifestyle. To spend your weekends mountain biking and snowshoeing and skiing and paddle-boarding (after a breakfast of organic granola with non-GMO chia seeds and a locally-brewed kombucha, of course). To be a robust, outdoorsy person. To be what our society views as healthy.
I've written a whole book about diet culture, body image, and self-love, and a large portion of that book explores the relationship between weight and health. Spoiler alert: it's not as congruent as you might think. Just as thin people can be unhealthy, fat people can be quite healthy indeed. The presence of lots of fat on a person's body does not a death sentence make, folks, and there's an abundance of studies out there that back this up. (If you're interested in reading some, check out the book Body of Truth by Harriet Brown; there's a wealth of data in there that will blow your mind.)
However, back in my days of gallivanting around the Rocky Mountains, I hadn't read that book, nor had I ever even stopped to question my deep-seated belief that thin people - especially active thin people - were somehow better than fat people. More morally solvent. More worthy of love, success, and respect.
I hate that I thought this way. But I can't blame myself for it. We are nothing if not products of our culture; I grew up believing these things, because that's what I was taught in every Disney movie, TV show, and magazine I ever encountered. Our society not only uses weight as a proxy for health, it also uses health as a proxy for worth. Morality. Correctness. If you're not healthy...clearly you're a no-good layabout whose refusal to take care of yourself puts an unnecessary strain on taxpayers. (Don't even get me started on how ableist this mentality is. I'll keep it short and say that even people who aren't healthy are deserving of love and respect. Period.)
Because of these lessons I'd absorbed from diet culture, I'd hated myself when I was fat. I didn't think I was valuable, or worthy, or beautiful, or basically anything except a lazy, stupid, lumpy piece of shit. So once I lost a whole person's worth of weight, I vowed I'd never "stoop that low" again. Trekking through the wilderness was something I took up to make sure that wouldn't happen (and to continue my weight loss, as I was still convinced I was too big).
While I did find a certain amount of joy in being out in nature, it was about so much more than that. I spent all that time hiking and climbing and exploring because I was terrified of gaining all that weight back, and because I believed doing so made me worthy. Far more worthy than I'd been a hundred pounds ago, anyway.
At the same time, this attitude caused me to look down on other, less extreme forms of movement in nature. When I'd hear about someone doing something like taking a walk, I'd scoff internally and bask in the warmth of my perceived moral superiority. (I know. It's gross.) You see, I believed that outdoor activity somehow didn't count unless it looked like this:
For a while, looking at those photos made me sad. Now that my body doesn't move the way it used to, I thought, sorrowfully, that I'd probably never be able to do things like that again. And without even fully realizing that I was doing so, I accepted that belief as truth.
Through the work Vanessa and I are doing together, I have realized some very important things:
The first thing: I require a connection with nature in order to be my happiest and most fulfilled self.
This is non-negotiable. It is one of the highest and best forms of self-care I can access - and yet, I haven't been allowing myself that time outdoors. Why? This leads me nicely to...
The second thing: I've been invested in a belief, as I mentioned earlier, that outdoor activity somehow doesn't count unless I'm scaling a mountain, or at least doing something really, really physically challenging. This goes hand-in-hand with the mindset I discussed in earlier posts that if I'm not utterly miserable, I'm not doing my body any good.
So, why haven't I been spending time in nature? Because I can't do those epic, extreme things anymore - so some part of my brain has decided I shouldn't bother being outside at all.
What a powerful realization. I have known for a while that I used movement as punishment back in the day (especially when I went to the gym in between my mountain adventures - an activity that brought me precisely zero joy). But it's a whole new thing altogether to understand that I am still punishing myself.
You know this thing you love - nature? Well, you can't have it, fat-ass. It belongs to the fit people who can scramble up mountainsides, the way you once did. You're not worthy of it anymore.
Robbing myself of the connection with nature I so badly need, just because the movement I'd be doing outdoors doesn't fit into my own culturally-enforced and outdated ideal of what is fit and healthy and valuable and worthy? Oh...hello, self-sabotage.
One morning, in lieu of practicing movement indoors, Vanessa and I went for a walk.
I was nervous, and I felt stupid about being nervous, but there it was.
Honestly, though - it was lovely. We followed a trail along a creek that runs through Vanessa's neighborhood, and I was delighted to realize that it gave me such a different angle of this city that I thought I knew so well. I grew up here - I've lived here for twenty years, collectively - and yet that 90-minute walk showed me things I never knew existed, right under my nose.
I saw the way the creek dipped and twisted, bordered by boulders and sheathed in January ice.
I saw giant old willow trees, their trunks thick and gnarled, their branches hanging bare.
I saw a community garden and farm stand! It was the loveliest, most adorable thing to encounter. Given the time of year, it was barren, but I could see how lush and green and fruitful it would be in the summertime. I entertained visions of coming back to the farm stand and walking away with baskets full of fresh, vibrant produce.
I say I saw because, while Vanessa was with me the whole time, she'd known about these hidden gems for ages. For her, this was her regular walk. For me...it felt like a treasure hunt, except instead of being hidden, the jewels were strewn all over the place, just waiting for me to be delighted by them.
Every once in a while, we'd pause to simply notice the surroundings. I felt present to Mother Nature in a way I haven't in a very long time - possibly years. The enormity of how much I have missed her nearly brought me to tears. Though I was walking on a trail I'd never been down before...in a way, I felt like I was coming home.
Afterward, my feet hurt something awful. I'd put them through a lot; my phone's activity sensor told me I'd taken over 8,500 steps, which is far beyond what I'm used to. But accompanying the pain was something surprising: the desire to get out and do it again.
Nature...how I've missed you.
Since that day, I've taken several more walks. None have been as long as the first. I know, now, that that's okay. I know I don't have to be engaged in strenuous activity, or be causing myself pain, for it to count as activity at all.
If there's one underlying theme I've learned in my time working with Vanessa, it is that all movement counts. Even a ten-minute walk around the block to breathe in the fresh air, look up at the sky, and get the blood flowing. One morning, Vanessa and I walked around the ponds near my house in the dark, watching the sun rise over the water. It was quiet and serene and so damn beautiful. We walked slowly, for about half an hour. That was okay, too.
It's all okay.
I hadn't realized how divorced I've been from nature, but now that I've got the taste in my mouth again...I don't think I can stay away.
As far as joy is concerned...I'm still not experiencing it much with movement alone. Not yet. However, my recent forays out of doors have brought me immeasurable joy - so much so that I'm enjoying the movement in a peripheral way, as a deliverer of nature.
And that feels like a major step forward.
It's funny how the universe works, because as all this has been happening and I've been reconnecting with nature, Vanessa and I have been making different connections, as well.
Angela Juhl is a (re)Wilding Lifestyle Coach and a passionate advocate for getting outdoors and connecting to nature and our roots. I'm so excited that Vanessa and I have teamed up with her as part of our mission to bring Joy In Motion to more people and help it turn into...something. We don't know what yet. What we do know is that this work has been resonating with so many people - so many, in fact, that we can't ignore the impact it's having.
With that in mind, we will be beginning a series of filmed interviews with women around movement, nature, self-love, and where joy fits into the picture. If you're interested in being interviewed and sharing your story, click here to fill out the application! And if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me, Vanessa, or Angela - our contact information is below.
Keep moving forward, friends. It's beautiful out there.
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
Angela's Instagram: @wildatheartconsulting
Angela's website: www.wildatheartconsulting.com