HIEEEEEE! How are you? It’s been a minute, hasn’t it though? I want to talk with you about something and maybe you’ll want to talk back with me.
As a person in active recovery from an eating disorder, there are many areas of life that I have been, for many years now, extremely “careful” with. Many environments and activities that for most folks are totally normal, for me can be very triggering indeed. Until pretty recently, any organised exercise outside of yoga was a huge source of personal anxiety. When I was ill, my addiction to physical activity proved almost as consuming as my need to control food intake. When I entered treatment, one of my many physical legacies of anorexia was nerve damage – to my right leg, which recovered in part, and my back, which will likely never be quite itself again. My exercise was (rightly) heavily moderated, and during my initial months of inpatient care I would attempt to “get around” these restrictions. If you’ve ever tried to break a habit born through mental ill health, you’ll know how bloody difficult it can be. Well done btw, you’re freaking amazing.
The number of people I have encountered in the yoga community with current or past issues around food and exercise is notable. For many of us, yoga has offered some refuge from toxic behaviours and thinking. We move and connect with our bodies, sometimes approaching real physical challenge, but with the invitation to shift some of the more traditional, aesthetically driven priorities that other exercise might promote. NOW BEFORE YOU YELL AT ME, I know I know, there are a great many modern disciplines of yoga, and yoga celebs/teachers who hugely-emphasise physical challenge and aesthetic prettiness. All I’m saying that is, for me, IRL, I have been blessed with teachers who empower me to focus on developing a healthier relationship with myself, body and soul. And that my worth as a human being has jack shit to do with whether I can ever handstand (I can’t, btw)
That being said, I have been…bothered by my connection to physical challenge in my personal practice over the past year or so. Is it healthy to only think an asana practice “worth doing” if it contains tonsa push-ups and hand balances? Is it recovery-focused to cry and feel undeserving of food/rest if I am unable to physically practise yoga on a single day of the week? Henny, NO. Friends advised me that one way to re-establish a healthy relationship to my personal yoga practice could be changing up my activity routine. I.e. trying different exercise. Like. Maybe the gym?
I laughed until I coughed. I whimpered, then probably farted, then reflected. After a lot of thought, I approached my local gym during a doors-open event and tried a class. I thought I was going to shit in my pants, but I really felt I had to try. For me. The real me, the one who has more residency in my poor brain and body. I had no idea how much that decision would improve my life.
My relationship to exercise at the gym, as somebody who is still fighting for full recovery, has been a JOURNEY. That being said, I am beyond delighted that I took my first tentative trip to my (amazing) local gym in March 2019. It’s really important to caveat that statement by acknowledging that any kind of gym-related environment holds a plethora of potential triggers for anybody with experience of body/food issues. I want to share with you a few of my reflections, and how I handle some of my own hurdles in the hope that you might relate, reflect, or argue with me. Discussion is important!
1. BEING ACCOUNTABLE
For me, “accountability” has been the single most important word and commitment to myself in my new gym-going life. I work with the most incredible trainer, Jenna Katya Peters (@jennakpeters) and during our initial consultation, I basically started with “Hi, I’m Claire, nice to meet you. I’m recovering from anorexia and I have real problems with exercise. I don’t want to be weighed, now or ever and I would rather not be advised on nutrition. I’m just here to see whether I can feel stronger and do some stuff I currently don’t believe I can do”. Without missing a beat, Jenna approached me and my training programme with utter understanding and sensitivity. She is always in the corner of my mental and physical health, and gently invites me to question my motivations when I need to. AKA “She calls me on my bullshit.” I
realise that I am lucky to be able to work with a trainer, but even if you’re going to classes or working out alone, remember that trainers at the gym are there to offer you support and input. Not everybody is as comfortable with sharing personal information as much as I am, but I can’t recommend enough making yourself accountable to somebody you trust who works where you work out. They can see if you’ve been there for too long/too many times a day and even if they say nothing to you, the knowledge that they know can be an incentive to check yourself.
We can also make ourselves accountable through loved ones. That might mean going to the gym with a buddy who understands how things are for you, or just keeping a partner/family member in the loop. Most importantly though, I’ve had to recognise that the #1 person I have to be accountable to is myself. Am I able to be 100% honest with my husband about how long I’m spending in the gym/what I’m doing? Is my exercise routine becoming really rigid? Would I advise another person to do what I’m doing? If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, it’s time for me to either change that behaviour/reach out for support if I can’t make the change alone.
2. OTHER PEOPLE HAVE BODIES AND EYES, AND YOU MIGHT NOTICE THEIR BODIES WITH YOUR EYES AND THEY MIGHT NOTICE YOUR BODY WITH THEIR EYES
Comparison is truly the most cruel and callous thief of joy. I’m very fortunate that my gym (JD Gym Maryhill shout out to mah homies @jdgyms) has a warm and diverse community of people. The environment is super welcoming and supportive, and there really isn’t an overarching “type”. However. There are, of course, many times where I am struggling with body dysmorphia, or plain insecurity, and I get all “WTF is that man actually hewn from ROCK?” or “I work so hard and haven’t found a single ab. That lady over there has excess abs, and it’s unfair. She should give me some of her abs immediately.”
... I’m not sure that there is any antidote to this. Just as sure as comparison is unkind, it is also inevitable. When I am struggling, it helps me that I am surrounded by people who help me keep it real. I also remind myself on the regular that a person’s physical appearance is a single, surface feature of their life. I am able to do so many amazing things with my body, just the way it is now. I don’t know that woman with 36 abs, and she’s on her journey. This is mine, and I had better not ruin the fun and achievement I’m already experiencing my using my admiration of her to slate myself.
Side note: I don’t know why this surprised me, but a real tough aspect of going to the gym for me has been seeing (occasionally) somebody who is very underweight. It is upsetting, but again there’s no perfect answer. No matter where I am, I might see people who are suffering. Thank heavens I am healthy and doing well, and I hope and pray they can find their way to the path of recovery like I did.
3. YOU ARE ACTUALLY SUPPOSED TO ENJOY THIS
Did you know that exercise is actually supposed to be enjoyable? I didn’t! In the depths of my eating disorder, exercise was absolute hell on earth to do, and I dreaded it as much as I clutched onto it to “function”.
I’m going to tell you something, and you’re going to call me a liar. I’m not right, so shut it.
I LOVE SPIN CLASS. I DO!
Whether I am breaking a sweat by pedalling/running dead fast; lifting heavy things and feeling like a pure giant warrior woman; or pushing through the burn of a HIIT/CrossFit class, I experience total joy in the process and its effects. Don’t get me wrong, by burpee #10 I’m thinking of ways to kill that instructor just as much as the next person, but in general I’m bloody delighted. How wonderful to be strong. What a gift to have 2 legs and arms that not only work, but are so good at pushing and pulling and picking stuff up. What luck to be part of a community experience, making friends and laughing together. Struggles and “fuck this” moments are an element of working out – that’s why it’s challenging! However, if you can find ways to exercise in ways you really and truly like, I believe it’s a much healthier approach for your body AND mind.
The last few months of working out and shaking up my routine have been revelatory for me. My physical yoga practise has been transformed in its intensity, and my love and attachment for asana are both deeper and healthier than ever before.
My confidence in myself, while certainly hardly at “Kanye” level, keeps on improving. It IS, in my view, possible to approach exercise and maintain from an eating disorder. I had to experience it to believe it, and it takes work to stay safe – but boy oh boy, is it worth it.
Lots of love. x