Finding Joy in Movement to Overcome Stress

Autumn runningSince I ran the last 21-day challenge and outed myself as an exercise enthusiast, people have been asking me how I became this way. Was I always an athlete? No, not at all. So I wanted to take a moment to share a very personal, vulnerable but powerful slice of my life with you.

So here is a little bit more of my personal story, why I’m so passionate about helping people to breathe more fully, feel better in their body, and to be more relaxed, present and open to finding joy in their ‘one precious life’. And why I believe so much in the power of regular exercise.

I’ve been exercising regularly for a while now and I feel really healthy and strong – in my body and mind. (I think I exercise more for my mind than my body, but more on that later.)

In fact, as you may have heard, I just did my first sprint-distance triathlon a few weeks ago. And honestly, I was kind of amazed with my body’s ability to swim 1/3 of a mile around the Capitola Wharf, then get on my bike and ride 11.5 miles and top it all off with a 2.5 mile run that started out uphill. I’m pretty new to running, biking and swimming so I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to finish. I mean, I was on the swim team, but I was the one over on the far side of the pool having underwater tea parties and doing handstands when the coaches weren’t looking.

During the triathlon, I gave myself full permission to rest if I needed to, and to go at a pace that felt just right for me. No matter what, it was going to be a personal record, right? But there was this energy about being in it with the group. It was like we were a school of fish, all headed in the same direction, all there to support each other if needed. Combine this with my internal motivation – or you could even call it curiosity, about whether I could do it – and I kept tapping into that possibility that I would just. keep. going. And I knew that I would. And I did. And it was awesome!

But it wasn’t always this way. Just over a year ago, I wasn’t sure if I could keep going the way things were. My teeth were slowly shrinking (from grinding them), and so were my clothes. I literally thought I was going crazy.

I was so stressed and overwhelmed that it felt like my mind was in a thick fog most of the time. I was grinding my teeth all night, and then waking up with that old familiar tightness in my chest, mind already racing. Some days I’d feel like I couldn’t eat, and some days I would eat a ton, trying to stay grounded by having food in my belly. Oftentimes, it was really hard to take a breath in any further than my throat.

It reminded me of about 12 years ago when I was dealing with the sudden accidental death of my older brother, and my Aunt Brit looked over at me and said, “Aura, do you realize you’re not breathing right now? You’re having a panic attack.” At the time, I had no idea that I wasn’t breathing, being so wrapped up in the stress and shock.

Years of teaching yoga and meditation later, I have a lot more awareness of what’s going on with my breath. So at this point just over a year ago, I knew something was missing… or several things… deep breaths, the top layer of enamel on my teeth, my sanity, clothes that fit. And possibly the most painful thing missing: a relationship with my kid that included fun and play. He looked at me one day and said, “It just seems like you’re always stressed, mom.”

Among other things, I went to see my doctor, and she gave me a prescription for anxiety medication, no questions asked. When I walked out of that office, I thought, “Do I really need this?” Maybe. And as I contemplated taking them, I also thought, I have a lot of tools in my toolbox, cultivated over 15 years of teaching and studying wellness. Maybe I owe it to myself to try a few more things before I do.

I teach people to breathe, and hold space for them to relax. I lead people in ways to move (and be still in) their bodies to relieve stress and open up to feelings of presence and ease. And I know how to get through stuff. Even at times when I could only squeeze out 10 minutes a day for myself, as a single mom of a young child and a business owner, I made a commitment to myself to breathe and pay attention to my body every day.

I knew there were things I could try before taking the medication. So I just decided to use that prescription as a wake-up call. And I never opened it. But what I did do is I went home and I started focusing on all the things we all know are good for us. I started exercising, drinking more water, focusing at least 5-10 minutes on my breath each day. I got advice from a nutritionist to eat small, healthy meals with some protein every 2-3 hours. And this is one of the most important pieces: I reached out for support. I asked my friends to exercise with me. I set dates throughout the week when I knew I could meet up with a friend and go for a walk together.

I didn’t do it alone. And that’s the #1 tip I can give to anyone who knows if they were taking better care of themselves and exercising more, their life would be way more livable. Ask a friend to go with you. Or have someone hold you accountable. Tell them you’re going to workout, do it, and report back that you did. When I get to work out with a friend, I’m so much more likely to actually get out the door, because I know they’re waiting for me, and because I know it will be a lot more fun together.

That’s why I created this 21-day challenge. Exercising helps me in so many ways. When I start moving every day, my body naturally craves healthier food, and I feel way better in my body, exactly as it is. And even more potent, I can feel the power of movement to keep my mind and mood balanced. I can take breaths that go beyond my throat and all the way down into my belly. My son can tell I’m in a better mood after I exercise, so now he encourages me to go out and work out. He’s seeing me set the example of taking great care of myself. And he was an amazing cheerleader, with wide-eyed admiration calling me a badass, as he ran alongside me for the last leg of the triathlon.

I believe what they say about it taking 21 days to form a habit. I exercised every day for 21 days and now, when I skip a day, my body is like, What?! If it’s too late to go outside, I turn on some good music and have a little dance party in the kitchen.

If moving every day feels this good for me, I imagine it must be pretty helpful to other people, too. But it can be hard, to make time for it, to decide what to do, and to commit to actually getting out there and working out. What if I could help people solve these problems? Make exercising a fun, do-able, daily thing that you can do with friends. Add some variety by trying new things.

Take good care of you!