Exercise as Embodiment: redefining exercise with curiosity, exploration & sustainability

Exercise tends to be tricky when introducing or re-introducing into a person’s life who has typically struggled with exercise by means of avoidance or compensation. (If you’re wondering about the signs/symptoms/consequences of compulsive exercise, read NEDA’s checklist.) If medically stable, exercise tends to be strictly prescribed and monitored, which can be a useful way to set boundaries and offer a safe container when moving the body again from the definition of traditional exercise. But ongoing embodiment and wakefulness through staying connected with the body should be valued and offered not only within the treatment plan but also as a long-term goal.

Before becoming a counselor, I worked full-time as a personal trainer due to my love of movement as a pathway to connection. Most of my clients were also in therapy for a variety of reasons, many of whom were healing from disordered eating and/or addictions. The beautiful thing about having already exposed themselves to therapy was they were mostly ready and willing to be curious and exploratory with movement options, after all, they had invited me into the privacy of their homes.

The lid had been lifted from the pressure cooker of intense treatment and therapy, and they could let off some steam through learning about their bodies and different exercises while choosing their own music, props and qualities of movement. I brought the smorgasbord of options, they got to lead the way. My gentle instruction of safety, flexibility and alignment, and our relationship offered the safe container and boundaries for their exploration, and ultimately, their empowerment.

Because I’m a pattern person (perhaps from my dance and step aerobics days), I tended to notice patterns among many of my clients. While unique to each individual, the general trajectory of our experience together tended to be:

  1. traditional work (resistance training)

  2. body-based training (walking together, yoga asanas for body awareness)

  3. subtle but deeper connection between the body and self (breath work, yoga asana as connection to the process in lieu of a geometrically-shaped pose, or even a return to the dumbbells with new awareness)

Once my clients started exploring movement in this third way of deeper connection — whether with dumbbells or in staff pose while rooting their sitz bones to the earth — I often referred them back to their therapist because such rich information would come up during our time together. Some of it was body-based and contained unpacking trauma work with a trained counselor. Some of it was the cognitive processing of their own stories, patterns and rigid thought patterns. Most of the time, it was both.

Regardless of the personal details of reintegration of body-mind-spirit, I became fascinated and passionate about witnessing people discover their bodies and their minds and hearts in a new way. Again and again (*and not without work and courage and time), possibilities of new ways of living and relating to themselves and others were birthed. It was like a bonding experience not only with their own flesh and blood but to something bigger. It was the process of discovering their own embodiment wasn’t something they had to study or strive for, but a quality of being that rested within simply because they could return home to the roots of their flesh and blood for guidance, connection and hope. This entire process enlightened not only my path to become a psychotherapist but also showed me how the somatic exploration — on physiological and psychological levels — start early through developmental movement from womb-to-walking.

I write this to express the importance of boundaries and quality of care when introducing or redefining exercise to anyone vulnerable body-based work. Prescribing doses of exercise needs to be followed up by processing as well as a safe relationship to help walk along as the experience of reconnecting is felt, understood and expressed.

*While I still lead and participate in movement group work as an educator and as a counselor (when I offer group psychotherapy), most of my work now happens within individual therapy sessions from the lens of Somatic Therapy’s developmental movement and attachment-based therapy. Questions or interested in therapy? Contact me for a free 15-minute phone conversation.