Are you the sort of person who bolts from activity to activity, thought to thought? Or are you at the other end of the spectrum? Perhaps you secretly hate exercise and you identify with the Robert Maynard Hutchins quote: ‘Whenever I feel like exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes.’
Starting or maintaining an exercise program or changing lifelong behaviours should start with reconciling your body’s energies or life force. Not by pitting one type of energy against another, but by accepting how ‘poles of opposites’ work in our bodies.
My friend Laurel once went to a doctor of Chinese medicine because she felt hyper all day and listless at night, yet she wasn’t sleeping. He asked about her activity levels and she described her workout to him. When she managed to drag herself to a gym (two times a month), she would force herself to lift ridiculously heavy weights and to run as hard as possible on the steepest incline of the treadmill. She was fascinated by the participants in a nearby glass studio who lay on their backs doing Hatha yoga; she could not imagine how they were able to keep so still for such long periods of time.
The doctor explained how opposing forces work in our bodies. He suggested she begin each day with a body scan—by imagining a large photocopy machine slowly and steadily scanning down her body from the crown of her head to the tips of her toes. And to try this a couple of times during her day in order to notice (without judgement) whether her body was feeling subdued and calm, or the opposite, restless and hyper.
He asked Laurel not to compartmentalize her approach to exercise, ‘not to choose one side over the other,’ but to accept the myriad ways in which energy plays out in her body. ‘Integration,’ he said. ‘Find exercises that will acknowledge and honor both of the opposing energies you possess.’
Play of opposites
I must admit that I, like part of Laurel, am on the hyperactive side. I find the stillness of Corpse pose or the quiet of a meditation position extremely challenging. Why can’t I relax? Why am I plagued with an itchy and constant restlessness? These questions built up so much in me that in my fifties I brought them to a therapist, a Quebecoise called Isabelle who dressed beautifully in silky blouses and grey flannels skirts, evoking an atmosphere of calm and stillness. Her smoky-lined eyes widened as I described a typical day and month for me. Those were the days when I travelled a lot to teach full-day workshops that were physically and intellectually arduous. ‘You have constructed a whole professional career out of your need to be constantly in motion,’ Isabelle observed. ‘What’s wrong with that?’ I asked defensively. ‘Nothing,’ she responded, in her rich French accent. ‘Except for the unreasonable demands on your body.’
Isabelle gave me this insight well over a decade ago. I no longer travel so much or do full day workshops, yet basically not a lot has changed. I am still exploring the dichotomy between stillness and hyperactivity, and how it plays out daily in my body.
The paradox at the root of the problem
Struggling to understand this lifelong struggle led me to read Stephen Cope’s ground-breaking book, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. Cope’s work is grounded in eastern philosophies and western psychotherapies. He has been a teacher for ten years at the famous Kripalu Centre in Massachusetts. In his book, he explores the play of opposites. Just as Laurel’s doctor saw hyperactivity and tranquility as twins, or two ends of the same branch, Cope explores light, darkness, pain, pleasure, manic movement and stillness as states that yogis have been working to understand for centuries. Cope likens our body’s reaction to internal and external stimuli to an extravagant light and sound show. In his words, ‘We move toward what we like so that it will continue; we move away from what we dislike so that it will end. We try to hold on to the ebb and flow of sensation, to control the light and sound show. But this strategy is seriously flawed. Indeed, it increases our suffering.’
These words perfectly described my internal struggle. Aversion. Reaction. Bolting toward. Bolting away. Needing stimulation. Being overstimulated. And yet the integration of these ‘poles of opposites’, he writes, should be the goal of all of us who seek self-awareness and self-acceptance.
We all sit too much. Or else our family and friends complain we never sit down. We pride ourselves on our high energy and productivity, but we allow stress and chaos to reign over our lives. Cope’s advice is to not judge either extreme. Instead follow the path of the ancient yogis: self observation without judgement.
How to start on a journey of self-observation? How can we address the panicky feelings we sometimes have, or the apathy plaguing our minds and bodies in a practical way with better understanding and without judgement?
Headspace.com can help resolve some of these contradictions by helping us to be more present and mindful. I highly recommend this app as it creatively and practically addresses problems of stress and anxiety, depression and apathy, burn out and sleep problems. It also honors the unique experience of women and includes mediations for kids. It offers emotional care for challenging times. For three years, Headspace has helped me to build healthy habits and let go of stress. I now set aside time everyday to do mediations ranging from one minute to much longer. I started with five and now I’m up to 10 minutes a day! I also love the breathing techniques, soothing stories, and guided relaxations designed for sleep.
In the meantime, I’m reposting a video that I made in 2020 to help guide you through a body scan. My blog will return next month.