Physical Exercise as Spiritual Healing

I’ve never really identified with my body. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt a disconnect between the body I inhabit and the soul inside. The things that I think of as “me” — my personality, my thoughts, my actions — are all intangible, and none of them seem to have much to do with my dress size or how much weight I can bench.

That’s not to say that I don’t love my body, or that I don’t take care of it. I have multiple chronic illnesses, so I am extremely aware of the effect my physical health has on my daily life. I am also aware that, for better or worse, my body is the first part of me that people see and is often the basis for their first impressions. I have bright pink hair and tattoos, and that definitely gets me some weird looks — but I love it, because my hair color and my tattoos are just so totally me.

In my teens, I struggled a lot with my physical appearance and the way people saw me. Between the ages of 10 and 18, I went from a size 4 to a size 16 and back again — and for a long, long time, I absolutely hated my body. I was obsessed with becoming skinny, because in my mind skinny equaled beautiful. I weighed myself every day. I skipped meals. I did workouts I found online that promised near-instant weight loss. And all of that wreaked total havoc on my body.

Suffice to say, I have a complicated relationship with the concept of fitness. Sure, I always felt good when I achieved a fitness goal, but I was so obsessed with maintaining my “ideal” body that, on days when I had to skip working out for whatever reason, I was overcome by guilt, shame, and even anxiety. I realized this mindset wasn’t healthy, and for a long time I stopped working out altogether aside from the occasional walk or hike. I already had a pretty restricted diet because of my autoimmune disorder (I like to joke that I’m allergic to junk food), but if I didn’t literally need to eat a certain way to be functional, I probably would have let my diet go, too.

In the last few months, two things have changed the way I think about my body and physical fitness. One of them is a new idea that I’ve been exposed to, and one of them is a series of events that I’m pretty sure was a push from the universe.

The first idea that has changed my relationship with my body is Tantra, a spiritual path that grew out of Hinduism. There’s a popular misconception in the West that Tantra is the art of sacred sex — this is completely false, but it’s not as far off the mark as you might think. Tantra, to put it simply, is the practice of acknowledging the Divine in all experiences. Author M. Chinnaiyan, M.D., says that, “The principle of practice in tantra is that the path by which we fall is the path by which we rise… We do nothing to change it or act on it. Instead, we give it our full attention and melt into it. By remaining open and welcoming to all experiences, lust, anger, fear, and shame give way to the beauty and ecstasy that pulsate beneath them. Thus, our very limitations become the radiant paths to liberation.” So, while Tantra is NOT about using sex to achieve spiritual enlightenment (sorry to disappoint), it does acknowledge that sex (along with all other physical actions) can be a spiritual experience if we choose to view it that way.

This philosophy has radically changed the way I think about and interact with my body. My body, like all of reality, is a reflection of the Divine. My body is a sacred space. It is both mine and not-mine, it is both me and not-me. My body is an instrument for conducting energy, and for directing my focus towards the Divine.

And if anything can become a powerful spiritual experience, why not working out?

The second thing that has changed my relationship with my body, and especially with physical fitness, is school. I am currently in college, and my goal for this year is to complete my “General Studies” curriculum so I can move on to classes specific to my major. One of the General Studies requirements for my school is an activity-based physical fitness class — as part of this class, I have to work out twice a week and record my workouts in a journal.

Now, I have always hated exercise for the sake of exercise. I did dance and color guard in high school (and did really well in both), but I also did poorly in P.E. class because I was bored and because I was embarrassed to work out in front of my classmates. Exercise has always been associated in my mind with weight loss, which again, touches on some past body image issues. So when I found out that I had to take what is essentially a college-level P.E. class, I could have freaked out. I could have demanded a schedule change, or tried to get a medical excuse to get me out of the requirement. I could have done what a lot of other people in this class do: walk on the treadmill for ten minutes, call it a workout, and go home to watch Netflix. Instead, I decided to view this class as an opportunity for growth.

This summer, I added yoga to my daily spiritual practice. I’ve noticed that, on days when I do yoga, I feel more connected to my body, more grounded, and more emotionally balanced. If I approached all of my workouts with the same attitude as yoga, would I see even more of those spiritual benefits? I figured it was worth a shot.

First, I had to change the way I approach working out. Our instructor encouraged us to set a goal for this class, and I knew that if I picked a physique goal (such as weight loss or improved visible muscle tone) I would be in danger of falling back into my old body image issues. Instead, I chose a performance goal — one that could be measured by how my workouts made me feel, rather than how they made me look. My goal is overall improvement in endurance. I want to feel stronger, and I want to get more out of my workouts. I feel like this goal compliments my other, spiritual goal of being more connected with my body.

Second, I had to find a way to create a sacred space for my workouts. This was a little bit of a challenge, because I am working out in my school’s gym, surrounded by fellow students — but it is still possible to create your own personal bubble of sacred space, even when surrounded by people.

I begin all of my workouts with a few minutes of yoga, and by setting the intention for my workout to help me strengthen the connection between my body and my soul. I’ve also gotten into the habit of listening to spiritually-focused podcasts during my workouts — this helps me keep myself in that spiritual head space even when I’m working up a sweat. (Some of my favorite podcasts right now are The Fat Feminist Witch, A Sacred Space with Katie, and The Body Confident Babe, in case anyone needs recommendations.)

And you know what? It’s like I’ve broken through an invisible wall. I’ve seen almost instant results, and I’m loving my workouts in a way I never have before.

Not only have other people made comments about how intense I get during workouts (something that literally no one has ever said about me before), but for the first time in my life I feel like my body is an important part of who I am. With every workout, I can feel the link between my body and my soul healing and getting stronger.

When you’re seriously dedicated to a spiritual path, it can be easy to prioritize spiritual development over everything else. But the thing I love about Tantra, the thing that really speaks to my soul, is that it extends that spiritual pursuit to all aspects of life. The things that I do to strengthen and care for my body are sacred. The time that I spend with friends and family is sacred. The things that make me happy are sacred. Every moment of my life is a new opportunity to feel close to the Divine.

If you’ve struggled with body image issues or find it difficult to identify with your body, I strongly encourage you to try this new spiritual approach to your fitness, health, and wellness. Take that spirit of love, openness, and acceptance with you to the gym, to the doctor’s office, and to the grocery store. Make decisions that will nourish not only your body, but your soul as well.

You are perfectly whole, exactly as you are. And once you realize and embrace that wholeness, everything else will fall into place.

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