Exercise used to be something I did solely to get fit. It was a means to an end. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it, just that it had no special meaning to me.
Gradually I began to realize that exercise also made me feel good and that it could take me on great adventures. But nothing would prepare me for how much I would need it in my life.
Cycling Through Grief
In 2014 my partner took his life. He was the person who opened up the world of sport for me. Now he was gone, and I needed to find a way to deal with the deep grief left behind.
All the literature on grief seemed to be telling me my life would be in tatters for years. I was determined not to accept this. Running away from grief was not an option, but I could cycle through it. My late partner had wanted to cycle the British coast to coast in one day; I would take on the challenge in his memory.
“Without you in my arms, I feel an emptiness in my soul. I find myself searching the crowds for your face – I know it’s an impossibility, but I cannot help myself.” ― Nicholas Sparks
For months I kept climbing on that bike. Hundreds of miles and many hours passed by. To start with his ghost often seemed to cycle beside me. Memories and unanswered questions flashed by with the hedgerows and tarmac.
Cycling took up my time, and the challenge gave me focus. Exercise had gone from being a means to an end to being my essential therapy.
Running For Happiness
I thought I had defied the predictions; I was not a wreck, I was a functioning human being. But grief takes time; you can’t bypass any part of it.
Cycling had got me through the first six months of grief, but now I needed running for my healing. Running has always been my favorite form of exercise. The simplicity of being able just to go. No complicated gear to carry. The only mechanicals to worry about were my dodgy knees!
Running gave me the chance to stop and stare. Agonizing runs up steep hills in the Peak District are rewarded by stunning views. Urban exploration runs reveal derelict buildings and random sights. I never come back from a run without appreciating the world we live in.
Signing up for my first ultra run meant many hours training on the trails. Would this mean hours of thinking? Time to toss things over in my mind. It turns out not. Running gave me headspace but not in the same way as cycling.
I could run for hours, but I never turned problems over. Thoughts would come and go, but mainly I was present. I was where I was running, taking it all in. And yet it was still therapy. After a run, I felt clearer. Reason emerged from irrational thoughts and fears. I could refocus. But there was still another layer of peace needed.
Yogalates; The Next Piece of Peace
Nearly three years down the line from that shock of grief, I am still healing. My life is beautiful, I am lucky, but I need more peace.
Anyone who has ever struggled to sleep knows how badly it can affect you. I have never struggled before. I didn’t even struggle at the start of my grief. But over the past eighteen months sleep has gradually begun to elude me.
“You need to learn how to select your thoughts the same way you select your clothes every day. This is a power you can cultivate. Work on the mind. That’s the only thing you should be trying to control.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert
Going to bed tired meant nothing. My head hits the pillow, and my mind starts to play. Some nights it whips itself into such a frenzy that I feel as if I have a panic attack. I no longer cope well with stress and pressure and try to avoid it in my life. There is a clear need for coping mechanisms in my life.
A friend recommended Yoga Nidra, a practice of relaxation, which puts you into a sleep-like state. Slightly skeptical, I gave it a try and was amazed by the peace it brought to my mind. It does not always send me to sleep but rarely fails to relax me. I didn’t relate it to exercise, though.
Yoga and pilates are both things I have wanted to try for a long time. The benefits to core strength and flexibility were clear. Finding a yogalates class at my local leisure center finally prompted me to give it a go.
And now it all clicks into place. The Yogalates was tough; my body shook and ached, but my mind slowed down. Learning to breathe through the hard moments while listening to my body is a revelation. The meditation at the end is like a shiny cherry on top of the finest of cakes.
The Next Step
In life, we never stop learning. Exercise, in many different forms, brings me peace. I have a desire to learn more about the mindfulness which sits alongside my new found classes.
Exercise has become so many things to me and fitness is just one function.
Keeping my body healthy keeps my mind healthy too.