The Deep Dive: A Personal Journey from Disordered Exercise to Intuitive Movement by Julia Oliver, RD
As a kid, I knew that I loved monkey bars, talking and walking with my friends during gym class, swimming in the ocean, and occasionally playing some catch with my brother. I would dread when my family would take long walks on the weekend because I just wanted to stay home and finish reading my book. My parents pushed my involvement in swim team, soccer, and softball - which I totally despised at first. Eventually, going to practice became fun, social time, (I could have cared less about the sport itself)… I just wanted to go just to spend time with my friends. Maybe my competitive streak just took a while to kick in, because in 6th grade I realized these sports were starting to feel more natural, and I decided to start participating for the purpose of improving. This was the turning point, I shifted my sense of identity toward ‘athlete’.
The next few years saw me become completely immersed in the competition around cross country, swim team, and track. Looking back now, I can see that my overall relationship with exercise was still intuitive and joyful despite the intensity. I only participated in the sports I loved for one reason or another, I adored running practice because my best friends were there (like my experiences in childhood, I was primarily there to be social)…My college self would have scoffed at the 10th grade me - using our ‘distance training’ as an excuse to walk and catch up with friends, or skipping practice to eat cookies at my aunt’s house (she lived in the neighborhood behind our high school). And swimming! That was truly where my joy for movement thrived. I loved the feeling of the water, the excitement of the competition, the sensation of defying gravity lap after lap.
College hit hard - my relationship with exercise began to spiral out of control. Leaving behind the high school sports I loved resulted in a sense of lost identity. I felt like I had to prove I could still be the athlete I expected myself to be. I knew I was not competitive enough to participate in the D1 sports, so I looked towards something entirely different.. rock climbing. As a beginning climber, it was easy to see improvement. I went to the gym a few days a week and was satisfied by seeing myself get stronger. Around that same time, I started going to yoga with my roommate, and I LOVED IT. For this blip of time, everything seemed to be in balance. The trouble arose as I hit a plateau in my climbing, I was confronted by the gremlin that I had been outrunning all of these years, and it screamed “SEE? YOU ARE NOT ENOUGH”. Driven by fear, I became obsessed with getting stronger. The yoga that had felt so satisfying before was now just cross training, and something else to not fail at (if you are familiar with the practice of yoga, you know how ridiculous that sounds). I did not take rest days due to the anxiety over missing a workout for a reason that was out of my control. I injured my shoulders, my fingers, my social life.. and I trained anyway. Once this mindset took over, it seeped into everything I did. I felt immense guilt if I was not doing something to better myself- Any time spent relaxing, hanging out with friends, going on dates with my partner, etc. all had to be ‘earned’. My body was often the enemy, something to be punished into performing the way I needed it to. Achieving my fitness goals became synonymous with shrinking my body. My eating became more controlled, and sitting for long periods of time became anxiety provoking. I started running again for the sole purpose of burning calories, and unlike ever before -I feared weight gain to my core.
Of course there were moments where I reconnected with some inner peace, where I was able to talk back to the drill sergeant in my mind. I clung to my relationships throughout this storm of compulsive and excessive exercise. When friends came with me to climb, I was able to pull away from my spiral of self degradation enough to pour my attention into someone I loved. Despite the unhealthy roots of my climbing training, anytime I was able to climb outside, it morphed into this joyful, intuitive experience. I was able to step outside of myself and become immersed in nature. I felt in these moments that my ‘enoughness’ did not matter. Ahhh but this was all short lived, it always turned back into an internal reprimanding for ‘giving myself a break’.
I came to the ultimate realization that I did not have the resources to be as good at climbing as I expected myself to be. Unfortunately just because climbing took the backseat did not mean the disorder did.. the inner gremlins began chasing down my relationship with yoga. It did not matter if I felt like practicing or not, I gave myself no choice but to get on the mat. Fueled by comparison to all of the contortionists and skinny bodies ‘mastering yoga’ on Instagram, I spent hours pushing my body into absurd shapes and positions. When I felt like I was not as good at yoga as I should be (*lol*) I went to yoga teacher training.
Day 12 yoga teacher training: I have tears leaking out of the sides of my eyes in Shavasana. Why can’t I just be?!?!?!?!?! I realized that I was missing the point, that I had manufactured my existence into a living hell, that I had taken something I used to experience and turned it into yet another test of my own self worth. I decided I could not live this way anymore. With the same determination that had driven me to this breaking point, I finally practiced real yoga for the first time in a long long time and radically accepted: this experience. myself. I let go of the outcome.
My movement these days involves choice, with strong consideration for how my body is feeling, and for what is driving my desire to move. Lacking the magic switch that just instantly makes every exercise endeavor a wholesome, intuitive one - I have to give myself space to truly understand my intention behind moving. Can my sense of self worth remain the same regardless of whether or not I practice yoga, go on a run, take a nap, walk with friends, etc? Can I give myself the opportunity to stop or adapt even after I get started? Would I still want to engage in this movement even if I knew it would not change my body in any way? Creating the time for this open, honest, internal dive has drastically reshaped my life, and it is has paved the way for movement that is life-enhancing, connected, joyful, and peaceful.
Julia Oliver is a licensed dietitian and registered yoga teacher who has spent her career empowering individuals to heal their relationship with food and movement by providing an alternative to the damaging diet mentality.