Friday, August 29, 2014

True beauty

I’ve recently been pondering what it means to be beautiful. As usual, I find myself caught between worlds with vastly divergent perspectives on a topic. I like to think I’m a pretty eclectic gal and can’t be boxed into one way of thinking. That said I do want to take a moment to review each perspective because they each inform my ultimate view on the issue of beauty.

In the fitness world, the tag line we’re most familiar with is “No excuses.” The “fitspiration” images all over the internet are about striving toward a goal and not giving up. The ideal is attainable through hard work and discipline and people proudly take nearly nude selfies to demonstrate this proof. As you might imagine, one’s self-esteem can easily take a nosedive if too many of these images pop up in your feed. Now, what I will say is that the fitness world has freed me from the need to wear make-up daily. It’s just not practical or necessary when you move and sweat so regularly. I also really appreciate movements like, “Pretty girls sweat” and “Black girls run” that encourage girls and women to prioritize their physical health. There’s a lot of good to the health and wellness industry. It’s just that the pressure to run X amount of miles, lift or squat X number of pounds, and be swimsuit ready at all times is definitely felt, even by someone as comfortable with themselves as me.

In the seemingly polar opposite world of feminism, the message is quite literally, “Eff your beauty standards.” There’s a grassroots movement to embrace plus size body types, all body types really, and totally reject narrow standards of beauty. The belief is that these standards aren’t realistic or attainable and women put their health in danger when they believe they are. Rather than change our bodies, women are invited to change the world through activism and advocacy. The gospel is one of self-acceptance and that should occur at any body mass index.

In the mental health world, there really isn't a strong stance on beauty one way or the other. The commentary is more about the negative consequences of trying to attain one single ideal for beauty, namely eating disordered behavior. Having worked at an eating disorder clinic I’ve seen absolutely model gorgeous clients of mine who could not see how beautiful they were. Instead, they were knowingly destroying their body, yet didn’t know how to stop, all because they desperately longed to be ____________ enough.

At this point, you might be wondering how such different views might come together. What do we take and what do we throw away? Well, I definitely believe a lifestyle of fitness is essentially a lifestyle of self-care. If you love yourself, you’ll properly steward your temple. You only get one body in this lifetime, so take care of it. Just don’t overemphasize its importance and in doing so, compromise your mental or physical health. It’s just one piece of who we are. I believe feminism and mental health remind us to maintain a proper perspective and challenge us to consider why beauty is even a meaningful construct to begin with. While it certainly isn’t everything, I also believe that there’s nothing wrong with wanting people to delight in us and find pleasure in us. That’s why we make ourselves attractive for one another. It facilitates connection. We just don’t want to lead with looks as if that’s the only thing we have going for us.

In conclusion, I’d say my favorite quotation regarding beauty is this: Beauty is a heart at rest (Staci Eldredge). It comes from a secure identity. When you know who you are and you accept yourself (at any size, relationship status, or age) you have a smile that radiates, a laugh that comes from your soul, and openness and warmth that invite people to seek out what you possess inside. These qualities are constant whether your hair and make-up are done or not. They’re internal. Believing this whole heartedly doesn’t preclude me from secretly wanting to emulate the "it girl" celebrity of the day, nor does it keep me from taking the occasional sultry selfie. For me, it’s just a grounding truth to return to as often as needed. When I’m tempted to compare myself or question how attractive I am, I remember my preferred definition of beauty and all the women in my life (just a few pictured here) who model the kind of beautiful I want to be.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

What's your aroma

I just attended a training for work and one of the modules related to customer service. The activity was about nonverbal communication and we played a game of charades to try to pick what emotion the team was conveying. As many of us know, over 90% of communication is not in spoken language but in body language. As the saying goes, it’s not what we say; it’s how we say it. But for me, I think our communication goes even beyond tone of voice, amount of eye contact, posture, and facial expressions. I think we communicate on an even deeper level. We communicate from our soul.

What is soul communication exactly? Well, have you ever heard people use language like, “I love her energy,” or “He had a creepy vibe, or “I don’t know what it was. It was just something about him/her?” It’s as if we all have an intuitive ability to perceive beyond all the verbal and nonverbal data in front of us and somehow sense what a person is about. It’s like that person who always has a sugary sweet smile on her face, but you know she has a mean streak; or the guy who is really guarded and standoffish, but you know he has a sensitive side; or the person who tries too hard to be funny and turns you off completely; or the person who seems just generally awkward and uncomfortable in her own skin. Whatever the case may be, this discernment can either attract or repel us. We relate from this place of knowing all the time whether we realize it or not.
So, here’s the reflection: What do you give off? Is it a pleasant fragrance of joy, warmth, confidence, and optimism, or is it a noxious odor of insecurity, negativity, bitterness, or desperation…to name a few? If you aren’t sure, just observe how people respond to you. Generally, most people, especially newer relationships, won’t want to hurt your feelings by giving direct feedback. They’ll just pull away and not be as available to you. Or if they’re in your presence they’ll change the subject or cut the interaction short. Believe me. I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of distancing behavior as well as direct feedback from trusted friends. While it doesn’t always feel good, the information you gather about what you emit to others is invaluable. Remember: you always give off what’s inside of you. You emanate who you are. If you’re not giving off the kind of aroma you want to share with the world, then it could be beneficial to tend the garden of your soul. Begin with what’s inside you because what’s inside will eventually come out.


Life lessons from yoga

I recently returned to my yoga practice after a few years off. It seemed like a good balance to my current exercise regimen. But more importantly, I figured yoga would afford me a contemplative space that I very much need during a time of transition. So, even though it means dragging myself to a 6am class on Mondays, it’s been more than worth it. Here are some things I’ve learned during my practice.

Be intentional
At the beginning of each practice we’re invited to set an intention. It could be a prayer or positive vibe to someone in need. It could be love or a positive affirmation for ourselves. It could also just be to remain mindfully present on the mat for the duration of practice. I can tell a difference when I just go through the motions versus being intentional about what I hope to gain from my practice. If you’re too open and want to receive everything, you probably won’t get anything, so fix your gaze on your true desire.

Focus determines direction
Each week we spend some time on a balancing pose. Crow pose is essentially holding your entire body weight in your arms. You definitely need upper body strength but it’s also about correct positioning and alignment. A tip my teacher gives is to look slightly ahead of you without looking too far ahead because your body will go where your eyes go. Interesting life lesson, huh?

Breathe through difficulty
One thing I love about exercise but especially yoga is that it reminds you to breathe. Generally, the first thing we do in stress or distress is hold our breath. Exercise puts your body under physiological stress and conditions you to keep breathing in spite of the discomfort. Eventually, the discomfort passes and chances are you gained strength.
Find your stability
Again, with balancing poses, most people want to immediately go to the full expression of the pose. But if your foundation is weak, you won’t have the strength or balance to achieve the pose or maintain it if you get there. So, practice getting grounded where you are and once you are secure challenge yourself to go further.
Honor where you are today
The final lesson from yoga practice is the importance of accepting yourself right where you are. Human beings are so dynamic that we not only change day by day but moment by moment as well. That’s why each new expression of a pose is an invitation to go deeper. Some days you can and other days you cannot. It takes discipline to remove the “shoulds” from your mindset and accept reality for what it is today. You are where you are today and you’ll get to where you’re going tomorrow with intention, focus, endurance, stability, and radical self-acceptance.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Becoming a Zumba Mami

It’s hard to believe it’s been six months since I completed my Zumba instructor training. I started teaching my first class in May and now the summer session has come to an end. It’s amazing how time flies by. Since the year is half over I find myself reflecting on where my fitness journey all began.

My love affair with Zumba started two years ago when I joined a gym for the first time. It was the first class I took and I was quickly hooked. It wasn’t because I was that great at it. In fact, I felt pretty awkward trying to mimic the rhythms at first. Even though I was a dancer I had never danced in that style before. It didn’t discourage me though. While a part of me was unacquainted with the new way of moving another part of me took to it easily, as if I had always done it. Moreover, it freed me. I think if I had resumed the ballet and modern styles I was trained in, I would’ve been too technically focused and missed the bigger purpose in moving. Dance at this time in my life isn’t necessarily about perfect execution or proper alignment and technique. It’s about freedom, expression, and connection- connection to my forgotten self.

You can probably guess where the story went next. I loved it so much I decided to learn how to
teach it. Now, I have a few months of teaching under my belt and a few gigs on the horizon this fall. What excites me is that this return to my first love has taken priority in my life. It won’t just be an extra thing I squeeze in if I have time. I’m intentionally ordering my life so that I can do more of what I love. I’m not na├»ve. This reprioritizing doesn’t come without some sacrifices. I’m also mindful of the need to maintain balance and rest so this outlet remains a joy and not a burden. All in all though, I’m following my bliss, as they say. With each step of doing what I want to do and not just what I think I should do I’m inching toward my true purpose.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A brave new world

Well, now that the cat is out of the proverbial bag I suppose I can finally share a transition that’s been months in the making. No I’m not pregnant, nor am I engaged or buying a home. For some reason, that seems to be women’s big news but not mine at this point. I did quit my job though and I just finished up my last day at work. In some ways it feels surreal not to be signing on for another school year of counseling college students. In other ways, it feels like every decision I’ve made this year has brought me to this point…this place of venturing out into a new land.

If you’ve followed my blog, you’ll see a clear theme to 2014. It seems like every week I took on a new challenge or adventure of one form or another. I learned something about myself or about life. I attained every personal goal, however big or small. None of this is to brag on myself but rather to highlight how hungry I’ve been to attain the life I really want. It just finally clicked for me that if I only have one life to live I want to live it to the fullest and do what makes me happiest. Why should passion only be part time?
So here’s what’s next. I’m going full steam ahead into the fitness and wellness industry. I realized from my own fitness journey that the same things I love about counseling, I also love about exercise. They are both about relationships. You get to know people over time. You connect with them and to some extent do life with them, even if it’s just an hour a week. People enter your presence one way and then hopefully, by the end of your time, they’re feeling better and more hopeful.  I still plan to counsel clients. I feel called to the work of alleviating suffering and believe I’m gifted at it. It’s just that I hope to balance that work by promoting the good, not just fixing the bad.

There are still some internal battles that I fight regarding this transition, specifically in terms of legitimacy. You don’t really need a degree to teach fitness and certainly not a PhD. I wonder what it might say about me that I have zero aspirations to own my own practice and do hardcore clinical work the next 30 years. Is it because I can’t take it? Am I not good enough? If I ventured more into prevention work would I not be seen as a real clinician by those in my field? And if I don’t want to be a full time therapist or a full time professor, why did I incur a six figure loan debt in the first place? These might seem like reasonable questions to ask, but don’t be fooled. No matter how logical they sound, they are fears and doubts, plain and simple. I say that because if I entertained any one of those nagging questions for too long than I might reconsider my decision to leave. My friend gave me a helpful visual for when I started to freak out (a frequent occurrence during this time of transition). She urged me not to feed my fears because they’re always hungry. They always want snacks. Now, when I get scared I think of a creature or gremlin holding his hand out for food and I quickly shift gears.

The facts of my situation are what they are but here’s the truth. I was created in God’s image to do good works which He prepared in advance for me to do. Did it catch Him by surprise that I’d be making this move now? Absolutely not. He sees the end from the beginning and causes me to move and act according to His good pleasure. He knows what will serve the greater good, fulfill me, and bring Him glory and He continually works out those three objectives in every detail of my life. That’s the truth. It’s a truth that encourages and grounds me. I still feel afraid sometimes. When I do I listen to this song that’s become an anthem for me and many others. Courage is feeling afraid and doing what you have to do anyway. So, when fear comes I remind myself that He makes me brave and enables me to do what I think I can’t do.