Tag Archives: mental-health

How Spiritual Practice Guided Me Into Eating Disorder Recovery

This was originally posted 9/28/17 on Nonpoliticalnews.com as “How Yoga Saved Me From Myself.”

I grew up going to Catholic Church every Sunday and CCD until I asked my mother in 8th grade if I could quit. I told her there were aspects of it that didn’t feel aligned with my beliefs and she agreed under the condition that my sister and I accompany her to the hippie church in the barn in the woods every Sunday. We complied.

I hold nothing against the church, or any organized religion. I am aware that many people derive deep healing and goodness from religion. My religion, however, wasn’t serving me. Little did I know I was already on a spiritual path in 8th grade and I recognized that the Catholic Church didn’t support that path.

I have had issues with my body since I was a child. My earliest memory was that my little puffy tummy was a problem. I prayed it would go away by the time I was a grown-up.

Fast forward to high school. I was tall and had body dysmorphia. I believed my body was unsightly.

By my first semester of college I developed bulimia nervosa. It felt like a completely normal thing to do as a means to having a sense of control. On the surface, I saw nothing wrong with the behaviors I was committing to.

My best friend and boyfriend at the time were the only ones who knew and they did everything they could to help but overall I isolated myself.

I lived in my mind: constantly calculating calories. I sought control over food and my body. But mostly I wanted control over every aspect of my life. Food and my body were the most attainable way to feel any semblance of control.

There is a lot from this dark period that I don’t remember. I’ve blocked it out for self-preservation. I was also so distracted by my obsessive mindset and behavior that I detached and disassociated from my body and college experience.

In college I found a yoga studio. I had been practicing yoga since age 16 but there was something about going to this no-frills studio that resembled the rituals of going to church but this time it felt right; it felt like a spiritual match.

No one said: a spiritual practice will heal you! But this is exactly what happened. As I practiced yoga regularly, I also grew my spirituality. I integrated yoga teachings into daily life.

When I learned the yogic practice of non-violence I saw my eating disorder as being brutally violent toward myself. I had to stop.

My primary concern for years was controlling my body/appearance since I couldn’t control the world around me. I was operating on a very small-minded level.

As soon as I decided I was going to heal from my eating disorder, I felt at ease. I surrendered and loosened my grip on control. My world-view expanded. I valued my intelligence, my passions, and my relationships. I felt like I was part of something greater than myself and my appearance.

This was over 12 years ago. Today yoga is still part of my spiritual practice. Today I walk in nature and connect to something greater than myself. I meditate and remember we transcend our bodies. I spend time with my dog and cats, friends and family, and revel in the relationships I cultivated. My spirituality is all around me and is in my daily life.

I’m not saying you need a spiritual practice to live a good life. I’m saying it worked for me. And it keeps me in recovery from my eating disorder, every day.

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How letting go of the desire to control everything slowly granted me emotional freedom

I am investigating the importance of speaking my truth. And acknowledging, allowing, and accepting my emotions.

We hear that a lot. At least I do. From teachers and coaches and writers and influencers. And sometimes it makes sense to me but sometimes I’m like “I know I’m saying this thing that is GOOD but I don’t fully understand why.”

And last night something came together.

Last night I started to further understand – in my body and soul – the importance of not only speaking my own truth, but acknowledging, accepting, and allowing my feelings instead of shaming myself for having certain feelings {i.e. sadness, guilt, despair, etc.}

Sometimes I am afraid to say how I feel because I am scared to let people down. I am scared of messing something up. I am scared of causing someone pain. I am scared of upsetting something.

And so what does all of the  above really mean?

It means that I sometimes find myself terrified of speaking my truth and my feelings because I don’t want to lose control over a situation.

For a long time this was my default. And so, I would remain silent. For fear I would cause an upset, to myself or another person. I was afraid I’d lose control.

And so, I remained silent.

Silence is still sometimes my jam. But it doesn’t always serve me.

And I’ve spent a huge portion of the last decade learning about my own emotions. Primarily, what exactly to do (or not do) with them.

What I realized in that instant I uttered those words [I am afraid to say how I feel because…] is that I internalized the feelings, the hurt, the discomfort , and the pain.

And all of that discomfort materialized into more visible symptoms like anxiety, panic, and an eating disorder.

So what’s the point of even coming to this conclusion?

The point is that I see even greater value in being able to acknowledge and allow my feelings to process and to express them when a situation calls for it.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve bit my tongue and not said how I felt or what I thought because I feared judgment and I feared my world spinning out of control.

Freaking Control…

So now it’s about loosening the reigns on control. It’s about stepping into the emotions because when I do just that, they aren’t so scary or overwhelming and, usually, after giving them some of my attention (not ALL of it) they slowly fade away.

I don’t suppress them anymore. I don’t pretend that I don’t feel these uncomfortable icky feelings anymore. (And I used to because in my mind that meant I had no control over myself >>> which inevitably led to an eating disorder.)

I recognize that I too am human. I recognize that the emotions I deal with on a daily basis are part of the human experience.

While it may take me a little longer than some to move through emotions, I’m ok with that. I’m learning. I’m being patient with myself.

I’m also learning that emotions don’t have to take the lead! Which means… I’m stepping into my power.

I soften to what I feel. I surrender. I don’t give up on myself. But there’s something in THAT [the softening and surrender] that, for me, let’s the emotions feel less scary. I remember that they, like all things, will eventually pass.

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What I’ve learned so far from giving up endurance races this year…

If I were to recall my new year’s resolution for 2016, it would be this: “Do not sign up for any major race.” And by god, I’m doing it!

I’m writing this now (and not waiting for January 1) because it’s been over a year since my last race: Chicago Marathon on 10.11.15.

Not doing a big race this year seemed like such a weird goal for me, especially after 6 straight years of non-stop triathlons and half-marathons/marathons. I’ve honored my promise with myself though and here’s what I’ve noticed since setting this intention:

  1. Running is fun again. Running pretty much stopped being fun. My body felt like poop when I ran and it was all about the time/pace or how running balanced out/burned off the food I was eating.
  1. I’m moving my body in ways that truly fill me up. Like hiking or walking Daisy. Instead of moving/exercising out of obligation.
  1. I feel way less pressure to fit in exercise. And what’s the point of exercising if it doesn’t totally light me up?
  1. More time!!!! I noticed in the past year how much I would prioritize training over a hang out. Or over taking time to sit down and read a book. Or write. Or focus on my business. Or take a long bath. Or nap. Or meditate. Or do NOTHING.
  1. It’s gotten easier. At first friends asked me to sign up for this half-marathon or that Ironman… the endurance athlete bug in me lit up at the thought of it. I even tempted myself with an ultra [still am tempted…] But when I kept coming back to my WHY and was the WHY strong enough to compel me to ditch my intention and sign up for a race… the answer always came back to no. And after several months, turning down races started to feel like a YES. It felt like a yes to honoring my body in a new way.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with training for a race. In fact 95% of the races I’ve done have been some of the greatest days ever. Like Ironman Lake Placid, my first year doing NYC Triathlon, and Chicago Marathon. Whew. Amazing days!!! But for me I know that I need to be careful. Or … mindful. Last year, I recognized I needed to create a new pattern and redefine my relationship to running and races.

And so I took a year to pause and notice. Even as I write this, I notice that in the process of letting go of my attachment to being “an endurance athlete” I also let go of a few other attachments (things/beliefs/people/relationships) that just simply did not serve me.

I’m still toying with the idea of one day jumping back on the endurance bandwagon [my heart is still set on an ultra-marathon] … but my approach is slower and much more intentional than ever before.

Why I’m not doing any big races in 2016 – Original blog post from January

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Ironman vs. The Bulge (spoiler alert: Ironman wins)

How Ironman got me to move beyond some of my body image issues and start to see the bigger picture…

I don’t know how we got on the topic of body image but toward the end of a typical Monday night dinner at home, Brett and I started getting into a fairly emotional conversation about positive versus negative body image and having a healthy approach to fitness versus an unhealthy, shame-driven approach. I can’t blame him at all for not seeing my perspective from the beginning — I had not fully explained myself, nor had I provided any hard wired examples. Add to that the fact that Brett is a man who deals with completely different issues pertaining to physical appearance.

I had initially given him the example of a student in my class who expressed to me she hates the way her thighs look in downward dog – a story that was all too familiar both from my own experience and from those who have shared similar sentiments with me! I told Brett how it broke my heart to hear that because ultimately my goal as a yoga teacher is to help people see their bodies in a more positive light. I felt like I was not doing my job.

It wasn’t until he asked me in earnest “what’s wrong with not liking your thighs and doing something to change them?” I knew full well what he meant, and that he meant well. But I could no longer keep my cool, nor could I contain myself.

And out it came…

I launched into a small section of my own story, a fairly recent incident that occurred during the last months of training for Ironman Lake Placid. On several occasions while preparing to head out for long runs I would stop and stare at myself in the mirror, I would lift up my shirt to uncover “the bulge” and force myself to see this imperfection and then take myself into a downward spiral of self-hatred. No longer did I feel motivated to run. What was the point if I looked like this? All I could focus on was the bulge that my run shorts created around my hips and that I had no way of covering this up, and how on earth will I cover this up on race day when I will be wearing tiny tri shorts and a tiny tri singlet that barely covers my belly button?

As I was telling Brett this story my chin started to quiver and my eyes welled up with tears. Not only was I providing a concrete example of negative body image and body dismorphia, but I was reliving the experience and all the emotions that came with it.

Brett was at the same time shocked that I could see myself in this way but, more importantly, appreciative that I could share this with him as it gave him a deeper understanding of who I am. And I in turn didn’t feel like I was harboring a deep dark secret.

Eventually I was able to move beyond the thought process and  my attention shifted away from obsessing over what was wrong with me. I was able to throw on my run clothes and just get out there because I had a much larger goal, something far more important to focus on; that goal was Ironman.

It surprises me that I am able to unveil this story as I rarely talk about my own issues with body image, much less such isolated, specific incidents like this one. I normally keep these stories to myself because they make me feel shameful and embarrassed. At the moment I am working on putting all of this together into one big Maggie Story and this is really just a small snippet. But it’s an important one.

This one incident shed light on what Ironman and endurance means to me. In the end, none of it matters. When I crossed the finish line at Ironman Lake Placid I loved my body and my spirit for all that it was capable of. I had forgotten about how I looked in my tri kit – “the bulge” was but a memory by this point. My body morphed into this superwoman creature that carried me 140.6 miles – and that rocked my world.

I guess sometimes you have to transport yourself to another superhuman-like planet to start to see yourself in a new light.

 

 

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Swimming and Breathing

Post-swim NYC Tri, 2012 – thrilled to be out of the water!

While discussing my upcoming 2013 race (Ironman Lake Placid – gulp) with my friend last week, we were going over the various distances (as people often inquire) of each leg:

swim 2.4 miles

bike 112 miles

run 26.2 miles

The numbers blew his mind, but his biggest concern was “What do you think about during the swim??” My immediate response: “Nothing … or at least that’s my goal.” And it’s absolutely true. While I have never done a 2.4 mile swim, my longest has been 1.2 miles for a half-Ironman, and for any open water swim I know myself and where my mind has the potential to go. If I let my mind wander I will a) start swimming off course, b) start psyching myself out, and, worst of all, c) panic.

An open water swim can be a pretty frightening and intense experience. You look through your goggles and on occasion you can see what is beneath you, however it’s not rare to hardly be able to see your hand in front of you. Adding to that people swimming by you, pawing at your feet or, worse, kicking you in the face (knock on wood I’ve never suffered any injury from this). I will never forget my very first open water swim: Seaside Sprint, Bridgeport, CT 2010. As soon as I looked in the water and saw nothing but darkness, I panicked.  I started feeling short of breath, my wetsuit immediately felt like it had shrunk 2 sizes. I tried floating on my back, keeping my head above water while doing breast-stroke, and distancing myself as much as possible from the other swimmers.

Long story short, I finally made it to the half-way point and got myself together. The one thing that took me through that final 1/2 mile was monitoring my breath. That and starting to hear a cheering crowd.

So, back to the original question “What do you think about during the swim?”

The swim portion of a triathlon can be a very lonely experience. You don’t have any crowds cheering for you and you can’t even make conversation with your fellow racers – one of the delights during the bike and run of a triathlon.

When I did NYC Triathlon in 2010, my first olympic-distance race, I was racing for American Cancer Society in memory of my uncle who had passed away from cancer. The first moment I started hating the swim, I looked up at the sky while taking a breath in, and thought of him. I thought of the hardships he went through and how through all of that, he still had so much love for his family and so much humor. If he could get through that, I could certainly get through a swim in the Hudson River. This brought me back to the present moment and, most importantly, my breath. Breathing is obviously an important part of swimming and each time I jump in the water, the first few minutes are always a little scary. But once I settle into the rhythm of my breath, the fear and trepidation of what’s to come and all the “what if’s” of race day start to melt away. Sometimes I will count my breathing, or even hum along to the rhythm I am creating. Don’t get me wrong, following your breath while swimming in open water is HARD work – in the same way that sitting still and meditating for an hour is hard – but if it prevents me from the panic and helps propel me forward into race day, I’m all for it!

Use your breath as a tool

How can you apply this to you? Well, think of any difficult or trying situation you have experienced or may experience in the future. This encompasses any situation where we find ourselves overwhelmed by stress or anxiety: starting a new job, having a difficult conversation with a loved one, or even spending time with certain relatives we may find hard to deal with around the holidays! Next time you find yourself in a tough spot, try taking a few deep breaths, and really LISTEN to your breath. Not to get all yogic on you but try to notice the quality of your breath – is it hard to breathe in deep? Does it feel a little restrained? Stay with it and see it you notice any difference in the way that you are able to approach the given situation. Oh, and let me know how you do.

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