Over the American Thanksgiving week, I was in Costa Rica on an 8-day retreat; an opportunity to radically slow down and look inward. As part of the retreat experience, I decided to challenge myself to not workout for the week either. 2022 has been an extremely challenging year for me, so far, up to and including my mother’s sudden and unexpected death a month ago. My body has been feeling the accumulation of exhaustion, even as my movement has also felt like my salvation at times. This retreat seemed like an opportune moment to make the choice to not elevate my heart rate.
A bit of background—I’m addicted to moving my body in a vigorous fashion. I generally workout 6 days a week, with one day of rest. And rest still involves walking or biking around town for 30+ minutes. In weeks when I know I’m absolutely not going to be able to get in any exercise on a particular day that’s not my preassigned rest day, I’ll re-engineer my schedule to extend the number of workout days in row, so that the day I can’t exercise becomes my rest day.
A few sentences ago, when I used that word addiction, I decided to look it up and make sure I wasn’t being extravagant. Nope. The definition talks about occupying oneself with something habitually or compulsively. And workouts are, for me, always habitual and sometimes compulsive (which you may already be thinking from what I’ve said so far).
I didn’t 100% commit to the no-workout idea in advance. I wore my running shoes on the plane. Just in case I decided I wanted to hike or run or go for a walk that was longer or faster paced than my flip flops would support. Normally, even if I was planning on running somewhere, I would not wear my running shoes on the plane. I only wear running shoes when I’m actually running (or hiking) or on my way to or from the activity (I could go on for some time on this topic, but that’s a different rabbit hole). In this case, in the interests of packing as light as possible, I didn’t want to wear street shoes on the plane and add runners to my luggage. All to say that wearing my running shoes, as if they were street shoes, was my first opportunity of the retreat week to let go of my usual way of being.
As soon as I got to Sugar Beach and saw the setup, I understood that running was pretty much out of the question anyhow. We were asked not to leave the property (to maintain our inward focus and group container) and the beach is in a small cove, unconducive to a beach run. There was a gym with a treadmill. That didn’t appeal. And there was wifi, so I could have streamed workouts from my Peloton app. That didn’t appeal either. In the context of being on retreat, those options felt too much in the world. Whereas running outdoors has the potential to feel more unplugged. I have, for example, gone for runs at silent meditation retreats.
I put my running shoes at the back of my closet and didn’t touch them again until it came time to leave for my flight. 8 days later.
What did I do?
Short beach walks. Dips in the ocean. Playing in the waves. Walking from place to place on the relatively small property. And the 60-minute light movement class, which was offered to participants, on 7 of the 8 days. Plus, 5-10 sun salutations before three of those movement classes. The movement class focused on balance, posture, bilateral alignment, stretching, fluidity, and re-learning developmental movements (by which I mean things like learning to crawl). This video of a move called pinwheel (to increase fluidity in the hips, knees and ankles and strengthen the core), is an example of one of the more vigorous movements.
And this heel rocking (to relieve body tension, promote tranquility and activate the parasympathetic nervous system) is an example of the typical level of effort:
How did it go?
Well, the first few days my body felt great. Quiet. Rested. Limber. Easy. Alert. Dipping in the ocean and in movement class, I could feel the strength of my muscles in a new way, as if the noise of their usual fatigue and even soreness was out of the way, making it easier to hear their pleasure in the gentler exertions. By day 5, I was starting to feel restless. Caged. My physical energy didn’t quite know where to go.
I was in need of a steam valve.
And, well, I left out two blocks of movement (on days 6 and 7) in my list above. There was dancing. Once for about 20 minutes and a second time for 45 minutes. I danced my heart out, fueled by the steam energy of my days of rest.
The dancing was all I needed to feel free again.
I haven’t talked about food yet. To be sure, food has some bearing on my relationship with exercise. Part of the compulsivity that sneaks into my workouts, at times, is the feeling that I need to counter balance my appetite for food. On the rare other occasions, when the counter balance of exercise has been eliminated from the equation, I have cut back radically on my eating. This time, I didn’t do that. If anything, I ate more for breakfast and lunch than is my norm. I didn’t bring any snack food with me. And there was none available. Plus, in keeping with the spirit of the retreat, there was no sugar, dairy or gluten in any of the food that was served. I have no idea if I consumed more or less calories than I usually do. What I know is that my body felt stable. Neither heavier nor lighter. Or maybe that was just my mind. I ate until I felt satiated and then I stopped. A level of simplicity I seem to have difficulty with in the swirl of daily life, in which I’m often either forbidding myself a next bite or groaning and stuffed. The opposite of last week’s simplicity.
All to say, it was an interesting pause for self-investigation and reflection (and I haven’t even talked about the retreat program). I’m glad to be back in the swing of my regular life. I’m back at my workouts and grateful for the sweat. And I’m taking my reintegration as slow as possible, given work and other responsibilities. So that I can stay connected with what I learned and what will emerge as the dust settles on the experience.
A short list of things I learned (mostly again):
- My body loves to move. My movement is not just habitual and compulsive. It’s a joy.
- Be more mindful of where the balance lies between joy, habit and compulsion.
- Take such rest breaks more often. Then they can be shorter.
- No one but me noticed or cared that I was wearing running shoes on the plane.
- Dance. Dance more.