Breath. Balance. Flexibility. How strengthening your body strengthens your spirit.
I am a personal trainer and fitness instructor. For me it’s all about form, balance, flexibility and breathing. Not surprised? How about if I told you that these aren’t simply physical things you try to get your body to do properly but also spiritual disciplines you need to grow as a whole person—primarily spiritual disciplines? What’s good for your body is even better for your soul. Stay with me a minute.
I was a young wife with a kid, a husband in the Air Force and a job waiting tables at a steakhouse. I’d never set foot in a gym, but the food at work—those baked potatoes dripping with butter and sour cream, not to mention the desserts—were getting the worst of me. “Hit the health club,” my girlfriends said, seeing the transformation I was undergoing.
The first thing I tried was high-impact aerobics, where you really get your heart rate up. I lasted about 10 minutes. So I signed up for something called “dance thin.” There was a lot of stretching and toning on the mat along with some low-impact cardiovascular exercises. Now this was more like it. An hour-long class that didn’t take me a week to recover from.
Here’s what that class taught me most: how critical stretching is. It increases our energy and overall range of motion, which reduces tension and stress. Before any exercise, whether it’s a pickup game of basketball or an hour of gardening, it’s absolutely essential to stretch. This is especially true for inactive people. Figure out which muscles you’ll need and stretch them. Gently. Never bounce or jerk the muscles (bouncing can cause injury). Keep your stretches smooth and slow, and breathe into the movement, deep, sure breaths that draw rich, oxygenated blood to the muscles.
As a kid I used to sit in an old willow tree in our backyard. If I really stretched I could reach the top and from the highest branches look out onto the world. I’ve locked that image in my head. Stretching is a chance to shake off stiffness, become limber like that old willow and reach for the sky. I learned that stretching isn’t just physical. I try to stretch myself spiritually every day too—reminding myself of how God can do anything in our lives if we just let him in. That requires spiritual flexibility. When I stretch a part of my body I think about opportunities where I can meet God in my daily life, where I can stretch my faith. Try it.
The summer after my freshman year of high school our family drove to Houston for what my father vaguely said would be a vacation. We checked into a nifty high-rise hotel with a big swimming pool on the roof, but Mom went to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She didn’t come out for weeks, and it was then that Dad explained she was being treated for cancer.
When I finally visited her I was so shocked by her appearance—her head bald from chemotherapy, her body so frail and thin—that I lost my breath. For a moment I just couldn’t breathe, as if I could make life stop in its tracks. Later we were able to talk about the wig she needed to buy, but the shock didn’t leave for a long time. It was my breath that was affected most.
My mother didn’t recover. In moments when the fear of life without her overwhelmed me I lost my breath. It seems so contradictory that something as natural as breathing needs to be relearned or taught, but that’s exactly what happened to me. You know how we hold our breath when something painful happens? The same thing happens with emotional pain.
As we inhale, life-giving oxygen infuses our lungs and from there our bloodstream. Exhaling, we send carbon dioxide back into the air. Shallow breathing hinders our body’s ability to release carbon dioxide. And without enough oxygen our bodies are at risk for heart attacks, cancer, strokes.
Deep breathing is one of the most beneficial exercises we can do. Yes, deep breathing is an exercise! You can practice deep breathing while you are waiting at the doctor’s office, sitting at your desk, doing laundry, shopping for groceries, taking a shower. I love to practice deep breathing while driving. Inhale big and deep and then let it out slowly. It helps you release tension and find peace. Breathing is our most primal connection to God—remember, God breathed life into Adam. Literally. Our breathing is of divine origin. When you do deep breathing, think of God breathing life into you.
Eventually I became so passionate about fitness that I was asked to be a teacher. By now exercise had become a lifeline for me. My marriage was falling apart, but I had stumbled into a career that I loved. I saw real results in my students, the same results I found in myself. Soon, I was running my own business, teaching and exercising, and raising my girls alone. Then, out of the blue, I hit a wall.
I was running on empty. A mysterious exhaustion took over. One evening I went to the emergency room and told a doctor I felt on the verge of collapse. He asked me a million questions then told me I needed to get more rest. That was probably true, but I was sure there was something my body was trying to tell me. I kept exercising and felt worse. I went back to the hospital several more times. Finally I decided to try another hospital. They checked me in and gave me a battery of tests. It turned out I had a heart defect and would need surgery. Any sense of vindication I felt was wiped out by this devastating news. Yet the surgery for me was successful, and I was able to resume my career, a stronger, healthier person because of it, back in good form.
What if I hadn’t insisted on being re-examined? When you get regular exercise you become more attuned to what your body is telling you. You’re aware that something isn’t right. Sometimes God talks to us through our bodies as much as our souls.
On a micro level, balance means keeping your weight evenly distributed; on the macro level, it’s the process of pursuing and achieving spiritual, physical and mindful harmony. Balance is life’s equilibrium. For example, a car has four tires and each of those tires works in harmony with the others to bring about a smooth and gentle ride. You know what will happen if one of those tires suddenly falls off.
In fitness the secret to maintaining control and balance is counterbalances. These are the exercises you do in unstable environments that force your body to adjust to the instability, and thus become acutely balanced. One of my favorite tools in exercise classes is the stability ball. It’s like a large sturdy beach ball. Just sitting on the ball automatically engages your abdominal muscles and naturally aligns your spine. If your body did not make these adjustments, you’d fall off the ball. Still, the whole process is barely noticeable. In fact, when I’m working at the computer, I use the ball as a chair. I get a mini-workout while I’m typing! I use the ball for other exercises too, sit-ups, curls, dips, knee tucks and even weight-lifting. Balancing engages a whole variety of muscles.
In my life, keeping a balance is a constant challenge. Yours too, I bet. There are so many pressures and stresses. I want to make sure I give enough time to my family, my work and my faith. Sometimes I think of God as the great counterbalance that makes it all work. By leaning on my faith I grow naturally stronger for those times I’m most challenged. I’m taking advantage of how God designed me spiritually. I can put my life into perspective, bringing it into balance. I would even say that prayer is a bit like working out on the stability ball. It gives me strength in places I’m not even aware of.
Perhaps it is no mistake that the Bible compares our spiritual life to an athletic contest: “Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.” I do that very thing by stretching, breathing, listening and looking for the balance in my life. That’s something to do at the gym and beyond.