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From Gym Rat to Mat Rat

by Rebecca Bossen, R.Y.T. and Chief Shady Grove Goddess

True confession: I used to be a gym rat. At 5 AM, you could find me mixing a protein shake and listening to the clang of metal hitting metal as the morning weightlifters began their routines. It was 1999, I was twenty-two, and it seemed perfectly logical to me to work the front desk at the gym until 10 (free membership!), rush to my other job as a nanny, and then throw myself into college classes. Of course, I always pushed myself through a daily hour-and-a-half workout. I would challenge men twice my size to leg press contests. And win. I loved it. I was in great shape…right? Well, great shape in that I had killer quads and six pack abs. I also had torn cartilage in both hips, a cold I couldn’t kick, frequent heart palpitations, a hair-trigger temper, and zero energy. My cardiologist (yes, I had to have a cardiologist in my early twenties) listened to my heart and made the grave pronouncement: “Kiddo, you have got to relax.” Um…relax? I replied, “Why? I’m fine. Totally fine. I’m-perfectly-calm-and-I-don’t-need-to-relax-at-all-thankyouverymuch!”

Relaxation was as foreign to me as Kuala Lumpur.

Exercise is fundamental to the health and well-being of the human body. It strengthens the muscles, improves cardiovascular efficiency, prevents disease, boosts your mood…the benefits are so numerous and obvious that there’s no need to list them all here. However, not all exercise is created equal. The exercise that I was doing at the gym was intense, high-impact, and-ultimately-detrimental. Sometimes too much of a good thing is simply too much. Everybody’s body is different, everyone’s limits are different, and it takes a special kind of discipline to recognize when it is time to slow down. There may be a time in your life when the heat-building, sweat-inducing exercise is exactly what you need. If you’re preparing for an endurance race, you need to get your body accustomed to what it will face on the course. When you’re trying to conceive, however, the goal is quite different; you aren’t trying to whip your body into shape, but to create a warm and nurturing internal environment. One way of thinking about it is that you are moving from a “yang” (assertive, outwardly-focused) energy to a more “yin” (receptive, inwardly-focused) energy. Or, more colorfully, you can think of your body like an oven-if it’s too cold (i.e. no exercise) nothing much will happen, but if it’s too hot (overly strenuous activity) you won’t get a great result, either. Warming, gentle, moderate exercise is the key.

Yoga is a wonderful, fertility-friendly exercise option. It releases tight muscles, tones the body, opens the breath, and-perhaps most importantly-calms the mind. And there’s no need to be a lithe, graceful, rubber-limbed yogini who can tie herself in knots. The postures, or asanas, are not a goal in and of themselves, but a means to an end: mental calm. The thoughts want to go in a million directions at once (sound familiar?), so the postures are there to give the mind a place to focus.

When I was in a stressed-out graduate school frenzy, my yoga mat became my safe haven. After several weeks of whining (“but it’s so slow…and it’s really hard!”), I discovered that I got a lot more out of my exercise when I actually paid close attention to what my body and mind were doing. These days, relaxation isn’t exactly my home address, but at least it’s a slightly less exotic location. It helps that yoga does not require that you push yourself to the next goal; rather, it’s about exploring exactly where you are at the present moment and accepting it for what it is.  Is there any better-or harder-exercise than that?