This article was first published in The Hindu on August 06, 2018.
How I discovered the joys of exercise and self-awareness.
Way back in 1994, when I came back to Ooty from Chennai, after my post-graduation to join my mother’s obstetric practice, I didn’t quite realise what I had bargained for. In those days, Ooty was a small town with almost nothing going on. My life revolved around work. The isolation, frenzied work schedule, with a complete lack of friends, stimulus, entertainment or creative outlet, was nearly unbearable. I needed a coping strategy. For me, that came in the form of exercise.
I had always loved fitness even as a child, but now I was using it almost as a refuge. My long morning walks, aerobics in front of the TV (those days there was an Australian show on), and yoga, were not just about staying fit or losing weight. The endorphins kept my moods from plummeting.
From there was born my renewed respect for what exercise could do for me, not just physically but emotionally. Looking back, I may have been using exercise almost like a drug, to survive. Did I go into over-training? Perhaps at times I did, those initial few years. Today, I am wiser for it. I am very mindful of just how I use it, very aware that everything, however good, can be detrimental, if over-indulged.
Soon I started to recognise that my patients could also benefit from exercise. Many of their problems resulted from a lack of fitness or strength, being overweight or too frail. This was the beginning of my foray into fitness, as an extension of my medical practice.
How do I teach women to include fitness in their lives? How do I help them enjoy exercise? I certified to be a Fitness & Lifestyle Consultant from the National Association for Fitness Certification (NAFC) in the US in 2000, and started teaching exercise to women in Ooty.
My first and second books, Get Size Wise and Gain to Lose, were products of my experiences, and talk of the basics of exercise with plenty of real-life stories that I had encountered with women every day in the context of them trying to lose weight or get fit.
By the time I was ready to write my third book, Fit After 40, I had taken an extended course in positive psychology. I am very mindful of the fact that ‘fitness’ and ‘wellness’ never deal with only the physical self. The mind and body are so intricately connected that one can never truly be ‘fit’ without addressing our inner well-being.
Positive psychology is a fascinating field. I’ve always been interested in the workings of the human mind. In fact, my first choice for post-graduation was Psychiatry. Eventually, however, I changed my mind and chose ObGyn as it was a much ‘cheerier’ field with new beginnings and mostly happy endings. Psychiatry seemed rather gloomy and depressing.
Positive psychology deals with flourishing. How does someone who is doing okay, do even better? How do you thrive instead of just survive? This interested me greatly. Why do some people flourish while others languish? Positive psychology gave me an insight into all the above questions and a way to approach growing older, in my book. It also helped me personally, more than I can express. I realised, it all starts with self-awareness.
Self-awareness is not only knowing your preferences, weaknesses, strengths or even understanding your inner world, though of course, that’s a large part of it. It also deals with recognising just how we monitor and negotiate our inner world, and what we notice or understand regarding ourselves. So for instance, do we often admonish ourselves with ‘I should/shouldn’t have done that’? What is that self-talk that goes on 24/7 inside our heads? What are our preconceptions, biases and conditioning, and where do they come from? Identifying all this in a non-judgemental manner is the path to self-awareness. The key word is non-judgemental.
My own self-narrative had a lot of editing to be done! I learned that I was far too self-critical. While it may have helped drive me to work harder or be better, it couldn’t have been too good for me. We are taught to be compassionate towards our patients; self-compassion, however, is not always easy. I had to learn to take a step back to a better vantage point and just observe instead of jumping in with my own disapproval and/or guilt. I had to ask myself some very hard questions, and sometimes I didn’t like the answers! I’ve learnt that it’s okay to be vulnerable sometimes, to refuse sometimes, or to agree to disagree (without feeling guilty about it!). Being self-aware relieves you of the burden of trying to explain yourself, to fit in, or for that matter, to stand out!
The most important and longest relationship we will ever have is with ourselves. Writing the book helped me explore some fascinating aspects of my own self. It’s a journey well worth spending time on and being truly mindful of.