She left the wire before the sun was up with her platoon of combat engineers, focused on erecting barriers around several Iraqi polling sites for the next day’s elections. The teams moved fast, and while they worked they were alert for the IED attacks they knew could happen at any moment. The sun beat down on them and in their body armor, 103 degree heat felt like more.
By the time she closed her eyes that night, she had thrown up six times.
Theresa was a lot of things. She had been a college athlete, a fitness competitor, and she was now an Officer of Marines in Al Anbar. She struggled with bulimia, but that was not part of her public story. Her intensity and competitive spirit had always made her hard on herself—the combat environment simply turned it up and sharpened her edges to razors.
You ok, Lieutenant?
Hell yes, Marine.
What is ok?
* * *
Self-care is a word in vogue today, but few people actually practice it. We live amidst an epidemic of chronic overstimulation, and tend to embrace treatment of the health issues that come along with that rather than do the harder, slower work of bringing our nervous systems back into a regulated state.
Self-care doesn’t mean exercising until ibuprofen is your best friend. However, when it came to my physical health, this was a mistake I made for years. In general, I was always wired and rarely stopped moving, but I thought that simply meant I was working hard enough. I thought that pain was weakness leaving the body, and more intensity was always a good thing for my athletic abilities.
Pain breeds strength, right? I’d better push it harder…
* * *
I can remember a childhood Christmas morning that my family rose early, opened presents, then looked outside to see new snow falling. It was beautiful and we decided we needed to go enjoy it. The whole family bundled up and we headed out to our residential street. By then the light snow was coming down more like violent hail and sleet. My little sisters rode their bicycles, and the rest of us started off on a jog. The neighbors told us later they thought we were crazy—a ragtag group of six running along on Christmas morning, dodging hail, laughing, and breathing hard. I remember that day as happiness uncomplicated by age or societal expectations. It was visceral and childish—it was joy.
How do we get back there?
Fitness in contemporary society can often be accused of working in diametric opposition to such visceral, celebratory expressions of physicality. So often, physical endeavors are linked to pursuit of an aesthetic, with no focus on empowerment and strength.
Yoga gets accused of having a commercial, aesthetic-driven, mean-girl vibe all the time. As a girl, I remember physicality providing me with happiness. I knew how to celebrate my body outside of dictates about what it should look like. I remember thinking that strength and movement were beautiful and just plain fun.
I got older, went off to school, joined the Marines, and forgot that fitness was supposed to be a soul-practice.
I’m a slow learner. I had to figure it out in an Emergency Room.
We have to ask ourselves, is there anything empowering about our yoga practices these days?
Movement is about grace, agency, and resilience
I didn’t choose to learn about balanced physical training. I was forced to alter the way I thought about physical practice when I caused a serious injury to my back in the weight room. Don’t feel sorry for me—It didn’t happen to me, I honestly broke my own back by overtraining and lifting while stressed out, tired, and careless.
I showed up at the gym that day both hungry and upset about a dissolving relationship. I know now that I should do very few things in this world while hungry.
I moved really fast between sets so that I could get out of there and eat something. Skipping the workout wasn’t an option in my mind, even though it was my second one that day.
I bent down to lift my partner’s bar with straight legs and heard something pop as I stood up. I hit my knees as every colorful term I’d ever heard flew out of my mouth. The gym screeched to a silent halt as I swore. Everyone turned to look at me with concern—it sounded like a crazy woman off on a rant, I am sure.
Once a friendly nurse got me a hamburger, (yoga teacher food?) I had time in the emergency room to do some thinking about how I had been treating my body. What became clear wasn’t pretty—I knew something had to change if I was going to be able to walk past the age of 40.
As I worked to stay active and avoid impact while recovering, I had to leave behind fitness in my usual driven fashion in favor of a more balanced, wellness-focused movement modality. I couldn’t just go run some stairs or hills; I had to get more creative. At the bequest of a physical therapist with a memorable, charming Scottish accent, I found myself on a yoga mat.
Mostly because of that accent. (I would have tried ballet had he asked me to).
Movement is about grace, agency, and resilience. I remember what it used to be for me and I work to ignore the voice in my head that asks me to step on a scale or fit into jeans. Movement should inspire gratitude and curiosity, not serve a cruel, domineering voice in our own head.
Yoga helped me slow down long enough to remember that.
* * *
She had always struggled with low points that she never labeled depression, but her eating disorder had never been as bad as that summer in Iraq. She was dizzy, spacey, and knew she needed to find a balance to keep moving forward safely.
She would do anything to protect her Marines, but she didn’t know how to extend that kindness to herself. The voices that screamed hostilities when she looked in the mirror were getting louder, and she knew she needed to make a change.
How could she be an athlete and a competitor without abusing her physical body?
There had to be a new way to think about things.
That was her beginning.
* * *
Photos by, Alan Turkus and Sonny Abesamis, used with Creative Commons license
Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Health Promotion at Charleston Southern University. She is the author of Brave, Strong, & True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance and co-authored the Just Roll With It Wellness Journal. Kate is a former Marine, a yoga teacher, and mom to both a fearless baby and the Great Dane who dotes on him. Kate can be reached via her website, www.katehendricksthomas.com or via @precisionwell.