Rebelle Society recently published my creative reflection about my love of dance and how it has transformed my life. Upon writing this reflection, I was reminded of the several key relationships that have been essential in fostering big changes towards healthy living. My experience of these supportive networks, alongside decades of research, finds that social networks are vital in shaping and sustaining health behaviors [1-5]. I will write much more on the benefits of supportive health communities and how to develop your own supportive communities and networks in a later post.
First, I want to share a recent experience that has presented a profound challenge in my pursuit of healthy living: leaving my beloved health community behind and learning how to start all over again. We all experience life changes that limit our ability to be physically near to our greatest supporters and mentors. Even for those of us fortunate enough to have already had the opportunity to define and utilize the health practices that fit for our lives, many variables can potentially disrupt the ideal routine. Perhaps you take on a new job in a new city, and you have yet to find your community. Perhaps you are in a season of financial strain, which requires many hours of hard work for you to stay afloat, and you might not have the time or money to enroll in a gym or take exercise classes. These challenges illustrate the ever-changing and dynamic nature of our lives, and coming back to a physically and emotionally healthy routine is similar to the ongoing process of finding homeostasis. It is during these moments that the critical undertaking of developing self-reliance becomes most salient.
Let me start with a note of gratitude. I was fortunate to be connected with some very amazing and inspiring mentors over the course of my wellness journey. The first was Julie Simon: dancer, instructor, performer, and unintentional philosopher. As Julie’s pupil, I was given so many gifts and tools. She introduced me to new worlds of dances and cultures with which I became utterly rapt: Africa, Brazil, Cuba, and more. She also taught me how to physically push beyond any limits I had placed on myself. When I first started her class, the movement and the pace felt so inaccessible. But for some reason, I kept coming back. Now that Julie is one of my best friends, I know that this experience was not unique to me. Julie has a sparkling charisma that reaches almost everyone she comes into contact with. Beyond that, she creates a classroom environment that is so welcoming and celebratory and who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Julie taught me how to dance, appreciate my own body, and use my body to it’s fullest potential (moving past my mental barriers of what I thought was physically possible).
A few months after I met Julie, I happened upon another fateful mentorship. I began to practice Ashtanga Yoga with Western Yoga College, led by Scott Miller and Laura Cueva-Miller. Although I had been practicing yoga on and off for many years, this sangha was very special and they inspired a much deeper growth in my yoga practice. Scott and Laura taught me about the importance of discipline, hard work, and spiritual connection in the pursuit of total wellbeing. They also taught me about the importance of having a fun, light-hearted attitude, even while working toward difficult and serious goals.
Leaving these mentors and beloved communities behind as I relocated to a new city was the hardest transition I have ever experienced. I didn’t know why it felt so bad at the time. In hindsight, I realized it was because I had become entirely dependent on my mentors to deliver these benefits to me. All this time as a student in their classrooms, my only task was to show up and allow them to guide me in reaching that state of mental clarity, physical pleasure, and emotional empowerment that was created by moving according to their direction. But now, many miles away, it became painfully clear that I was solely responsible for my own health journey. That didn’t stop me from wasting my time denying this fact! For many months, I searched for new classes, trying to find my replacement mentors. There were many talented inspirational people I met in this way, but none had the compelling pull that led me to abide and adhere so attentively to my embodied practices in the same way that my first mentors did.
After many months of trying to fill the void in this way, I redirected my focus on the one teacher who was closest, most accessible, and most reliable in my life: ME. With a busy schedule and none of my trusted mentors nearby, I had to learn to take ownership over my own health journey. Luckily, I wasn’t starting from scratch; I had the tools given to me by past teachers. And yet, there was no friend, instructor, or boss I might potentially upset if I didn’t show up to my 6am home practice, other than myself.
I will share with you the tools that help bring me just a little bit closer to self-reliance in my health journey. It is, of course, an ongoing process.
· I do it for me – My health journey didn’t truly begin until I decided to embark on this path for the sake of myself and nothing or nobody else. It is so much more difficult to sustain motivation if it's only for the purposes of losing weight or gaining the acceptance of others. This is how people become trapped in the yo-yo effect of diet and exercise. There are extrinsic rewards: tangible changes to your body, more attention from others, more acceptance or validation on the basis of your physical appearance. But, over time, the attention and outside motivation may wane or become less meaningful. Success is much more sustainable when the health journey is based on the more stable and substanative foundation of self-love, kindness, and even enjoyment .
· I learned to fall in love with the process – I believe that with familiarity and increased proficiency, this can happen naturally. At a certain point, I started to look forward to that painful, sweaty burn every morning. I changed the way I thought about the task ahead of me. Rather than being this horrible nuisance in my day, I try to think about the task of waking up and attending to my physical need for movement as an exquisite force that affords me the strength, mental clarity, and patience I need to get through the day.
· I created the perfect soundtrack – Still to this day, I cannot do a proper workout to a song that does not fuel my fire. Research finds that music can be a useful tool for increased performance and improved psychological states, particularly during high intensity aerobic exercise . Everyone has a different preference and requirements for good music. Have fun exploring your favorite tunes and help make your workouts more fun. I’m always looking for more songs to add to my workout playlist. If you have favorites, please share!
· I try to make it a habit – Honestly, I’m still working on this. However, the more habitual these practices become, the less need for negotiating, and having to think about the decision to follow through . Most folks don’t realize how much of human cognition runs on unconscious thought. We fancy ourselves a rational, thoughtful, and attentive bunch. Have you ever had the experience of sitting in your car on a long drive, when suddenly you notice you arrived at your destination, without any memory or awareness about the drive itself? This is how humans navigate the majority of our daily tasks. So I try to exploit this mindlessness to my benefit. To ensure that I will adhere to my daily health goals, I try to make the decisions as mindless as possible. If I don’t buy processed foods, I save myself the mental energy of having to make the decision to avoid them. Similarly, if I wake up at the same time every day and spend a few hours moving and sweating, my body becomes familiar with this routine, and I find less and less burden of choice or thought in the matter.
· I created increased accountability – As a social psychologist, I know that one of the strongest social forces to compel behavior is what Bob Cialdini calls “Commitment and Consistency.” Basically, once I publicly agree to complete a task, I’m more likely to follow through . I started by declaring my goals and daily plans to my romantic partner. He would never scold me or make me feel guilty for missing my workouts or indulging on my favorite “cheat” foods. However, by publicly declaring my goals, I was also making a promise to someone else (who I care for very much). This helps me to substantiate the importance of honoring my word. Relatedly, another strategy I use to increase my accountability is to visualize my greatest mentors witnessing my daily health decisions. I spent so many days of my life in the studio with Julie, Scott, and Laura that I can easily imagine their voices and the instruction or feedback they might give when I’m practicing (or not practicing) all alone. Sometimes I even articulate those instructions to myself, aloud. This may sound silly, but it works. Call upon your internalized teachers. You’ll be surprised to find that so much of their wisdom and motivating power remains with you.
· I think about the big picture – Health beliefs are actually quite emotional in nature. The truth is that most of us, even medical doctors, hold some strongly biased and inaccurate ideas and opinions about health and illness [10, 11]. One crucial change in my belief was when I started to link my daily behaviors with a bigger picture of my health as a whole. Enjoying ice cream and basking outdoors without sunscreen one sunny summer afternoon will not result in heart disease or skin cancer. However, these daily health decisions do accumulate over time, shaping the course of health. Many variables determine overall health outcomes: behaviors, lifestyles, personality types, social support, environment, and of course, genes and family histories. Scientists and doctors are still working to understand the etiologies (causes) of many of the most common illnesses that effect our population today. However, some of the biggest risk factors of most complex diseases we know today include behaviors that we can control, such as: smoking, drinking, and unhealthy weight gain [12-14]. Maintaining this sense of the bigger picture gives me a better sense of why it’s important to take ownership of my health journey, even when it is not convenient to do so.
Paradoxically, during this time of seeking self-reliance, I realized that what I need to ensure adherence and success in my health goals is to create a supportive environment where it may not otherwise exist. This is not the same as looking to a mentor to dictate my daily health schedule, this insight comes from the acknowledgement that we are all social animals, and that we thrive on healthy conscious communities that provide for us a sense of support, meaning, enriched enjoyment, and added accountability. Knowing what I know about myself, I am highly extroverted, so this craving for social connection in my health journey may be particularly pronounced. In my next post, I will talk more about the vital role of social support in shaping health behaviors and outcomes and how to find or create your ideal health community.
I wish you all the best on your journey towards self-reliant health!