Reconnecting with my body

In the Summer of 2014, I proudly started working out at MadLab, a gym that offers functional fitness and full body training. They had a strict ramp-up policy that required personal training with a coach until sufficiently prepared for group classes. The program finished with a graduation test, which in my case took an unexpected turn. In the last minute of my test, I threw out my back and could hardly move.

In the weeks before my test, my coach had cautioned me several times that I pushed myself too hard. He told me I only had two gears: neutral, and pedal-to-the-metal. And I used only one of those two in workouts. I didn’t understand what he meant, nor did I know how to do otherwise.

After the accident, I was completely immobilized. For over a week, I needed Tanja’s help with the simplest movements: getting out of bed, getting dressed, and even going to the washroom. Especially the latter felt deeply humbling (even humiliating). It forced me to take a serious look at myself and my lifestyle. Luckily I had many hours of doing nothing on the couch. I did a lot of thinking, and recognized a bigger issue at hand: I had a severe disconnection between my mind and body, caused by a traumatic experience in my youth.

Bullied

At age 6, I started going to elementary school. It was an entirely different environment, both in and out of school. My family had just moved to a new village and I had a hard time making friends. In school, I happily embraced the welcoming of a few boys who lived in my neighborhood. Unfortunately they turned out to have two faces. For four years, my ‘friends’ also bullied me whenever they liked. Because I had a hard time making friends, I stuck around with them. The bullying took on traumatic proportions, until I switched schools four years later. But the damage was done.

In those four years, I changed from a happy, athletic boy into an overweight, quiet, insecure, depressed and empty ‘shell’ of my former self. Only decades later, did I learn to cope with the trauma through therapy. I learned to see the coping mechanism whereby my mind had disconnected itself from my body for survival. The physical and emotional pain I suffered, was too much to bear for a 6-year old.

The consequences of disconnection

Unfortunately, the coping mechanism had stayed in place and became a lifestyle: I had become a ‘head-person’. I no longer identified myself with my body, but only with my rational mind. The pain of both the bullying, as well as the loss of the essential connection with myself resulted in overeating which in turn jacked up my bodyweight.

During my teenage years, I got sucked into a downward vortex. I felt fat, unattractive, awkward and socially inhibited, which made me isolate myself and not have friends. My mind blamed everything on my body: if only I would’ve been athletic and good-looking, I’d have a girlfriend and friends, and I wouldn’t feel lonely. So I started to ‘punish’ my body, by pushing it too hard in exercise (if I did any) and see-sawing between over and under eating. I wanted to ‘show’ my body that my mind was boss. Mind over matter was the only form of pride and value I had left. My mind had completely disconnected from my body.

Body and mind disconnected

I lived with the disconnection for 25 years. Through these years, I became numb to my physical signals. Pain, hunger, thirst, pleasure, they didn’t register until they hit an extreme stage. Exactly like my coach described: neutral or pedal to the metal.

Which is why I’d push myself way too hard in the workouts. In my very first training session, my coach had to stop me because I was close to fainting. I didn’t understand what he was talking about, and felt annoyed that he’d sent me home.

I kept my all-out pace up until the day of my graduation test, when I thought I’d ace it by showing how much I could push my body. Instead, I hit rock bottom.

Rock bottom

Throwing out my back changed the entire paradigm. For weeks I experienced a level pain that left me gasping for air, if not close to fainting. I needed Tanja’s help for everything and felt deeply humbled, and ashamed. Self-dependency, and the supremacy of my mind over my body had been my pride. But all of a sudden my body had said: ‘no more’. And this was only a minor back injury (strained muscles). I could do a lot worse with free weights and full body workouts. I realized that I had to change my attitude. I didn’t want to be subjected to this helplessness again.

Rebuilding my body connection

Initially, the focus of my recovery was entirely physical. I wanted to get back on my feet, and be able to work out again. My coach had barred me from participating in the group classes until I had recovered. Instead, he prescribed me mobility and breathing exercises. I obeyed.

During my recovery, I not only healed my back but unexpectedly learned to feel my body’s subtle signals. I came to see how badly I’d ignored them before the accident, and how pleasurable physical movement could be if I stayed within my body’s abilities. Exercise became fun again, just like when I was that care-free kid climbing trees. And the more I worked with my body, the more things improved. My stamina and mobility increased and over time I even became able do a full squat. In addition to the MadLab training, I picked up hiking and snowshoeing which had the added meditative benefit of being out in nature.

Together with my embracing of exercise and movement, I changed my eating habits based on research, experimenting and the feedback my body gave me. The more I tuned into my body, the more the composition of it changed: the excess weight that I’d hated for the longest time, started to make way for muscle. At the same time, I slowly learned (a continuing challenge) to accept my body, regardless of its image.

Synergy

But I discovered more than my body’s signals. As my mobility improved, blacked-out memories of the bullying popped up spontaneously. Scenes I had forgotten since the day they happened. In my gut, I felt there had to be a synergetic connection between the sudden memories, and the work on my physical blockages. A connection that could store intense memories not just in my brain, but in my body. It definitely explained why I transformed from a happy and athletic 5-year old, to a clumsy and rigid 10-year old.

From that point, I explored physical issues from a holistic perspective. The more I read, the more I found confirmation about the significance and the synergetic connection between my mind and body. A few years later, through meditation and therapy, I even learned about how this connection is a two-way street, and how I can use my body as an anchor of peace and grounding in times of mental challenges.

An ongoing journey

What once seemed an isolated and ordinary accident to me, was actually a gift in disguise. The injury forced me to break away from a destructive lifestyle that had been established by unfortunate events in my youth. The experience taught me that my body is more than an undesired annex of my mind, that I could (ab)use at will. My body is an integral part of the entire being that I am. It comes with its own language and signals, but hearing them requires a connection, and the awareness and willingness to listen. Which makes the connection an ongoing journey.

At times, I get caught up in the business of life. In those moments, I can feel old habits return: my mind wants to close itself off to the outside world and to the signals of my body. Often it results in overindulging in unhealthy foods and drinks, and going to bed too late. Soon after, I’ll pay the price for ignoring my body’s messages: I’ll get sick, which has become my new ‘red flag’.

Although I rarely get sick anymore, when it happens, I know I’ve demanded too much of my body, and that it’s time to change. If I don’t, I’ll get bigger alarm signals from my body like a severe migraine. However, if I do listen, my body proves just as grateful: I feel fitter, healthier, happier and more grounded in the present.

I’m convinced that the connection between my mind and body is essential in my quest to live a happier, more satisfied and connected life. In this blog post, I talk about techniques that have helped me rebuild and maintain the connection with my body, as well as how I listen for my body’s signals.

Jelger

Jelger

Jelger is former lawyer and recovering head person, with a passion for self-improvement, rewilding and discovering all life has to offer. He lives in Vancouver, BC together with his wife Tanja and a bunch of cute, stuffed animals (which he may or may not have named).