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About a year into the pandemic, I found myself feeling… a little low. There was a perpetual raincloud overhead. I decided to take action and if nothing changed, to seek help. I remembered the advice attributed to Abdu’l-Baha to help others 1 so I embarked on joining a couple of community volunteer initiatives for people facing food insecurity and it has been an incredibly rewarding experience. I also started exercising more regularly.
Before you read any further please disabuse yourself of the notion that I am incredibly athletic or strong, or that I am constantly training and working out! The very word “burpee” makes me wince and if I had a dollar for every time my kids said, “Mama, you’re not doing what the lady in the video is doing,” I’d be rich. Very rich.
Nevertheless, I can’t deny how much better I feel when I exercise regularly (which, to be honest, is in spurts).
The exercise program I follow was created by a woman named Tracey who lives nearby and while it’s available to anyone anywhere, I like supporting a local woman’s business. She shares live exercise classes every day, which you can watch at any time, and she has a lively, energetic and upbeat Facebook community. Participating in her exercise program has taught me a few things–not about myself or about exercise–but about encouragement. Here are 4 things I’ve learned:
1. Language matters
Tracey makes a conscious effort when it comes to language. Let’s say it’s time for star jumps. If you’ve never done a star jump it’s like an overly excited jumping jack; rather than create a star with your body in one jump, and then jump a second time to bring your arms and legs back together, you do it all in a simple leap–like a firework in human form. Tracey will outline several options: unmodified star jumps, jumping jacks, stepping your feet out one at a time so there’s less impact than jumping, or choosing another cardio move entirely. What’s insightful to me is that she frames all options as equally valid and emphasizes that everyone should choose the most sustainable variation that works best for their body; no variation is better than the other. “Did she say you could do it that way, mama?” my kids will ask sceptically. “Yes!! She did!” I’ll respond gratefully.
I think about this often particularly when it comes to my role in community-building efforts. Some friends are able to assist with an initiative full-time and in a variety of capacities, and some may offer a prayer for its success. All contributions are valid and important. I hope, if I’m ever speaking about a community-building endeavour, that I am encouraging in my choice of words like Tracey.
2. Every effort counts
There are times when I’ve felt discouraged mid-workout. There are times when it just feels so hard, and that I’m so tired and struggling. Tracey often remarks how even if you only do 5 minutes of a thirty minute workout, that’s 5 more minutes than if you’d done nothing at all. It’s worth noting what you can do and move on; whether it’s to rest before trying to do more next time, or whether you’re going to try harder in the here and now.
I think that when you’re aiming for a goal, it can be easy to feel defeated when you don’t meet it easily. Having someone acknowledge the steps along the way encourages me and gives me hope and optimism–it makes me try harder. I try to practice this form of encouragement when someone shows me something they are in the middle of working on. I try to remember to say, “Look at how much you’ve accomplished!” and relish in all the steps that have been taken because I know how much it means to me when I hear it said.
3. Getting started is the hardest part
Tracey often begins by welcoming everyone and congratulating them on showing up. At first I was a little dismissive of this. But then I realized that “showing up” took considerably more motivation than doing the workout and that this applies to many areas of my life. Which makes me realize, a lot of people might feel the same way too: yes, we’re all fully engaged and ready to serve our communities when we’re around the table consulting, but it may not have been easy for everyone to get to the table. Getting ready and showing up is part of whatever endeavour we are undertaking and it’s a step I’m working to express appreciation for, whenever I can.
4. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to others
Tracey ends every workout with affirmations, which are positive statements about oneself. I know that saying affirmations is not everyone’s cup of tea, and I used to skip them thinking they were a bit silly. But as time went on, I started to notice that the tone with which I spoke to myself, my inner monologue, wasn’t very kind. I wouldn’t want anyone else to speak to me that way but for some reason, I thought it completely acceptable to speak harshly to myself. Repeating Tracey’s statements has encouraged me to think more positively about myself, about my body, and what my body is capable of. I never realized how encouraging it can be to say, out loud, something that could be seen as a statement of fact: I am strong. I am powerful. I am a match for my mountains. And in turn, I find myself repeating similar sentences when friends express self-doubt. Affirmations are not empty words when you believe them, whether it be about yourself or about others.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about this passage from the Universal House of Justice, particularly as it pertains to health and wellness:
…Every aspect of a person’s life is an element of service to Baha’u’llah: the love and respect one has for one’s parents; the pursuit of one’s education; the nurturing of good health; the acquisition of a trade or profession; one’s behaviour toward others and the upholding of a high moral standard; one’s marriage and the rearing of one’s children; one’s activities in teaching the Faith and in building up the strength of the Baha’i community; and, of course, one’s daily prayer and study of the Writings.From a letter dated 22 September 2002 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer
In reflecting on what I’m getting out of Tracey’s exercise program, I can truly see how it is benefitting my physical health, my mental health, my ability to be encouraging and my efforts to serve others.
- “… if you are so angry, so depressed and so sore that your spirit cannot find deliverance and peace even in prayer, then quickly go and give some pleasure to someone lowly or sorrowful, or to a guilty or innocent sufferer! Sacrifice yourself, your talent, your time, your rest to another, to one who has to bear a heavier load than you.” – The Research Department has found that these words were attributed to Abdu’l-Baha in an unpublished English translation of notes in German by Dr. Josephine Fallscheer taken on 5 August 1910. As the statement is a pilgrim note, it cannot be authenticated.
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