Hard Work Doesn’t Have To Hurt

Like many people, I have had a strange lifelong relationship with work, discipline and discomfort. I began playing music in sixth grade and for years it was my main focus. Through middle and high school and into college, I practiced for hours every day. The consistency of practice made me feel safe. However, I was so serious that my perfectionism made me strive, never being good enough for my own self-judgment. And with that, I took the fun and joy out of playing music. I changed majors.

I then took self-discipline very seriously academically. I spent many Friday evenings studying and judged people for having fun. I believed that not having fun was a sign that I was smarter, that I was working hard enough. I then spent my masters program going between the extremes of being a social butterfly to spending my time constantly studying. Finding the middle was so foreign to me I probably laughed at people who mentioned it. I took that with me into my PhD program until I woke up on the side of the highway after a motorcycle accident.

My injuries were minor, but I wasn’t able to be physically active.  I hadn’t for a while, because I thought being active required extensive workouts. My teens and twenties were spent between extremes of striving for rigorous training and nutrition and inactivity and a poor diet. I hated team sports and biking was a calming way to move. When I’d tried exercising in gyms for 20-30 minutes just to make it a habit, personal trainers or others would make fun of me. For a while after the accident, junk food and beer became the way. But with the awareness that I had a chance to live that many people in motorcycle accidents don’t, I wanted to live better. I decided it was time for discipline.

I made academic success my focus, changed my diet and became active. I lost something like 70 pounds in the process. Yoga and meditation went from occasional things to essential things. I juggled work, life, my dissertation, and endurance sports like triathlons. I completed yoga teacher training. With every goal I accomplished, a temporary sense of reward came, but then dissipated. Discipline for the sake of getting a reward wasn’t fulfilling. All this self-work was rooted in the idea that I wasn’t enough, and living for external goals couldn’t last. Believing that “if I could just do X, then I would finally be happy” simply wasn’t true. Enduring pain to prove I can endure didn’t lead me to being awake. Running a half marathon didn’t make me love my body. The feeling that I had to be burning the candle at both ends to be “productive enough” or exhausted for a workout to be “sufficient” was unhealthy, unsustainable and no longer helpful. I felt lost.

When I finished teacher training last May, I’d already been teaching for a few months. I learned that the “this one way is the only way, go until it hurts and practice yoga every day” model didn’t work for me and wasn’t something I wanted to share. I continued to learn more about the human body, how to teach a class that goes beyond curating an experience, and how to hold space for the slow and subtle. I examined my relationship to practice and realized that vigorous yoga wasn’t the only thing I wanted, and wasn’t even what brought me to yoga in the first place. I needed more ease and less effort.

I started lifting weights again, this time ignoring the idea of “no pain, no gain.” I wanted to be strong in my whole body, in ways a yoga practice doesn’t build. I focused on finding strength to feel good. I found a trainer who listened to me. And when I had the opportunity to let go of a secure corporate job and take a fellowship to finish my PhD, I took it and let the moving pieces of my life settle down. 

A few months ago, I learned I had high blood pressure. While changing my habits with exercise, I didn’t change my diet and my body was letting me know I needed to. The math is simple, right? Simpler isn’t always easier. But knowing what lay ahead by falling into unhealthy habits, I sought a balance that would last. When an acquaintance said these words, it was like a catalyst: “hard work doesn’t have to hurt.”

For the first time in my life, my efforts are grounded in self-care. I eat well, work hard and get stronger because I want a better life. My fitness goals are to be healthy and able to move in older age. I work hard when I exercise, but I don’t strive anymore. I don’t care if I ever reach an ideal. I do it because I’m worth it, and self-discipline is an act of self-care. So far, I’m down 18 lbs, but I’m as worth it today as I ever was or will be, and while losing weight and changing my diet are necessary for my health, they aren’t measures of my worth. I eat a balanced diet while rejecting a diet culture that shames me for liking donuts. I stay active while rejecting a fitness culture that says burpees are the measure of my worth. And I am sharing this because I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this. Instead focusing on getting to the top of the mountain, I’m paying attention to my next step.