I sat patiently doing my pranayama, eyes closed: inhale, exhale.
Beside me was my dear friend doing the same. But with one big difference. Strapped to her wrist was a gadget that she looked at every few minutes to see if it was 10 minutes, so that she could change the pranayama sequence.
“Relax,” I told her and “stop looking at that gadget; it is not helping you withdraw your senses and focus on your breath.”
“Shoosh,” she snapped. “I must do my 10 minutes.”
Another day, another friend had just finished showing me her swollen feet. She was getting edema (fluid retention), for an unknown reason, and we were discussing what might be causing it. As we finished and she was leaving, she said, pointing to the apple watch on her wrist, “But I still did my 10K steps today!”
This fascination with counting our steps, with timing our breathing sequences, where does this come from? There is no arguing that being active and moving one’s body is essential to health. But why this obsession with monitoring and hitting a target? People with swollen feet, with serious back pains, with fatigued bodies are all pushing themselves, till their gadgets can tell them they have achieved a certain golden number.
This can’t be right, I pondered. Isn’t health about listening to our bodies? Shouldn’t we pause or stop at bodily signs of severe discomfort: pain, breathlessness, and swelling?
The body pays a price when we choose short term fitness over long term and consistent health. In the short term, we might seem more active, more outgoing, in sync with the cool crowd, but if this is often accompanied by constipation, aches and pains, low energy and restless sleep, then the exercise regime is not tending towards long term health.
Even serious sportspeople and athletes who constantly push themselves, understand the importance of gradually building up their bodies and adequate rest.
Rather than listening and observing our bodily signs we have become slaves to our gadgets and apps: Fitbit, Strava, Apple watch, having submitted to their lure of monitoring and broadcasting everything. It is like being under the guidance of a ruthless PT teacher or drill sergeant, whose sole aim to push you to cracking point! Or a pushy gym or yoga instructor who may end up causing more harm than good.
The disadvantages of not listening to our bodies are many. Chief among them is excessive retention of carbon dioxide inside. This increases the acidity of blood, which can be noticed when we start feeling worse after a couple of hours or the next day of having exercised beyond current capacity. Stiffness in joints, especially when we wake up in the morning is another way of understanding that the body is more acidic than alkaline. Unnecessarily pushing oneself when there is pain in the muscles or joints, strains them further.
I remember joining a power yoga class in 2011, where an enthusiastic, young instructor just pushed and pushed. From day 3 I could tell my right knee and right hamstring was getting tighter. But excited seeing the 1 kg weight loss, I continued and ended up with a hamstring tear, which took 5 months to heal! In 2019, I felt well and healthy and wanted to up my surya namaskars. So I started with 30 and in just 3 days upped it to 50. Given that I already have a slightly pitta (hot from inside) body type, I ended up with menstrual bleeding for 25 days at a stretch.
So, let’s ask ourselves these questions before we decide to push our bodies:
- Do I constantly feel the need to monitor my activity level? If yes, I might be enslaved by fit-tech.
- Why am I exercising: a) because I feel better physically or mentally after it or b) because I want to tell others I have done it?
- Do I do a spurt of intense exercising for an hour or two and then just sit for the rest of the day?
- Exercising because it makes you feel physically and mentally good and a bit of chest thumping are both ok, as long as the former is a driving force.
- If you consistently feel worse post exercising, then it is time to look at a more ‘appropriate for me’ exercise routine. It is more than OK if all it consists of is long stretches and breathing. Listen, listen, and listen some more to the body. It will tell you when it is ready to do more.
- Rest and relaxation are more important when we are not well: had a slipped disc, strained the sciatica nerve, have a viral infection.
- If you count off your 10k steps in the morning or do an HIIT workout and then sit for the rest of the day, try incorporating regular movement of different kinds into your day. Look at how your house help bends, stretches, walks on her haunches.