When I sat down to write a blog post about fitness, I had such a long list of topics. I could write about the physical, mental or mechanical aspects of exercise. I could write about all of the different categories of exercise: cardio, strength, therapeutic, mind/body, the list goes on. But the topic I kept coming back to was: What does the idea of fitness mean to me? What role has it played in my life and how have I come to be where I am today?

When I was younger, “fitness” itself did not have a particular meaning, nor did it have the importance in society as I believe it does now.  When people talked about fitness, they were likely talking about going on a run or adhering to a strict diet. This isn’t to say people weren’t active; there just wasn’t really a title around it.

I grew up as a dancer.  I danced almost every day, and I loved it, it was my passion, my dharma if you will.  All I wanted to be when I grew up was a dancer, and that had nothing to do with being fit (or even being healthy for that matter). I just wanted to dance. I was quite young when one of my first dance teachers made a comment to me about holding my belly in. In hindsight, I now know exactly what she meant: navel to spine, gentle lift, use your core – all words I use today when teaching group fitness. But at the time – perhaps it was how she said it – what I heard was, “You have a fat stomach.” This was the beginning of my relationship with my sense of self: my self-awareness, self-perception, self-esteem.

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I went on to dance throughout college, but my love for dance eventually turned into a mental challenge of how to look better, how to be better, how to be perfect in a world where perfect didn’t exist. It was a futile exercise, a hamster on a wheel. I was never going to look good enough or be good enough. After suffering from a chronic back injury and depression over my parents divorce, I felt overall emotionally and physically drained, and I left the dance world. It was a sad and challenging time for me as I watched what I used to love transform into something that gave me anxiety, self-esteem issues and potentially body dysmorphic disorder (preoccupation with an imagined defect in appearance). 

With my dancing days behind me, I decided to continue with a side hustle I developed as a teenager. When I was 16, I got a job at Women’s Workout World. I went through a fairly vigorous training program to become a fitness instructor. This was my first introduction to “fitness” as the concept we know and love today.  After leaving the dance world, I continued teaching aerobics classes anywhere I could: at health clubs, through my college, for my friends, etc. It was a relief to be able to do something that I loved without being in front of a mirror and subjecting myself to nitpicking my own appearance and performance (thankfully, instructors often face the students and aren’t themselves looking in the mirror). I had found something that made me feel competent and excited and slowly but surely, my self-esteem started to improve.

After I had my first son, I found a new love and passion in the world of fitness: yoga. For me, yoga was the perfect balance of musicality (breath), movement, and physical, mental and emotional health. Yoga has all of the aspects of dance that once inspired, moved and motivated me, without the mirrors or competition or judgement. Who knew there was such a thing?! I couldn’t get enough of it and decided to become certified to teach yoga.

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Those of you who are familiar with yoga may know of the Niyamas (practices that refer to our inner world): Saucha (Purity), Santosha (Contentment), Tapas (Self discipline), Svadhyaya (Self-study) and Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender). Although the Niyamas are only one piece of yoga, it was one that resonated with me and one that I could reflect on, explore and practice daily.  It was through yoga and fitness that I found myself and grew to accept myself.  I stopped looking in the mirror and finding everything I hated about myself and started noticing things like how physically strong I had become, regardless of my weight or clothing size. 

Those who know me have often heard me say, when my body feels good, my mind feels good. Through my fitness journey, from dance to aerobics to yoga, I have learned how to love myself from the inside out. Of course, there are still good days and bad days, and sometimes I find myself criticizing how I look, but those days and feelings are much fewer and farther between. Would I have gotten to where I am today without exercise and yoga? Perhaps, but this is where my journey has taken me.  The journey of accepting being Perfectly Imperfect.

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Post written by FFC Contributor and Group Fitness Manager Paige Bartley.