Fitness Friday: Why I became a movement professional
In the fall 2001, I went to a physical therapist for mid thoracic/shoulder pain. I was a college student in the Midwest and went to the campus rehab center for several weeks. I remember doing ‘wall climbs’, scapular retraction, and making the alphabet with a ball on the wall, but the problem only got worse. So, I gave up, leaving therapy and assuming pain was my new normal.
Defeated and in pain, my aunt introduced me a month or two later to a CHEK practitioner who understood that my weakened core, and possibly a gluten intolerance, were likely to blame for my pain. Despite a close relative having celiac disease, I was skeptical about the gluten. However, I saw the CHEK practitioner once for my shoulder pain, and after several weeks of core exercises on my own using her exercise design, my shoulder pain had almost completely resolved. And, notably, by 2005, I was diagnosed with celiac; with the dietary adjustments, my pain resolved completely. Visiting that CHEK practitioner was life changing and set an example of the spectrum of healthcare, holistic assessments, and outcome possibilities.
During all of this, I was pursuing an undergraduate and then graduate degree in ecology. I was working 2-3 jobs at a time after graduation, hustling to find a sustainable well-paying job with benefits that wasn’t seasonal in a culture that devalued ecology and vaulted climate change denial. No such luck. My idealistic heart was breaking (more on this in a future writing piece), so I considered other professional options. In the back of my mind, I never forgot the CHEK experience or my first physical therapist.
The story goes back even further……
I have been a regular exerciser since middle school – first, trying out for track and field and realizing I had no idea what I was doing. Then, I started following my mom’s lead and doing home exercise videos, later exercising at a small, privately owned, local gym, where I still, to be fair, had no idea how to exercise well or how to build muscle effectively. What I did know is that I felt amazing during exercise, which I now know was me completing my stress cycle via movement1. Later, when I was self-directing my own recovery from an eating disorder2 and self-harm3, exercise allowed me to regain a feeling of safety and aliveness and some vague sense of empowerment in a body that I felt alienated from4.
When I began yoga in high school and later as a yoga teacher following grad school, my love of exercise deepened. There were words for the unity and spiritual experience I felt in my body while focusing on just that – movement, breath, sensation. I would cry on my yoga mat in downward dog and pigeon, not even sure what the tears were for, but a primitive knowing that something within had shifted and eased5.
Exercise was never about weight loss for me. It was and is about empowerment, FEELING my body and my inner knowing (over fixating on looks), shedding stress and individual and collective trauma, being in joy. Exercise was medicine, and I wanted to share that with anyone that listened.
Back to the job and soul searching…..
Following my masters in an ecology program, I was working with a social worker to help me wayfind my path – what the hell was I supposed to do when all of my professional endeavors to that point only broke my heart? I had an inkling and was pursuing my yoga teacher training. I took a personality test and occupational therapist came back as a recommendation (along with artist, writer, social worker). I had no idea what an occupational therapist was, but I did know of physical therapy based on my own experience. That was it!, I loved exercise and could use movement professionally to help others find their joy and home in their body.
But first, I had to complete my yoga training and scaffold my body knowledge with CHEK trainings. Intending to work in fitness with individual at the community level, I then pursued my doctorate of physical therapy to enhance my anatomical knowledge and medical screening as well as offer me a recognizable degree that would, in theory, help clients take my skill set seriously. I wanted to work at as a more skilled personal trainer comfortable with a diversity of people (with various ailments, disabilities, chronic disease, injury history). And this is what I do.
My CHEK background gave me a holistic understanding of body systems, including what was fringe nutritional advice at the time (like eating grass fed meat, avoiding GMOs and gluten) that is now supported by many professionals6. Many of my exercise and training tools actually come from my CHEK certification and are supported by my PT knowledge (vs the other way around). I love fine tuning movement through basic CHEK movement patterns, without “unleashing the dragon” (ie exacerbating or creating new problematic symptoms) thanks to my PT background. Yoga validates the spiritual and meaning-making component of exercise for many of my clients. Together these trainings make me comfortable working with a variety of people, a variety of body types, and a variety of medical conditions. Many of my clients see me once or a few times and discharge happily on their own, rather than continuing to see me indefinitely.
Funny enough, my personality test suggested writer, artist, and social worker. I fill these roles too, with my community offerings on creativity, my lean into the taboo (as a death café facilitator and sexuality counselor and educator) for collective recovery and social justice, and my educational writing, blogs, and poems. It is a gift to be able to hack my personality strengths while serving others in a meaningful way, and I will forever be in a debt of deep gratitude to my clients and community for receiving this work7.
Happy Friday, community. Wishing you a wonderful winter season and an aligning and supportive journey with exercise.
- For examples of how exercise impacts your stress response, in accessible literature, see Emily Nagoski’s book Burnout.
- Self-directed recovery was necessary at the time because therapy was not accessible. If you suffer from an eating disorder, my recommendation is that you seek out the assistance of a trained professional. But I also have to say that, while understanding that not everyone can afford that luxury.
- I was angry as a child and teen and could not understand why. I wanted to feel, I wanted my rage on the outside of my body instead of tormenting me from within. Self-harm was a way to do that for me. If you are suffering from this, please seek help. Also, self harm is common among teen girls: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/02/health/self-harm-teenagers-cdc.html They are pissed. I was too. Why?, all the things, but particularly oppressive systems that I did not have the vocabulary or awareness to name. Also see #4
- Patriarchy teaches girls and women that their value is based on their looks, how well they align with white/colonialized beauty standards, and their overall desirability and placation to these standards. Ever the perfectionist and insatiable learner, I tried this narrative – I learned the gender script and performed it well, as evidenced by this eating disorder. As I have matured, I have worked to challenge internalized oppression – the ghost of my eating disorder and fatphobia being one example, internalized misogyny being another – my purpose is not hinged to a cis/het partner or relationship. I find my greatest value and most exalted experiences elsewhere, on my own and in community (and no, I am not talking about sex, though the lens of misogyny may make it sound like that)….my body, my existence are for ME and community. Not a man or men.
- Yoga can be used as a somatic modality to manage trauma – big T and little t, individual and collective. My tears were for all of those things and more. For more information on the use of yoga for trauma recovery, please start with one of my favorite books: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.
- See Dr. Mark Hyman’s book What the Heck Should I Eat? Also, see books by Paul Chek, founder of the CHEK institute.
- My clients and community are amazing. I cannot stress that enough. I do not market my offerings as a way to solve some sort of scarcity for them (ex weight loss and body hate), which limits me in a capitalistic society that sells everyone on lack and quick fix. But my clients find me anyway. I do sell them on self-love and a dismantling of what we think of as “normal” or “desirable”. And it is not easy work. It is a both/and of inner responsibility and outward mobilization of their own community and support (some of which I can offer) as they do the challenging work of change. Change in perspective, change in understanding of context of their situation, change in habits that don’t align with or support them, change in how they navigate and integrate these new awareness. It is much easier to complain or resign yourself to being stuck. Change is so difficult, but they do it, on their own terms and are much happier for it. I see that, clients. #PeopleDoingWork
The above content is written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), RYT500; sex-positive, trauma-informed sexuality counselor and educator (she/her/they/them); copyright protected, please cite accordingly. The picture is from Pexels.
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