Taha tinana: Physical wellbeing and re-connection

Te Taha Tinana is part 2 of my 5 part series talking about Te Whare Tapa Whā, a holistic Māori model of health that I LOVE.

Growing up, I was allergic to sports. I was always last in the cross country and my dad said I ‘lacked hand-eye co-ordination’. It’s true. I really did. But for ages I used this as an excuse for not participating in sports or exercise. I had this really unhelpful self-concept of being intellectually gifted, but not physically able. As if I was a big brain somehow disconnected from my body.

I was also really short and little. Shrimp, Shorty, or Sparrow Legs being the favourite nicknames. Not MY favourite, of course. Theirs. So you can imagine, a short, un-coordinated, un-sporty girl, thriving in academic subjects but completely dissociated from my body. I didn’t like my body. I don’t know many girls at that time who did, but at least they could run and throw a ball straight. I, on the other hand, spent my lunch times in the library shelving books. Yup, that girl.

In the meantime, I started to develop an anxiety disorder, which as I mentioned in the last post on Te Taha Hinengaro- mental and emotional health - would take me out of life fairly regularly. Now I believe that my anxiety was in part due to being so disconnected from my physical body. All that I know now about how to cope with anxiety with self-care, physical practices, breathwork, meditation, talking to someone, or even singing, was completely foreign to me then. I didn’t even have a name for my anxiety for years, so how could I begin to manage it? I look back on teenage Laura and have a lot of love and compassion for her/me.

And as I look back on my early therapy sessions, I don’t remember my therapist giving me physical exercises as home-care. Maybe she did, and I simply wasn’t ready for that. There are stages of readiness for change and I could have just been in the precontemplation stage. But I do remember one psychotherapist when I was going through my divorce, who was also a really amazing contemporary dancer. She lived in Pt Chev (Auckland, NZ) and used to swim in the sea every day of the year. She also used to eat a small bowl of ice-cream and a piece of chocolate every day of the year too, which really impressed me. Wise woman.

Anyway, I think she was the one who encouraged me to start swimming again. I hadn’t swum laps since I was 12 years old. That was 2009, the year I started learning to speak Te Reo Māori at Te Ataarangi. I had to re-teach myself how to swim freestyle cause it had been so long and I would challenge myself to swim one lap, then 2, then 10, until I regularly swam 40 or 50 laps.

This became my go-to exercise before or after class, especially when I was feeling anxious, or just full up from being in immersion reo Māori all the time, which is exhausting when you start learning. I noticed my body start to tone up, which I liked. In fact, this was probably the first time I stopped hating my body, and saw it as a thing of beauty. (Hard being a woman, but thats another blog post!) I noticed the effects on my mental and emotional state. I always felt calmer after swimming, able to ‘go with the flow’ a bit more.

Then later as a student teacher I became a gym bunny, which lasted a few years until I realised that I don’t really jell with the whole gym environment. It was something about the mirrors, the music, the gawking, and slight obsession with physical appearance. Nothing wrong, just not my happy place. What I did love though was all the free yoga classes that came with my membership. I went to as many as I could, sampled all the different yoga teachers, and found my favourites.

Yoga as therapy:

It’s hard to overestimate just how much yoga has helped in my journey towards mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellness. Yoga is a good, general, all-round tonic. It’s served as a preventative medicine as well as a remedy for all sorts of my mental and physical health concerns, and the more I learn, the more I want to learn. Through yoga I discovered that I didn’t have to be a brain disconnected from a body. I could be whole. Body, mind and soul. I rediscovered my body as my real home. And I came home.

Most recently, my restorative yoga and yoga nidra training has taken me deeper on the path of self-discovery. I saw the origins of my stress as starting with my thoughts, then quickly shifting to my breath. By learning to be more aware of my breath, I am more able to develop deeper, more healthy breathing patterns, which send signals to the vagus nerve to calm the body and mind down.

These days I set my alarm for 5.30am so I can have a date with myself. On weekdays that is, on weekends I like to sleep in. How do I know what to do each morning? I listen to my body. Radical eh? Some mornings my body wants to walk and ease out tension through my hips. Some mornings it wants a strong asana (yoga) practise. And other mornings, it wants to go slow, stretch a bit, and maybe roll around on myofascial balls and breathe (more on that later - I’m obsessed!). It doesnt actually matter what you do, the point is that you’ve made a date with yourself to come home and connect.

In just a few hours time I’m going to get plastic surgery on my giant ear holes that I’ve had for over 20 years. It’s an emotional moment for me. I reflect back to 18 year old Laura who was in the thick of depression, far from home, without physical practices to balance her up, and hating her body. At the time, stretching my ear holes and shaving my head was most probably a cry for attention, and possibly a form of self-harm. (I’m not making a generalised statement here that peircings or body modification are a form of self harm, everyone does it for different reasons, and thats ok)

But it’s not me anymore.

I now have a great relationship with my body! I look after her and she looks after me, cause if she is well, the rest of me probably is too. And guess what? Like the wise woman before me, I still eat a piece of chocolate every damn day.

Mauri tū, mauri ora!

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