The “Medium” of Exercise


To begin exploring this idea of exercise and movement in eating disorder treatment, I need to give you some back story.  Several years ago I had an idea. I was working at a shelter in downtown Seattle at the time with a group of people struggling with addiction and homelessness – and we were watching a lot of movies. After several months on the job I found myself beginning to sink into a cycle of depression and numbness that marked so many of our clients’ lives. I wanted to find something to inspire and enliven the community; I thought there had to be more for them, and for myself. So I decided to change things up one day and I pulled out paper, pens, pastels, watercolors, and brushes and announced to the community that we were going to have an art day instead of watching Die Hard with A Vengeance again for the fifth time in two months. I was hopeful that something of life might emerge if we pushed into it.


The idea seemed perfect in theory but I quickly found it was nearly impossible to get everyone out of their routines, even if that routine consisted of merely staring at a wall for three hours before dinner. I got all kinds of different responses to my invitation but, ultimately in a room full of artistic possibilities, very few clients felt free to make art. Most did not believe that they were “creative” or that anyone would want to see their art. Something about my invitation seemed to brush against an inner pain, a deep sense of self-criticism and self-hatred inside of them.


handsIn the midst of this reality, however, there were a few men and women who had the audacity to join me. I had big plans for this small contingent in the beginning. Although I was not conscious of it at the time, I felt an inner responsibility to make this gathering into something more than just making art. I wanted them to get better and progress, both as artists and as people. My hope was that they would change and heal and in my mind that had everything to do with what they did. I tried to force things towards that end and grew more and more frustrated at the members of the community who did not participate. I began noticing that the more I forced them towards my hope, the more I ended up making art alone.  So instead of trying to manipulate everything, I eventually started paying attention to what the clients chose to create. There were stick figures, mountains, rivers, houses, happy faces, curse words, poems, flowers, boats. There were colorful, dark, mysterious, and terrifying masterpieces. They were all different and unique. Each beautiful in their own way. Most importantly though, as I learned to put down my own distractions and look closely, I found inside these art pieces the precious breadcrumbs of each person’s story. The images of their past experiences and the colors of their longings and fears. Each canvas willingly offered what so few were used to finding in their relationships; a safe space for their true voice.


Suddenly, each piece of art was not “good or bad”, it was telling. The more I focused on what was instead of what I thought should be, the more I found myself captivated by each unique artist and their way of communicating their lives truth. Placing a judgement on a piece only served to separate me further from the faces and truths being declared. In the end, it was this journey into this deeper truth that became the point. Instead of blocking these stories with a judgement we learned that healing could only come when we were allowed to finally speak the unspeakable. To honor our voice and story in a way that might finally make sense of all the confusing scenes and characters.


Now you might be asking yourself, “What does art therapy have to do with exercise and sport?” Great question. My job now as an Experiential Therapist for clients struggling with eating disorders at Opal is to help them begin to explore and understand their relationship to sports and exercise, and the lessons from art therapy years ago are actually still relevant to my work today. At Opal, we don’t just talk about the relationship to exercise and sport, we actually make room for it to speak. I often frame this exploratory process with clients through the analogy of painting, which so deeply impacted me years before. Sport and exercise is merely a canvas that has the ability to open a space for us to communicate. Therefore, my work with clients is not primarily to arrive at some new place, but to listen together to the impulses, compulsions, emotions, and behaviors that emerge as we move, play, and exercise together. The goal is not to judge the movement, but to make room for the experiences that clients long to convey through their movement. With this developing posture, our hope is to provide the very thing that was so often lacking in clients’ formative years – a safe space to process what feels confusing, incongruent, and scary.


What I always find is that nobody does what they do for no reason. What each client “paints” on the canvas of sport and exercise actually makes sense of the experiences of their life. Often times, the very places we try to cover up in shame are the places that shine a light on the path towards freedom in recovery from an eating disorder.


So, it is from this posture of listening and acceptance that we are able to dispel the grip of shame and begin experimentingIMAG0298 with new ways of being…and doing. If we aren’t being distracted with what should be we can begin to make peace with what has been and move towards a new world of possibilities. The heart of this process is ultimately rooted in each client beginning to love and honor their body and its experience more expansively. The more they are able to accept that they are worthy of care and attunement, the more the possibilities for movement, exercise, and sport begin to expand and transformational recovery becomes more possible. Their desire in movement once again becomes merely a reflection of the changing world inside of them. More flexible, more free, more playful, more alive.


It is in this spacious place that we can allow the weight of judgement and shame to fall away so we can begin to enjoy the rich feast of possibilities open before us. Maybe here we can feel free to enter into movement and tell a new story.




I must admit that even though I’ve only spent a fraction of my life living in Seattle, I’ve become pretty emotionally invested in the Emerald city’s crown jewel, the Seahawks.  

And last night game…was rough. 

It’s not like I’m a stranger to heartbreak, I’ve participated in or watched as my team has lost championships in the last second several times.  I’ve felt the agony of defeat in many different contexts…but this game was different.  It affected me in some ways that I’m still processing.  Few times have the collective hopes of a place been more unified and apparent than in the moments building up before the end of Super Bowl XVIX.  All the tension of a strange and complex season was held in the balance waiting to be released.  The fireworks and confetti, champagne and celebration, all awaiting one final yard before we could all break out into a joyous exhale.  

2nd and goal at the 1 yard line.   20 seconds, one timeout………………………………Interception!?


No.  Was there not a flag….please?


What played out on the field after Russell Wilson’s interception seemed to symbolize exactly what every Seahawk player, coach, and fan was struggling to deal with; how do we hold all this confusion and disappointment?!  How do we deal with all the tension that just moments before was almost certainly going to be allowed to release!?  It was like we were all waiting for some great revelation that would finally affirm our identity.  Like somehow the victory would secure something in us that had come into question over the past year since we were last able to call ourselves “champions”.  Suddenly, all we had hoped in and for was over and we were left with nothing but, well, ourselves. 

What played out for each of us in this aftermath is quite different, but all of us who allowed ourselves to invest in the foolishness of hope were left to deal with the pain of this disappointment.  I don’t mean to be crude, but the experience in almost every way mirrored an emotional “blue balls”.  The building excitement and fantasy, arousal, dopamine, the immense tension and expectation…and then!!!…nothing.  Nothing is not what any of us were hoping for.  This was not the revelation that any of us knew how to comprehend. 

This morning I walked my normal route to work and found myself so very aware of the reality that this game had invited me to.  I didn’t know what to do with the game, but much more deeply, the game had revealed that I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself.  I was not released into the identity of a “champion”, and because of this, was once again invited to deal with regular ole me.  In that place I have to begin answering a question for myself that no championship could ever answer. 

And the power of that question, if I let it sit long enough, invites me to take another step into this mo(u)rning and the day that is in front of me. 



IMAG0492For the last two nights my wife and I decided to bundle up and watch the primetime NBC broadcast of the Sochi Olympics.  This year the Olympics are featuring a couple of new events including a sport called snowboarding slope-style which is essentially a snowboarding competition that involves both jump elements and rail elements.  Each athlete tries different combinations of tricks on these elements in order to attain the highest score from a panel of judges.

The sport is quite entertaining to watch, but it wasn’t the actual competition that captivated my attention and left me in awe.  I’ve played and watched sports for long enough to have seen most things under the sun, but what shocked me during this high stakes competition was what transpired between the competitors during the event.  The only way I can describe the environment was that it was full of celebration.

Now this makes sense to me if you have just won.  Everyone loves winning and the emotional cocktail that is a sporting victory is a potent party mixer.  Most sporting celebrations are filled with a certain kind of relief that is unique and different from what I witnessed between these Olympic athletes.  This relief is heavy and exhausting, it is an exhale not unlike passing a final exam.  The celebration on the faces of these snowboarders was not filled with exhaustion though, it was filled with freedom and pure pleasure.

Every single time a rider would come down the hill, whether they nailed their run or crashed, they would be greeted with hugs and congratulations from all the other competitors.  One rider (from an opposing country) ran out to celebrate her competitor who just beat her to win the Gold.  That doesn’t happen in the sports I know…disappointment, regret, and shame happens when you are defeated in the sports I know.

In the major sports that dominate the American cultural landscape there are clear messages that are given about competition.

Second place means first loser. 

Nobody remembers the first loser.

Win at all costs. Etc…

In the sports I played, if someone celebrated the victory of another they would have some serious questions to answer in the locker room.  Did they really care at all?  Obviously if they are okay congratulating the other team they must not have really given their all…lower your head and think about how to make sure you never fail like this again.  This is what I remember.  You either get to exist in the minds of others or you don’t…this is your fight.  You will be deemed valuable depending on your performance.

As I watched the strange, beautiful, counter-cultural display that was slope style I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like to feel celebrated regardless of outcome.  These riders were not burdened as they flew through the air.  They didn’t seem concerned with proving their existential value or inherent worth through their performance.  From the look on their faces throughout the competition all they seemed to care about was having fun.  You know…fun…that thing that used to highlight the reason we played sports?   Most of us got to have it for a while until some adult told us sports were really about winning.  “What is important is that you win, Knox…nothing else matters.”  I believed this and have let it guide my play ever since, but something about watching these snowboarders reminded me of another reality.

Believe it or not, I actually used to be pretty good at slope style myself.  We didn’t have snow in South Carolina but we had sand and rails and big jumps!  Every day at recess we would all run to the playground to begin to create our routines.  We incorporated twists and turns, grinds and grabs, jumps and slides.  We were all really talented, come to think of it pretty much everything we did on those sand hills was awesome.  We were young and we were free from pressure and performance and the demons of others shame.  We were alive…oh so alive…and full of reasons to celebrate!

This is what I know of celebration, it is always sweeter to be celebrated when you haven’t done anything to deserve it.  Or said in a different way, when others applaud you regardless of the outcome because the object of celebration is you…not what you have done.  In this reality your inherent value always outshines your best and worst performance because you are what is glorious.  You.

I long for the day when I can allow the joy of play to find its way, once again, into the fields of my heart.  When I can celebrate myself and others regardless of the quality of our play because we, God’s glorious beloved children, are worth celebrating. IMAG0494