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Personal Training

How stress & depression helped me cultivate a new approach to movement.


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#TransparentTuesdays

While navigating a depressive episode (and the process of writing my book BODY NEUTRAL!), I put all health, wellness, and fitness related self-care habits into low gear. 


Photo of a female sitting on a couch with laptop
Photo by Vlada Karpovich

It’s not that I didn’t care about my physical health during this time, mind you, it’s just that I recognized health is holistic and contextual, and that the healthiest thing I could do was to give myself permission to just do the bare minimum; to do only what I could do, and only when I could do it. 


I took my meds, I carried my water bottle everywhere to stay hydrated, and I slept a lot. My approach to nutrition was rarely anything more ambitious than “eat enough to avoid getting a headache,” and my skincare routine was downgraded to just trying to wash my face that day.


Movement was the biggest change for me. Sometimes I made myself go for a walk, or spend a few minutes on my pilates reformer at home, but more days than not I was completely sedentary. 


This was weird for me, because moving my body had long been a source of pleasure, healing, and embodiment. It had been one of my most consistent and effective pathways for connecting with myself and my body, cultivating courage and pride, and metabolizing emotions. So while I wanted to be realistic about my limitations (both mentally and physically) during this time, I wasn’t willing to give up movement completely. 


I knew I needed some support and accountability to stay consistent, and I didn’t have the mental capacity required to come up with my own training plan, so I hired my brother Ben Kneeland—who is a phenomenal personal trainer—and started training at his private training facility here in Asheville, NC.


This was during the pandemic when going to a public gym was off the table (so the privacy of the gym was amazing) but I also knew that—unlike many people in the fitness industry—Ben recognizes a person’s emotional experience as inextricably connected to their physical experience, so he would understand that my only “goal” was harm-reduction, and approach our training through a genuinely holistic and integrated lens.


The reality of my life at that time was that most days I was going to be sitting in my office chair staring at my computer screen for ten to fourteen hours, only taking breaks from working on the book to eat, nap, or curl up in the fetal position and cry. I suffered from ocular migraines, my body felt tight and achy, and my posture was trash. So while I was committed to showing up for my training sessions twice a week, I spent about half of those sessions crying on the mat, and the other half exploring ways to off-set the damage I was doing to myself physically and emotionally, through the guidance of Ben’s compassionate, curious, and trauma-informed approach to movement. 


If I’m being completely honest, I’d known Ben was a “good trainer” for a while, in that he was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the human body, and viewed personal training as both a science and an art, with the potential to help people heal, learn about themselves, and break through barriers both physically and emotionally. But it wasn’t until we started training together that I realized how good he was.


Ben led our sessions with intuitive attunement and empathy, often immediately throwing away the “plan” he’d had in mind for us the moment I walked in the door, because he could see that wasn’t what I needed that day.


Now, he might disagree with me about his process, but to me, it often felt like magic.


Photo of someone holding a crystal
Photo by RDNE Stock Project

It was like he could take one glance at my elevated shoulders, shallow breathing, blank eyes, or shuffling gait, and understand both what I was feeling, and what kind of movement would help me feel better. 


  • On a day I showed up numb and dissociated, Ben might set up a movement game or puzzle for me to solve, until I found myself coming back to myself.

  • If I came in feeling defeated or like a failure, he might get me to lift something heavy or do something hard, until I remembered my own strength and capacity for doing hard things.

  • When I was too exhausted or tight to lift weights, we might do muscle activation and mobility drills on the floor until my body and breath started to open up a bit.


I left every session feeling better both physically and emotionally, so I kept going… but I certainly didn't think we were making a whole lot of progress toward anything. It wasn’t until last summer, after the book was published and I started reckoning with (and healing) the burnout I’d been experiencing that I realized how much had changed for me physically due to these sessions. 


I discovered that training with Ben had gradually and unintentionally overhauled my whole mindset around training. My body felt stronger, more mobile, and more available than seemed reasonable (given my recent habits), but it was the way I found myself thinking and feeling about movement that was the most significant change. 


I’m now able to keep my breath soft and open, even when lifting heavy weights—something I’d never been able to do before, even when I was training regularly. I now appreciate and value the “easy” stuff I used to write off as a waste of time (like mobility and balance work) because I can feel how much it improves my connection with myself and the world. I’m more tuned into the subtle signals and cues my body sends me than ever before, and I have a deeper reverence for (and tangible/conceptual understanding!) of how the subtle changes in my mental and emotional state impact the way I move and feel physically. 


All of this is to say that I’m feeling pretty great about movement again lately, but for a totally different reason than I used to. 


When I first discovered fitness, I was drawn to lifting weights as a means to feeling strong and empowered, and I prioritized workouts that allowed me to challenge (and prove) my toughness. I spent years dismantling and “recovering from” that mindset when I left the fitness industry, and developing a relationship to exercise that felt nourishing and sustainable. But it wasn’t until that “nourishing and sustainable” approach fell apart that I was finally able to build something brand new. 


Nowadays I view my training sessions as a place to explore and develop the work I’m doing in therapy. They’re where I practice softening into vulnerability, trust, and safety. They’re where I gently explore and release resistance (both physically and emotionally), and where I connect with the wisdom of my body and intuition. They’re where I cultivate the courage and capacity to be fully present in my body, and to meet the world with a wide-open heart. 


And with these sessions supporting me, I feel curious to explore new ways of moving my body. So far I’ve found myself drawn to things that feel fun, connective, and fluid, like the responsive attunement of partner dance, the repetitive meditation of hiking (hence why I just got a new pair of hiking shoes from Adidas!), and the irreverent playfulness of frisbee. 


I’m sharing this story in the hopes that it might inspire you. Not to move your body in any particular kind of way, but to remember that health and fitness are more holistic and context-dependent than mainstream diet and wellness culture want us to think (meaning: how you feel mentally/physically does and should have a relationship with how you move!), and to give yourself permission to be wherever you are today when it comes to your health and self-care journey!


Big hug,

Jessi


PS: If you’re looking for personal training, I cannot recommend Ben enough. He works with people both locally and via Zoom sessions, and you can reach out to him to set up a session or consultation here!

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Sami Pesto
Sami Pesto
4 days ago

Ah! Exploring sessions instead of training sessions sounds so good. Thanks for that image! https://www.jalkapaiva.fi/

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