I recently found a picture of myself from three years ago. I could not believe how ripped I was! Muscles everywhere, almost glistening in the light.

At the time, I was laser-focused on my diet, weightlifting program and yoga practice. I was enslaved to my body’s form – obsessed with how it looked and what it could do. I was in physical pain from exercising so much. If I missed a session, I got a workout in guilt.

My body looked better than it ever has. But I could not see or appreciate it. I thought that my body was not in that good of shape.

In reality, what was in poor shape was my mind. I was unhappy and stressed. And my body never would be enough to fix that.

I found freedom through changing my relationship to exercise.

I shifted my focus from my external to my internal, where I could create the change that I truly craved: less stress and more happiness. From here, I started exercising for wellness rather than fitness. I weakened my attachment to how I looked and strengthened my focus on how I felt.

Shifting your relationship to exercise can empower you to identify and to accomplish your real goals for working out too.

Your relationship to exercise

When we exercise solely from a state of superficial betterment, there is no end to the process. We never will reach the destination because we are not addressing the root of our dissatisfaction with ourselves.

If we can learn to exercise for wellness rather than fitness, we can enjoy the experience more. If we can learn to focus on how we want to feel rather than how we want to look, our experience can become healthier and more sustainable.

The byproduct will be improved body composition. It just does not serve us as the primary goal.

Your relationship to yourself

When you look into the mirror, what do you see? Do you see yourself as good enough? Or, is there always something a little off with your body? More commonly, we feel the latter.

We work out hard, eat well, and constantly strive to look better. But it is never enough.

Sure, our bodies always could be a little tighter, but when is enough enough? When we evaluate ourselves from the outside, the answer is never. Our society is addicted to exercise because the results it promises never quite arrive.

When I train clients, I usually hear two complaints: One group is never thin enough. The other group is never muscular enough. In reality, they are voicing the same self-judgment: I am not good enough.

Both complaints can reflect body dysmorphia, a body image disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts about a perceived flaw in one’s appearance. In my experience, most of us suffer from some form of this disorder.

These persistent negative thoughts can drive many of our actions in our endless quest for physical perfection, including choices that defy what is good for our bodies. These range from multiple workouts per day, unhealthy supplements and incessant dieting to unnecessary plastic surgery, drug use and starvation.

Exercising to better ourselves or to create the “perfect body” is a trap that sets us up for constant failure and pain. When we focus on the end result, we do not allow ourselves to enjoy the process. Instead, we make exercise a chore or even an activity that makes us feel worse.

Why do we do this? Because not enjoying our external process is at least less painful than not enjoying our internal process.

Many of us use physical dissatisfaction with our bodies to distract ourselves from investigating the true source of our dissatisfaction. This could be mental or even spiritual dissatisfaction.

Trading frenetic energy for endorphins via exercise makes us feel better temporarily. Rather than slowing down for long enough to look for the underlying cause of our dissatisfaction when this high fades, we complete or schedule another workout.

In this way, exercise becomes a defense mechanism. Because we never resolve the underlying cause of our pain, we must keep exercising. We think it will make us happy. It cannot, so we have to keep trying. The intensity and frequency of our workouts become physical manifestations of our mental insecurities.

The word “exercise” comes from the Latin roots “ex,” which means “thoroughly, ” and “arcere,” which means “to keep in or away.” This is exactly what we do. We use movement to thoroughly keep our emotions in or away.

What evolved my relationship with exercise was when I finally faced my emotions. I did this through yoga.

Focusing more on yoga and less on exercise coaxed me to experience how I felt on the inside rather than fixating on how I looked on the outside. When I reincorporated more exercise into my routine to supplement my yoga practice, I brought this shift with me.

A few years later, I am not ripped. I am not as fit. But I am healthier and happier.

I am stronger and have less pain. I move well and feel good. I enjoy working out more. I am gentler on my body, judge it less and appreciate it more.

I also work out less, which feels better and more sustainable. I am free to focus on other aspects of my life. I exercise from a state of fullness rather than begging exercise to fill me.

Making wellness your primary goal changes your relationship to exercise because it shifts your focus from the external to the internal. It replaces your attachment to your physical results with an investment in your health.

You even can take this a step further and exercise to enhance your energy and mood as your primary goal. When you operate from here, you cannot get it wrong. The results can lower your stress and can expand your happiness.

Your body composition naturally will improve as a result of your effort, making exercising from the inside a win-win-win!

Your new workout

Add these five techniques to your weekly routine to tone your relationship with exercise and yourself:

  1. Build appreciation.

Next time you look in the mirror, appreciate your body for how you truly look. Appreciate yourself for all of the effort that you have invested in yourself. Hold this feeling for at least two minutes. Then, use this fullness to fuel your workouts.

  1. Warm up your emotions.

Imagine how you want to feel instead of how you want to look. Connect to this state and let it start to make exercise decisions for you. Repeat before all workouts.

  1. Strengthen your health.

Can you remove your attachments to the results of your efforts? Instead of working out to get a six-pack, exercise for health. Repeat before, during and after all workouts.

  1. Condition your motivation.

If you want to change an aspect of your body, ask yourself why. Then, examine your answer to determine whether wellness or fitness is your motivation. Practice this self-inquiry for as many reps as needed to unearth the root of your desire.

If your answer stems from self-care, choice, curiosity or experimentation, then exercise away. If your answer is some disguise for inadequacy – such as a craving to be loved, to be desired or to be considered sexy – then exercise is not your solution.

  1. Cross-train.

Rather than trying to fill yourself from the outside, find a tool to develop yourself internally. For me, it was yoga. For you, it may be something else. It does not matter what it is. All that matters is that it liberates you to feel how you want to feel.

Your relationship to your life

As you evaluate your results from exercise, invite your life before the mirror too. Ask yourself: How is your life working? How do things look – not only in your body, but also in your world? How would your life look if you were willing to pour the same effort into how you feel as you are into how you look?

Addiction to activity is the easier path now because facing our thoughts and emotions can be painful. But eventually, it becomes the harder path, as the pain that we carry will find more painful ways to surface. Asking yourself why your body is never good enough is the harder path now, but it will become the easier path as you shed inner pain.

As an avid exerciser, you are disciplined. But are you courageous? Do you have the courage to slow down, to look inside, and to uncover the real reason that you exercise?

Shift your focus from your external fitness to your internal fitness. Watch your life – and your body – transform in return.

A Maur Unity collaboration, edited by Maura Bogue