We can learn some surprising life lessons from our bodies—if we listen.
Every body has limitations, but we get to choose how we interpret those constraints. Although chronic illness or disability might impact the body’s potential, they can also serve to expand the mind. For entrepreneur and activist Nitika Chopra, Peloton instructor Logan Aldridge, dancer Jerron Herman, and writer Shayna Conde, tough diagnoses have proven to be not just transformative but transcendent. Here, each unpacks what they’ve learned from living in bodies that have more to say than most.
How to uncouple value from looks
Nitika Chopra, chronic illness advocate
There was a time when Nitika Chopra would have been all too happy for her chronic illness to be invisible. At age 10, she was diagnosed with psoriasis, and at 19, she was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. Both afflictions were all too obvious. “When I was covered with psoriasis, all people saw was disease,” she says.
As the founder of Chronicon, a community for folks with chronic illness, she’s now loud and proud about her struggles, but it wasn’t always easy to feel defined by her condition. People saw her not as a person, but as a sick person, she says.
“It forced me to look at what’s below the surface, because no one else was doing that,” says Chopra. “I knew I was so many things beyond my body, but other people weren’t necessarily taking the time to see that.”
I knew I was so many things beyond my body, but other people weren’t necessarily taking the time to see that.—Nitika Chopra
Chopra knows just how common it is to feel unfairly judged by your outsides. The ability to separate your personal value from how others view your body is something that usually only comes with age—if at all—but the gift of Chopra’s illness is that it enabled her to adopt this life-changing perspective fairly early on. “It has been such a teacher for me,” she says.
Still, Chopra acknowledges that the lesson of uncoupling her worth from her physical body is an ongoing process.
Recently, she’s gained weight from taking steroids prescribed to control a new condition she was diagnosed with last year after a bout with COVID-19, a rare neuromuscular disease that—to add insult to injury—initially presented as drooping in her face, making it difficult for her to smile. And though she’s had years of practice at not letting her appearance define her, she admits that these circumstances have challenged her self-esteem.
“Selena Gomez is going through something similar due to the medication she’s taking for lupus—people have been commenting [on social media] that she’s gained so much weight,” says Chopra. “And she finally got online and said, ‘You guys, I’ve gained weight because I’m taking medication that’s keeping me alive.’”
It’s important to realize, says Chopra, that while you can’t control where other people—like Gomez’s trolls—are on this journey, you can endeavor daily to remember that you are more than your body. And, she says, it’s important to give yourself grace in the process.
“This is a moment-to-moment thing—I can feel like a sexy woman in the morning and then a troll in the evening,” she says. “Just because one moment you feel like you have it all figured out, and then the next moment you feel really tender, it doesn't mean that you're failing. Keep going, and know that it's not about getting to one final place.”
To let go of productivity for productivity’s sake
Shayna Conde, writer
Shayna Conde was a healthy 24-year-old when she awoke one day to find that a rare autoimmune condition called neuromyelitis optica (NMO) had “taken out” the nerves in five of the vertebrae in her spine, effectively paralyzing her from the chest down.
Conde describes NMO, which is similar to multiple sclerosis, as a “shark in the water” because it lies dormant in your body until something awakens it, at which point it can cause significant damage to your nervous system. While the exact trigger is unknown, Conde’s doctors believe her initial episode was induced by trauma she experienced while studying abroad in grad school.
Now, six years since her initial episode, Conde considers herself lucky to have recovered around 95 percent of her pre-NMO functioning. But her life revolves, at least to some extent, around efforts to prevent a relapse. Each episode increases nervous system damage, meaning that the next one could take her functioning down to, say, 50 percent of the 95 percent she’s regained.
Knowing what it’s like to be paralyzed, and understanding that paralyzation could recur at any moment, has significantly altered Conde’s approach to life. She’s currently working out of Mexico, for example, and plans to continue traveling the world—but not just in service of her career as a travel journalist. “I am on a much longer pursuit of ‘home’,” she says. “The way some people talk about the relationship they have with the ground beneath their feet is something that brings me to tears. I've never experienced that.”
The idea of ‘do do do’ is unsustainable for the kind of joy I want to have, the kind of community I want to build, the kind of life I want to sustain.—Shayna Conde
Photo: Allie Cossack
While she doesn’t yet know where she’ll discover this sense of home for herself, Conde doesn’t feel the United States is it. This has to do, at least in part, with the chokehold capitalism has on the country. It’s at odds, she says, with the approach she’s adopted as a result of her experience with NMO, which has taught her that she can’t take a single second of life for granted.
Conde doesn’t want to waste the gift of what she’s regained, for however long she has it, on productivity for productivity’s sake. “The idea of ‘do do do’ is unsustainable for the kind of joy I want to have, the kind of community I want to build, the kind of life I want to sustain,” she says. “I feel like home is a place where you’re not constantly doing things or feeling like you have to be constantly doing things—you can just exist in fullness.”
After all, says Conde, there’s very little that actually has to be done. “I learned that from being paralyzed,” she says. Adoption of this mindset has, however, required continuous unlearning on her part, so she understands why others can’t necessarily make sense of her choices. “It’s about being confident and secure in myself, because nobody else is going to get it,” she says. “And that’s fine.”
The ability to reframe struggle as self-discovery
Logan Aldridge, Peloton adaptive instructor
“There’s so much more human potential and capability within us than we know,” says Logan Aldridge, Peloton’s first adaptive instructor.
As is true of most valuable lessons, Aldridge learned this one the hard way. At the age of 13, his left arm was amputated after a wakeboarding accident, and he remembers hearing a lot about what he wouldn’t be able to accomplish as a result. Fiery from a young age, Aldridge immediately set out to defy those expectations. “A quote from Michael Jordan resonated with me early on,” he says. “‘If we accept the way things are, and we accept the expectations of others, then we never change the outcome.’”
In order to push past the limitations given to him by others, and by his own mind, Aldridge found that it was critical to endure discomfort. “We don’t discover our potential or grow our abilities when we’re protected,” he says. “I recognized, through the physical experiences I had after losing my arm, that [in discomfort] is where we grow, where we learn something about ourselves.”
Aldridge has employed this mentality most obviously in his fitness endeavors—forever pushing himself far beyond what’s comfortable in order to make gains. This began directly after recovery from his accident, when he defied expectations by joining his high school's junior varsity football and lacrosse teams, and has continued to this day in both his work as an adaptive trainer and amateur golfer and runner. But, he says, his belief in pushing through discomfort to defy limitations shows up in all aspects of his life.
Sometimes, for example, he’ll hear an inner voice telling him it’s too difficult to cook with one arm. He ignores it, because he knows he can cook with just one arm—it may just not be all that comfortable to do so (especially given the fact that he does not actually enjoy cooking).
The same attitude translates to interpersonal relationships, he says. “When things get tough with a loved one, or when I start to see a shift in my perspective of another person, [this mindset] is a reminder not only that I’m more capable than these thoughts and emotions, but so is the other person,” says Aldridge. “We’re all capable of doing better than we are right now.”
"It’s just a reminder that there’s no ceiling, which in my opinion is a refreshing outlook because things never get easy, we never get to a point where we’ve ‘made it.'"—Logan Aldridge
He’s careful to distinguish this mentality from one that’s punishing, or that’s about making yourself feel bad about wherever you are. “It’s just a reminder that there’s no ceiling, which in my opinion is a refreshing outlook because things never get easy, we never get to a point where we’ve ‘made it,’” he says.
Ultimately, Aldridge credits his disability with teaching him to reframe struggle as a portal to self-discovery and transformation, which helps him not only to face it, but to seek it out. “It’s kind of like Forrest Gump—just keep running,” he says. “Everyone has this feeling of wanting to stop when things get tough, but there is this massively huge untapped potential that we’re far more capable of pursuing than we realize if we can just push past the part of our brains that wants to protect us.”
That he can choose how to interpret discomfort
Jerron Herman, dancer
Jerron Herman always knew his body was trying to tell him something.
Herman was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder resulting from damage to the part of the brain that controls muscle movements. The particular type he has is called hemiplegia cerebral palsy, which means only one side of his body is affected. For Herman, this manifests in stiff muscles that spasm frequently.
Though his condition is categorized as a disability, Herman always had a feeling there was more to these movements than what they’d been reduced to by his doctors. But his ability to tune in to himself was handicapped by the limiting language of the diagnosis he’d received at just three months old. Herman felt his sense of self was distorted by the way his disability was framed to him, and by the way that framing defined him. “The relationship I had to my body was a bit fractured,” he says. “It wasn’t my own.”
It wasn’t until he joined a dance company composed of disabled and non-disabled dancers, and found community within it, that he developed a newfound respect for his body—which he now sees as “a translation tool.”
“I began to look at my body differently, and be like, ‘What is this spasm saying?’” he says. “A spasm is something that happens very naturally, every day, and possibly all day, for me. But I ascribe meaning to its intensity. I might be like, ‘This feels very similar to the discomfort of racism,’ for example.”
Herman uses these inner explorations around what his body is trying to tell him—which he calls “soap operas in his mind”—as inspiration for the storytelling he does through dance. “My body’s become this sort of research site,” he says. “I let it reveal its connection to the world at large.”
My body’s become this sort of research site. I let it reveal its connection to the world at large.—Jerron Herman
Photo / Beowulf Sheehan
He might interpret a spasm as meaning his body needs something in that moment, physically or emotionally, or he might take a more artistic approach and read it as trying to communicate a larger idea/message—a particular spasm might be saying something about world economic policy, or racism, for example. Either way, he’s listening. “There is a relationship between how my body is moving and how I interpret it that is really exciting to me as an artist,” he says.
Allowing his body to inform his art in this way means cerebral palsy is central to Herman’s work, but he no longer feels limited by his diagnosis. Instead, he feels infinitely expanded. “There’s so much content I can’t account for without this disability,” he says.