Exercise Can Help Where You Least Expect-Including With a Speech Impediment

My best friend Cailey and I were in the final posture of the day's practice: a long, meditative shavasana. The room was dark and heated, upward of 100 degrees, although outside it was all sleet and ice. Walking to the car after yoga class, the winter air cut through our wool coats and settled into our sweaty tank tops, making us shiver.

I spent most of January just like that: lying on my yoga mat, heels spread wide, arms resting. As it turned out, that first month practicing hot yoga would bring me into a phase of self-acceptance, one I'd never thought I could achieve.

I was born with a neurological speech impediment-a stutter-and because of it, lived in a perpetual state of frustration. My stutter was mostly mild, though sometimes severe, and full of repetitions (like-like-like this or th-th-th-th-this) and prolongations (lllllllllike this). I spent my entire adolescence yearning for a cure, my childhood marked by weekly speech therapy. But as I got older, I couldn't accept that stuttering had no solution at my age, that the only lasting remedies occur in early childhood. By the time I entered my teenage years, my stutter had become a permanent part of my speech.

Even as a college freshman, I was in denial that my disability was chronic. In my rural area, speech language pathologists only specialized in early treatment; I had spent years surrounded by children's books and wooden bead mazes, reciting tongue twisters and reading simple passages aloud. Speech therapy made me mindful of my stutter, but ultimately, my impediment remained the same. I wanted another option.

I searched online and found a clutter of uncertified 12-step programs; ads for vitamins that “cured” stuttering; and ear-pieces, clunky as studio headphones. I stumbled upon dozens of chatroom threads, which usually only led to programs that were certain to cure stuttering-for only three easy payments of $99!

Frustrated by my lack of options, I began to self-medicate with alcohol. After drinking at parties and feeling more fluent than usual, I decided words might escape my mouth more easily if the room was in a constant spin. But it wasn't the obvious health risks that kept me from pursuing this method-the effects just didn't last very long. One morning I arrived at my 8 a.m. class with nothing but a bottle of wine filling my empty stomach. I had to give a long presentation, hence the “need” for early-morning inebriation, but when I stood to address the class, I found my stutter had returned.

“Today I'm going to t-t-t-t-talk about the RRRRRRRR… RRRRRR… RRRReconstruction Era,” I said, panting, my hands in fists. The rest of the presentation followed in the same, stressful manner. My once-bored classmates suddenly leaned forward in their desks.

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After that day, I ended my misuse of alcohol, as well as my search for a cure. I started reading verified research and self-help books, and began seeking self-acceptance more than an instant fix. But my stuttering in everyday conversation was at an all-time high. My speech impediment gave me constant anxiety, especially when speaking in class or talking on the phone. Even ordering a sandwich at Subway became an obstacle to consider. Standing in line, I would think-is it really worth adding banana peppers or red onions if you're going to stutter?

Around this time, I started joining Cailey at the gym. This was, at first, purely a social event for me. All my life I'd been clumsy and overweight, traits I'd been taught were the enemies of fitness. Still, I decided to try: first walking the indoor track, then graduating to ellipticals and treadmills. Cailey had been serious about her physical health for years, and her enthusiasm was contagious. Together we bench-pressed barbells, learned dynamic stretching, did lateral lunges until our muscles were sore. After a few weeks of continued exercise, I realized something significant: I had wasted years of my life searching for an impossible cure. But it was physical activity-of all things-that improved my stutter the most.

While exercise certainly doesn't cure stuttering (nothing will ever really cure my stutter), physical activity did change how I responded to my speech impediment. Rather than struggling through every conversation, stiff and strained, exercise has helped my body and brain to relax. As a result, my thoughts are more focused on what I'm saying, rather than how I'm saying it. Being active improves how I approach everyday conversation. For a person who stutters, this is life changing.

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As my body has become stronger, so has my temperament. Cardio allows me to expend nervous energy; yoga helps me feel composed; weight training makes me feel empowered. Over several months and countless workouts, I've become less anxious about my speech. I stutter more freely, no longer substituting words or trying to force them out.

I now allow my speech the same kindness that comes naturallyto me at the gym: patience toward my body, perseverance for my goals, and a healthy rise in self-esteem. And while I'm still undoubtedly an exercise amateur, reaching my physical goals-like running a 5K or holding a difficult yoga pose-have helped me accept, even embrace, my lifelong stutter.

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Lying flat on my yoga mat, sweating in shavasana, I took a deep breath. Our hot yoga instructor walked around the room like it was an obstacle course, dodging yoga mats, water bottles, and 20 other would-be yogis. She placed a chilled washcloth on each of our foreheads, the water infused with mint leaves and oil.

“Shavasana is sometimes called the death pose,” she said, “because lying so still on your back makes you resemble a corpse.” The class laughed quietly. I felt water from the washcloth travel down my temple and nest into my hair.

“But actually, this pose will rejuvenate your body, mind, and spirit.” Our instructor returned to her yoga mat, tucking her feet beneath her.

Next to me, I heard Cailey inhale slowly. I closed my eyes and did the same, sinking further into the floor. “This moment,” our instructor whispered, “this is the moment you are most alive.”

Rachel Hoge is a freelance writer from the South, whose work has appeared in Bustle, The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Paste Magazine, Longreads, and more. Lately she's been hard at work on her first book of nonfiction.Follow her on Twitter @hoge_rachel.