aging · Aikido

Ice, age, and the fear of falling

fall down, get up Driving home from work today, en route to CrossFit actually, I listened to an interesting interview with a chiropractor about icy roads and sidewalks and the fear of falling. I was prepared for the usual winter safety spiel. Take short steps, wear yak trax, etc.

But no, his concern  was quite a bit different. His claim was that fear of falling was as dangerous as the ice itself. What was his worry? First, that if you’re scared of falling, when you do fall you stiffen up and land thunk on the ground. He advocated instead learning to fall and spending some time outside practicing falling. Second, fear of falling keeps many people inside and less mobile and sadly more likely to fall when they do encounter ice. Indeed, fear of falling in seniors leads to a downward spiral of more inactivity, immobility, and more falls. See this article in Psychology Today.

This makes perfect sense to me. In Aikido we practice falling a lot. The most common practical use of Aikdio is not self-defense, it’s rolling out of a fall. I’ve been drafting a post about Aikido and the things its taught me. How to fall is certainly one of them. I’ve slipped on the ice a few times since taking Aikido and each time I’ve executed an Aikido break fall. We do so many in class that it’s now second nature.

Here’s what one dojo says about falling:

Besides its beautiful and dynamic techniques, Aikido is known for its beautiful rolls, falls and dramatic high falls and break falls. Learning how to fall safely is one of the first valuable skills you will be taught in any of our Aikido Dojos. Safety is paramount and we teach all types of falls using safe low impact methods. We actually don’t look at it as “falling” but as “recovery”. Of course, learning how to fall safely is an extremely valuable skill—at any age and especially as we age.

I’m a member of long established feminist book group. I think it’s 30 years old and lots of the founding members are still active. We’re called “The Hags.” Of course. I’m the youngest book group member. And I worry about the Hags and falls. I worry about my mother too. I wish I could send every older person I know to Aikido so they could learn how to fall!

Learning to fall and working to maintain bone strength are important fitness and safety habits for everyone, but especially for women after menopause.

So, yes, avoid the ice if you can. But also, learn to fall. I can guarantee it’s injury prevention training that you’ll use. Here’s two tutorials, one a general martial arts intro to falling and the other specific to Aikido.

Uncategorized

We’re moving Facebook pages!

Gutman_Caroline_VW-1

If you follow us here, then go “like” us there. Our new home is https://www.facebook.com/feministfitness.

(We changed locations because we couldn’t just rename the page when we’re actually, as opposed to almost, fifty.)

See you there! We share links, not just our blog posts, and have discussions with great people. You might also want to like Fit and Feminist on Facebook. She’s at https://www.facebook.com/fitandfeminist.

Uncategorized

Doing Whatever It Is “Like No One Is Watching”

three kids dancing and looking super happy
three kids dancing and looking super happy

You’ve probably heard that call to joy, “dance like no one is watching.”  Though I’m a bit jaded by its overuse, it came across my desk again this morning in an article from The Daily Om.

The article, “Like No One Is Watching: Shake Your Tail Feathers,” talks about how fun it can be to seek out our suppressed idiosyncracies and eccentricities–those delightfully individual and unique qualities and tendencies and traits that we’ve hidden from the world because they make us stand out as too different.  Or worse, we worry that people will disapprove of us.

It says:

Life as we know it is so short. Making the most of years we are granted is a matter of being ourselves even though we know that we will inevitably encounter people who disapprove of our choices. When you shake your tail feathers like no one is watching, you will discover that there are many others who appreciate you because you are willing to let go of any inhibition. By doing this you help others know it is okay. No one else in the world is precisely like you and, each time you revel in this simple fact, you rededicate yourself to the celebration of individuality.

As a recovering “people pleaser” who used to be (notice the past tense) crushed whenever anyone disapproved of me, I know what it’s like to pretend not to be a certain way, to feel as if I had to tone it down.

But one area where this article rang true for me today was in terms of fitness.  I’ve found that as soon as I find something I love, along come all sorts of “rules” about the way it’s supposed to be done, what it’s good for (fat loss? body composition? cardio strength? something else), whether I can do it and still do the other things I enjoy.

Right now I’m facing this in the wake of new (to me) information about the way my endurance training goals might push in the opposite direction from my body composition goals (I do want to get a bit leaner for the summer triathlon season, and, yes, for my fiftieth birthday!). Turns out (according to some sources) that those lean endurance athletes were always genetically disposed to be lean, not that they got that way from their training.

I’m going to post more fully next week about what I’m learning and hearing (blog post on cortisol–good, bad, or indifferent–coming right up!).  But today’s Daily Om came at a good time for me. How much do I want to be influenced by what people are saying as opposed to what I love doing?

I think for those of use who pursue our activities because we love them and who let ourselves be guided by that instead of by what we think we should be doing, setting aside the expectations of others and the social pressure to do “this thing in that way” can do a world of good.

That’s what was so great about Rebecca’s story of boxing and powerlifting.  We so love to hear about people who broke out of the mold and forged their own path that the Huffington Post picked up her story.

For every person who might judge or disapprove of an individual pursuing her goals unencumbered by social pressure to conform (feminists, anyone?), there’s a host of others who such examples nudge in the direction of going for it themselves (again, feminists!).

It’s really time to stop looking over my shoulder to see who is watching.  What would you do differently in your fitness pursuits (and your life) if you felt that no one was watching?  If you said nothing would change, congratulations!

aging · Aikido · athletes · Crossfit · cycling

The enthusiasm of youth is infectious (most of the time anyway)

It was a pretty hard workout even by CrossFit standards. 200 m row, 10 burpees, 10 box jumps. 6 rounds for time.

I was sweaty and breathless on burpee 8 of my second last set when I hear, “Hey, Professor Brennan! You’re doing great.”

I looked up and smiled. The encouragement didn’t throw me. CrossFit is like that. But “Professor”? It’s the first time I’ve heard that here. It’s a student from one of my classes last year. I knew it had to happen eventually–the intersection of teaching and CrossFit– though Western has a very nice gym and most of my students workout there. During the break we chatted. It was a late afternoon class and I usually go in the morning so our odds of regularly working out together aren’t great.  But I told him to call me “Samantha” in case it happened again. (“Sam” is for friends, family, and fellow athletes. I wasn’t quite ready to make the leap there.)

misty railway track
misty railway track

I don’t mind working out with students. I’ve done lots of it over the years. If you’re a physically active adult participating in sports, you’ll spend lots of time working out with people younger than you.There’s almost no one my age at CrossFit. In New Zealand there were lots of pretty fit men in CrossFit in the 50 and above category but few women. Here it’s a bit of a wasteland over 40 even. But they are all adults. In other sports I’ve spent time with teenagers and children.

In rowing, it was the high school rowers. In Aikido, lots of us help out with the kids’ classes. I sometimes have to work hard to persuade the young men that it’s okay to hit me or throw me. I won’t break. I outrank them usually. It helps if I throw them around a bit first.

In biking, there were lots of young people around. Some of the young teens just starting their racing careers, liked to train with the masters women. We’re fast–but not too fast–and we ride carefully and don’t drop people. Some of us have good road skills and excellent bike handling skills and the parents especially like to see their kids training with us.

It helps that I genuinely like young people. I really enjoy the company of my undergraduates. Fresh perspectives, energy, and enthusiasm all help me feel young too. I used to work out at the university fitness centre and train with the university triathlon club but after awhile that got to be a bit much. I joke that the final straw was a student who approached me in the shower–in addition to no clothes, I also had no glasses–to ask for an extension on her paper. I mumbled something about email and office hours and grabbed my towel.

There have been some funny exchanges with young athletes over the years.

I laughed once at the velodrome when a young boy approached me nervously on his track bike. “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

(At the time) “45.”

“Wow, my mom is younger than you and she could never do this.”

“That’s okay my son is about your age and he couldn’t do it either. It’s not about age.”

“That makes sense.”

That made me smile. But young people aren’t always so pleasant. Sometimes they can smug and entitled, just like adults I guess. In Dunedin, NZ there were young women in my CrossFit class in the morning before high school. They drove me nuts complaining about their fat mothers who were trying to make them fat too! Apparently the mothers had the nerve to cook too many carbs and buy crappy groceries. One day I’d had enough. I interrupted the morning stream of complaints.

“There is an answer here, you know.”

“Oh. What?”

“You could cook and offer to buy groceries. Also, who drove you to the gym before high school starts in the morning? Was that your mother? Be nice.”

But mostly I like young people. The ones in my house especially but also those in my classrooms and those in my gym too.

Pretty clouds and hill
Pretty clouds and hill
Uncategorized

Getting over the Fear of Winter Running

rear shot of the legs of a woman running in the winter, kicking up snow.
rear shot of the legs of a woman running in the winter, kicking up snow.

This winter I joined a 10K training group. The first night we met, January 2nd, was at the end of a frigid though clear day.  Somehow, I thought maybe we would have an orientation meeting and then be sent home because of the weather.

Nope. That didn’t happen. We ran the week after, as well. And the week after that, polar vortex be damned. Three times a week, through slush and snow, sub-zero temperatures and wind chills, we run.

Almost every time I’ve gone out with the group since we started we’ve had conditions that, if not for the group, I would have bailed.  Last year, a much milder and less snowy winter than this, I suspended my run training from about mid-January to early-March. I remember the day it kicked in. I was going to meet a friend for a Tuesday evening run.  The forecast was in the range of -15 Celsius with a “windchill factor” of -23 C (that’s what, supposedly, it “feels like”). No way.

Well last week almost every night we went out the windchill factor brought temperatures colder than -20 C.  No problem.  Honestly, I only check the weather now to see whether I need my lighter hat or my heavier balaclava, my sleeveless base layer or my long sleeved base layer, long johns under my running tights or not.

What’s happened gradually over the past month?  My fear of winter running is gone.  Gone, gone, gone.

Two fears in particular loomed large for me before this winter of demystifying the whole mid-winter running thing. First, I imagined putting my foot down on a patch of ice and either falling or slipping in some way that injured me.  Second, I felt sure that I would freeze.  So far, neither has happened.

Sometimes people wear ice grippers or Yak Trax to give themselves more traction. I haven’t needed anything like that so far. On warmer days (not so many of those) after it’s been snowing for a while it’s been a little bit slippery, but not icy.

The cold worried me the most. To prep for that I bought a light windproof shell to put over my winter running tops.  On a cold day or night I’ll wear a sleeveless or long sleeved base layer with wicking properties, an additional heavier winter running top, and my windproof shell with reflectors (we do a lot of running in the dark). On my legs I’ll wear my under armor long johns, retrieved from my snowboarding bag, and either mid-weight or heavy weight winter running tights. I wear light gloves (my hands sweat a lot when I run in the winter) and either a lightweight running hat that I can pull over my ears or a fleecy balaclava that covers my neck and, in a pinch, I can pull up over my mouth and cheeks.  Last week on Thursday night I also wore a face mask because of the wind, but I only needed it for occasional relief. Mostly, I folded it down and the cold air on my face felt good.

Other than sometimes feeling a bit of sting in my cheeks, I have not felt cold at all. Last Thursday was a chilly night. We ran past a busy section of town where people were streaming by on their way to the Keith Urban concert.  Maybe they were in especially good spirits, but people actually high-fived us and hollered “way to go!” and that sort of thing.  Winter running, I’ve discovered, earns us a certain kind of respect.

It also makes us all feel good about ourselves.  Back in the day, we used to always clap after a fitness class (do people still do that?).  Well, after our runs we always talk about how awesome we are that we actually did it! Like, it feels like even more of an accomplishment to complete a winter run in weather that drives most people indoors than the same route in more temperate weather.

What I mean to say is, I feel pretty badass this month, running with my group whatever the weather.  Fear is NOT a factor for me anymore. Wednesday night we start hill-training!  Exciting!

Uncategorized

European walking norms, worries about accessibility, with added bonus: statue of baby eating ogre

Berne

I’m my way home from Berne, Switzerland, writing this post in the Zurich airport. I cancelled some research travel this year, see recent post on rough times and tough choices. But this conference was one I couldn’t miss. It’s on family ethics, my main research area and I’m one of the invited speakers. I was there talking about the moral significance of extended family relationships.

While in Switzerland, I had the opportunity to think about getting around in European cities and how much walking is part of one’s everyday routine.

The directions conference organizers sent were amusingly clear, under “How to arrive at your hotel” they explained in excellent detail how to walk from the train station to the conference hotel. It should take no more than fifteen minutes, read our instructions. There are taxis in Berne, they said, but the university would be unable to reimburse us for costs incurred. Also, there is a tram but it would take as long as walking. Further explanations followed about buying “short distance” tickets.

They were right, of course. It was a perfectly pleasant fifteen minute walk even with bags. Once again, welcome to Europe, land of stairs and cobblestones, I was happy to have my back pack rather than a suitcase with wheels.

It helped that the temperatures were around zero. Felt like springtime. No polar vortex here.

Directions to the university were similarly laid out. In that case it was a very pleasant twenty minute walk.

This was all to my liking. There are very few cars in Berne centre. I wasn’t sure if they were forbidden in the downtown area, around the historical, medieval city square, or just rare. But bicycles bicycles everywhere. Signs to bike parking, lots full of bicycles, and then  “bicycles forbidden” signs to which were attached, you guessed it, hundreds of bicycles.

I love this about Europe. It feels right to me, like how I want to live.

I love the idea and the practise of building movement into our everyday lives. The idea of driving to the gym to walk on a treadmill must seem very odd to residents of these walkable cities. And frankly, it seems odd to me too.

But I have this nagging worry about those who aren’t so mobile. What do people in wheelchairs do? Or people with walkers for whom my pleasant twenty minute walk would take hours?

I have a greater awareness of the difficulties these days as I spend time pushing a relative in her chair. Berne’s  cobblestones might not be so picturesque then.

I’ve had similar thoughts about Parisian subways. I love the steep stairs, not an escalator to be seen, but surely there must be other options?

If you know anything about accessibility in Europe, let me know. I’m curious.

Oh, and you can read about the child eating ogre of Berne here.
 

ogre
Cheerful statue of ogre eating small children

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

charity · Guest Post · running

Asthma: You Can Run, You Can Hide, but You Can’t Escape Its Grip (Guest Post)

While I have been battling asthma my entire life, I never really paid all that much attention to it until the late summer/early fall of 2013.  At that point in time, I had been invited to come join my boyfriend and two of his friends in a charity run that would occur at the beginning of October, 2013.  They informed me that they would be running, and that they hoped I could keep up with them.  I was incredibly nervous, as I had never run before in my life due to my asthma, but I was not going to decline this invitation.  My boyfriend and I were only a couple of months into our relationship, and I was determined to do whatever it took to become accepted into his social group.

Unsure of how to begin training for a charity run, I took the first step I could think of: running on a treadmill.  I always knew that running on a treadmill was different from running outside, but it seemed like a good place to start.  I took it very slowly, and only ran for five minutes at a relatively light jog.  When I mastered that, the next time I took it to ten, and then the next time at fifteen.  The next time after that, I decided I would just run for as long as I could at that jogging speed.  If I managed to make it to the full 5km (which was the distance of the charity run we were going to do), then excellent, but if not, I would still continue to train.  I managed to make it to the full 5km that time, and I decided that the next time I trained, I would try it on the indoor track at the gym.  I was so thrilled that I had managed to attain this goal and could not wait to tackle the charity run!

Unfortunately, this is where my problems began.  While I always knew that running on a treadmill was different from running on a track, I did not realize until then just how different they really were.  I had found the jogging on the treadmill to be a challenge, but it was not too hard on my asthmatic lungs.   But running on the track was much harder than I had ever anticipated.  I jogged at roughly the same speed as I had on the treadmill, but after a mere few laps, it felt like somebody had an iron grip on my lungs and I had to grasp for air.

Naturally, I was excruciatingly frustrated.  The run was less than a month away and I was clearly nowhere near as ready as I had thought I was.  If I had known that this would be the case, I probably would not have bothered with the treadmill and I would have started running on the track immediately to train.  Of course, running outside is also different from running on a track as the cement is harder on your joints (running on grass is much nicer, but not always an option), but not as different as a treadmill versus a track.

It also did not help that I was constantly hearing about how my boyfriend and his friends could run at 15 km/hour.  The thought of having to train to keep up with them at more than twice the speed I was capable of was unbearably overwhelming and frightening.  I could not decide if I should train for distance or speed first.  Should I start working my way up to 5 km and then work on running faster?  Or should I run as fast as I could for as long as I could and work on running longer?  With my pride in more agony than my lungs in the iron grip, I decided on the latter.

And just when I thought my training couldn’t possibly get any worse, I badly sprained my ankle.  No, not training for the run.  It was while I was at the Western Fair.  I was dizzy after riding a spinny ride, and when I was going down the stairs to get off the ride, I misjudged the amount of space there was between my foot and the ground, and I went over.  My ankle was in sheer agony, but despite how much physical pain I was in, I was more devastated by the fact that this meant I had to put my training for the run on hold.

About a week later, when my ankle was mostly HEELED (ha ha ha), I went out to start training for the run again.  Only I made sure to keep my ankle brace on just in case I went over again.  I was determined to not allow any further disruptions to my training, as I wanted so very badly to be able to keep up with my boyfriend and his friends.  Unfortunately, even though I have been taking medication to control my asthma for years, I could never get my speed up to 15km/hour for even just a little bit, nor could I get my distance up to 5km on the track even just at a light jog.  Not without feeling the extremely painful iron grip on my lungs.

After that, I just felt extremely depressed, and while I am never the type to give up easily, I knew I was licked.  I wanted to believe I could do it, but with the run a mere week and a half away, I knew it would take a miracle to give me the capability to run at 15km/hour for the full 5km in order to keep up with my boyfriend and his friends the entire time.  I really wished that one mutual friend in particular was joining us as he had just recently had surgery on his foot and was walking around with crutches.  Therefore, if he had been joining us, it would only have been a good excuse to walk along next to him and keep him company.  Then at least I would have had somebody to talk to after my boyfriend and the others would take off ahead of me.  But reality was that he was not joining us, and I knew that once the run started, my boyfriend and his friends would run off ahead of me and I would be walking or jogging the 5km alone.  It depressed me to no end that I would not be able to keep up with them, but I figured it was better than backing out of the run completely.  At least this way I could still say that I tried.

Many asthmatics need to accept the fact that they will never run as fast and/or as long as marathon runners do.  It does not matter how controlled our condition is with our medications.  If we push ourselves further than our lungs will allow, we will feel the iron grip on our lungs and will have to grasp for air.  Some asthmatics can run faster, but it does depend on how mild or severe their condition is in order to determine their limits.  Is it possible for me to be able to run a full 5 km one day?  Perhaps.  But will I be able to do it at a speed such as 15 km/hour?  Not likely.  But I know now that if I want to train myself to run, I need to start with a jog and aim for a distance goal, which I think 5 km is a reasonable one.  Once I attain that distance goal, then I can start to work on increasing my speed.  But I need to keep in mind that unfortunately it will be a gradual process and will not be attained in a mere few months.

Running may not be one of my strengths, but walking is.  I may not be able to run at 15 km/hour, but if I had comfortable shoes, I could probably walk for 15 km.

As long as it wasn’t too hot or too cold outside, that is 😛 .

My name is Shamila.  I am 25 years old and in my fourth (and hopefully final) year at Western University studying French.  I am not entirely sure what I will do next year yet, but I do have some ideas for possible career paths.  Some activities I enjoy are working out, writing, cooking, taking long walks, shopping, and reading. 

Uncategorized

Not so fast…

empty plateInterest in fasting as a method of dieting, rather than as religious observance, seems to be the rise. Certainly lots of people are starting the new year with the 5:2 diet (five days of regular eating followed by a 2 day fast). More radically, others are trying the ADF version, alternate day feeding, of intermittent fasting. Our post on intermittent fasting and sex differences in response continues to be one of the most read posts on the blog.

Fasting didn’t work for me (in the sense of fat or weight loss) though I still think fasting is a useful exercise in getting comfortable with hunger. Making peace with hunger, treating it neutrally, rather than as an emergency was one the things that the lean eating program (reviewed here) taught me. I still avoid hunger but I’m now I’m able to respond without panic, drastic measures, or eating in advance in order to avoid it.

I was interested then to see the research summary published by the Dietitians of Canada 2014 (Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition): December 2013, “Is Fasting Healthy?.

I’m going to quote it in length.

They write that fasting and juice-only fasting are being broadly advocated as health-promoting measures. Fasting is promoted as a way to remove toxins. Fasting is also promoted as a way to improve cardiovascular health. It’s also promoted as a route to weight loss.

But are these claims borne out by the evidence?

In the section of their report, Evidence Analysis, they write:

“In spite of the promotion of fasting to remove accumulated toxins through liver enzyme activation, liver enzyme activation is much more complex than first assumed. Further animal and human research does not support the suggestion that activation of these enzymes is health promoting. The apparent increase of cytochrome P-450 enzymes in rodent livers is actually due to the reduction of liver size, as fasting shrinks total liver size and so the actual liver content of this enzyme does not increase

Of additional concern, fasting markedly reduces liver glutathione which facilitates drug excretion and is an important endogenous antioxidant….

Thus, fasting and very low calorie diets, which are promoted to enhance the liver’s ability to remove toxins, are in fact more likely to reduce the liver’s detoxifying abilities by reducing both cytochrome P-450 and glutathione.”

What are the overall benefits and risks of fasting?

“Some trials of alternate day fasting for eight weeks in obese people did find improvements in coronary heart disease risk markers however, several studies revealed increases in insulin resistance within 24 to 72 hours of initiation of fasting (11-13). Even skipping breakfast for 14 days was found to raise LDL cholesterol and produce insulin resistance in non-overweight women (mean BMI=23.2±1.6)”

There are also additional concerns about fasting raised the evidence they summarize.

They write that human studies have illustrated various
concerns about fasting including:

• The loss of muscle mass was noted in one study as being significant within 24 hours and progressed to further losses as the fast proceeded to 72 hours. This loss occurred even when the eight healthy young male athlete participants exercised (60 minutes of running and
strength training including sit-ups, push-ups, and squat repetitions) during the fast. The fast also resulted in a progressive loss in physical work.

• Fasting resulted in significant declines in functional reach and how long healthy, young women (n=22) were able to balance on one leg after even a one-day.

• Fasting for 24 hours in men (aged 18-35) decreased mononuclear cell
mitochondrial activity, an important aspect of immune function .

• Fasting headaches occur at rates of 4% after 16 hours of fasting (18), and in up to 50% of people with a single day of fasting. These headaches were not due to dehydration were not related to caffeine or nicotine withdrawal, and were found to resolve within 72 hours after the resumption of food intake.

• At the point of 5% weight loss, a six- day fast produced less fat mobilization and more intracellular water loss compared with very low calorie (600 kcal) and low calorie (1240 kcal) diets in three groups of six obese men (21).

• Results of studies of long-term juice- only fasting for up to eight weeks
indicate a loss of 20% body protein; a loss of 20-25% fat-free mass;
biochemical evidence of deficiencies in thiamine, riboflavin, and vitamin K; a loss of 40% of whole body zinc (22), and osmotic myelinolysis (23). Once a long-term fast (44 days) was ended, people who fasted for these durations developed complications including refeeding syndrome with marked hypophosphatemia; hemodilution and neurological symptoms with difficulty breathing, speaking, andswallowing, and requiring ventilation support.”

What’s the bottom line?

“A close examination of the evidence regarding the health effects of fasting does not support the denial of eating as a health-promoting activity. In fact, fasting may actually be deleterious to health by:

-increasing insulin resistance while decreasing important liver detoxifying enzyme functions
– decreasing muscle mass
– decreasing nutrients
– decreasing ones ability to work and exercise”

Sounds to me like, just don’t do it. For the full report with lots and lots of references and notes, see here.

family · fitness · fitness classes · Guest Post · yoga

Reflections on Fitness Families and Unexpected Gifts (Guest Post)

fitness family photo
My fitness family regularly team teaches, especially when we launch a new release. Here we are showing off our “country” gear at our January launch.

One of my favorite things about being a fitness instructor is all of the people that I interact with on a daily/weekly basis. Even if we are not deeply involved in each other’s lives, we are a part of a kind of fitness family that provides support for each other, even when not verbally or intentionally.

I choose not to cancel my classes during the stretch between Christmas and New Year’s, in part because I don’t want to miss my workout, but also because I don’t want my participants to miss theirs. Holiday stresses can be mitigated through fitness classes and through the comfort of routine.

Because “the holidays” are always seen as that all-important time for friends and family, and because I am so fragmented from my widely-dispersed family, my fitness family plays an important role at any time of the year, including the “holiday season.” And since I am not much for holiday celebrations, as my quoted holiday comments might suggest, what I get from my fitness family during the holidays goes a long way.

As I note in my new book, Women and Fitness in American Culture, fitness is a hobby that I was introduced to through my mom, and she and I have attended many classes together over the years–some I have taught, some she has taught, and some we have taken together. Whenever we are visiting each other, a fitness or yoga class will certainly be a part of the visit. Via my fitness participants, I get to witness and participate in this kind of family bonding from a different perspective.

I love seeing the mothers who are excited to have their daughters home, and perhaps just as excited to bring them to class. They get to share with their daughters the fitness classes that they experience on a daily basis. Sometimes they get to introduce their daughters to something new. When Valerie brought her daughter Emma to yoga, I could tell how happy she was to have her there. When they came to Group Groove the next day, I got to talk with her and experience this excitement more. Emma had not previously taken a Group Groove class, and she did great. The smile on her face afterward was better than any holiday gift–for me and for her mother.

Suzanne’s daughter, Alex, comes to classes (yoga and Cardio Mix and Group Groove) when she is home to visit–not always only during holidays. Suzanne tells me about the classes that Alex takes in New York, where people’s mats are only inches apart and classes are packed, and I try not to be nervous about living up to the standards of the yoga she must experience there. YogaFit‘s emphasis on “letting go of competition” helps remind me that yoga is not about competition and that each class is what it is; there is value in diversity (“it is what it is” is a bit of down-home Maine wisdom I have learned).

One of the best holiday surprises this year came from an older man who pretty regularly takes my yoga/Pilates stretch mix class. On a day of heavy snow, when all the other classes had been cancelled, I taught my class to a devoted handful of regulars. After class he came up and thanked me, telling me how much he always enjoys my classes. He then told me that sometimes when we are relaxing and moving through class he will think about people he needs to connect with.
Yoga makes the space, he explains, to think about those loved ones, like his daughter or old friends, that he doesn’t keep up with as much as he should. Since it’s the holiday season, he tells me, he is going to use this opening as an opportunity to make those connections. What better gift could I get than to inspire a participant in this way? And what better reminder than this that I should work harder to rekindle connections as well? Since the holidays come with trying to finish fall grades while the spring semester looms in the near-future, finding time to rekindle connections is something that I will keep on working out.

book cover pic

Sarah Hentges is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Maine at Augusta and a part-time fitness instructor. Her new book, Women and Fitness in American Culture brings these two worlds together and asks us to reconsider what “fitness” is in our lives and our culture. You can learn more about this work by visiting her webpage at www.cultureandmovement.com.

body image · yoga

Naked Yoga: TMI or Good for Body Acceptance?

Nude yoga instructor in a yoga pose on a mat during a nude yoga class.
Nude yoga instructor in a yoga pose (variation on child’s pose) on a mat during a nude yoga class.

Yesterday Sam posted this piece about a co-ed naked yoga studio in New York.  Here’s from the article:

The studio offers various combinations of clothed, naked, same sex, and coed classes. And regarding the naked sessions and Tantric Yogassage offered: “If you are looking for an orgasm, you are in the wrong place,” the Bold & Naked website states.

“By shedding their clothes and practicing yoga in the nude, students literally drop the masks and labels they hide behind all day,” the website says. “Practicing yoga naked frees you from negative feelings about your body and allows you to be more accepting of your physical imperfections.”

It’s not for people “on the make.” Instead, it’s for getting free with yourself, comfortable with and accepting of your body in all of its imperfect glory. These are values I can get behind. And I love yoga. I love being nude (you can read about that in my post about how a nude vacation helped me with body image, here).  And I’m totally comfortable (based on same experience) being around other nude people, whatever their gender might be.

Yet my reaction to nude yoga is: um….no thank you.  And based on the Facebook page comments, I’m not alone (commenters, I hope you don’t mind if I quoted you):

“Stomach turning.”

“Never in a billion years. No no no.”

“To each their own. But FUCK NO for me.”

“Just no.”

“I don’t want to see that.”

” Umm, no. You can let your ‘mask’ off at home if you want, but in a studio or gym, I’m not interested in seeing the real you.”

A few more “no no no” comments and “yuck” comments and a comment about how unhygienic it seems.  A comment about how distracting it might be. One outlier who would be open to the idea and another who points out that nudity is our “natural state.” But generally there’s the view that it’s just “too much information.”

It’s interesting to me that people, myself included, have such a visceral reaction to naked yoga. For me, I just can’t imagine doing downward dog with no clothes on.  It would make me feel both vulnerable and perhaps a bit too aware of my sagging, aging body parts–and perhaps those of others.

But vulnerability is a good thing in a safe space, and I get the impression from the article that they’re interested in making this a safe space. I hope the issue is more about vulnerability than revulsion and body rejection.  Something about yoga in particular, rather than nudity more generally, makes doing it in the nude seem especially vulnerable-making. I mean, it’s not just downward dog, but there’s also badakanasa (cobblers pose), reclining hero, and even child’s pose. Lots of spread legs, in other words.

And why not be aware of my body exactly as it is?  Do I really want to think of it and the bodies of other people with revulsion?  Absolutely not.  Recently I listened to my radio documentary about my first trip to a nude resort. It’s entertaining and has a happy ending. But I was terrified about the prospect of going.

As I listen to it now, though, I see that a lot of my terror had to do with body-rejection and body-shaming. I said at one point that some bodies perhaps should stay covered up–they might be “hideous” I said.  When I hear that now, I cringe.

I had a whole fixation with the possibility of nude volleyball and all the jiggling body parts I imagined it might involve.  But now I think, “so what?” That’s what the human body is like.  Why can we not deal with that.

The reaction to the nude yoga post made me think of those fears I had, and about how many of them had to with attaching a revulsion-factor to the naked human body. As it turns out, my experience was quite the opposite. In a matter of days, I was completely comfortable with nudity–my own and others’.  I had no judgment concerning bodies–they’re just bodies. Some might be especially beautiful, but none was the least bit hideous, regardless of size and shape.

I think this negative gut reaction to naked yoga says a lot about where we are in our social world with the naked human body, especially bodies that are “imperfect.”  And for sure,  the first class or two would be awkward and maybe a bit giggle-inducing. But it wouldn’t take long before people started to sense a freedom and acceptance of the naked human body—their own and those of the others in the class. And that would be a good thing.

Both forms of yoga I do, Iyengar and hot, involve getting up close and personal in different ways. In Iyengar yoga, there’s a lot of hands on helping each other, sometimes in positions that outside of a yoga class might seem compromising. In hot yoga, each of us is on her or his own mat, but people really are wearing as little as possible. They’re practically naked anyway.  To me, nude yoga just pushes this body comfort one step further. And that’s a good thing. It’s really odd to me that after leaving the hot room, the women who were wearing almost nothing hide behind their towels while they get dressed. Suddenly, shame creeps back in.

When I got back from my nude vacation, I felt good about my body. But it didn’t last. My analysis: clothing actually makes it harder to accept our bodies.  A nude yoga class might be just the ticket for keeping that positive body image going year-round.