I sat down at one of the tables in the community centre common area – hot, sweaty, and wanting a long, cool drink. I looked down at my feet, where I’d thrown my gym bag full of my aikido gear, and had a sudden realization.
I’ve grown to love physical exercise.
It hasn’t always been that way. I grew up a girl in the 1970s when, thanks in part to Title IX in the U.S., women and girls were becoming increasingly active in sports and intense physical activity. But I hated gym class at school, especially once I started menstruating at age 12. Being hot and sweaty, and wearing skimpy clothes at a time when I didn’t even know how to use tampons (and pads were bulky) made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. Plus as an introvert, I had an aversion to team sports.
Thankfully my high school had a dance program which students could take instead of Phys. Ed., and I learned that I loved to dance. I also loved to swim, and joined a pool leadership program and trained to become a lifeguard and swimming instructor.
In my mind I still didn’t think of myself as a jock, however. Dance satisfied my aesthetic desire to be feminine and pretty, and swimming didn’t feel like work because the water cooled you off and washed away all the sweat.
Aerobics classes became all the rage when I was at university in the 1980s, and were enough like my dance classes to feel safe and comfortable. I was intrigued by running, but really hated what felt like extreme physical exertion and discomfort.
I used a bike for transportation through high school and university, but again really hated being hot and sweaty – a challenge, since summers in my part of the world are humid.
In my late 20s I discovered yoga, which was a revelation. It was something that I could do that capitalized on my flexibility, but also didn’t leave me too hot. (I did a gentle Iyengar practice.) I also started hiking in wooded areas during my late 20s, and that felt like a great fit: gorgeous surroundings, peace, quiet, and communing with nature.
Then I discovered aikido two years ago.
Around the same time (thanks to my friendship with Sam and exposure to this blog) I became aware of how important it is – especially as we age – to do regular physical activity. Plus sitting is the new smoking, and all that.
But it’s not guilt about my sedentary job that makes me attend six aikido classes a week. And it’s not that I don’t sweat during aikido class – because I do. (And now that I’m bald from my chemo, I notice the sweat on my head more than ever.)
I’ve tried high-intensity workouts in the past year, but the only thing I like about the 7 minute workout is its short length. I also hate the exercises that my physiotherapist has prescribed for my various injuries. The repetition bores me to tears.
I can bear all those things I dislike – sweat, repetition, being out of breath – in aikido class, though. And since my revelation, I’ve been trying to figure out why.
I think part of it has to do with the dance-like nature of aikido. There are physical movements to learn and perfect, and each time you do a technique it’s a new experience, because you may have a different partner, or move a slightly different way each time. There’s always an element of the unknown, of surprise.
Then there’s also the mental exercise that fully engages my mind, and helps me forget how hot or out of breath I might be. It feels truly extraordinary, this love I have for going to a community centre six times a week.
And then there’s the excitement of the fun of it – of successfully remembering and executing a sequence of movements, of flipping upside-down when you’re thrown, or yelling a loud “kiai” when you’re done.
Whatever the reason, it delights me to no end that I’ve embraced physical exercise so heartily. I love the ritual of packing at home for a workout, and unpacking my damp clothes afterwards. I love getting dressed in my gi. I love entering the dojo, and the workout I get from setting up the heavy tatami mats for practice.
Most of all, I love the way I feel after a good class (that hasn’t exacerbated my injuries): flying on an endorphin high, feeling strong and centred.
Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.