January: that would be the season of fitness challenges.
Here at FIFI, a good part of last month was spent thinking about them, from Yoga With Adrienne’s 30 days, to Nia Shanks’ 100 days, to the 220 in 2020 groups (check out Cate’s massively inspirational post about its power to redefine what counts as “fitness” here), to what is wrong with office “wellness” competitions (OMG EVERYTHING; click here).
I’ve been an absent voice on all of the above, because I don’t generally enjoy any kind of fitness challenge. This strikes me as very odd, since I’m actually a hugely competitive / super count-y person (aka, like Cate, #completist). I can’t explain it, except to say maybe at some point not too long ago I sort of stopped giving a ….
Flash back to my last post, which was about kinds of wellness planning that Even Slightly Younger Kim would have pooh-poohed. Mental health. Joint health. Less cardio, more mental/joint health. I’m sorry what?
Since the beginning of January, I’ve been to my new therapist every second week, and I’ve also committed to a full session (that’s about 12 weeks) at my Iyengar yoga studio of choice, Yoga Centre London. And I’ve learned two really amazing new things*. (*New to me.)
I’m still doing all my fitness usuals, including time on my bike trainer (I have literally inhaled Call The Midwife, polished off Cheer, and am so excited about the new season of Sex Education [see above meme]), plus swimming and stair climbing, hiking and dog walking. But thanks to the therapy and the yoga, I’ve also realized that some things that seriously do not look like exercise are things I actually need to count as exercise. (Again, shout-out to the 220 in 2020 folks for figuring this out long before I did.)
Two weeks ago Monday I was up at the therapist around mid-day. I was cranky because I’d somehow let her book me into a slot that is usually swim time; I was going to have to sacrifice my swim and slot in something else as a result. I spent a good portion of the morning thinking about what else I could do in its place.
Then the session happened.
I’ve been going regularly to psychotherapy for many years, but this new practice is putting puzzle pieces together in ways I don’t always expect, yet clearly need to see and explore. As a result, I sometimes find myself crying my heart out for the better part of a session; this was one of those sessions.
As I left A’s office, I felt the clear, cold air on my face and realized it would be a perfect day for a ride up to the escarpment lookout that makes me feel most at peace. I made a mental note to pick that over the other options swirling in my brain and drove home.
An apple and a dog walk later, it was clear to me I was not riding anywhere; I was ready to fall asleep on the dog in the foyer while she stood in confusion on the “pause for paws!” towel. I chose to rest instead and reasoned I could fit in a late swim at my regular pool.
Of course, that did not happen.
Instead, I did 30 minutes of simple and relaxing yoga poses in my kitchen while the supper was cooking.
In my cranky head this did not feel like “enough”. But my body knew it was sufficient, because my body had obviously done a huge amount of work in that therapy session, criss-crossing space and time to piece together experiences from my childhood that have shaped the hurt and damaged human I try to ride away from every time I get on my bike.
Fitness revelation #1: crying through the feeling is physical as well as emotional labour, and needs to be honoured with rest like any other kind.
Meanwhile, back at supper-time yoga, I was trying to work on my very sporadic home practice, doing the kinds of things I rarely do at home: Warrior 2, Sirsasana (head balance). Less than 15 seconds on my head and it was clear I was in no fit form to be doing that thing; see fitness revelation #1 above.
Again, contrary to my completist tendencies, I gave in easily, knowing it would be unsafe for me to continue pressing when I was not rested or prepared enough to manage safely head-standing. Instead, I began to think about the thing I don’t often think about when I’m doing yoga: the focus on gratitude that shapes the ethos behind the best yogic practices.
Of course everyone wants to be able to do side crow, headstand, handstand, and forearm balances effortlessly; in this way, our collective social attitudes to yoga are hardly different from our attitudes to any other group fitness practice (#competition).
But yoga’s not about that. It’s actually about giving thanks: for our bodies, their changing dimensions, and the labour they do to keep us upright, healthy, strong, and flexible regardless of that process of change. I’m reminded of these things every time we say the Invocation to Patanjali at the start of a class at my Iyengar studio.
Except that I’m also not reminded of those things when we say the invocation, because every time we say the invocation I am LITERALLY OBSESSED with the parts I know and the parts I still don’t know. I sit there, cross-legged on my block, singing out some lines very proudly while waiting anxiously for the lines where I’m more or less humming “um um um thingy thingy thingy” and hoping nobody hears me.
Which means the invocation is the most self-obsessed part of my yoga practice.
I realized this lying on my kitchen floor, my legs up the pantry doors in Viparita Karani (legs up the wall, aka the best yoga pose in the history of the world). I decided then and there to learn the damn invocation already.
That weekend, I downloaded a bunch of YouTube videos of yogis teaching the invocation, and I got into the bath. I sat in the warm, epsom-salty water until I had learned all the bits I had been fudging.
OK, so, again, here’s a thing that most people would definitely not call fitness: sitting in a warm tub memorizing lines. I think that’s technically called homework. But for me, it was so, so releasing. I can now say the invocation easily and instead of fussing and fretting I can think about its purpose, hear the sounds and feel their vibrations. I can move past the embarrassment and performance anxiety and find the stillness in the song.
Fitness revelation #2: sitting in a bathtub learning a valuable thing also absolutely counts as exercise, because it is a kindness to our mind-bodies.
I am hopeful that saying the invocation loudly and with depth of feeling will now help me strengthen my headstand, but I’m also super OK if it just makes legs up the wall feel even dandier.
I’ll keep you posted.
4 thoughts on “A mindful kind of fitness challenge”
I really like this and am still processing/learning from what you said here as I write this comment. So bear with me lol.
As a rock climber and skier, I often feel like “exercise” needs to be something that moves me towards GOALS. But that perspective is so narrow: sitting in a tub is something I haven’t done in months, something my body would love and something that would help my joints recover from everything they do. Dealing with family stress is WORK. Facing internal demons is WORK.
I guess what I’m taking away from everything you said is this: Acknowledging the many varieties of work we do is just taking an honest tally of everything our bodies do for us and giving us an opportunity for gratitude, self-care, and healing…and ultimately, maybe, more goals. Thank you for this <3
I’m so with you on all this, Emily! I’m super type-A and very focused on the “win” in many fitness contexts (though ironically, I don’t like to race – performance anxiety!). I love getting PRs and live for the QOM. But as someone who suffers from an autoimmune disease that affects my joint health, I’m also always having to remind myself to rest OR ELSE. As I get older, and the disease becomes more active, I’m having to adjust my attitude toward what “counts” and give my body more of what it wants, including the rest and the mindfulness and all that. And the epsom-salt bath!
A message from your future older body: “Emily, PLEASE PLEASE give you and I the pleasure and recovery of a hot tub. PLEASE.”
Thank you so much for the honesty of this post; it is SO valuable for us all to slow the hell down sometimes, and just feel grateful to be alive! We are so privileged to even be able to choose fitness activities like cycling or yoga, because we’re not struggling to find food and shelter from bombs for example. I’m 53, always been fit and a ‘mover/dancer’; as I age [disgracefully], I’m also realising that the Patriarchy & Capitalism had programmed me to consume/compete/compare/criticise etc; anything to keep me from just loving my powerful, perfect self. So lying in a yoga pose while cooking dinner, or enjoying a hot tub is an act of rebellion against the dominant paradigm, and we NEED TO DO THIS.
And yes, therapy is a shit ton of work. I usually come home exhausted, so good on you for listening to your smart, soft, willing body x
BE the revolution,
G in Australia 🙂
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