traveling

Paro, Bhutan

“I want to walk to the monastery and the dzong.”

It’s my first full day in Bhutan, and I’m alone with my guide Chador for a few days. We are visiting sites around Paro and hiking in the Haa Valley; then the other four people from our group join us for a 7 day cycling trip.

Paro is a tiny town in narrow valley. Before we began our descent, the pilot warned us about sharp turns and flying very close to the mountains — this is normal, he said.

The wing of a plane seems to brush against a small mountain as it lands

Nothing is “normal” about Bhutan, though — it’s completely unlike any place else. Tucked into the Himalayas between Tibet and India, it’s a landlocked kingdom that became a constitutional monarchy at the hands of the same king who invented the notion of the national happiness index. Then he retired and handed the kingdom over to his son.

It’s a Buddhist country of just over 700,000 people that closely guards its quiet culture — you cannot visit without being part of a tour organization, and you have to pay a visa fee for every day you’re here. The money goes into universal education and healthcare. Unlike other places I’ve been where government sanctioned guides are to guard against tourists finding out too much, Bhutan requires guides to protect the country from the commercialization of the backpacker culture that sprawls over Asia.

Being a mountain kingdom, even the valleys have significant altitude for someone who lives at sea level. I’ve been training all winter to be comfortable riding and walking here, but I’m still fretting about the mountain passes. So I ask Chador if we can walk up to the museum that — being a former watchtower and dungeon — is perched high above the town.

Chador takes me up the “shortcut” from the Dzong (Fort) to the museum. As I find myself brushing scratchy bushes out of my face, the road above us fenced off, I realize we took a wrong turn. We both laugh, slipping around in a suddenly muddy track, a light rain falling.

At some point, I have to use my hands to keep from falling, and we arrive at the museum entrance covered in sticky brown mud. I wipe my hands on the wet wipes I have in my daypack and then surrender my phone and camera to go into the museum.

We watch a video of ceremonial dances and tour the dozens of masks, tapestries, statues, wildlife exhibit. The national animal is a takin, a creature with “the body of a cow and the head of a goat.” The national flower is the wild blue poppy.

This is clearly my place.

This is what all of those hours in a dark spinning studio, the 115 workouts since January 1, have been about. Being free and powerful in my body, to find energy that gets closed up in my tight work life.

We will be riding for several days, but for the first time, I haven’t brought anything to record my distance. I want to just be on the bike, in the mountains, on the muddy trail.

In my own body, finding every step. In a magical land, cultivating patience and openness.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who blogs here the first Friday and second Saturday of the month. She lives in Toronto when she’s not exploring the world.

fitness

Keep the channel open

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.
The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.
Keep the channel open.”

– Martha Graham

***

(Thursday). It’s the final day of the year-long academic leadership program I’m associate director of today.   We asked the students to do “creative presentations” to tell the stories of what they’d learned.  One of my students uses this Martha Graham quote to talk about her evolving sense of herself.  Then she puts on music, kicks off her boots and invites us all to join her in ecstatic dance.  I join the small group who surround her.

**

Another learner is a young female surgeon in a niche specialty.  She has a vivid, uber-femmy style, and wears a sparkly tshirt with a big gucci belt buckle today.  She can talk as easily about her need to train her eyebrows to grow up, not down, as she can about removing a tumour from a parotid gland. She shows a photo of herself in her faculty group, the only woman in a dozen grey-suited men, a splotch of colour and femininity.

After she talks about her work, she asks us if we think she needs to change her style to be taken seriously.  My co-director is a big proponent of “don’t let your clothes be a distraction.”  Some in the class agree. Others encourage the sparkly doctor to keep pushing at the edges of “what a surgeon looks like,” but to acknowledge the realities of unconscious bias and be deliberate and strategic about her choices.  I notice that the men in the class listen and watch without weighing in.

**

A guy in the class — another high profile surgeon, traditional and usually in suits, poised to create a really innovative department in his specialty — shares that his big realization from this program is that he can’t surround himself with people who look and think like him and expect to make any difference in the world.

When he’s speaking, I’m reminded of another former student — a superstar, male, middle-aged clinician scientist changing global guidelines — who told me after a year of working together that I’d helped him “get over his god complex.”

I love my students, and I’m weepy through their presentations.  They are so vulnerable, so open, so raw and hopeful with their desire to truly have an impact on health, health equity, knowledge, medical education, access, the system.  I’m overwhelmed with the privilege of facilitating people who yearn for more than their own personal success, who truly burn to make a better world. Who work so hard to challenge their own assumptions.

***

In another stream of my work, I’m working with another brilliant young woman, a scientist, to put together a proposal for a giant grant for a new research network that could utterly transform medicine.  I tell Lynn, a senior leader at the university, that I’m working on the project, and she says “it’s so great to help the young people, isn’t it?”

I laugh, and realize I really don’t think of myself as this mid-life person who is Helping the Young People.  My students certainly aren’t technically “young” — they’re practicing health professionals — mostly physicians — and scientists at a stage in their careers when they’re taking on big leadership roles.  But mostly, they are at least a decade younger than I am.  I realize that when I’m the one teaching associate deans or chiefs and chairs of hospital and university departments, I’m officially middle-aged.

I’ve written a ton for this blog about what it means to be in an aging body, what it means to be fully inhabiting the age of 53, incorporating menopause and fatigue and arthritis in my toes and fingers into my identity as an unfettered adventurer riding my bike alone across foreign lands. But I haven’t really explored what it means to be middle-aged in the non-physical part of my self.

When Lynn observed that I was Helping the Young People, something clicked.  Part of it was about something I’ve been paying attention to for a while, which is Erikson’s model of adult psychosocial development, where stage 7 — middle age, roughly 40 – 65 — is “generativity vs. stagnation.”  Generativity in this context roughly corresponds to doing things that will outlast you, creating some legacy that relates to community, relationships and work.  He posited that if you don’t live into this kind of generativity in mid-life, you risk stagnation and emotional despair. Researchers have linked vitality during this time to decreased geriatric depression.

I work hard, and I work a lot — but I thrive on what I get to do at this point in my life.  I’m tired, but this is the time in my life when things are clicking, when I know that I have something to bring to my world that matters, and when the opportunities present themselves.

That’s fitness.  Living into my values in a truly authentic way.

There’s something beyond generativity that started to crystalize today when the students were speaking, when a senior researcher who struggled before this program wept at feeling heard.  It’s in the Martha Graham quote, and it’s in the essence of this blog.

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.”

Why should feminists be fit?  So they can translate themselves into action. So we can translate ourselves into action. We need to be healthy and strong and clear-minded and energized to do anything that matters.  What fitness is to you is unique to you — but fit and strong and powerful?  That’s at the essence of doing anything that lasts.

I feel quite despairing at this moment in time about influencing political institutions. This isn’t a moment where I trust in the grace of politicians.  But what I CAN do is work that has the impact of creating deep, long-term change about equity and inclusion in education, and among the people in charge of delivering healthcare.  I can help shift the understanding of middle-aged health leaders about why equity matters.  I can teach people to listen.

And to do all of those things, I need to be calm in my own soul, strong in my body, fully grounded.  That’s why fit is a feminist issue for me.

IMG_3689.jpgFieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto when she’s not wandering the world.  She blogs here on the first Friday and second Saturday of every month, and at other times when she feels provocative.

 

 

 

 

fitness · racing · running

Who would do a 0.5 k race? (hint: not Cate or Tracy)

(This post is a conversation between Cate and Tracy).

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Cate:  So we’ve been talking about this story that’s circulating about a town in Texas that’s hosting a 0.5K race, complete with a beer at the start line and donuts halfway through.  Now, here’s the thing.  This is supposed to be playful — their site presents the “race” this way:

  • The um, “Run” will start at River Road Park, just across from the Dodging Duck.  Conveniently, the Duck has offered all participants a free pint of beer before the start of the race, so get there early.  Yay beer!
  • The um, “Race”, will then head down the River Road Park walkway, underneath the Main Street Bridge where you will finish in a blaze of glory.
  • We will then head to the Cibolo Creek Brewery to relive the experience, brag to our friends, take selfies to post on social media “I DID IT!!!  I’M A FINISHER!!  LOOK AT ME!!!”  Conveniently, CCB has offered all participants a free pint of beer at the end of the race.  Yay beer!

Now, sure this sounds fun and everything, and I get why it sold out. It’s just a fun send up of “real” races  But for some reason, hearing a story on CBC about this irritated me.  I’ve been thinking about why — and I know this makes me sound totally churlish —  and I think it’s because it buys into the trope that everyone “secretly hates” exercise.

One headline about it was “this town is hosting a 0.5k race because running sucks.”  I think I’m kind of sensitive about the shade I sometimes get about working out a lot from people who don’t — the implication that I’m some kind of masochist or showing off my virtue or a “fitness-aholic.”

Did it bug you?

Tracy: Yes, it bugged me too! My first encounter with this story was in a link to an article entitled “This town is hosting a 0.5K race for people who hate running,” but when you click through appears to be the same article as the one Cate just linked to (with one with “…because running sucks”).  My reaction right away was, “FFS why don’t they just find a different activity?”

I said that before I read the article. A closer read: it’s about fun. It’s for charity. It’ll “afford you the opportunity to experience a winner’s finish without even breaking a sweat.”  Because we want that finish line experience even though, according to the article, we all know that “running blows.”

So why did it annoy me? Like Cate, I just don’t buy into that narrative. If you think running blows, then don’t run.

But then what’s wrong with all the other stuff? I often find myself on the wrong side of fun-promotion (I get irritated when people talk about goat yoga, for example). Why begrudge people that “finish line feeling”? And the charity aspect, raising money for Blessings in a Backpack, a charity that feeds children in need on weekends. Or the “VIP” option where you can skip the 0.5K altogether and get an even bigger medal. I have no objection to play, but I think the whole thing pushed my philosophical buttons.

Cate, I want to hear more about your negative reaction. It’s comforting that I’m not alone.

Cate:  I think I feel like you do. On one hand, I get that it’s a playful thing, and if they were trying to get attention, it worked — it’s a tiny event in a small town in Texas and they got media coverage in Newsweek, the Washington Post, a national CBC show — and they sold out. So from a marketing point of view — and from a fundraising perspective — it was a huge success.  And it’s the inversion of the normal race that got them that attention.  And I’m sure it was a fun event — who doesn’t love a good doughnut?

But I agree with you that there’s something at the centre of it that niggles me — something about the notion that you can skip right over the actual experience of training and running to enjoy “being a finisher.”

Partly this bugs me because of the implication that the only enjoyable part of running is crossing the finish line — like it’s all hell but at least you get to brag about it.  It’s part of this whole narrative that if physical things are hard, they are inherently miserable.  That’s not my experience. I thrive on hard, long, windy bike rides or tough runs, and find something deeply satisfying — and yes, enjoyable — to truly work my body to its fullest.  It’s me at my most human, and I’d never want to skip over that.

And when I dig underneath, my reaction is about this bigger notion that life is about collecting experiences and knocking them off the list, not about being truly present in the moment of things.  It’s the same reason the concept of bucket lists bothers me.  I travel a lot, and I keep a running tally of how many countries have been to, but it’s not about collecting them — it’s about savouring the mystery and the privilege of being able to see such a profoundly amazing and diverse world.

 

Tracy: There is a thought experiment in philosophy called “The Experience Machine.” It lets you program in any experience and if you’re hooked up to the machine you experience 100% indecipherable from reality. The question is: would you choose to spend the rest of your life hooked up to the machine (you can’t go in and out — one decision, yes or no?)? The “right answer” for most people is “no, I wouldn’t.”

Why not? Because, so the argument goes, we value more than experience. We value actual achievement. It’s not enough to be convinced I won a Pulitzer. The experience only has value if I did earn a Pulitzer. This event purports to “afford you the opportunity to experience a winner’s finish without even breaking a sweat.” I understand that it’s just a small variation on the argument against finishers’ medals (that they’re not really “earned” and medals should be reserved for the top 3). But somehow having the experience of finishing a race without actually finishing takes it one step too far. When I get a finishers medal I am under no illusions: I have not placed 1-3. But I DID finish. And I earned that much, at least. But this… nope. There is no accomplishment.

Now maybe this view just means I’m so steeped in a cultural narrative about merit and desert that I need to take a step back and lighten up. But there is a further thing that I think is potentially lost when we make light of running (or any activity) by offering a no-benefit option. It’s not just about accomplishment. It’s also about making light of the real issue of inactivity and sedentary lifestyles that carry with them actual health consequences.

This race, apparently, even has a smoking zone. And beer. Everything in me just wants to scream “no, no, no, no, no.” I’ll take the Colour Run over this any day (and I’m not keen on the Colour Run either — for myself. Its very existence doesn’t bother me but it’s not my kind of event).

There are lots of other great ways, fun ways, to earn money for charity. Right, Cate? We brainstormed a bunch at the Guelph book launch the other day, remember?

Cate:  Yup!  Go bowling, have a silent auction, make art, have a disco-themed gala, invite an inspiring speaker, organize a cabaret, have a rock paper scissors contest, a thumb wrestling championship, euchre tournament, three-legged race — the world is stuffed with experiences you can fully inhabit.  You don’t have to mock one of the things that’s an actual goal for a lot of people trying to become healthier.

Curmudgeonly Cate signing off ;-).

 

 

 

fitness

How many fitness lives do we get?

I ran the Boston Marathon 18 years ago.  Last Monday, as news of the freezing wet head-wind-y icestorm marathon filtered in, the only reaction I had was “there is nothing on this earth that could have got me to the start line on a morning like that.” And then a moment of honesty — “I’m not sure there’s anything on earth that could get me to the start line of a marathon on any morning.”

But look at this 35 year old person in the middle of this photo — that was mile 18, and I had a damaged knee, and I look so CHEERFUL.

bostonxx.jpg

When I read back over the blog I wrote about running that marathon, I can’t find myself in it.  All I remember clearly is that when we finally crossed the finish line and someone handed me a banana, I had to move my jaw with my fingers to get my mouth to chew.  I requalified for Boston in that race — but that was the last time I ran further than 21 km.  After that, I wasn’t a marathoner anymore.

'I take lots of antioxidants.  That's why I'm still on the first of my nine lives.'
Cartoon of two cats, one saying “I take lots of antioxidants.  That’s why I’m still on the first of my nine lives.”

With the publication of Tracy and Sam’s book (yay!!!), there has been a lot of attention to the original premise of this blog:  their goal of being fitter than ever before at mid-life.  Obviously, this is a goal I am 100% behind.  At the same time, when I look at that photo of 35 year old me, it’s pretty clear that I was at my “fittest” in my mid-30s, not at mid-life.  So how many fitness “lives” do we get?  And how do we keep developing new, meaningful goals if they aren’t about being your fittest, or your fastest, or your strongest?

I’ve written several times in this blog about grappling with the physical changes of being middle aged.  In the past three years, despite working out at least four times a week, I’ve gained nearly 10 lbs and a couple of clothing sizes, and my standard running speed has slowed down to a pace that would have been laughable to that 35 year old.  Just before I ran that Boston marathon, I ran a half marathon in one hour and 35 minutes — that’s 4.5 minute kilometres, for more than 21 kilometers — that is a whole, completely different person than the one who struggles to run 5 km at 5.75 minute kilometre pace now.  So how do I make sense of being a person who could run like that in my 30s, and now I’m a plodder?  How do I feel good about my fitness when I have this shining example of my own past self as a comparison?

Fitness is a complex thing:  it’s physical conditioning and discipline and strength and all of those things — but it’s also all of the stories of who we are balled into one place. I have completely different narratives of who I have been in my body different times.  And understanding them helps me figure out how to orient myself to fitness in my aging self.

#1:  Dreamy bookworm. My first narrative — to my early 20s or so — was brainy kid, the adolescent who obnoxiously curled myself around copies of Sartre when I was forced to go to a pep rally for my high school football team.  I rode my bike and went for walks to moodily be alone, to explore the world — not because it had anything to do with “fitness.”  (When I was 10, I literally tried to ride my bike and read at the same time).  Sports were a thing other types of people did.  I looked “trim” but I couldn’t imagine sweating on purpose.  I rolled my own cigarettes and smoked ostentatiously while drinking pints of guinness and talking about poetry.

#2: Sedentary corporate serf:  Then I graduated, got a job, and spent my 20s drowning in a high pressure communications agency.  My moody distaste for exercise combined with working all the time led to a 35 lb weight gain and a lot of grumpiness.  I would buy a pack of cigarettes on my way to work in the morning and smoke all day at my desk.  I was miserable, and I could see the horizon — I had two colleagues who smoked and lived on coffee and whisky, and they turned 40 and suddenly looked old.  In a burst of clarity, I declared that I was not going to turn 30 as a smoker.

#3:  Exploratory mover:  Two months before I turned 30, I quit my job and started my own business, and set about the project of trying to get healthy in every aspect of my life. I went to the gym because that was what non-smokers did, and discovered that moving felt good, that I could inhabit my body in a way I never had imagined.  Forty pounds melted off, and I felt buoyant and strong for the first time in my life.  I did all the fitness things — aquafit, aerobics, pilates — but settled in and realized I could run with a lot of joy.

#4:  Focused runner:  This is the me in the photo.  A runner.  Not just a person who runs sometimes, but A Runner!  I actively trained, and cross-trained, and hung out with runners, and felt like a two hour run was the best possible way I could spend my time. I was the kind of person who got up at 5 am to make sure I got a run in before a long meeting, ran 10k at the end of a long day without thinking twice. I got whip fast without drama, and felt a kind of power and control in my body that I never had imagined.  I didn’t race a lot, but when I did I consistently placed in the top 10%.  I ran a 5 k in 20 minutes and 30 seconds.  I was a person that my pose-y intellectual 16 year old self would have mocked, that my chunky, smokey 26 year old self would have found flabbergasting.

#5: Injured ju jube eater:   But then — I didn’t pay enough attention to my whole self, and I injured the cartilage in my knee training for Boston but ran it anyway, and when I tried to train for the race that was supposed to follow it, I couldn’t.  My fifth fitness life was grumpy, weepy withdrawal from my runner self, trying to find a new way to put the mental health balance into my life that long runs had given me, new ways to divert myself.  (This is when I discovered message boards and online communities). Somewhere in there I started my phd (a good thing), and got divorced (all that grumpiness and wallowing didn’t do an already shaky relationship any good).  Through all of these changes, I tried to keep running a little bit, and always assumed I was just in temporary recovery from injury, that I would be a marathoner again.

#6:  Utilitarian jogger:  I never ran another marathon.  But despite my chronically injured knee, Lives 3 and 4 prevented me from completely rejecting Fit Cate during #5.  I didn’t start smoking again (though I flirted with it, briefly), and recognized that I needed fitness to stay emotionally balanced.  In this phase, exercise was utilitarian. I ran short distances two or three times a week, but I wasn’t “a runner.”  I finished my PhD and started to travel more, and realized that the steady stream of activity had set me up to sustain strength through my 40s.  Then I had two partners in succession who were very outdoorsy, and I became an explorer again.

kili final ascent20#7: Action Figure:  My utility fitness set me up to suddenly find a huge array of new feats of strength —  like hike up Scottish mountains and climb Kilimanjaro and trek gorillas in the Ugandan rainforest.  Somewhere in there I had a lightbulb moment that I wanted a road bike (I don’t even know why, and it took me a year to put cleats on it), and then I became a cyclist. The outdoorsy partners melted away but my vagabond self took deep root, and I was exploring Myanmar by myself, riding bikes across Germany, Vietnam, Laos, Sri Lanka, Latvia, Estonia, hiking through northern woods solo. Running in every country I could, just to feel the place.  The strength of decades of fitness and the emotional resilience of age fused and I felt capable of anything.  I wasn’t my fastest or even my fittest, but I felt completely competent and confident in my body.

#8: Aging Adventurer?  And then there is now.   And I don’t know how to define it. I still feel like Cate #7, and the yearning to keep exploring the world, to ride my bike alone across new countries, to find new treks — this is my most powerful drive.  But my body is suddenly uncooperative.  I’m working out more than I ever have — I’m on #95 for 2018, and I do ridiculous things like a two hour spinning class — but I’m slower, sluggish and tired, all the time.

I have written a few times about how fitness in my 50s is as much about preserving mobility as I age as anything else — but my desire to move my body with intensity, hike hard up St. Lucia’s Gros Piton, ride my bike across Bhutan — these haven’t waned.  So I have the same confidence I had through life #8 — but there is an undertone of worry.  Sam’s experience with her knee is a cautionary tale — am I one mis-step away from reawakening the dragon of angry cartilage in my knee?  Am I going to push my aging heart so hard in one of those intense spinning classes that it explodes?  Will I push my arthritic toe just one poke too far in yoga and limp for a month?

Monday’s icy Boston marathon was a big question mark for me, a reminder that my own Boston experience was largely about not listening to my body, which led to a complete halt in moving my body the way I wanted to.  I wrote a little while ago about the need to listen to your body when it whispers.  I look at the thumb I sprained in my weirdo movement class on Monday and realize my body isn’t even whispering — it’s shouting. Slow down, pay attention.  I can still be an adventurer, I can run, I can ride — but with a little more caution, a little more care, a lot more yoga, a little less spontaneity, a lot more sleep.  That’s what fit in my mid-50s means.  Paying attention.  Maybe my next fitness life is more about presence and observance than it is about thrust.

 

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Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto, when she isn’t scampering across the world.

fitness

“Yoga and”

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“Yoga and” — i.e., yoga plus random other things — has been everywhere lately.  2013-08-21-kittyThere’s the fairly predictable category of “yoga and” other fitness activities (Sam likes spinning followed by yoga).  And then there is a whole set of opportunities for “yoga and tiny creatures” —  including yoga with your own baby (“Mamaste“), and yoga with tiny cute animals, most commonly cats (“Meowmaste“) and goats.

Sam and I have both done goat yoga, and since goats and yoga are two of my favourite things, I loved it.  (It was halloween, the goats were in costume, what more do you need to know?)

 

 

Recently, though, we’ve been talking on the blog author community about a whole passel of “yoga and” that feels more problematic to me — beer yoga, wine yoga and weed yoga, and more recently, speed dating yoga. (Christine, about the speed dating yoga: “I’m pretty sure the Geneva Convention forbids things like this“).

It’s that last group of “yoga and” that finally made me pause and think about the implications of “yoga and.”  There have been occasional bursts of criticism in the past few years about the proliferation of yoga in western countries as cultural appropriation, and I will be honest that I have generally skimmed over these discussions.  I think I had a “too late, barn door already open” shrug about the whole conversation.  But there was a piece about weed yoga on the CBC a couple of weeks ago that actually had me yelling at the radio, when the teacher said “where in another class we might say take child’s pose or grab some water, we say take a toke.”

My absolute fury about this notion of toking when you should be breathing made me really step back and reflect about “yoga and” for the first time.  If I’m delighted by goat yoga, why am I so offended by ganja yoga?  I sat with that a bit, and noticed that I was particularly outraged by some of the discourse around yoga with substances — the wine yoga with the tagline “sip, stretch, socialize,” (honestly, “yogiwino”???) — and the beer yoga with the tagline “detox to retox.”

Unpacking this, I realize I’m offended by the notion that yoga could be just another form of alcohol-infused socializing (aren’t there enough of those opportunities?) — or that “toxifying” ourselves is fine if we just “detox” first.  And most of all, I’m offended at the notion of bringing substance use into a space that I engage with to slow down, breathe deeply, and start to notice the things about my body and my emotions and my hopes and sadnesses that I can’t engage with in my “normal” life.  (See my post from last November I called “listen to your body when it whispers“).

For me, yoga is a whole lot of things packed into a tightly woven package: it’s a workout, and it’s about agility and balance as I age, and it’s a counterpoint to harder and more strenuous running and spinning — and it’s also a connecting place of quiet where I pay deep attention to what’s happening “inside” in one of the only truly quiet practices in my life.  I set intentions and gratitudes before classes (is this “praying”?) and several of my teachers have us “share in the sound of om” before and after classes.

Clearly, my yoga practice has a kind of fuzzy spiritual edge to it.  And if that’s true, shouldn’t I also be open to acknowledging that yoga has deeper spiritual roots and tradition?  And if THAT is true, shouldn’t I also be open to acknowledging that I may be co-opting or appropriating this cultural tradition?

Damn you, speed-dating and weed yoga for making me reflect!

So I did some reading and exploring, and spent a fair bit of time with this recent article that made a bit of an online splash, as well as a podcast I’d listened to a little while ago about the origins and meaning of the word “namaste” (transcript here).  I took away two overarching messages:

  1.  Yoga IS obviously a form of cultural appropriation;
  2. That doesn’t mean you can’t practice it and decolonize your own relationship to it.

The simplest definition of cultural appropriation is the taking over of another culture’s traditions without regard for the history or lived experience of the people who originally practiced it.  It stands to reason, then, that decolonizing my own relationship as a white westerner to my own fuzzy spiritual practice means engaging with some of the questions raised by Gandhi and Wolff in the Praxis article I linked above, including their framing request to the piece:  “To the so many white people who practice yoga, please don’t stop, but please do take a moment to look outside of yourself and understand how the history of yoga practice in the United States is intimately linked to some of the larger forces of white supremacy.” 

The most challenging point from Gandhi and Wolff I’m grappling with is whether I am experiencing a “spiritual void” in my own cultural context and tradition.  If I am, I am not alone, since the rise of yoga in North America coincided exactly with disillusionment in religious institutions. (And, I’m typical — I’m a cultural Catholic who left anything resembling a traditionally religious setting a long time ago — but I want to feel a sense of meaning in my life).  Over the past couple of decades, that quest for an alternative spiritual practice got bound together with what Hrishikesh Hirway describes in the podcast I linked above as an “emergent global consumer culture,” and “modern postural yoga” (all that secularized yoga that shows up in gyms and most western studios and yes, goat barns) really emerged.

This kind of yoga became very individualized, and much more accessible, and in fact, those are the arguments people make in favour of things like beer and cat yoga:  that it draws in people who would otherwise never end up on a yoga mat.   One yogi argues “In the end, whatever brings people to their yoga mats is a good thing. Perhaps someone’s very first yoga class starts in an animal shelter, but ends with many years of serious practice. Start superficially and eventually you’ll end up in the same place as the world’s most spiritual yogis.”

What then, does it take to engage thoughtfully with the cultural roots of yoga in our own practices?  I like a lot of the ideas in this piece and in this piece, including voicing gratitude for both the opportunity to practice and for the people who originated the culture of yoga.  Another possibility is to encourage studios to make sure classes are accessible to everyone, both physically and financially.  One of the teachers quoted also notes the importance of moving beyond asana (the physical postures) and to be intentional about the breath practice (prana) and the meditative aspects.

Most importantly, it’s key to recognize that when we are white westerners practicing yoga, we are actively embodying a spiritual practice that is deeply meaningful to another culture.  We shouldn’t use images from that practice (goddesses or Buddhas for example), as decor or clothing designs.  And after listening to the podcast on the meaning of the word “namaste” (basically it means “greetings,” I have stopped saying it at all. (We tend to utter “namaste” as though it is weighted with some magical spiritual meaning, but no one can ever define what it means — that feels kind of icky to me when I think about it).  And most importantly, we can use practicing yoga as an opportunity to reflect on the history of colonialism, what white Canadians call our “settler identity,” and what we are doing in our lives that perpetuates or challenges the privilege that we have.

I’m never going to try weed, beer or wine yoga — yoga for me needs a clear head and clear lungs.  But I’d do goat yoga again in a heartbeat — maybe with a momentary pause for gratitude about the complex, messy world we live in that made this possible.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto, when she’s not chasing goats in countries around the world.

fitness

Many small choices, big impact on health

woman-climbing-stairs

About a year ago, I wrote a post urging people to “make your day harder,” arguing that making small choices like taking the stairs instead of the elevator could make a big difference to your overall fitness and mobility. Now, researchers have released a study confirming that sporadic bits of activity during the day that add up are as effective for overall heart health and mortality as the same amount of exercise in a single burst.

Researchers analysed activity and mortality data from nearly 5000 people over a 7 year period, and concluded that a goal of a total of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every week made a difference to how long people in the study lived. The new information here is the confirmation that these 150 minutes don’t need to be in 10 minute or longer episodes, but can be accumulated in shorter increments. The duration matters less than the total. A full description of the study implications can be found here: “your half assed attempts at exercise are still really good for you.

I’ve written before about how counting steps and episodes of exercise is a motivator for me, so I was glad to read this. It’s good to know that the days where all I manage to do is hit my step target “count” for something as much as the days where I do a ridiculously intense two hour spinning class (don’t even get me started). It also fits with my big hobbyhorse about staying as mobile and active as possible as we age. Not everyone needs to be doing long bike rides or triathlons, but everyone can aim at hitting 150 minutes of activity in a week.

More than mobility, though, I’m glad to see affirmation that small healthy choices can be super meaningful. We were passing around another piece in the blog community this week about new data from the UK about the causes of preventable cancers (only about 43% of all cancers, which is a whole other topic).

According to this data, the most significant cause of preventable cancer is smoking, followed by diet and exercise. As one blogger wrote about it, “The person who eats healthily, avoids alcohol and keeps active, yet struggles with their weight, is less likely to get cancer than the skinny couch potato living on bacon washed down with gin.”

I don’t fully agree with that blogger’s interpretation of the data — weight is still a meaningful factor according to this information, right behind smoking, diet and exercise — and I would add “avoiding the sun” to any list of healthful practices. But I do fully agree with her strong message that healthful choices come from making smart decisions about what you put into your body (whether ingested through the lungs or through your mouth), and from recognizing that food really is fuel for a body that moves and functions well, both internally and externally. Trying to lose weight through fad diets or starving yourself is not a healthful move.

silBG Grain bowls-2

I think what all of this adds up to for me is that yes, that yummy grain bowl with tons of kale and orange veggies is a smart thing to do and can have a long term impact on health — and yes, we can “eat the damn cupcake.” At the end of the day, if your goal is to live with a body that works as well as your personal body can, we should be making small choices continually to move throughout the day, and we should be paying serious attention to what we put into our bodies. Take the stairs, listen to your nagging fitbit to walk a few hundred steps every hour, take a brisk walk around the block when you have 5 minutes, fit in that short workout that might not seem worth it; eat almonds instead of that meeting cookie, have a grain bowl instead of a burger, savour that piece of organic dark chocolate. Our choices don’t have to be “perfect” to matter — but making small healthy choices adds up.

fitness

Are elaborate skincare regimens feminist?

I spend a lot of time reading feminist websites and listening to podcasts, especially the ones made by women and trans* people in their 20s.  It’s one of the ways I stave off curmudgeon territory (and why I found myself using the word “woke” non-ironically a couple of weeks ago).  In the past few months, I keep tripping over huge discussions about women — especially millennial women — and the growing trend for elaborate, expensive skincare routines.  What is happening with this?

Last week, there was a piece on slate debating the merits of using intricate spreadsheets or apps to track your inventory of skincare products and the impact of different routines. There was a recent piece on The Cut about why “everyone is obsessed with skincare“.  The New Yorker, Jezebel, the Guardian, the NY Times and others have all written about millennials and skincare, and skin care as “a religious routine.”  The 12 step “asian” routine — especially Korean (K-beauty) — is seen as the grail.  (Even the sitcom Kim’s Convenience had a recent storyline about capitalizing on smuggled Korean beauty products).

Skincare is no longer a private routine, but very public.  There are multiple online forums where people talk about products and routines (reddit is the hugest), and much of it is swirled up with selfie culture — a quick instagram search for #facemask turned up more than 1.5 million hits.


What the heck is this all about?  Is skincare a “coping mechanism,” as the New Yorker described it?  Two of my favourite feminist podcasts — Stuff Mom Never Told You (SMNTY) and Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest — recently had focused episodes on whether this obsession with skincare was a feminist act of self-care.

The argument seems to go like this:  a complex skincare routine is a kind of self-help, something women can can do to soothe themselves in a chaotic world.  (One of the most common hashtags accompanying #skincare is #selfcare). In the world of Trump, women feel like things are out of their control, and expensive, complicated regimens — and tracking them in apps or spreadsheets — give the illusion of control. (One of the young women on SMNTY joked that when she was unemployed, skincare was her “full time job).

Where skincare used to be an attempt to stave off aging, in this uncertain world, a young woman using retin-A is an affirmative act that she will outlive this time in history, that there is a promising future — a “basic dream in which the future exists.” There is much made of the fact that the aspirational goal of all of this skincare is to be “glowy” — i.e, natural and healthy, enhanced by organic and natural ingredients, not botox or surgery or makeup.  Some argue that millennials are being “smart” by preventing age damage rather than trying to repair it after it happens.

There is an accompanying feminist critique embedded in this narrative, of course, questioning whether conditioning about anxiety about the undesirability of wrinkles is taking hold for 27 year olds, and underlining that, as always, industry is capitalizing and cashing in on women’s desire for self-care.  And the most important question, of course, is whether caring for one’s own skin in expensive, time-consuming, self-centred ways and public ways (“hashtag it up,” as one woman put it), is a distraction and a diversion from mobilizing for true change.  As one blogger put it:  When the world is chaos, it makes sense for society to take an introspective turn. But the skincare craze isn’t introspective per se: it’s looking into yourself but stopping at the literal outermost layer.

For me, the thought of a 12 step skincare routine is exhausting. I already don’t do the bedtime routines I feel like I should do, including meditating and turning off the screens early enough.  I enjoyed having a soothing facial as one of my treatments on my recent holiday where a massage or suchlike every day was included in the package — but I balked at the $180 price tag on the emollient they tried to sell me at the end.

I have a sort of skincare plan:  I spend maybe $250 dollars a year on moisturizer, toner and cleanser, all one brand, which I’ve been using for years, from the Bay — the brand that gives you cute little bags of free stuff when you go in on the right day.  My routine barely deserves the name:  I wash my face with the cleanser in the shower in the morning, then slather a moisturizer with SPF on my super dry skin before I start my day.  I add drugstore sunscreen in the summer.  Sometimes, if I’ve had makeup on or been really sweaty, I remember to wash my face and MAYBE use toner and moisturizer before bed.  That’s it.

I’m not going to judge where anyone else spends their time or money.  This seems to be one of those prime areas for “you do you.”  If rubbing nice smelling stuff into your skin gives you pleasure and calms you down so you sleep better, go for it.  But I will admit that the notion of this much money, energy and time going into something so oriented toward what feels like yet another unrealistic beauty ideal — and where there is no evidence that any of this stuff makes any real difference — makes me uneasy.  What about you?

IMG_2978Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, a 53 year old with wrinkles, dry skin, a history of minor skin cancer and an aversion to routine.