Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: isekhmet (a.k.a. Christine)
I'm a writer/storyteller/director/creativity & lifestory coach with a black belt in ITF Taekwon-do. I read voraciously and I write like my fingers are on fire.
I'm the founder and Co-Chair of the Association for the Arts in Mount Pearl and I'm a former president of the St. John's Storytelling Festival.
I bake a mean chocolate chip cookie.
This isn’t the first time I have expressed this wish and it’s not the first time I have tried to work on them.
I have made all kinds of attempts to improve my push-ups through weekly challenges, monthly challenges, and modifications but they have never stuck.
At some point in each attempt I have either ended up with a pain in my upper back and given up or I reached the end of the challenge and been stronger but not really any better at the exercise itself.
I can struggle through them now. My form isn’t great and I do wonky things with my arms/shoulders and, generally, I end up with a pain behind my right shoulder blade after I have done a few.
But what I *want* to be able to do is to drop to the floor and be able to do 25 push-ups with beautiful form and that kind of mechanical grace that people with that specific kind of strength have.
You know the kind I mean? It looks like they are right in the challenge zone for their fitness – as in ‘this is hard but within reach.’
My problem with push-ups is partly strength-related, partly psychological and partly mechanical.
The first part, the strength, will come with practice but for the psychological and mechanical parts, I have brought in my secret weapon…my cousin, Ken, the chiropractor.
(We’ve come a long since back in the day when I used to babysit him.)
Now, Ken not only fixes my various aches and pains but he also gives me great biomechanical advice. And since he pays attention when I am talking about my issues surrounding a given exercise, I am happy to actually listen his advice.
And (this is huge) I don’t even mind doing the exercise badly in front of him so he can see where the problem lies (I usually freeze when asked to do an exercise related thing that I don’t quite ‘get’ yet.)
So, Ken has a program set out for me – 3 times a week with various exercises and specific formulations of push-ups. The exercises make sense and they feel progressive.*
I was supposed to really get into a couple of weeks ago but March was such a challenging month for me that I didn’t commit myself fully.
That’s where April comes in.
I’ve made myself a fun little chart and I am going to do Ken’s push-up routine at least 12 times this month.
Anyone want to join me with a push-up routine of their own? Or will you just be cheering me on?
I’ll check in mid-month to let you know how I’m doing.
*My ADHD really argues with me about doing individual things that don’t seem related to the project as a whole. It does not trust that we are not just wasting time.
As of February 10, 2019, after intense practice, training and effort, I earned my 3rd dan black belt in ITF Taekwondo.
At any given time, I may doubt any of my TKD skills but I never doubt my perseverance.
If I am struggling with something, I will keep trying. I will keep exploring different ways to learn it. I will ask other people to break down how they do it. I will find a way to figure it out.
Even if I give up *for today* I don’t give up over all. Giving up for today is just me using a mental reaction force, moving backwards to add power to my next attempt.
In the last 18 months, I have had so many obstacles between me and this test and my perseverance was the only thing that kept me working at it.
That February Sunday was a long time coming.
I’m nervous for TKD tests in a way that I am never nervous about anything else.
The night before my test, I wrote:
“It’s 10:55pm and i have been filled with nervous anticipation all day. It’s not that I don’t think I can do this, it’s that it is so very important to me. It feels kind of like I am going on a trip and I have to pay attention to a lot of details and some aspects might be out of my control. I can *almost* convince myself that it’s excitement instead of nervousness.”
I woke up early on the morning of the test (the test at 2pm) and tried to fill my time with preparation and a little practice. I meditated and I visualized myself doing my patterns and breaking my boards.
By test time, I was both excited and nervous, there was no need to distinguish the two feelings. I tried not to overthink things* and I tried to just let my body do what it knew.
My patterns went pretty well.
I did overthink though and that caused my eyes to reflexively dart to the person next to me to ensure that I was doing the right move. Doing that makes me more nervous and I’ll be working on breaking that habit before my next test.
My individual pattern step-by-step went okay, too. Master D selected my most recent pattern (Juche). It’s a challenging one and even 6th dan black belts wince when they mention it.
Even though it’s a hard pattern, I’m glad she chose it because I knew there was no chance I would do it perfectly. Oddly, that freed me from my own expectations so, while I was still nervous, I wasn’t overthinking it as much as I would have been with an ‘easier’ pattern. (I wouldn’t be surprised if that was part of her reasoning for choosing that one.)
So, I couldn’t always pull up the name for each move right away but I worked most of them out. And I think I demonstrated a good understanding of the purpose and method of each one.
My drills and self-defense went okay and then we came to what I consider my real triumphs of this test: the board breaking.
When it comes to board breaks, I do okay with kicks that involve stepping in and I do okay with elbow or side-fist hand strikes. When the kicks or hand techniques involve choreography (i.e. multiple preparatory steps), I can get a bit tangled.
For my 1st and 2nd dan belt tests, I struggled with my spinning hook kick, my flying side kick, and my 360 back kick. We practice those in class but there is a psychological difference in kicking a pad and kicking a board and sometimes I haven’t been able to overcome that. Sometimes my kicks have been modified and sometimes I have done the right technique but at the wrong speed and just didn’t break the board.
This time, however, I did all three!
I am so very proud of myself for finally nailing those techniques. It took a lot of work and a lot of very specific practice and some personal adaptation (For example, I didn’t run up to the jump for the flying sidekick because I get my step pattern confused. So I moved slowly to the jump point and put my speed into the lift-off and kick. That meant that I couldn’t use the momentum of running to add to my power but I’ll work that in for next time.)
The only disappointing part of my test is that I didn’t break the boards for my hand technique. That technique called for me to jump up and forward and punch and break one board that is being held high and one being held about six inches below it before my feet landed back on the ground.
My punch is not my strongest technique and the practice I did was not close enough to the testing conditions, so I got distracted and didn’t apply my knowledge and skills properly. On my second attempt, I smashed my knuckles into the board and we didn’t want me to risk a serious injury.
Luckily, a failed board break is not a failed test. It happens to everyone.
I was disappointed in that one aspect but really pleased with my test overall. I had brought everything I had to it and no matter if I passed or failed at that point, I had done everything that I could.
I spoilered this at the beginning but just to say it again: I passed and was promoted to 3rd dan.
Now, I feel a little like when Santa returns to his workshop in the movie ELF and announces what a great Christmas this was and that it is time to start preparations for next year. The elves shout for joy and get back to the work they love.
So, for the past two weeks, I have been simultaneously celebrating my successful test AND getting back to the work I love so I can prepare for my 4th dan.
I have three years to train for that test. Let’s see how much better I can get!
*I had limited success with this. Overthinking is a well-honed skill for me.
At the time, I wasn’t sure when I would get to test – it’s not just a matter of me being ready or not, there are a lot of factors to juggle – and it seemed like it was a long time away.
It’s not a long time anymore.
If all goes well, and pending my instructors’ final approval, I will be doing my 3rd degree black belt test on Sunday, February 10th.*
I have to perform 15 patterns (including a demonstration pattern – one step at a time, explaining the purpose and method of each step), do drills, step-sparring, ring sparring, and break some boards.
I’ve been practicing all of those things, especially my patterns, for weeks now. Well, I practice regularly anyway but I have been practicing INTENSELY for weeks and my brain is full of bits and pieces of patterns, remembering the little quirks and memory tricks I have for each one.
Even though I’m doing a lot to prepare, this is still going to be hard.
Luckily, I am testing with 4 other people and they are all much better than I am so I am constantly challenged to improve. I’m not putting myself down – they are testing for 4th, 5th, and 6th degree belts and they have a lot of experience that I don’t have…yet.
It’s been great to train with them because they can help me bridge the gap between where I am and where I want to be and, to a person, they do that with kindness and encouragement. Thanks Heather, Cathy, Joanne, and Barry, I am so grateful for your help!
And while I’m thanking people, I’m going to give a shoutout to Kevin, my dear friend and mentor, who has helped me iron out all kinds of tricky bits of my patterns.
I could use this post to illustrate all the things that I’m struggling with (because I am VERY aware of every area where I am not quite getting it yet) but I don’t think that’s a good approach. I’m at the point where I need to just keep forging ahead, making changes here and there, not aiming to be perfect but aiming for that magic level of practice where I’ll feel confident and capable. That is totally within reach.
This afternoon will find me at the back of the room during other people’s classes, doing my patterns over and over again while I work out the glitches. Then I’ll put that practice to the test by working with Master D for a while, she knows exactly where my hands and feet should be at every point in the pattern and how fast they should get there.
I am VERY grateful for Master D’s time and expertise and working with her will make my patterns much, much better but I’ll be nervous the whole time. Understandably, standing alone in front of an expert**, trying to execute a series of moves with skill and precision, is a little intimidating. In fact, there is nothing more likely to make me forget what I am supposed to do next.
It’s funny how I can stand up and tell a story or perform a monologue with no preparation, or even make one up on the spot, and it doesn’t faze me in the least but asking myself to do something physical – even patterns I have practiced hundreds of times – makes my mind go blank.
Blank mind or not, my Saturday practice with Master D is an important part of my preparation for the big event on February 10.
Usually, on the morning of my belt tests, I post on Facebook that I don’t need luck (because, after all, chance favours the prepared) but I do need focus and calm so I will accept any offers of those two qualities. So, I am going to ask you for the same.
Please send along any focus and calm you have to spare, today, next week, on February 10.
I promise to put it to good use for my practice and for my test.
*And that’s just the physical part, I actually do my written theory test on Tuesday, January 29. I’m generally pretty good at written (or verbal) tests but I find it tricky to translate my physical knowledge into words, so we’ll see how that goes!
**I know that as soon as she reads this, Master D will prep a comment to say that she’s not an expert and that she is still learning. And, of course she is, that’s the nature of a martial art, but she is a MASTER and that’s close enough to an expert in my books. *Christine bows respectfully to her instructor*
I started 2018 with some great intentions, fitness-wise.
I was going to really firm up a daily exercise routine.
I was going to test for my 3rd degree black belt in June.
I was going to do a lot more exercise outside.
Instead, I ended up with a new writing contract (which was good news) which changed the way my days unfolded.
And I broke my wrist (which wasn’t good news) which took several months to get sorted. I knew that it would be over 6 weeks from the break until the cast came off but I didn’t know that it would be many more weeks after that before I could spar at Taekwondo.*
And that was just the first six months of 2018.
The whole year has been like that – I’d have something that seemed like a solid plan, well thought out, and then some metaphorical wrench would come out of nowhere and mess up the works.
It wasn’t all downside, though.
I had some success with short term challenges – a month of yoga, a few weeks of meditation, a week of specific patterns practice.
And I successfully kept up some practices – regular Taekwondo, some walks, some yoga, that sort of thing but I didn’t make much progress. I’m sure that, if I could go back in time, I would be able to tweak the way I went through my days so I could have fit in more exercise but I didn’t have the benefit of that overview while I was living them.
And, I had to recognize that having ADHD can mean that when I get thrown for a loop – in small or large ways – it can take me longer to get back to where I started.
I’m refusing to be hard on myself about the whole mess though. In fact, I’ve decided to do quite the opposite.
My Christmas gifts to myself this year are compassion and understanding, about my fitness and about everything else.
I did what I could with the resources I had available at the time and I am okay with that.
It didn’t work out like I had planned and that’s okay, too.
As for my fitness, I’m going to take the temporary lull in my routine over the next week or so and do a little extra yoga or take a few more walks.
And, for fitness and for everything else, I’m going to get a bit more specific in my plans (and my back-up plans) for the new year.
My focus is going to be on establishing routines so it is easier to get my work done and my workouts in.
And, no matter what the next year brings, I think that I will give myself the same gifts in 2019 – compassion and understanding never go out of style.
I have lots to spare if you need some.
*That and some other factors changed the timing of my belt test to February 2019.
It’s kind of weird how we all find our different paths to fitness and we all find different things that we enjoy. It’s even weirder what people in a given sport find fun.
Martial arts are definitely a case in point for weirdness.
Possible trigger warning: Physical violence. I am a martial artist so my sport involves getting struck. We employ all kinds of safety practices and I am never in danger but depending on your history, my descriptions might be upsetting or triggering. Please proceed with caution or feel free to skip this post..
I don’t know what you were up to last Saturday, but I spent my day choosing to be a target. And if my opponent missed, I advised them on how to kick and punch me more effectively. And then congratulating them when they did better in the next attempt.
This isn’t as odd as it sounds, I was actually at a sparring seminar hosted by our school and led by Grandmaster Laquerre, a highly skilled international sparring trainer.
I literally spent four hours taking turns kicking and punching someone and then letting them kick and punch me. And we observed each other’s kicks and punches so we could provide insight into how to fine tune our technique for when we are in the ring.
It was fun and challenging. I learned and practiced lots of great techniques.
Sparring is great exercise and great for letting off steam. I know that it’s not for everyone, though.
And I’ve been doing this for so long now that it seems completely normal to me but when I try to explain it to someone else it sounds so very weird.
And it kind of reminded me of that Facebook meme where you are supposed to describe your job in as odd a way as possible. (e.g. I’m a writer so my response was ‘I spend my days in imaginary worlds and try to get other people to pay to keep me there.’)
So, just for fun, how can you describe your fitness activities in a way that would make people raise an eyebrow?
Is there nothing the beauty industry won’t try to shame us about?
Then my eyes rolled out of my head and I had to spend some time patting the floor to find them.
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the target market for this gym. I wear make-up sometimes, mostly because I like the ritual nature of putting it on. I use moisturizer so my face doesn’t feel tight, but I am not regularly checking out the mythologized ‘7 signs of aging’ (according to the Oil of Olay prophecies). I’m not even sure what those signs are.
I get irritated by the idea that I am supposed to want to look younger. In fact, I get irritated by the whole idea that youth is an aspirational thing in any way.
I’m with (the late) Carrie Fisher on the whole thing, really.
And it’s not that I don’t get why things like a ‘face gym’ feel important – we’ve all been sold on the idea that our faces are our fortunes and the most youthful possible versions of our faces are worth even more. Every message we get is that youthful beauty is the only way we will be ‘worth’ anything in the world.
But if we don’t push back against some of these ideas then we will spend even more time chasing perfect appearances – as dictated by someone else – and we will have even less time to do the cool stuff we are actually here to do. We have inherent worth and the more of us that stand up and say that, the easier it will be for everyone to take up their space.
The thing is, I don’t exercise because of how I will look, I exercise because of how I will feel. And getting poked and prodded at a face gym does not sound like exercise and it does not seem like it will feel good.
If a face gym sounds like something you need, go right ahead, but understand what you are buying into – the idea that you are not good enough the way you are.
I’d rather see you buy into the idea that you are not a damn decoration and your face is terrific just as it is.
PS – I didn’t even get into the whole nature of the privilege involved in being able to spend $70 for someone to rub rocks on your face. That is a whole separate monster.
PPS – Besides, I am pretty sure the idea for the face gym was stolen from my Great Aunt Lucy who was telling my mom about how to pat her face to stay youthful over 50 years ago. Ha!
I understand that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is pointless.
However, I still HATE being told that I have to step out of my comfort zone.
For me, even the phrasing is upsetting.
It’s a disorienting piece of advice, like being told to abandon everything you know and leap into the unknown.
My immediate reaction is to say ‘NOPE.”
So, I was really expecting to agree with Melody Wilding’s Please stop telling me to leave my comfort zone it seemed like it was going to be the sort of advice I use with my clients. I was expecting to be disappointed that I hadn’t written the piece.
That’s not how it worked out.
Even though she and I share a lot of the same perspective on the value of ‘comfort zones’ and the same distaste for being told that leaving that zone is the only way to grow, I found her depiction of leaving a comfort zone to be very odd. It was as if, for Wilding, there were only two states of being – living in a comfort zone or constantly maximizing your stress.
That’s a very extreme view. It’s no wonder that she wants to stay in her comfort zone if the only other option is full crisis-mode.
I don’t want anyone to regularly spend time in full crisis-mode, that’s not good for your health. However, I also don’t want anyone to stay confined to a ‘comfort zone’ if they want something else for themselves.
That’s why, when I have to coax my clients toward change, I encourage them to EXPAND their comfort zone. To take small risks, be slightly uncomfortable, and gradually increase what the actions and activities that they are comfortable with.
I tell them that change is difficult and it can be uncomfortable. And I remind them that some people enjoy the disorienting feeling of jumping right into something new. If my client doesn’t enjoy that feeling, then there are lots of other ways to change and to grow – slowly.
It will require a certain amount of willingness to be uncomfortable, and maybe even a few minutes of panic, in some cases. However, they can build up their tolerance for those feelings.
And, in talking about this whole issue with some of the other Fit is a Feminist Issue bloggers, I came to realize that there was an aspect of the issue of comfort zones that I had been missing.
Since I am firmly pro-comfort zone, I didn’t know that there are people (Hi Mina!) for whom the comfort zone is actually UNcomfortable – it feels too safe, too easy, too controlled. So getting away from that comfortable feeling feels GOOD to them, they aren’t ‘stepping outside their comfort zone’ in the same way I am. They are stepping TOWARDS something that feels better for them.
(So, perhaps there are multiple kinds of comfort zones. Maybe some are about staying the same and some are about constant change, depending on what feels right for you.)
But, when it comes to what we usually mean when talk about comfort zones (i.e. staying in a ‘low-risk’ area skills-wise), I agree with Wilding about their importance. There is a lot of valuable work to be done from within an individual’s comfort zone, a lot of good things come from there. I don’t advocate making yourself miserable for no reason, or worse, just to show that you can step outside your comfort zone.
And I think that she and I are probably operating in some of the same spheres – calculated risks, small steps, gradual growth – but I think that there is something off about setting up comfort and panicked stress as a dichotomy.
Ultimately, these quick snippets of advice that get tossed around as memes are lacking in nuance. They are one-size-fits-all and it can be annoying the way they held up as received truths.
When you are trying to make changes in your fitness, your self-care, or in your habits, you have to take your own path.
Maybe you thrive on the stress of the unknown and you love the challenge of overcoming your discomfort and meeting your goals. If that’s the case, keep stepping towards what feels good.
Or, maybe you are more like me (and, apparently, Wilding) and you find that full-on discomfort is overwhelming and prevents you from making progress toward your goals. If that’s the case, keep taking those small steps outward and EXPAND your comfort zone until you are where you want to be.
Neither approach is bad or wrong in itself. It just might be the wrong tool for a given person and we can’t presume that our approach is the ONLY way to get things done. Obviously, different tools work for different people
One of my favourite writing quotes is by A.J. Liebling – “The only way to write is well, how you do it is your own damn business.”
The same principle works when it comes to making changes – “The only way to change is by changing, how you do it is your own damn business.”
So, my question is, how DO you like to change?
Do you jump toward that feeling of discomfort or do you prefer to deal with it step by step?