Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: Christine Hennebury
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 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.
Despite fitness triumphs in some areas in the past few years (hello, 3rd degree blackbelt), it’s been a while since I have been really happy with my overall fitness level.
I’ll develop some good habits for a while and then life will take another curve. That new factor/time management challenge will team up with my ADHD and I’ll have trouble fitting more than the bare minimum of exercise into my schedule.
And, then, I’ll find myself sliding a little bit further away from how I want to feel, further away from what I want to be able to do.
I’ve been saying for ages that I want to ‘get back’ to how I used to feel and I want to ‘get back’ to the way my body was. (To be clear, I’m not trying to get back to the body of my youth, just to the one I had a few years ago.)
Then, this week, I read Cate‘s and Tracy’s terrific posts about acknowledging and appreciating the body you have and about how, when it comes to our bodies, we can’t go back, we can only go forward.
Their posts hit me hard.
In many ways, I am very accepting of my body as it is – I don’t wish that I looked different, for instance – but I have been spending a lot of time wishing I could go back to my strength and fitness level from a few years ago (which still wasn’t where I wanted to be but it was closer than where I am now)
All that ruminating made me think of this quote from Mary Engelbreit.
And that, in turn, reminded me about how often I have joked that I never want to be like one of those stupid people in movies who always look back when they are being chased and end up falling on their faces (and usually getting caught).
This was all on my mind as we were working on our patterns in taekwondo on this week and Master Downey reminded us to look where we were striking because ‘Where your eyes go, your energy goes.’
That’s when everything kind of came together in my mind.
I’ve been wasting a lot of energy looking back.
I keep looking back at my old self while I move forward. I haven’t fallen on my face, not yet, but it’s a definite risk.
I need to look ahead. I need to send my energy in the direction that I am going.
I need to move my fitness forward, not backward.
I can’t go back to where I was. I can, however, figure out what I want to work TOWARD.
I’m going to stop looking back. I’m not going that way.
*They aren’t my stories to tell so I won’t get into details but in the past 3-4 years, several family members have had major health issues and required my help. I am happy to have the flexibility to be able to help them and I am glad to be there for people who need me. Even though I am quite willing to help (and grateful to be able to), providing this support does take time and something has had to give – my exercise time/energy has often been the thing to go. Thanks to my ADHD, once I get off track a lot of time can pass before I realize what is missing from my schedule.
A few weeks ago, I discovered that there is another factor to consider in the whole stiff neck issue.
For almost 30 years, I have been getting semi-regular headaches that start with pain and stiffness in my neck. I haven’t been tracking them per se but my estimate is that I have them at least once every two months but sometimes I will have several in a month.
I’ve been blaming it on ‘sitting funny’ or not stretching my neck properly or any of a myriad of things that make these headaches kind of my own fault* for not paying closer attention to my body.
However, I recently had some interesting information come my way that puts that stiff neck in a whole different context.
My dear friend M, a GP who has gone back to school to specialize in Neurology, has been preparing for her Royal College Exams and she was practicing for the part of the exam where she essentially demonstrates the results of her years of study by seeing practice patients. A couple of weeks ago, I was at her house for several days in a row to help her study and on the third day, I had one of these neck-based headaches so I decided to let her use me as a practice patient for the headache section of her studies.
She asked me when the headache came on, where it was localized, and so on. Then she connected my headache to my sleepiness from two days before and my lack of focus the previous day.
I was expecting her to respond with ‘Christine, you have a headache’ but instead, she said, ‘Christine, you’re having migraines.’**
I’ve always thought of migraines as ‘have to lie in a dark room with a cloth over your eyes’ type of headaches. My headaches are bad but I can (mostly) still function so I never considered that they were anything more complex than an elaborate neck ache.
M says that my neck pain is actually a symptom of the migraine, rather than the cause of my headache. (It’s no wonder that no amount of stretching seemed to get rid of it.)
Learning that I have migraines explained a lot of things, including a certain type of ‘out of phase’ feeling I have beforehand that I recognize as a regular occurrence but hadn’t connected to my headaches. It also explains two feelings I have after my headaches pass. One that I call a ‘headache ghost’ where it kind of haunts me, as if it could return at any second, but it doesn’t hurt any more. And a ‘headache hangover’ where I feel all wrung out, hungry, unsettled and regretful.
This is all interesting to me, of course, but the thing that really sticks is how different I felt about my headache once I called it a migraine.
With rare exceptions, I have always tried to just carry on with my normal tasks when I have a headache. Sometimes it has been awful – intense pain, nausea, disorientation – but I refused to give in to something as ‘small’ as a headache.***
Now that I know these things are migraines, I suddenly found myself giving them the respect they deserve. I’m not saying that I am going to take to my bed at the first twinge of impending migraine but I am planning to take it easier on myself and I may just head to bed instead of fighting through nausea and pain to complete the things on my list for the day.
So, what does all of this have to do with fitness as a Feminist issue?
Fitness, for me, is about learning to take good care of myself and respecting what my body tells me.
Acknowledging that trying to ignore my headaches was dismissing and disrespecting my body’s signals shows me that that is one area in which fitness has eluded me.
I was being hard on myself for not stretching enough (something that helps me feel fit) when that wasn’t the problem at all. I may or may not have been ‘working hard enough’ but I was too quick to decide that I was to blame and I didn’t see the big picture.
And, the fact that I automatically dismissed pain and illness as ‘not bad enough’ because it was ‘just a headache’ tells me a lot about how I have internalized our society’s ideas about rest, laziness, and the notion that you need to earn the right to rest, even when you are sick.
I don’t know if this expression is localized but here in Newfoundland and Labrador when something is awful we’ll say that it’s not ‘fit.’ As in, the weather’s not fit to go out in, or that clothes is not fit to wear to the party, or, that someone is not fit to talk to.
Even though I didn’t know I was having migraines, I knew I was having really bad headaches but because I thought I brought them on myself, I didn’t rest the way I needed to.
And that’s not fit.
For the record, over the next few months I will be doing some tracking to see what my triggers are and to see just how often my migraines actually occur. And I will be going VERY easy on myself every time one happens.
*Is blaming ourselves for our ailments wise or helpful? It hasn’t helped me so far, I tell ya. I mean, I get that recognizing behaviours that lead to issues can identify actions to take but I wish we could all detour past the blame and just get to the action part.
**NOTE: M is able to make this diagnosis, of course, but she is not my doctor so I have also brought this information to my own doctor for follow-up.
***Yes, I hear how ridiculous this is. Heaven forbid I take things down a notch when I am ill in any way. Yes, I get on my own nerves. SIGH.
My plans did not proceed perfectly. Perhaps I need more push-up practice?
Oh, I definitely need more push-up practice!
My aim for this month was to do my push-up routine three times a week and to use my pretty chart to keep track.
That didn’t exactly work out.
Challenge #1: I lost my fun chart.
It’s hard to use something for motivation if you can’t find it! After taking the index card chart out of my planner to snap the photo, I must have put it ‘somewhere safe for now.’ Spoiler: it may be safe but apparently it wasn’t just ‘for now.’
Not having my chart wasn’t that big a deal but it was annoying. I could have made another one but some part of me insisted that I would find it any second now so I couldn’t bring myself to recreate it. (Yes, I do know how foolish that was.)
Challenge #2: Our new dog started sleeping on my bed
That doesn’t sound like it would affect my practice but I am not actually clinging to just any old excuse here.
In early March, we got a dog. Khalee is 5 years old and, despite my allergies, I’m charmed by her. I want her to be happy and comfortable in our house so when she decided that I was her alpha and that she should sleep near me, I didn’t want to object.
What I didn’t realize was that my sleeping self is over-courteous towards the dog. Apparently, in my efforts not to disturb the dog during the night, I was staying ridiculously still.
Sleeping in one position is NOT ideal for my hips and back.
So, I spent one week of April with my back in knots and I couldn’t actually do any push-ups at all until my back smoothed out.
Challenge #3: Push-ups apparently irritate my wrist
Remember how I broke my wrist last year?
Well, even though it has healed very well, there are apparently some movements that still cause me a bit of grief. Push-ups are apparently one of them.
I’ve spent quite a bit of the month with an aching wrist and a slightly swollen hand. That is not something that adds to your motivation to do push-ups.
Challenge #4: I was busier than I expected to be this month
I thought I was setting myself up for success by picking specific times to do my push-ups.
However, through a stroke of luck, I picked up some extra writing and coaching work and that work affected both my schedule and my available energy.
So, what did all of that mean for my push-up plans?
Well, despite all of those challenges, I still did pretty well.
My plan was to do my routine 12 times in April. I did it 7.
That’s pretty good, especially considering how many things got in my way!
And, the best part?
When I was late for Taekwon-Do class one night,* I had to do 10 push-ups before I could join the class.
I did them from my knees but the 10 push-ups were pretty easy.
And, for some of them, I felt actual ease. I felt new power in my arms. There was actual fluidity in my movements.
It was encouraging, to say the least.
I’m going to keep following my plan into May with the following adjustments:
I’m going to put my chart directly into my planner – not on a separate sheet.
I have already shifted where the dog is allowed on the bed, so I’ll keep that up.
I’m adding some wrist stretches to my bedtime routine
I’m going to do my push-ups while I wait for the kettle to boil/my tea to steep at some point during my day. I make multiple cups of tea daily and I usually do busy work while I wait. I’m going to pick one of those times and do my push-ups.
Did you try adding any push-ups in April? How did you do with it?
Do you want to join me for May?
*I wasn’t being disrespectful. On my way to class, I saw a young woman on the side of the road struggling with a huge suitcase and I stopped to help her. She was a student, moving to a new apartment and trying to move all her stuff by walking it from her old place to her new one. I drove her and her suitcase to her new apartment but it did make me late.
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.