Guest Post: A Compatible Movement Practice (part 2 of 3)

Really, yoga is literally right next door to my home: zero commute time, zero extra carbon emissions, frequent classes with highly-regarded teachers… Plus, the people coming in and out just exude a kind of peaceful stretchy wisdom I should want to want for myself. The yoga people are actually very nice, not all of those people are cis-straight women with lululemon bodies. So I suppressed my trepidation.

Over several introductory sessions, I was relieved that nobody seemed exasperated with me for being unshaven, restless, too tightly-wound to touch my toes, and allergic to anything form-fitting. I did feel physically worked-out after each class, and the teacher seemed to be full of insight. My partner had long since gotten with the program. She does yoga regularly and even looks forward to it. It’s so clearly good for her. We could be a happy yoga household, right?

Yet I remained lukewarm at the prospect of going back, setting up the colorful mat that would define my bubble for the hour, and imitating pose after pose. If that first series of yoga classes felt like a sustained insult to my mildly butch self-image, surely I should embrace this as the spiritual challenge of working through the yuckily gendered semiotics of my embodiment. (“My ego feels like it’s in downward dog the whole time. Is that a good thing?,” I asked my friends.) Who was I to reject stamina and coordination and enlightenment? Something about the bodily discipline of yoga felt vaguely stifling, as though I might be able to visit, but could not make a home for myself there.

My yoga-loving partner listened patiently to my ambivalence. She did not crave the things I had treasured in past practices — things like laser-focused intensity, swinging hard at things, having to react quickly to shifting stimuli, being occasionally upside-down and underwater with my legs wedged into a boat. But she listened. I began to own my yearning for adrenaline and kinetic challenge. I yearned for these things, during yoga, the same way my kid craves coffee ice cream instead of the rest of the rice and veggies on her plate.

But here’s the hard thing about self-knowledge: Knowing that I crave something is not the same as knowing whether it’s good for me. And I felt as though the whole world had begun quietly chanting at me that it was time for my middle-aged self to learn to Eat Those Veggies. (My partner, meanwhile, loves all vegetables openly, and doesn’t understand how eating them could seem like a chore.)

Luckily, my therapist dismissed my yoga-vegetable-guilt-complex and forged ahead with brainstorming further ideas for a workable fitness regime. As I parried each suggestion with logistical objections or a picky aversions, I braced for a lecture about rationalization, laziness, and self-sabotage. Instead, she urged me firmly to focus again on aikido. She had seen the way my eyes lit up about aikido when I narrated my long history. “Scour the internet!,” she said. “Get leads from every dojo in driving distance, email friends of friends of friends to get recommendations for freelance instructors. Put out an SOS on craigslist, if that’s what it takes!”

Aikido and I had been seriously together for only a year, back when I was about 30. A relationship can only develop so far in one year, but I was a single and child-free itinerant academic when we met, so I had been able to immerse myself in dojo life, learning from an elegantly-bearded and compact Burmese sensei who radiated gentleness and precision. When I left that city because of a job, I found myself in a place remote from any aikido community. At the time I didn’t grieve much, since various projects kept me busy. But whenever I talked about it, there was a telltale sigh of loss.

So of course I rolled my eyes at this therapist and told her I had already done plenty of looking, and I was rusty at aikido by now anyway, so this yearning was pointlessly nostalgic. Surely I just needed to grieve like a mature person for not having an aikido connection anymore and find a way to hang in there and fall in love with… yoga?

But I promised I would put in a good faith effort at finding an aikido connection again. And on that Monday afternoon, my online search turned up an actual dojo within a workable half-hour drive, with all the right signs of hosting an active and friendly community. (I swear, it was hiding from google last time I looked!)  I dashed home, rummaged through storage for my old wrinkled gi, and drove there just in time for the 6pm “basics” class listed online.

See Part 1 here and Part 3 here

Guest Post: A Compatible Movement Practice (part 1 of 3)

I’m back together with an old flame after years of being apart. People see it on my face and ask my what this radiant energy is about. I find myself gushing about how — despite the larger grim picture of the world — everything is right with this little tiny corner of life!

I’d been drifting through the fitness doldrums for years. Satisfying bursts of activity came around now and then, like the out-of-breath exhilaration of shoveling just enough snow or being drafted into a little kids’ soccer game. But these were serendipitous. There was no libidinal zing drawing me forward between one workout and the next. It seemed my choices were to go without physical rigor altogether or to settle — to press forward into patterns of exercise that didn’t really fit me well.

So, what makes a fitness practice fit? Perhaps it’s not so different from how it is with intimate relationships. We carry visceral and often inarticulate cues about what works and does not, and yet all the noise of social norms and local expectations can obscure and distort these cues. And ultimately, as it is with a partner, compatibility has everything to do with quirks of embodied temperament. A practice can possess many of the virtues one wants to want, yet fail to engage us fully. Having to explain (spoiler alert!) why I wasn’t warming up to yoga, for example — to people who love yoga! — felt like trying to articulate to someone why I could not reciprocate their crush on me. I might end up reassuring, apologetically: “Hey, it’s not you, it’s me.” But of course it is you (talking to you now, Yoga!) who is not a good fit for me.

I should clarify that it’s not as though I haven’t had some great satisfying flings over the years with various ways of getting my body in motion. Among these I’d count soccer, racquetball, hiking, aikido, bicycle-commuting, tai chi, parkour, and kayaking. It’s just that things (always different things!) have gotten in the way each time: I had injuries, moved away from facilities and playing partners, had a child, moved again, got too busy, got left behind when teachers moved, and balked at the new commutes and scheduling obstacles. Despite heartbreaks and missed connections, I would intermittently cast about for more satisfying ways to move my body. It’s just that the trend was discouraging. I was getting convinced that I am just too damn picky.

springer_kayak_looking_up_at_roots

“Everything can be messy:” author sits in long thin wooden kayak at the edge of a river, touching and looking up at a massive tangle of roots exposed when a silver maple fell away from the river.

Now, I really do hate those romantics who insist that there is exactly one fated bond, which will come into our lives just when we demonstrate sufficient faith. Given how messed-up the world is, our options when it comes to exercise are compromised too — by distorted ideals of body and gender, by dynamics of class privilege and ableism, by forms of cultural imperialism and misunderstanding. But of course that’s true of virtually every social endeavor worth undertaking. It’s nonetheless worth holding out for those relationships (with persons, with community, with work) that will meet us half-way and make the whole experience very much Not A Drag. It’s OK to insist on an exercise practice that is not a drag.

Some months ago, my therapist agreed that it was time to help get me unstuck with respect to exercise. Self-knowledge Lesson #1, we agreed, was that I needed SSRI: Scheduled Social Reality Involved. If there are zero expectant faces to whom I must answer, I am depending on my own arbitrary and painlessly revokable decision to “work out” at this or that time. And something always seems more urgent to me than even a 7-minute workout: fretting about bills, surveying the laundry, staring balefully at the sinkful of dishes, grading and writing or feeling bad about overdue grading and writing, reading and commenting about terrible (or wonderful) things online. I needed to find a “This-Happens-Now” kind of thing.

Also, ROTC: Realistic Ongoing Time Commitment. In other words, it couldn’t be like the very sexy kayak gathering that required me to load up and drive over and paddle across and roll around and drive back and hose down and put gear away for a total of six hours on Wednesdays — which meant (given the pressures of life, work, and parenting) actually giving my upper body an isolated workout about twice per year. I needed something I could follow through with, and that wouldn’t penalize me or anyone else for occasionally dropping the ball to deal with a household illness or a work deadline.

Also, NAAK: No Aerobics of Any Kind, and that also means no Zoomba. Nothing where somebody else chooses a soundtrack for my ears to swallow, nothing where the social vibe is around rhythmically sexified bodies, nothing where the main advertised benefit is calories burned — as if one needs to earn permission to eat.

Those three conditions seemed picky enough. So I half-heartedly signed up with the excellent next-door yoga studio. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

See Part 2 here and Part 3 here

Guest Post: A Compatible Movement Practice (part 3 of 3)

Dear reader, it had been fifteen years. At the end of an hour of clumsy but exhilarating practice, I felt more than a little queasy. I had, after all, stepped into the equivalent of three dozen tight loop-de-loop rides in short succession. I’d been moved around more than my stomach was ready for.

But I also felt moved in a good way, by the compatibility of it. Like the relief of being in a relationship where no sliver of the self is compelled to shut up and hide under the table. (OK, the sliver of self called my left knee does seek to be excused from most of the ankle-sitting time in aikido, but accommodation is a thing!) Severe stiffness in my core muscles set in by Tuesday night; I was so sore I could hardly move, and I couldn’t wait to go back.

You can find out lots about aikido if you’re curious, but I’ll offer my own unofficial sketch. Aikido* is a 99% defensive martial art that hinges on this insight: a person who engages in an aggressive attack necessarily loses their center. Learn to perceive accordingly, and you (the target of the attack) can choose to keep your center, recognize the instability in the aggressor, and re-direct all that incoming energy. With practice, you can move into the eye of the storm, deflect, trip up, confound, and frustrate a wide range of attacks — so long as your focus is not on hurting the other but on responding dynamically to their projected effort.

Practice involves watching a technique demonstration, then pairing up to alternate turns for a while. Intermittently, the teacher adds a tip or a variation and has everyone change partners. Performing the techniques (being the nage* or thrower) means orienting to an initially unmanageable constellation of pointers about hands and feet and head and hips, but all these gradually give way to an inarticulate muddling-through. As the technique is mastered it requires less and less muscular exertion.

Taking the fall (being the uke*), however, is always a workout. In a good dojo it’s a safe workout, as proper forms of falling and rolling are top priority. But to be helpful, if you’re the uke, you present as much of a sincere blow or grab as the partner’s skill-level can handle. In the same practice hall, each pair quietly finds their mutual wavelength, some playing hard and fast, others deliberate and gentle. The partner aims to recognize and side-step your move, to harness all that excess energy (think of a baseball swing that doesn’t connect), and to send you tumbling. If the technique is done right, you will tumble exactly as hard as you swing or grab. Choose your adventure!

I had virtually forgotten about some of the things that make aikido a good fit for me. It might be the most intensive quasi-agonistic contact activity that simply does not classify bodies — not by gender, by sex, nor by weight. In the dojo, I am just about entirely free of the pressure to perform gender one way or another, whether it’s coping with machismo and vindicating my not-male body (OMG, ask me about parkour), managing sexualized body contours, or worrying about how flimsy my upper arms are. And the basic uniform — the gi* — is comfortable and minimally revealing. It doesn’t broadcast or amplify how our bodies are gendered, whether legs and underarms are shaved and/or dreadfully pale, what our waist-hip ratio is, and so on. The gi itself is boring, I admit. But the hakama* split-skirt worn by black-belt level practitioners is graceful, grounded, and handsome as hell. I’ve never seen a person who doesn’t look stunning in a hakama.

Here’s another thing: I am thrilled that this social encounter is more than what developmental psychologists call “parallel play.” When aikidoists help one other rehearse by modeling threats and responses, it matters that there are different people with different physiques, different styles, different resistances. I don’t have to be an extrovert in class (hooray!), but I do have to tune my senses — proprioceptive, visual, balance, haptic — again and again for each person standing or kneeling before me. Small adjustments in technique and attitude will make all the difference between being swept up in the dance of momentum and being awkwardly stymied by some nagging detail. Either way, we often smile at the chance to get up and try again.

There is, of course, a “point” to aikido as a defensive art; I might eventually find myself coping with a physical aggression with the aid of trained reflexes. Also, it’s great to know how to fall and roll smoothly! But the more mundane practical application is symbolic: a thorough habituation to remembering how to stay grounded, how to recognize aggressive energy and to find ways to defuse it with minimal harm to the other.

The dojo I’m joining has a woman at the helm, and regularly draws students of various physical builds, ages, and gender presentations. The world of aikido is not uniform; there are multiple branches of the practice, each with a somewhat different history and flavor. Few teachers have made progress on translating aikido techniques and rituals into forms that do not presuppose a particular template of upright embodiment.

I do realize aikido is not the exciting resolution to everyone’s fantasies. But I hope for a world in which each of us finds some satisfying and compatible practice that takes us as we are, and keeps us coming back for more.

*All these terms follow Japanese pronunciation rules: the vowels are the same as in Spanish (ah, eh, ee, oh, oo), and every ‘g’ is a hard one, as in girl or get.

See Parts 1 and 2, here and here.