N+1: A Love Story (Guest Post)

I know many of the contributors and readers of this blog are avid cyclists. I’ve only recently discovered the joys of cycling. Although, like most people, I learned to ride a bike when I was a child, it never captivated me until I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand and started commuting to university by bike. My officemate, who was leaving the country, sold me his bicycle (whom I christened Beatrice), and my love affair began. After a few months of commuting (plus an unexpected influx of cash), I decided to buy a new bicycle that fit me well and expressed my personality. Beatrice was lonely and needed a sister, after all! Plus, I am told that it is a well-known adage amongst cyclists that the number of bikes you need is n+1, where n is the number of bikes you currently have.

A side photo of a bright orange commuter bike leaning against a white house in the sunshine.

Image description: A side photo of a bright orange commuter bike leaning against a white house in the sunshine.

My new bike, Jezebel, is a commuter bike with a temperament to match her bright orange paint job. I’ll be the first to admit that I know almost nothing about bicycles—although I’m slowly learning a few basic maintenance things—but that hasn’t stopped me from falling hopelessly in love with my new bike. Even though I grew up with a triathlete mother, I never really understood how some cyclists could develop such deep emotional attachments to their bikes.

Now I do.

So, I present to you, dear readers, a love letter to my bicycle*:

Dear Jezebel,

How happy I am that you are in my life! Your blazing orange coat fills me with joy every time I lay eyes on you. I can’t wait to show you all around the great city where we live, and I’m looking forward to taking you up and down roads, over hill and dale, along rivers and around the harbour. You will accompany me everywhere I need to go: to friends’ houses, my office, the supermarket, the swimming pool. I’ll tuck you in, safe and sound in the garage, and dream of speeding off into the sunrise with you in the morning.

You push me to be stronger and more adventurous, facing wind and hill and black ice with courage and determination I didn’t have before. You’ve also made me notice the small details I never would have seen otherwise. The potholes, quirks of the traffic lights at different intersections, hidden driveways, and roads that look flat but are actually very gradual inclines would have escaped my notice if you hadn’t pointed them out to me.

In you, I found freedom I didn’t know I lacked. Before we met, it took me ages to get anywhere. Although I enjoyed walking, it took up a lot of time. I didn’t drive anywhere because I don’t know how, and driving is impractical anyway because traffic is slow and parking is scarce and expensive. And if I took the bus, I was always travelling on someone else’s schedule. Now, you and I can go anywhere whenever we want. While the roads are filled with trapped cars waiting for the procession ahead of them to make it through the next light, we gleefully zip past them down the bike lane. I create excuses to go places simply so I can spend more time with you. I can’t wait for the long and happy life we will spend together.

Love,
Chloe

P.S. Be nice to Beatrice. Having a younger sister has been an adjustment for her.

A 26-year old white woman with short blonde hair, wearing a red and grey plaid shirt and black glasses smiles while posing with her orange bicycle.

A 26-year old white woman with short blonde hair, wearing a red and grey plaid shirt and black glasses smiles while posing with her orange bicycle.

*Yep, I know my bike can’t read.

Today I Ran (Guest Post)

Today I ran.

I didn’t run far but for me this is a milestone nonetheless. It’s not that I have been entirely inactive. Although I broke my foot (a stress fracture) a year and a half ago, and it did take most of a year to heal, since the break occurred while I was running I figured that even if it healed I wouldn’t run again. 

Running hadn’t been my main form of exercise for about 5 years and so I felt I could deal with that. I do CrossFit (see my earlier post on this), bike, and hike and so I thought I could let running go. I mean, I’m 66 and so I figured that there are some things that maybe I have to admit I can’t do any more. But apparently running isn’t one of them (yet).

This is what that means to me. 

First, I can still come all the way back from a pretty distressing injury even if not that serious injury. I was in a boot and on crutches for 6 weeks but struggling long after that. Resilience is a good thing and so that’s reassuring. 

Second, I discovered that even when injured it is worth continuing to exercise. The trainer I work with (the wonderful Brandy) figured I could still row even with my foot is a clumsy hard boot (the stationary bike and running were clearly out – oh, and no burpies either). I am grateful that she was inventive. I put the booted foot on a skateboard and rowed away. Third, feeling strong is a good way to feel – and I am not saying this just because I saw Wonder Woman yesterday. 

Finally, I learned that I shouldn’t prejudge what I can and cannot do based on some idea about how old I am. Yes, I’m getting up there but it isn’t clear what that means about my capabilities and I am finding that it means different things for different people. Finding where you are in that spectrum of experiences is a process and not some pre-determined or static fact. What the limits are is something to be discovered – not told by yourself or others.

I’ve made a note to myself to watch out for mental shadows that prematurely limit my willingness to experiment. I was out riding for the first time in over a month this past weekend and I felt a little shaky. The thought crossed my mind that maybe I shouldn’t be out there giving that I was so old! 

I told a friend on the phone and she said, “I know! The paper would say elderly women killed while cycling. How awful!” I laughed even though I was less worried about what the report would say after the fact then the possibility of it becoming a reality (one difference in our personalities). This is not to say that one shouldn’t be careful. I am a very careful cyclist but I am careful precisely because I want to be riding for as long as possible. And while even careful people have accidents and get injured it is not only those over 60 that have that worry.

I may not be running a lot, but that’s okay. At least I know I can run again. Watch out! Elderly runner/biker/hiker coming through!

Picture of three “sheep ladies” hiking from a shop in Sardinia.

Sharon Crasnow is a retired philosophy professor who writes on feminist philosophy of science and lives in San Diego.

Have I Just Replaced One Addiction With Another? (Guest Post)

On my daily walk to the gym, in the darkness of 5 am in London, Ontario, I began reflecting on the changes that occurred when I got into fitness.  Thinking about the hours spent researching fitness and nutrition, the stacks of supplements (proteins, amino acids, greens) on top of my fridge, how I weigh out and track my food intake, I found myself wondering, “Have I just replaced one addiction with another?”

Let me back up a bit…

About a month ago, I had the pleasure of attending a Rotman Institute of Philosophy talk at Western University by Dr. Hanna Pickard, entitled Why Do Addicts Use? Getting Real about Drugs, Identity and Adversity.  In her talk, Dr. Pickard explored the power of the neurobiological myth (i.e., that addicts are neurobiologically compelled to use and cannot help it) and its social and moral repercussions.  While not wholly dismissive of neuroscience, Dr. Pickard emphasized the multifaceted and complex nature of addition.

In doing so, she noted that to understand addition, we also need to have conversations about the value of drugs, the relevance of psycho-socio-economic context, and the role of narrative self-identity.  You can listen/watch the full talk here.

I was particularly struck – in that full-bodied, dizzying kind of way – when Dr. Pickard read a personal narrative from a former addict (name omitted for anonymity).  In this narrative, the person recounted the loss of identity they experienced while recovering from a drug-addicted lifestyle.  That is, when your self-identity is so strong that it permeates almost every aspect of your life, there is a tremendous void when this identity is given up during recovery – how do you fill up that heavy, daunting space?  What do you do with all your time now?

As you may have read when Tracy interviewed me here, I got into fitness after what was a couple years of problematically drinking and partying.  My drinking made up my self-identity, fueling my behavior and filling most my thoughts.  For instance, I would plan my week around when, where, and with whom I would drink, and when I would recover (because it was excessive enough that recoveries were required).  It was the way my peers, friends, and family knew me; it was how I knew me, as if I truly did not know how else to be.

When I got my gym membership last January, I had no idea what I was in for.  I had no idea that I’d fall in love with fitness like I did.  As that love developed and grew, the old habits that came with my drinking lifestyle slowly faded away as new habits that came with my fitness lifestyle filled those would-have-been voids.  Instead of starting off my day with a pounding headache, wondering who I could get to drink with me that day, I’d wake up at the crack of dawn, full of energy and excitement as I’d weigh out my pre-workout meal (to make sure I was getting adequate amounts of macro-nutrients to fuel my workout) and pack my gym bag.  Late nights out were replaced with early nights in (to ensure I had a proper amount of sleep for my muscles to recover and grow).

I’ve often been told by my peers and others in my life that my lifestyle is problematic, excessive, and unhealthy, being told things like “well you need to be able to enjoy other things in life too”, or “weighing your food is excessive and wrong”, and “your lifestyle is too extreme, you sound like an addict, that can’t be right”, and on it goes.

So, on that early morning walk to the gym, these reflections had me wondering whether I had just replaced one addiction with another.  While it may seem as if I did to some, for me, something much deeper and more complex than mere replacement had occurred.  My drinking lifestyle and self-identity was life-restricting, but my fitness lifestyle and self-identity is life-enhancing.  My drinking self-identity made me feel like a spectator in my own life, watching it unfold without ever really participating in it – as if I were sleepwalking through my life without ever truly feeling.  And while I never felt like I was truly myself, I genuinely did not know who else to be or what else to do; in a sense, I became a prisoner to my own self-identity.  It was just who I was, it was just what I did, and what people expected from me.

My fitness lifestyle and identity, however, didn’t just act as a replacement for my old lifestyle/identity; it did, perhaps, initially, but as time went on it became more than that.  When we replace one thing with something similar, we usually get the same output, behavior, or end-result.  I like to think of it in terms of RAM on a computer.  If the RAM (random access memory) on my computer dies, I can replace that part and (hopefully) my computer runs just as it did prior to the crash.  With respect to the question above, however, the result – my quality of life – was not the same (or even similar) with my new lifestyle/self-identity.  It was enhanced and enriched; it woke me up.  No longer was a spectator to my own life, but was a genuine part of it.  Finally, I felt like I was authentically myself.

Through Dr. Pickard’s incredible talk, my reflections on what fitness means to me, and what it taught (and continues to teach) me, I’ve come to deeply appreciate the new narrative self-identity that I’ve created and fostered through fitness.  So, when people offer their unsolicited, “Oh, that’s unhealthy, excessive, wrong, etc.” I smile on the inside, because I know that they cannot contextualize my current lifestyle within my deeper, complex, and often quite painful personal history.

A selfie in a parking garage. Jaclyn, after a grueling leg workout.

Jaclyn, after a grueling leg workout

Jaclyn is an aspiring fitness blogger, living in London, Ontario, completing her PhD in philosophy of neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario.

Guest Post: Everyday Shakti (“Power”)

by Treena Orchard

My yoga journey began in January, as a way to deal with heartache- new year, old sorrows. I needed to move, not just out of my apartment but out of my head and the disappointment that had taken root there. There are only so many times I could cry or limp through my days feeling angry and hurt, only so many times I could listen to that broken heart soundtrack featuring Tina Turner (Typical Male, You Better Be Good to Me- wishful thinking, clearly), Alicia Keyes (Fallin), Lauren Hill (X-factor), and that 1990s favourite by Mazzy Star -Fade into You.

I wanted to do something else, but hadn’t done yoga for years. Is this what I want to do? Where? When? Do I still have yoga clothes? These are the questions I asked myself while scrolling through the studio options, weighing the pros and cons of each one: ‘Only does hot- nope, never done that, not ready for that’; ‘Too far away, I’ll never go’; ‘Too trendy, not up for seeing all matter of fit young things sweating up a pretty storm.’ Then I came upon my goldilocks place: ‘It does hot and normal yoga, is only a block away, and it looks cool.’

I chose a non-hot Yang/Yin class because it seemed the most basic place to start and with trepidation and excitement I strode through the red door of The Yoga Collective, ready to begin. As the Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then Sundays too, began adding up so did my strength and desire to do more. It was like rekindling an old relationship with myself through my body, welcoming back the knowledge stored in the muscle’s memory. To remember is to become aware of something again and like our guru Robin often says at the end of class, when we’re all zenned out and just about to utter ‘Namaste” in unison, it’s like coming home.

Does all this goodness mean that I was totally on board with the 30-day challenge when talk of it first began to circulate through the studio? Hell no—NO. No, I can’t do that. That’s what my Vancouver friends did, super fit people who were into super cool things- namely yoga, brunch, and being from Vancouver. Could I do a yoga challenge too? Do I want to? I thought about it a lot and talked with my fellow women yogis, who seemed to be in the same see-saw place as me, wanting to do it but not quite sure about making the commitment. Making a commitment is making a promise and being dedicated to something, serious business.

Despite the positive traction that has been made to reframe how we talk about failure as well as success, I’d be lying if I said the prospect of failing didn’t matter. The image of a circus appeared in my mind, not an innovative, fashion-forward Cirque de Soleil thing but a more carny, less health and safety variety. I am high atop the crowd in a shiny, non-cotton leotard with those dreadful ‘spice’ coloured tights, traipsing inch by nervous inch across the tightrope towards a piece of wood nailed to a pole or some such fictional symbol of a successfully completed 30-day yoga challenge.

Clearly, I really wasn’t sure I could do it. I did not want to fail and my primary concern was related to the physical nature of the challenge. Could I really do yoga every day? I’d only been going three times a week…The tipping point came when Robin said that he decided to hold the challenge when he thought we could do it. Enough said. Fuck it, I might not finish it perfectly but I’m going to do it. I was excited and proud of myself for making the decision.

But, I still felt nervous, especially as Day 1 crept up. These feelings continued into the first week of the challenge, when I was rather obsessive about “doing yoga” and “making time for yoga.” Happily, those feelings began to melt away as the incorporation of yoga into the rhythms of my daily life became ever more seamless. Time itself began to bend to the clock of yoga, which became the measure by which I paced, organized, and rearranged all other things. Tick-tock went the mornings and nights of practice.

As the days passed I felt stronger physically and mentally and those 30 days were an exceptionally creative time too, not just for ‘work work’ but also my own writing, reading, and thinking. The 6 am classes were my favourite. As I walked quietly through my apartment, packing my water bottle and looking at myself in the mirror before heading out into early summer’s dawn, I often thought of Sylvia Plath. During the last months she worked in the very early hours, the only time she could steal away for herself and her beautiful, caustic reflections on a life that was fast slipping away.

Women have always done this, always found ways to make room for themselves and their ideas, the things that matter. They have done this despite and because of others, whether it be the children they love, those who hurt them, or the world that remains caught up in repetitive cycles of patriarchal madness. We must make time and take space for ourselves because no one else will give it to us and because it is essential for our minds, souls, and bodies. Whether it’s a ‘room of our own’ or a yoga mat, amidst lemongrass diffuser mist and beside women and men who have become our friends, we all need that place where we can dwell inside the universe.

Treena is an anthropologist working in the School of Health Studies at Western University in London, Ontario. She lives with her adorable cats Shiva and Mr. Marbles, her art and books, and gets back home to Saskatoon as often as she can.

 

 

 

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.