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.

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“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

How the Amazons got me to go to the gym (Guest Post)

Like seemingly everyone else, I went to see Wonder Woman this past weekend, and I’ve got to say, it is one of my new problematic faves. For a couple of reasons that it’s problematic, see here and here and here. For a couple of reasons that it’s my fave, see here and here and, most importantly:

Antiope (portrayed by Robin Wright), dressed in leather battle gear, prepares to punch a WWI German soldier, who is dressed in an olive green military uniform.

Antiope, Diana’s aunt and the greatest general in Amazon history, fighting a German soldier during a battle on a beach in Themyscira.

There are plenty of discussions to be had about this movie, ranging from the sharply critical to the “OH MY GOD THE AMAZONS THO.”

This post will be closer to the latter.

For the uninitiated, the Amazons are a group of women warriors. They are the inhabitants of Wonder Woman’s home, Themyscira, a hidden island where no men live (and is thus a queer culture). The first twenty-ish minutes of Wonder Woman are set in Themyscira, but I could have watched an entire movie set there. The society is peaceful and just. The scenery is beautiful and a complete departure from the gritty, bad-Instagram-filter bleakness we have come to expect from the DC cinematic universe. And we get to watch the Amazons fight a lot. The Amazons place a high value on training for combat; they are fierce and intense and their training is rigourous. I don’t know about you, but I’d be quite intimidated by the sight of a band of Amazons riding toward me at full speed. They are hardcore.

Five women warriors ride horses into battle on a beach. The warriors and horses are wearing metal and leather battle gear. They are led by Antiope, portrayed by Robin Wright.

Amazons riding into battle. Intense.

It is unusual and inspiring to see so many strong women depicted side by side in mainstream cinema. Muscular women are often characterized as being overly masculine and unattractive. Though it should be pointed out that most of the Amazons in the film are relatively slender, and it would have been cool to have more diverse body types portrayed, it’s nevertheless refreshing that their strength is glorified, not mocked. The performers are also genuinely strong; many of the Amazons were portrayed by professional athletes, making the group “look like the female version of 300.”

The Amazons (and indeed, the whole movie) made me go back to the gym. Obviously, I’m not a professional athlete. It often feels like an overstatement to call myself an athlete at all. I don’t really follow any fitness regimen to speak of, I tend to have more of a boom-and-bust cycle than anything regular, and I bounce from running to swimming to weightlifting to cycling to yoga and back again with no real structure or plan. This doesn’t really bother me—I just do what I like doing—and when I get bored, move on. Sometimes, I will get inspired to try something new or return to an old favourite (usually swimming, which is my one true love, but often weightlifting/strength training as well).

This time, what inspired me was the Amazons. I couldn’t believe how badly I wanted to hit the gym after seeing the film, and how truly excited I was to work out. I wanted to lift everything: myself, weights, tires. Heck, I would have lifted other people if they’d let me. Let me tell you, during this workout, I Wonder Woman’d HARD, including doubling my personal best for holding plank. (Yes, I’m bragging, and yes, I’m still sore.) Fitspiration, or “fitspo,” isn’t always a good thing, but in this case, Wonder Woman was the inspiration I needed. I wasn’t working out because I thought I deserved punishment, and I wasn’t working out because I wanted to look like an Amazon (although that would be cool). I was doing it because, even though I know the Amazons are fictional, I wanted to be one.

 

Now, if only I could figure out how to get to Themyscira…

The Flu and My Friend’s Fitness Journey (Guest Post)

Last week I got unexpectedly hit with the flu. (Come to think of it, is it ever really expected?) Anyway, it knocked me out hard and I was upset by the rough start to my 2017. (Needless to say I haven’t worked out but proudly made it to a Yin yoga class which my post-flu body could barely handle.)

While I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, I do appreciate a New Year’s reflection on my overall life trajectory. What have I accomplished? What haven’t I? Where would I like to see things going over the next year?

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New Year’s resolutions for me, like lots of people, tend to fall flat by Week 2. Sam wrote about December 1st as the new January 1st. I actually like the idea of getting a jump on a new year the months leading up to it.

In the fall, I was excited to recommit to my health and fitness. I’ve written here about how I am learning to see myself as an active person who is takes her wellbeing seriously. One of the people who inspired me to make the change in my own life also recommitted to her health and wellbeing exactly one year before I did (she in November 2015, and I in November 2016).

I thought that I would speak more formally with her about her experience, as there are things I recognize as similar about both of our stories: we both started out as relatively active children and young women but became discouraged and anxious about fitness as we got older. We both had multiple false starts over the years, and we both decided to integrate fitness and wellness in our lives around the same time.

 

Tracy: What does being “fit” mean to you?

Jaclyn: Being fit means loving, embracing and accepting my body for all the amazing things that I can do. This is not to say that now I love my body because it is leaner and has more muscle mass, and that I could not love my body before because I had a much higher body fat percentage. Getting stronger, lifting heavier, and getting my cardio up to a level I didn’t know was possible has led to an appreciation for myself and my body that I never had when I spent most of my days drinking, partying, and subsequently binge eating my hangover away the next day.

Tracy: Since you mention it, regarding your drinking/partying in the past, do you feel like you simply “replaced” those old habits with new ones or is it more complex? (Do you feel like a different person now than you were back then?)

Jaclyn: I think it’s more complex than that. I’m the same person, yet a different person. I think a part of the drinking was me trying to cover over parts of me that I didn’t like (or that I thought I needed to change to be liked). When I began my fitness journey, my new habits (nutrition, fitness, sleep, water intake, etc.) replaced old habits (binge drinking, binge eating, partying).  As my new habits began to slowly weed out and replace my old ones, there was a moment that I realized I was truly and genuinely happy. In that moment, I realized that this new lifestyle fuels me and allows me to be my most authentic and genuine self.

Tracy: That’s so wonderful and it’s been amazing to see your progress. What was your previous experience with fitness? Were you an active child?

Jaclyn: I grew up an active kid; I was on the swim and synchronized swimming teams, played soccer, and did ballet. My family loves to camp, so I’d frequently go canoeing, hiking, swimming and kayaking with them. But gym class was a nightmare for me. As a shy and introverted child, cliques in gym classes (which often involved choosing partners and teams) intimidated me. My intuition was to skip the classes to avoid this.

In undergrad, I joined a couple gyms but never stuck with them because I had no knowledge about what I should be doing, how to use the machines and free weights, or how to bring variety into my workouts and how to eat in accordance with my goals.

I would never even dream of asking someone to show me how to do something, and I was too afraid of being judged using free weighs since I had never used them before.  So, I would go over to the one machine I knew – the treadmill – walk for 40 minutes and leave as quickly as I could.  After a couple weeks, I would get bored of the same old routine and frustrated by the lack of any tangible kind of progress, I would quit the gym.  Looking back, my social anxiety, shyness and introversion were the biggest obstacles for getting into fitness.

Tracy: I think that can be quite common—sometimes people see “gym culture” as macho or unfriendly, especially for someone who is new to working out or not that knowledgeable when it comes to fitness. How did you find this and what strategies did you find helpful in overcoming that?

Jaclyn: As someone with little knowledge about fitness and exercise, and as an introvert with social anxiety, breaking into the gym and developing a consistent routine was a huge obstacle. This time, however, I didn’t want to run; I wanted to face this challenge and move myself into a space where I could walk into a gym and do my routine comfortably.

As I’ve grown with my anxiety, I have learned things that I can do to help reduce attacks.  For example, in a conference setting, the more research I have done on my topic, the more comfortable I felt.  So, this was my first strategy in wanting to become more comfortable at the gym, to gain knowledge.

I’m fortunate that I could afford a starter package with a personal trainer.  My thought process was that if I was willing to spend the money I previously did on booze, then I could certainly take that money and invest in myself and buy some training sessions.  I thought that if I had an expert take me through the gym, show me how to use the machines and show me some free weight exercises, I would feel more confident walking in and doing it on my own.

Further, I thought that if I could learn the basics of form, that when I went on my own I would be less likely to injure myself.  Another alternative to training packages is to take full advantage of the growing fitness industry via social media platforms (such as YouTube). I used this to watch how certain exercises are done, would mimic the motions in the privacy of my own house, and then try them at the gym. Utilizing the knowledge from the training sessions and from my research online helped me feel more confident in the gym.

Tracy: You’ve mentioned your social anxieties, which I think are common for many people, especially when it comes to trying new things. How has fitness allowed you to grow in this area, and allowed you to become less fearful of being judged, etc.?

Jaclyn: In addition to gaining the knowledge necessary to make me more comfortable at the gym, I made sure to go during quieter periods (i.e., not during peak times), especially at the beginning. I would also wear a baseball hat, which almost acted like blinders—it helped me feel more “in the zone” and focus more on myself and less on others around me.

Over time, I became more and more confident in myself and in my place at the gym. The better I became at lifting, the less I worried about being judged.  Moreover, the more I fell in love with lifting, the less I cared about being judged; in fact, I don’t worry at all about this because I know that weight lifting involves stalling on reps, or failing a certain move.  I know saw failure as opportunity to grow and learn – understood that this was part and parcel of the process itself – and so I no longer feared being judged.  This process of working on my anxieties in the gym was by no means a speedy one, but I can now happily say that about one year later, I do not need to wear a hat, and I can walk into any gym, at any time, and get to the grind with no fear and no anxieties.

I found that this newfound confidence in the gym spilled into other aspects of my life.  Looking back at where I started and where I am now made me realize how strong and resilient I am.  It helped me realize what I want out of life, and what I wasn’t willing to compromise.

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Tracy: What surprised you most about the new lifestyle that you wouldn’t have expected?

Jaclyn: I never expected to fall in love with fitness and weightlifting like I did, but perhaps more surprising was the humbling self-love and acceptance that arose naturally out of the process.  I have cellulite and big thighs, but this no longer bothers me like it used to.  Instead, I am amazed by how strong and resilient I have become since I started.  I have become humbled by fitness and developed a love for myself that was absent from the larger part of my life.

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

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Speaking with Jaclyn over the last few months have helped to keep me both motivated and patient with myself. It’s especially helpful when I have my own hang-ups or things that slow me down—like the flu, or like fainting (which I wrote about in last month’s post). I’m grateful to have her as a friend and role model and thank her for letting me write about this so openly in this month’s post!

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It sees you when you’re sleeping …

By MarthaFitat55

Last winter, I acquired a FitBit. I’m not the world’s best tracker of anything, but I was intrigued after I bought one for my husband and saw how easy it was to monitor different things.

I had originally seen the FitBit as a supersize pedometer, but in the almost eleven months that I have had, I have learned a lot.

The first thing I found out was how little I actually moved during my work day. I work from home, so I am always going up and downstairs. I assumed this was making me less of a sedentary person, but I was wrong.

It’s been a real process to reach my 10,000 steps a day as recommended. When I first started tracking, I averaged between 2500 and 3000 steps a day. When I went on my trail walks though, hitting 10K was no problem at all.

I’ve been making a conscious effort to move more, by taking more frequent breaks. The Pomodoro technique helps, and I use a nifty online program called mytomatoes.com to help me.

On a recent holiday to London, England, I averaged 15K a day, and I earned a couple of cool awards when I reached 20K and 25K in steps. Sadly I am not one of those people who can walk and work (unless it is a walking meeting). A treadmill or stand up desk is not for me, but the good news is that the Fitbit made me aware of how little I was moving, so now I do more (especially when on holiday!).

Now I lay me down to sleep

The second thing that intrigued me was the sleep tracker. Now I have always been a reasonably good sleeper. In fact, when my son was small, he said my superpower was that I could sleep anywhere, anytime.

And it is true. Need a catnap to reenergize? I can curl up with the best kitties and get 40 winks. On a long haul flight with either a hideously early start or a horrible arrival? I plug in my earbuds and off I go to noddyland.

So you can imagine what a horrible shock it was to learn from FitBit that I was a restless sleeper. The Fitbit registers when you turn over, and I do that a lot. I flip almost every 20 minutes, but I rarely wake up as a result. The panic set in when I accidentally set the sleep mode to sensitive. It was a sea of red lines.

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After I realized that flipping was a normal part of my sleep habit, I turned my attention to how much I actually slept. Over the last few months, I have reset my bed time so I am hitting the pillow an hour earlier than usual.

I notice the quality of sleep has shifted too. When I recently had a hard week ,which resulted in extremely late bedtimes, I noticed the difference within 48 hours. My productivity was low, my attention span was shorter, my mood was crankier, and my desire for long, long naps overwhelmed me in the afternoons.

I could also clearly see the change in quality as monitored by my FitBit. Not only was I not sleeping as much, but the kind of sleep I was getting mimicked my earlier stint on the sensitive mode. Except this time I was in average monitoring mode.

Measure what matters

 

The fact is the FitBit allows me to measure better. While I support intuitive knowledge, if you really want to make lasting changes, you need evidence, and the FitBit offers it in spades.

Some people feel it is a little creepy, but since I only send the information to myself and don’t participate in challenges with anyone else, I am not too inclined to worry.

I like the reminders I can set, especially on drinking water. I haven’t ventured too far into the food tracker because I am pretty hopeless on that front. (What has been working has been taking pictures of my meals. After a week of that activity, I could see where I needed to change (eat more greens!) and where I needed to cut back (eat less white food!).

Incidentally I have the Flex, which is about as basic as you can get. Right now it is enough for me. I think if you are just starting into tracking lifestyle habits with a view to a change, this might be the way to go.

— Martha is a writer living in St. John’s documenting a continuing journey of making fitness and work-life balance part of her everyday lifestyle.

 

Back in the kayak again—taking it up a notch in Casco Bay, Maine

Kayaking is deceptive. It seems really easy when you rent a recreational boat to paddle around a lake, or on a flat river or sheltered harbor. And it is.   It’s mellow and fun. I’ve blogged here about the lazy pleasure of taking boats out with friends on the Charles River in Boston, and also more recently here about watching the July 4th fireworks from a kayak. These outings were super-fun, and I highly recommend taking the opportunity to paddle around in a body of water (urban or rural) when you get the chance.

Sea kayaking, however, is another story.

 

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That’s Justine Curgenven, a world-class kayaker and documentary filmmaker.  She’s circumnavigated New Zealand, kayaked the Aleutians with Sarah Outen (the first people to do so successfully) and also filmed these and other expeditions.  Just watching her documentaries– like “This is the Sea 4” (part of a series) makes my hands sweat.  It’s worth checking out if you are curious.

Last weekend, I learned first-hand both how wonderful sea kayaking is, and also how steep a learning curve it has.

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On the ocean, there are a lot of factors that you have to consider before even loading gear into the boat:  winds, tides, currents, local topography, waves, and weather conditions.  Then there is the business of knowing how to paddle in bumpy water with swells, tidal races, wind, rocks, etc.  All this is/can be fun, but it requires a variety of skills and also a lot of experience.  And of course you have to know how to get back in your boat when (not if) it capsizes in the ocean.  Many sea kayakers know how to roll their kayaks to get back upright.  Here’s Cheri Perry on her way back up.

 

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I’m not there yet.  Luckily there are both self- and assisted rescues you can learn to do to get yourself back in the boat when you do an unexpected “wet exit” (one of my favorite euphemisms of all time).

My friend Janet and I arrived on Peak’s Island bright and early Friday morning to join Tom Bergh and Liz Johnson of Maine Island Kayak for their 3-day Fast-Track sea kayaking course.  Tom is a legend among sea kayakers, having paddled all over the world (including Antarctica).  He is one of the best teachers I’ve ever met– he offers clear, simple instruction, all tailored to each student’s level.  Liz is relatively new to kayaking, but has embraced it fully and is now a licensed guide and also teaches and assists Tom in many ways in the business.  She was at my side for a lot of the course, always encouraging and offering suggestions that helped increase both my confidence and comfort in the water and my technical skills.

The course lasted three days.  We spent day one getting used to and making adjustment to our boats (beautiful fiberglass sea kayaks made by Nigel Dennis), reviewing some basic paddle strokes in a sheltered cove, and then practicing rescues near the beach in 61-degree (16 C) water, which gets very cold the longer you stay in.

Day two took us to some areas in Casco Bay with rocks, surf, and what they call “bumpy water”– waves, swells, tidal races, choppy seas.  At one point my boat washed up on a rock and I was temporarily stranded out of water.  I yelled “Help!” without thinking.  Turns out that keeping a cool head, assessing the situation, and paddling either forward or backward when the next wave comes in does the trick and gets you unstuck.  Not that I actually did any of this– I flailed about while the instructors tried to get me to listen and calm down.  However, I eventually got myself back on water again.  This happened a second time near the shore, and this time I was (slightly) more ready to deal.

We tried surfing the kayaks on breaking waves, which sent a few of us sideways and exiting wetly.  However, everyone got back in– a little scraped up and soggy, but otherwise fine.  Then we headed over to a nearby island (Cushing Island), where the water pounded the cliffs, sending waves back out to combine with the ones coming in, producing much bigger waves.  And some of us paddled into a little cove, where waves were bouncing everywhere.

 

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This was very cool.  It was also scary, at least to me.  Just being out on the ocean (even in this relatively protected area), I felt small and vulnerable.  And I was.  So I practiced some strokes while paddling further out from the rocks and cliffs.

 

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Several times on day two I thought to myself, what in the world am I doing out here?  I’m scared of this.  But at the same time I looked around me, and was overwhelmed with how sublimely beautiful it was on the water, in a boat, a part of the natural scene.

 

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My fear bobbed alongside my love of the seas and islands and birds and animals (yes, we saw dolphins and a seal).  And that was, in the end, okay.

Day three took us further out– to “the outside” as Tom put it to us.  We crossed shipping channels, used our compasses to plot headings to and from various islands in the bay, surfed a tidal race (I only hit someone else’s boat once– sorry, Humphrey), and crossed through some eddy/current/something scary to go around another island to here:

 

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Janet (in the blue hat), tried out some of the rock gardens by the cliffs, while I bobbed around and paddled in the swells with Liz.  This time, though, the love outpaced the fear.  It was fantastic to be out there, expanding my “safety box” (as Tom put it) and increasing my confidence and pleasure.

After lunch on a beach and more compass navigation lessons, we headed back.  The wind was up and the area in the above photo had turned really choppy and agitated.  I felt like I was paddling in a washing machine.  Humphrey, an experienced paddler (and husband to Liz, the instructor), stayed alongside me, trying to distract me by discussing legal theory (as he’s a lawyer and I’m a philosopher).  I was concentrating hard on paddling straight, compensating for all the chop, but was smiling– both at his kindness, and at the marvel of nature I was smack in the middle of.

We had a last lesson on towing another boat, and then headed back to the beach.  Janet is in the foreground, and I’m grinning behind her.

 

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I learned a few things over the kayak weekend.  First, I now know what I don’t know about sea kayaking, which is almost everything.  I’ve got a long way to go.  I also learned that fear can bob alongside pleasure and fun.  And finally I can choose in what ways I push myself out of my “safety box”.  I will be pushing, though, as there’s a lot of water out there to see and explore in.

I talked with Liz this week about her own history and views on sea kayaking. One of the things she likes best about it is the sea kayaking community.  “I find people to be incredibly welcoming. I’ve participated in several different sports, and they tend to be quieter, cerebral. I’ve appreciated that they’re not competitive.”

Liz on fear: “I get scared a lot. We have our safety box within which we feel comfortable. To grow we have to push out the edges of that box. [For example] these are bigger waves. This wind is so strong, I can hardly paddle back. It’s scary. Pushing your boundaries.  Just surfing a wave when we were out got my adrenaline going. [It was] a scary thrill.”

Liz told me that women are actually well-equipped for sea kayaking: “Women don’t have a disadvantage sea kayaking; our advantage is that our center of gravity is lower. This is a huge advantage in a boat. We are more flexible than men—keeping hips loose, maintaining balance—this is really key. We develop upper body strength, too.”

One problem (and this is no surprise to readers of this blog) is that gear manufacturers don’t tend to make boats and gear for women’s bodies, especially ones who are smaller or larger than the average male kayaker. “One hard thing is finding a boat that fits well, especially for smaller women. I’m 5’8” with small frame. The contact you have with your boat is important for maneuvering it, and giving you confidence.”

I agree with her; as a woman who is larger, finding a boat that fits me well is a challenge.  However, when I get my own kayak, I’ll want to get it custom-fitted (to make sure it’s tight enough to have good contact and control, and also comfortable for long distances).

I’ll close with this from Liz about why we sea kayak: “The boat is the vehicle for getting out there, learning about yourself, learning about nature. Everything else is secondary to getting out there.”

Yes yes yes!  I’m going to scale up that steep learning curve, one stroke and one wave at a time.

Readers, what have you done that had such a steep curve?  Do you like those kinds of activities?  I’d love to hear about your experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

Act Now, Think Later (Guest Post)

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with depression and anxiety for a few years now, which really emerged in a big way while I was pursuing my MA in philosophy. Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone, but I’ve found myself able to manage my depression and anxiety through therapy and exercise. I’ve also had longstanding issues with procrastination, which contributes to the endless cycle of self-talk with “You’re not doing enough,” “You don’t belong here,” “If you were really serious about philosophy, you wouldn’t have to push yourself to work,” and other things like that.

While doing my MA, I sought therapy through Student Services and worked with a therapist there, who was herself a PhD student, and our sessions were extremely helpful to me. There are lots of really great lessons I took from the sessions, but two in particular have really stuck out: 1) I need to set significantly lower expectations for myself, and 2) action precedes motivation. As far as low expectations go, the way I think of it is this: if I tell myself that today I’m going to accomplish Things A, B, C, and D, but only end up accomplishing Things A and B, I’ll feel disappointed in myself, and that fires up the cycle of negative self-talk. But if I set out to accomplish Thing A, find that that fires me up a bit, and then also get Things B and C done, then I can feel good about what I’ve accomplished (even if it wasn’t Things A through D). As for action preceding motivation, it’s almost exactly what it sounds like: sometimes, you simply don’t want to do things until you’ve started doing them, but once you get going, it actually feels okay or even fun, and you find yourself motivated to do it.

So, what does all of this have to do with fitness?

Since starting my PhD study in a new country, the depression and anxiety have re-emerged. Thanks largely to this blog, I’ve managed to abandon the idea that exercise is for aesthetic reasons, and I now think of exercise’s role in my life as being one of maintaining general health, be it physical or mental. It’s not just anxiety that I’ve had this on-again, off-again relationship with, but also running. It’s not my favourite form of exercise (I’m much more in the swimming, weightlifting, and TRX camps), but there’s a lot about running it that draws me to it, like the relative lack of expense, and pretty minimal gear requirements. In my case, there’s also no travel time: I just put on my shoes, step outside, and start running. No need to get myself to a gym or pool first. One thing that often keeps me from running, though, is the idea that I’m just not good at it. I know, I know: how will I ever get good at it if I don’t do it? But what I’ve taken from my therapy sessions is largely applicable to running: like my work in philosophy, I need to remember to set lower expectations for myself, and remember that action precedes motivation. Now, I’m not a fast runner, and although I’m fairly tall, I don’t have that long graceful gazelle-like stride that seems to come so naturally to so many other tall runners. I get red in the face quite quickly and find myself huffing and puffing much sooner than I’d like to admit. But setting lower expectations for myself means deciding that some days, five minutes of red-faced, huffy puffy running is good enough. (Yeah, I know it’s significantly less than experts recommend. But if I try to convince myself to run for twenty minutes, I often don’t wind up going at all. Low expectations, remember?) And the other thing is, sometimes that five minutes turns into ten. And then the ten turns into twenty. And sometimes twenty even becomes thirty. Action precedes motivation.

Admittedly, when it comes to running, I don’t have much of a routine. Often, it’s just a matter of thinking, “A run might be nice,” for whatever reason (I’m cold and want to warm up, I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything that day, I want to feel strong, or I want to work through a philosophical problem that’s bothering me, for instance), and heading out the door five minutes later. I tend not to time myself or map out any particular route, because I know from my own experience that quantifying things is the fast track to taking the fun out of it. I’ll have to develop some kind of a routine over the next few months, since I spontaneously signed up for a half marathon just earlier today, but that’s quite a ways off and I still have time to enjoy the lack of structure. Again, low expectations are where I need to start.

Running is helpful in managing my depression and anxiety in two ways. There’s the obvious one: that exercise is simply good for your mental health. The second one, though, in my case, is that working at implementing those two lessons when I run is that I get that much better at implementing them in other areas of my life, notably my grad school work. Convincing myself to write just one paragraph or read just one article sometimes takes more effort than I wish it did, but the point is to start.

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Plus, it’s a little easier to enjoy running when you get scenery like this to look forward to.