Recovered? (Guest Post)

Image description: A tree with red leaves in the shape of a head. One third of the leaves blowing away.  Also, green grass and blue sky and white clouds.

Image description: A tree with red leaves in the shape of a head. One third of the leaves blowing away. Also, green grass and blue sky and white clouds.

By Meena Krishnamurthy

A couple of months ago someone asked me the question that I have dreaded being asked most. The question was a simple one: Are you fully recovered?

Let me back track a bit. Almost three years ago, I suffered from a severe concussion. I had cognitive and visual problems, endless dizziness, migraines, and neck pain. Together these symptoms left me in bed in a dark room for almost 7 months. I was able to brush my teeth and shower, but I wasn’t able to grocery shop or cook. I was able to see people, but only for short times. I was largely isolated from my husband and my, at the time, 6 year old daughter. The dog was really the only one I could tolerate for longer periods of time, but at times even she was too much to handle.

For the most part, through hard work and some good luck, I’ve managed to get back to the things that I love. In the fall of 2016, I started a new academic position and in the winter I returned to teaching. This year I returned to a full teaching load. I’ve also returned to travelling and giving talks on a very limited basis. Most importantly, I am able to spend time with my family and to do the simple things that I love like grocery shopping. Even though it didn’t quite stick, I even managed to start running again this summer. All things considered, things have been going very well for me. I am proud of the progress that I have made and continue to make.

Given all of this, one might wonder, why was THAT question so difficult to answer? In part, it is hard to answer because I had recently been asking myself the same question and I hadn’t come up with a good answer.

The question itself confuses me. It isn’t clear to me what being recovered looks like at this point. If the person (and myself) was asking whether I am back to being the same person that I was before my head injury, then the answer is no. And, what comes next is difficult to say out loud and to admit to myself: I am not the same person that I was before my head injury. Sometimes I have still have days (sometimes many days) where I can’t out of bed. Sometimes, I am still overwhelmed with migraines, nausea, and numbness for weeks at a time. Sometimes, I am still cognitively hazey (this is probably the hardest thing to admit as an academic). More fundamentally, I am aware of my vulnerability, sometimes overcome with (irrational) fear that I will return to that dark room and be unable to do the things I love most.

On the other hand, perhaps I have just changed. Perhaps this is all part of my new norm. I have great days and not so great days and somehow I push through. Perhaps, then, I have recovered as much as I can.

Another option (according to the medical experts that I am working with) is that I’m still a work in progress. According to my neurologist, it can take almost 6 years to fully recover from a brain injury. This isn’t often the answer that people want to hear. People prefer a quick and complete success story – one where the person goes from being stuck in a dark room to being back in front of the classroom and travelling around the world, as if the accident had never happened. Unfortunately, in many cases of brain injury, this is a far-fetched scenario.

At this point, I’m still not sure how to answer THAT question. All of these are live options. My guess is my answer will change with place and time.

The mental health benefits of fitness

One of the things I’m learning in embracing fitness is that it is always a process of learning and that this learning isn’t always about fitness.

I’ve always known about the mood lifting benefits of physical activity. I often liken it to Dorothy Parker’s bon mot about writing: “I don’t like to write; I like to have written.”

For me, it’s more a case of “I don’t like to exercise; I like to have exercised.”

It‘s the after effects of physical effort, the sense of well being, and the knowledge I have accomplished something that brings me the most joy. When I am in the midst of the workout, my main goals are to perform well, execute the program as directed, and finish. I might not always be upright and smiling as running guru John Stanton recommends, but I am usually one or the other.

And I am always happy because there is always something in the workout that pleases me. Maybe it’s feeling the growing strength in my weak knee or unstable hip; maybe it’s the thrill of trying a new exercise (hello there pull-up!).

The fact is, I start most of my workouts in a happy frame of mind. I’m glad to be in the gym, even if I am feeling slow, especially in the winter when it is cold and my joints feel sticky.

Last fall though, I went through a period of significant stress. I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t keeping to my usual meal plans, and quite frankly, I wasn’t as chill as I would have liked. After a spectacularly challenging week, I wrote my trainer and asked her to give me a hard workout, nothing held back.

And she did. Looking back, I can’t remember what was in the program; I only remember my determination to work as hard as I could, and as strongly as I could.

By the end of it, I wasimg_3176 spent, totally wrung out and I felt hollow, like a husk. Yet I also felt calm, light, and balanced, as if the effort of pushing myself unbelievably hard, had released me from the anchor of stress that was weighing me down mentally.

In an earlier post, I wrote about my discovery of anger as a means to fuel the power in a challenging lift or squat. And while I wouldn’t recommend intentionally subjecting yourself to a stressful situation to see how you perform in a hard workout, I think it is worth evaluating how you can use a workout to alleviate stress.

The Saskatoon Regional Health Authority has produced a dandy leaflet looking at how you can manage grief and loss with physical activity.

The brochure looks at how exercise affects your emotions and the benefits it brings to your body and mind. For example, it says “when we are physically active, our bodies release endorphins which help to reduce symptoms of grief, depression, anxiety and stress.”

Those endorphins help us get to our happy place by stabilizing our moods as I mentioned earlier. But exercise also helps us regulate the release of neurotransmitters, those nifty brain chemicals that can calm us or motivate us, depending on what we are experiencing.

So while stress can make us swing like a pendulum, exercise can bring us to a place where we can find emotional and physical balance. Some people find workouts useful in how they help them figure out solutions to life or work problems. Others like how they help wipe away fear, anxiety, grief, and stress.

For me, I like not having to worry about anything except the completion of the exercise. It actually gives me some control, in a time when stress is making me feel as if I have none. While I will continue to focus on building strength and developing my functional fitness levels with training, I now know that my workouts are also contributing to my emotional and mental well being by reducing the negative effects of stress on my physical self.

— Martha is a writer in St. John’s who has found happiness in lifting things up and putting them down again.

Unwinding a Double-bind at the Gym (Guest Post)

by Marnina Norys

I have allowed myself to become a “before” picture over the past 6 months. The gravity of my situation only hit home when I went to put on my go-to outfit for the first day of classes, and couldn’t get the zipper up on a jacket that had been flattering a mere 2 months before. Perhaps I’d have been alerted to my plight earlier if over the holidays, I’d worn something other than fleece pants and pajamas. You know the ones, they swathe you in softness and have such kind, forgiving waistbands. The fact that my winter coats were all becoming a bit too snug told my something, but I wasn’t listening.

This might seem like a trivial concern, but come on, the winter coats alone would cost $500 to replace. I went for quality when shopping, so that my ski coat, for example, is almost a decade old and is still holding up just fine. And lets not get started on the cost of a good, durable down parka, especially in Toronto. The same logic (quality over quantity) drove me when I was buying most of my clothes. This includes the gym gear purchased back when I was a happy little gym rat.

So of course, I’ve ended up hitting the gym harder than I have in years. In a way, the money I stand to save on new clothes is like getting paid to work out and that has been a good motivator. I’m not killing myself out there, I’m doing workouts that I enjoy. My credo has always “if it’s not fun, stop,” so as to avert developing negative associations with the gym. I’m glad of this, because this helped me overcome some toxic thought processes that almost kyboshed a recent work out.

“Norys,” I thought to myself while I stared at my body in the change room mirror, “you are so not falling for that line of bullshit, not a chance.” This is the thought that got me back onto the floor that night.

This internal conversation took place after discovering that the Cherry St. Y was a lot warmer than the downtown Y. As such, the thin fleece I usually wear for winter workouts was way too warm, leaving me uncomfortable and unhappy on the track. Where the fleece had acted like a corset, however, the tank top underneath was much too small now, revealing my newest midriff bulges in all their corpulent glory. I was simply not comfortable with the idea of working out in nothing but a too-tight tank top. Vain me started to bargain with the side of me that just wanted to run around and play in the gym. “Lets just go home,” she whispered. “We’ll try again another time with more appropriate gear.”

The thing was, I really felt like working out. I was having fun out there damn it! Angry about the catch 22 I was setting up for myself, I bucked up, fixed my attention firmly on how good it felt to be moving rather than imagining what other people saw. Mind you, I did give vain me a nod and tied my fleece around my waist to hide some flab (just don’t tell vain me what a futile gesture that actually was!). I have a wardrobe full of beautiful clothes that aren’t fitting well anymore, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let these same ill-fitting clothes bar me from making the changes required to wear them comfortably again.

 


Marnina Norys teaches a variety of subjects for a variety of departments at York University. Her newest favourite activity is urban hiking, often done with other Ingress players. Ingress is augmented-reality smartphone game that uses gps to direct players to game elements around the world. At the gym she enjoys running (generally at a pace she has dubbed a “toodle”), weight lifting, dance, tai chi and her own made-up style of kickboxing done on the heavy bag when no one is watching.

 

 

 

It’s not all about winning, but sometimes a win is just what you need (Guest post)

by Rebecca Kukla

I’m a 46-year-old philosophy professor and an amateur boxer. I didn’t start boxing until I was 43 years old, which is exceptionally late. I never expected to be able to compete, because of my late start, my age, and my deep lack of faith in my own athletic abilities. Also, most pragmatically, I never expected to be able to find a match, because according to the rules I can only fight people within 10 years of my age (namely, really old to be doing this!) and in my weight class, which is the rare under-105-pound or ‘light flyweight’ division (namely, reall small to be doing this!). But as some readers of this blog will remember, I got in the ring for my first sanctioned match last year. It was intensely exciting, and while I did not win, I held my own and everyone agreed it was an extremely close fight. That was more than good enough for me! I was thrilled that I had managed to get my skill level to the point where a real competition was plausible; that I had found a match; that I had mustered the courage to get in the ring; and that I had survived three rounds without getting knocked out and with my dignity intact.

It took a while to get to a second fight. In between I had surgery and a long recovery, a fight that got frustratingly cancelled at the last minute, and various other slowdowns. But this past Saturday I got back in the ring, once again fighting at the legendary and atmospheric Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. And I’m going to admit something that’s kind of at odds with a lot of the norms of this blog: I really, really, really needed a win.

I was coming off several months of personal, professional, and family stress – stress of the sort that eats at your self-esteem and your basic feelings of being a competent and worthy person. My boxing was stuck in a destructive spiral: Although I had been training really hard, the closer I got to fight time and the more anxious I became, the worse I got in the ring. When I sparred I felt like I was moving backwards instead of forwards. People yelled at me to be more aggressive, to be faster, to move more … and the more frustrated I got the less I could put all these pieces together. Things degenerated to the point where one coach who I respect enormously shouted at me in frustration that maybe I should consider a different sport. I left in tears. My trainer was coming up to New York from DC for the fight on his own dime, just to corner me, and my sweetie and my son came up with me too, and I felt like I would let all three of them down if I lost. I was beside myself with anxiety and self-doubt.

Making weight was easier than usual for me this time, as I had recently done a powerlifting competition and I was pretty good about not letting my weight bounce back up after the weigh-in for that. So a few days of low-sodium, high-fiber eating and a day of semi-dehydration let me weigh in safely at 101.2 pounds. My opponent weighed in at 100.6, so we were a perfect match. Getting into the ring was also a helpful mood-booster, as the crowd always enjoys seeing the tiny little women fight, so we were greeted with big cheers. (My sense is the tiny fighters and the giant fighters are the biggest crowd pleasers.)

As soon as the fight started, my anxiety let up quite a bit. I realized that unlike during the first fight, I could actually hear and focus on what my coach was telling me to do from the corner. The first time, the noise just overwhelmed me and I was too caught up trying to stay in the fight to have a lot of control over my strategy, but this time his orders translated almost immediately into my bodily responses. I could also tell quickly that I was doing a good job of ‘controlling the ring’ – that is, I was able to move my opponent where I wanted her in the ring, rather than chasing her around or running away from her. I could also tell that I was much better conditioned this time and the rounds were not going to tire me out (unlike last time when I almost passed out and threw up once I was done).

About half way through the first round I managed to get my opponent on the ropes and keep her there until the referee broke us up. I had tried to do that probably fifty times during sparring, and I never could manage it. I would always back off too soon, or my opponent would slip away from me. Once I had her on the ropes, somehow the last of my anxiety and under-confidence vanished. The rest of the fight was fun and I managed to stay aggressive right to the very end. My opponent and I were really well-matched and I think the fight was exciting the whole way through. (Oddly, it helped that I adore her. Counterintuitive as it may sound, I am much better at punching people who I like and care about outside the ring.)

To be honest, when they announced that I had won, I burst into tears of relief. Please understand that I really, truly don’t think that something like boxing should be all about winning, especially not when it’s just a hobby on top of a full life. But on this occasion, a win was something I needed. My sweet wonderful partner has told me several times that he would have been equally proud of me whether I had won or lost, because of all the hard work and the courage it took to get into that ring in the first place. I believe him and I see his point. But I felt like the universe had been harshing on me pretty hard, and a win was just what I needed.

rk2

Me with my coaching team  

 

Me and my opponent post fight

Me and my opponent post fight

 

Watch all three rounds here!

 

 

Rebecca Kukla is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. She does research on the making of medical knowledge, health and risk communication, body diversity and inclusion, the culture of eating, and other issues relevant to this blog. She is also an amateur competitive powerlifter and boxer, a loyal and enthusiastic bike commuter and pleasure rider, and a certified sommelier. She sometimes runs races with other FFI folks and is training for the Key West Half Marathon in January. She lives in the middle of Washington, DC, with multiple human and non-human animal kin.

 

Getting strong and feeling it

By MarthaFitAt55

I remember when I started running, and my shins hurt, friends said to me in encouragement, “wait until you get the runner’s high – you will feel fantastic.”

And it is true, you do. But to be honest, the emotion I usually felt when I worked out, or learned a new sport, was frustration. I had to work at learning all of it: how to stretch, how to move my feet, how to move my arms, how to recover, how to prevent injury and stress. I was not a natural athlete.

Often I would drag myself home, physically, and emotionally, in a lather muttering imprecations and not a few curses.

Of course, there were great moments. I remember the joy I felt at completing two ten-mile road races and competing in two regattas. I remember how thrilled I was to take five minutes off my time from one year to the next in the road race, and how excited I got when I finally felt at home in the boat with the team and the oars.

I remember how sad I felt when the season ended, when my rowing team members decided to pursue other interests, when my knees said no to running.

When I started weight training, I figured there would be similar highs and lows. And yes, there were times when I gritted my teeth doing the last set of split squats, or when I sat in the change room wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into.

Generally though, I liked, and still like, what I was doing. I was so happy when I started working with the trap bar, and then, when I graduated to the squat, bench and deadlift. So I have run the gamut – frustration, delight, excitement, anticipation, and sadness.

In one of my most recent training sessions, though, I encountered a new one: anger.

My trainer has suggested over the last couple of months that I work on my mental approach as well as thinking about my tactical approach to lifting large weights. I’ve been liking the ideas very much, and can see the difference in my squats.

The most consistent advice has been to focus on attacking the bar, whether I jam it in the right spot on my shoulders, or if it’s saying to myself, ”this weight is super heavy, but I am going to really go after this lift.“delicateflower

The fact is, I’m not used to physical aggression, or being physically aggressive. Now getting angry with inanimate objects was not foreign to me; I have wrestled with my share of awkward pie doughs, nasty zippers on toddler snow suits, and resistant corks in wine bottles. But getting angry in public, in a gym?

That was new, and it was uncomfortable and it was unsettling.

But I usually try anything my trainer suggests at least once, because so far I have received good advice and excellent coaching. So I attacked the bar. I was not going to be defeated by pieces of metal. I lifted that weight, and I did it seven times.

I expected to be wrung out, because we were on our next to last set, but instead I was buzzing with the power of the focused anger. It was overwhelming and confusing at once.

That night as I was thinking about that session, I wondered if, too often, we let those social roles set for women as peaceable, as accommodating, as flexible means we don’t get to own our aggression, passion, and anger in disciplined ways. It’s not just in weight and powerlifting, of course; it’s also in boxing and martial arts, to just name two.

Women aren’t supposed to show anger or aggression. If we feel it, we are supposed to swallow it, or hide it, because expressing those strong emotions means we are challenging the status quo, speaking our truths loud, and standing our ground.

But I have come to the conclusion that we need to show our strength, and if that means being loud, angry, and aggressive with the weight, then so be it. There are lots of lessons in the weight room that can carry over into the board room and perhaps it’s high time more of us were learning to harness that particular power effectively.

— MarthaFitAt55 has decided to replace her striped tabby cat inner self with a sleek black jaguar. So far so good.

Do you see what I see?

by MarthaFitat55

When I started working with a trainer, I really didn’t think much about why I was doing certain things in the gym. Most days my goal was to execute the drills as required and not make a fool of myself in front of all the other gym goers.

As time went on, I realized those who train seriously aren’t really paying attention to who else is doing what except to make sure no one is moving into a working area to avoid collision or to negotiate access to a piece of equipment.

Working out in a gym where lifters practice has been quite different for me from your average commercial gym. It’s not that people are working harder in a performance training gym – anyone who hauls their butt to a place filled with tools to make their bodies move hard gets my respect – it’s that people there look differently.

Talk to any woman and they will tell you about the look. We’ve all had it happen one time or another. Some describe it as being undressed or stripped; some will say they are being measured and found wanting, either in body shape or what they are wearing. In fact, there are some gyms that address forthrightly the need to keep eyes to self to avoid making their female customers feel uncomfortable or unsafe in their workout spaces.

Perhaps working with a trainer has, over time, insulated me from looks; that is, it’s not about whether I meet an ideal of womanhood, or if I am wearing the latest gym fashion (plain tee shirt and capris over here), but whether or not I am performing the exercise properly.

I learned very quickly that form is the beginning and the end, the be all and end all of working out. Without paying attention to form, you risk injury, or you overlook the first signs of a problem, or you fail to get maximum benefit from a particular action in the program.

I’ve recovered twice from new injuries, recovered from a couple of relapses, and a recent trip in the gym and in every case, the focus on form is what has helped me get back on track and strengthen those areas that need support.

Here’s the thing: focusing on form invites scrutiny. Intense scrutiny. Muscles are being looked at and being poked at. How you move is being looked at: the start, the execution, the finish.

That level of scrutiny without the baggage of the “male” gaze is a different experience all together. Having worked with a male trainer and a female trainer, each applying the same level of intensity to the gaze, has been hugely helpful in unpacking some of my earlier, less positive gym experiences.

Yes, there is judgment. After all, by training with someone whose expertise is movement, fitness and workout programming, I am inviting scrutiny and critique. And there is the key difference.

Most times women don’t want the look. They just want to do their work in the gym and get their fit on. And my friends have told me they can always tell when the look is not of appreciation for their great skill at the bench but for their other physical attributes.

When you train though with a trainer, you invite the gaze, and it is one with a specific purpose. There is more power for me in that relationship because I am working collaboratively with someone to acquire new skills and techniques, and to improve. When the gaze is uninvited, the power is all in the eye of the beholder, with none in the object of the gaze, and that is not a good thing.

And I have found, for me, when you train in a gym where most people are aiming for huge goals, the appreciative look feels differently. I think it is because I have had to learn how to look critically myself so I can replicate the movement, and when I am waiting my turn, and I see someone else execute a move beautifully, all I can think of is “wow, I want to learn how to do that.”

Because when someone is working hard and doing great work, it doesn’t matter what they look like or what they are wearing. What only matters is the beauty and power of their form.

— Martha Muzychka is still learning all the ways to be strong and fit.

A 21st century woman’s take on the sensei / student relationship in martial arts (Guest post)

Aikido by Kesara Rathnayake. Licensed under CC-by-sa 2.0

Aikido by Kesara Rathnayake. Licensed under CC-by-sa 2.0

What does a typical student / sensei relationship look like in a 21st century dojo?

Lori O’Connell suggests three forms it can take:

  1. Exalted Guru (very formal – student submits completely to their teacher)
  2. Affable Mentor (less formal – students are more actively encouraged to ask questions)
  3. Professional Trainer (the most informal – the focus is mainly on physical skills and fitness).

But for me, these are all kind of similar in the end. They’re all based on a one-way flow of learning – from the expert sensei to the receptive student.

And I struggle with this. Now I’m in my forties, I don’t want just a simple one-way power dynamic with my sensei.

In aikido we practise two roles equally, and in harmony with our partner – both leading (tori or nage) and following (uke). It’s pure yin / yang in action.

So rightly or wrongly, I want to relate to my sensei (and to other important people in my life) both ways – and practise both following and leading with him.

On the mat, a more traditional relationship is appropriate. Sensei’s martial arts knowledge is outstanding; I respect that, and soak up all the learning I can from him.

But off the mat, I crave ways in which I can balance this dynamic back out – by leading, and having him learn from me. You could think of it like a satisfying counter-stretch for the spirit.

I’m aware that my views on the sensei-student relationship might sound disrespectful to some, or even downright weird.

But I believe I’m learning aikido to develop and equalise my so-called yin / yang energies – not just to practise constant following and submitting to someone else’s lead.

At first I didn’t know how to get what I wanted. I just knew that the one-way role of student was too narrow and restrictive, and longed to shake it up a bit – but had no idea how to achieve this.

Then late last year, I set out to create a martial arts blog, with a focus on women’s participation and experience. It was a scary prospect, and I literally didn’t know where to start. Sensei in all his kindness wanted to help; and started to share everything he knew about training women in the martial arts. And I slipped into the familiar role of student; and was grateful for his help, as I am during class.

But as I started to research and reflect – and grow in confidence on the topic – I started to go places which were completely new for both of us . . .

And before I knew it, I’d become his teacher in this area.

To give him full credit, he’s absolutely thrown himself into absorbing and reflecting on all the new information and ideas. And over the last few months, he’s genuinely started to change as an instructor.

He’s been into the women’s toilets, and understood with a shock how nasty they were for us to change in. (The building only has one side room; and it does make sense for the men to use it to change, being in the vast majority). And thanks to him now, the ladies’ toilet is suddenly clean, mould and cobweb-free, freshly painted and has neat shelving on the wall – so that we no longer have to use the toilet lid (or floor) to place our clothes on.

He’s stopped teasing the boys and men for “kicking like a girl”.

Really importantly, he now gets the fact that many boys grow up learning to use their bodies in a way that many girls don’t, and so we often need far more granularity and repetition in the teaching. I’ve watched him totally get and engage with this; and literally master the art of breaking punching and kicking down into tiny components.

He is becoming startlingly successful at teaching timid, uncoordinated women and girls to punch right through a target with their whole body.

Because he now fully gets in a new way that women’s starting point in the martial arts is often (although not always) that we’ve never punched or kicked anyone in our life. As opposed to many of our dojo brothers who’ve often (although again not always) grown up playfighting and rough-housing.

A real turning point for me, was a lovely conversation we had, where he was very excited about a new teenage female student who’d arrived at the dojo clearly lacking confidence. He was teaching her to punch, and her punches were starting to get really strong; and she was literally bubbling over with excitement by the end of the lesson.

He said to me after the lesson: before I would just have thought she was happy because she was having fun. Now I see something else going on; and I can see that she’s happy and excited, because she feels empowered in a really new and astounding way.

I appreciate this unconventional sensei / student relationship so much.

He is basically helping me to practise the role of tori (the one who leads) – off the mat as well as on. I am getting to experiment and train on him; and grow into the role of thought leader – albeit on a very small, safe and comfortable scale.

It’s a strange and magical dynamic. If you watch aikido in action, you might just think that tori is the one doing everything – and uke is just being thrown around passively.

But in fact the opposite can be true. At its highest level, ukemi is an extremely skilled art. A good uke can actually be the one who leads tori, using the technique often called backleading in dancing. Indeed, in classical Japanese budo, the uchitachi (uke) is the more senior practitioner who helps the shitachi (tori) to understand the techniques.

So to be honest, I sometimes wonder where the roles of student and teacher start and end between us.

He teaches me aiki.

I teach him how to teach women; and so he teaches me better than he did before.

He teaches me how to teach him about teaching women, by being such a strong, receptive student (backleading).

The yin / yang energy flows in an endless, dynamic circle . . .

This may not be a model of instruction my sensei ever envisaged; and I probably never clearly foresaw it either. But for a woman wanting to learn martial arts from a man in the 21st Century, without perpetuating some kind of old-fashioned “Exalted Guru” relationship, I think it’s awesome – and would highly recommend it!

Picture credit: Aikido by Kesara Rathnayake. Licensed under CC-by-sa 2.0

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Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger. You can read more of her stories and articles at www.budo-inochi.com . . .