On Taking Up Physical Activity

I don’t really have hobbies. I work, I eat and sleep, and I read before sleep. I smile at my beloved, scratch the cat’s chin, and look at Facebook too much. That’s pretty much it. When people ask me what my hobbies are, I’m ashamed that I don’t have something like parasailing or brewing craft beer to flourish. I can’t even stand knitting. I usually mumble something about yoga (because reading is like eating, sleeping, and breathing). But yoga isn’t a hobby. Or an exercise, really, though you use your body in practice. It’s more…but what is it?

To say I’m not athletically inclined would be a monumental (or is it minuscule?) understatement. I am the child who grew up with bruises on elbows and shins because they were my primary contact points with the physical world. I began to walk competently enough, but running was a disaster. The second stride was consistently followed by a face plant. Specialists were consulted. They predicted I’d “grow into my feet.” Forty-some years later, I’m still working on it.

Gym class was the bane of my school years. I was a bright little monster, accustomed to excelling at most tasks. Not phys ed. I was spindly and spectacularly uncoordinated. Also, I couldn’t usually see the ball, a fact that escaped the notice of everyone including myself for years (more on that another day). I was often excused from gym with a doctor’s note, and when I was in play, I usually caught the ball with my face. I accidentally tripped my stepsister in a soccer game and she broke her arm. I swear nobody believed anyone could be that clumsy.

While I didn’t hate my body, I accepted that it was never going to win any prizes. That’s common enough among bespectacled types. So, many years later when a doctor suggested SOME physical activity might eventually extend my lifespan, I was skeptical. Sports, exercise…wasn’t my thing. But I had just gone through the rite of passage known as “comps” in my doctoral program, and a life change was in order. No longer would I spend 16 hours a day poring over colour-coded recipe cards, memorizing milestones in literary history, stuffing my brain with Renaissance verse, and cultivating the complexion of a Morlock. I was Going to Join a Gym.

I signed up at the YMCA. I was terrified. It was huge. There were thickets of curious machines and contraptions, some for “cardio” and others for “resistance”. My body couldn’t tell the difference — both made me short of breath and jelly-limbed. In the back corner, there were grunting men wearing weight belts, lifting major kitchen appliances in sets of two. There were young women with perfectly toned backsides prancing on Stair Masters for an hour at a time. Their coordinated pink athleisure wear showed no evidence of sweat stains. There were regiments of people bobbing up and down on colour-coded risers to the thump of the hit parade. They never missed a beat. And there were basketball and racquetball courts full of men (boys?) in board shorts and t-shirts with the sleeves cut off. They never dropped the ball.

I almost left, but a friend convinced me to try the women’s gym, hire a trainer, and take a yoga class. Years later, I’m still grateful to her. I learned the things I was good at (free weights, baby!), and the things I was not (I’m only gonna fall off the back of a treadmill twice). The women’s gym, which had a picture window looking out on the main gym, was a revelation. As I pedaled, I noticed that there was much greater variety of people than I’d noticed at first. There was the elderly man on the recumbent bike, very white t-shirt tucked into his high waistband, black knee socks pulled up over his varicose veins. I think his t-shirt was ironed. There were truly obese people, and I thought how much more courage they must have than me, to get on a bike right next to the self-tanned Barbies in Lululemon. There were young boys lifting weights, giggling while they spotted each other. I couldn’t spot a single muscle on their reedy frames and concave chests. Tall bodies, short bodies, gaunt bodies, muscular bodies, portly bodies, wizened bodies. Some adept, a picture of grace and strength. Some, like me, wobbly or ungainly or just plain slow.

But it was in the yoga studio that my eyes opened all the way. In the first week, the teacher picked me to demo the wrong way to take downward facing dog. I hadn’t yet clued in to the fact that when the internet said to wear loose-fitting clothing, the internet had never practiced an inversion. As I took the pose and the teacher beckoned to the class to “gather round and tell me what is wrong with this picture,” I felt my baggy t-shirt begin creeping from my waist to my armpits, revealing my abdominal surgical scar (not to mention my bra). Blood was rushing to my head, either because I was upside down or because I was soon to be half undressed. If the teacher’s hands hadn’t been pressing my shoulder blades to the floor and my sacrum toward the sky, I would have stood up. Luckily, the teacher was both observant and wise, and he solved the problem by casually and deftly tucking my t-shirt into the back of my waistband. I hadn’t had someone tuck in my shirt since I was 5. And I discovered it was fine. I was doing it all wrong, and I had nearly had a major wardrobe malfunction in front of the whole class. And it was fine. That was how I started to learn how to get over myself, just a little bit.

Each time I practice, I take myself a little less seriously. I get out of my head and into a space where I am never going to excel. I’m not flexible, and I’m not particularly strong. I’m not even always healthy. I have some balance when I’m not thinking about work or over-caffeinated (usually I’m both). I did learn the joy of building muscle where there was a wasteland before. I’m what you call a fixer upper, but my body actually does respond when I use it for something besides typing and ferrying chips to my mouth. I learned things about myself that I’d never known before, like the fact that my Achilles’ tendons are very long and my right hip sits lower than my left. I learned to observe myself without judgment (or at least it’s a work in progress). I learned not to look at the people around me. People talk about checking your ego at the door, about being in the moment, about stilling the mind. At some point, I realized that I understood the cliches. I can’t even improve on them.

People translate the word “yoga” differently. I’m no Sanskrit scholar, but I’ve heard it described as union, yoking, or joining. Connection. In the simplest sense, the mind and the body are united. Hopefully, the spirit will follow.

I’ve been sick for a while, and my body has needed rest more than anything. Steroid therapy has added so many pounds I don’t recognize myself. Soon, as part of recovery, I will come to the point where I cross the threshold to the gym again, for the first time in a long time. It will take courage (again), humility (again), and some bigger gym clothes (for a time). I will perform repetitive motions in the name of cardiac health, and lift heavy things to rebuild atrophied muscle. But the real work happens when I begin to stretch again. Union.