This summer has been a time of physical triumphs for me. Believe me when I say that victories of this variety are few and far between in my world.
I am a woman who excels in the work place. I shine in a classroom. I am comfortable on a stage. I can get strangers belly laughing with my wry humor. Fairly confident in most situations, I no longer worry (much) about what others think about me.
That is, until the situation requires coordination, agility or grace. I walk into walls and I trip over nothing. In a gym, I’m a buffoon. In swim class, I swallow a whole lot of pool. If someone lobs a ball in my direction, I don’t catch it, I duck and cover (and sometimes scream). As far as yoga goes, my mantra has always been, “Namaste right here in child’s pose.” Though my mind, my mouth, and me have always been in sync, my poor body can’t seem to keep up.
As you can imagine, exercise has not often been a joyful experience to a woman so at odds with her own limbs. Especially in public. Pretty much the last thing I want to do is be seen grunting, sweating, cussing, falling over, and all around failing at activities that other people find so simple. That’s the clincher really, the other people.
Exercise has always been so….humiliating.
My aversion can be traced back to my old school time nemesis: PE. In Algebra, I could solve equations in my sleep. In History I wrote award-winning papers. In French class my accent was tres bon. But PE. Oh, PE! PE was just one public humiliation after the other. Picked last for every team, hit in the head by every loose ball, and a failure at every sport I tried, virtually every class ended in tears. I couldn’t volley the ball over the net. I couldn’t hit a softball to save my life. Never once did I manage to catch up to that whizzing yellow tennis ball before it hit the ground. Dodge balls slammed into me with such force that they blurred my vision and rattled my teeth.
We were told we had to do a flexed arm hang for 6 seconds in order to pass 6th grade. Just six seconds. Each time I tried, I fell instantly. Over and over and over again that year I was marched to the bar, told to try harder to hold my weight up on the chin bar or I would be held back, then left to drop down to the ground in defeat while my classmates roared with laughter. Finally, on the last day of class, my teacher gave up hope, frantically counting as I fell, “onetwothreefourfivesix” all in one desperate breath.
So despite my inability to flexed-arm hang, I passed on to seventh grade but there PE only got worse. Junior High brought skimpy, clingy little uniforms that hugged every roll and bunched up between my rubbing thighs. It introduced the degrading chore of publicly undressing and showering. Perhaps worst of all, the intermediate school physical education curriculum included a unit of dancing. Of all the activities we engaged in, this one should have been my favorite. I liked to dance. I even took hula classes after school of my own volition. But dance class in school was torture for one simple reason; all the dances were with a partner. We square danced, waltzed, and fox-trotted in pairs and every single boy who was forced to dance with me put on the same show. They gagged. They attempted to dance without actually touching me, getting as far from me as possible whenever the teacher’s head was turned. They cursed under their breaths and muttered insults. There wasn’t a single boy who could muster up the common courtesy to endure dancing with the fat girl with any grace or kindness.
I still remember those boys names and their faces are burned in my mind. Gabe. Wilfred. Samuel. Kyle. Twenty-four years later, those boys still have the power to make me cry.
So exercise? Not so much. Working out in public? I’ve avoided it like the plague for more than 30 years.
That brings us to this summer. The summer when my joint issues got so bad that my old physical activity standby, hiking, was out of the question. (O, the blessed isolation of the woods. No one to see me eat it but a few birds and a squirrel!) We’d come back from a hike, and my plantar fasciitis would flare up so ferociously that I couldn’t walk for three days.
Now, if you’ve read my blog at all, you know that I’ve come to accept that fact that I’m fat over the last few years. Since I’ve never been self-disciplined enough to stick to stringent low-calorie diets or rigorous exercise plans very long, I think I’ll be shopping on the “plus-side” for life. That’s okay; that I can handle. However, I don’t want to accept being unhealthy along with my weight. Nourishing my body well and staying active have become non-negotiable to me.
So I decided I would take a swim class. Swimming is easy on the joints, it doesn’t aggravate plantar faciitis and, as my practical daughter pointed out, it’s less embarrassing to admit you’re taking a swim class than water aerobics. Heck, I grew up in Hawaii, hitting the beach every Sunday as a child, I should be able to swim a few laps gracefully, right? Wrong!
The first week of class was a nightmare. I coughed and sputtered. Every time I tried to turn my head to breathe I ended up sucking in water. I couldn’t coordinate my arms with my legs and kept having to stop mid-lane to readjust. I didn’t know what the heck the teacher was saying: “200 IM accelerate,” meant nothing to me though everyone else seemed to know just what to do. My pool buoy constantly escaped, my goggles fogged over or let in water, and “the girls” just did not want to stay in the suit, if you know what I mean. I diligently practiced kicking while clinging to a little red board, going nowhere while my classmates churned by me in the water, their powerful kicks sending waves into my lane. It was the same old story and I just knew the other students were all watching and judging me. I knew it. Those old, hot PE tears kept rising, flooding over and mingling with the cool, chlorinated pool.
But, you know what? The second week was easier. The third even better. And if the others were judging me, I never heard a word of it. In fact, they encouraged me: “Nice job today,” and, “Getting it!” We’re on week eight now and I can swim 100 meters free style now without stopping and without breathing pool. I complete a majority of the exercises the teacher scribbles on the board each class. I’m slow and steady and I’m still getting lapped, but what joy to be capable! When I get out of the pool, I want a roar to match my bathing suit strut; I feel mighty!
That hasn’t been my only success this summer.
After much persuasion, my fiance got me to agree to play a game of catch with him and, you know what? I caught the ball over and over and over again. When I lobbed it back, I mostly got the ball back to his general vicinity. Turns out keeping your eyes on the ball (instead of squeezed shut tight) really is a crucial part of the experience.
Last week, my daughters got me to try juggling out in the open, at the college where I work. At first I wouldn’t try it, I was too scared of looking foolish. But finally, enamored with the joy they were having, I relented, and agreed to a beginner’s lesson in juggling scarves. After a few minutes, I did start to get the rhythym. I wandered back to my office muttering, “Right left left right.”
Then just last night, my daughter asked me to try out a new yoga studio with her come morning. I read the flyer, talked with her about it, considered it, then chickened out. I have attended a yoga class three of four times over the last fifteen years and they’ve always featured me turning red-faced, grunting and falling over amidst a group of lithe, supple women standing on their heads. Not pretty. So I told Ruby late last night, no, we couldn’t go. That class was just too early. No way I could be ready to go by 6 am. We could do yoga at home. In the living room. With our virtual Youtube Yoga instructor like we always do. She pouted and looked crestfallen. I did not relent and she knew better than to argue.
This morning, I was awakened at 4 am suddenly. I briefly considered getting up and getting ready so we could hit the yoga class after all. Stubbornly, I wriggled deeper into my bed and stubbornly attempted to fall back to sleep. Four a.m. is obscene. What self-respecting human gets out of bed at that hour if they don’t have to? Especially for yoga class. Noone, that’s who!
It didn’t work. I was thoroughly and totally awake, two hours earlier than usual, with plenty of time to get in my coffee and bible journal before heading to the next town over to check out the studio. Drats!
So we went to yoga class this morning. We were there bright and early for the “Stretch and Smile with Jason”. Turns out, a bunch of the regulars were out of town. Yoga ended up being just me and Ruby and Jason’s mom. Talk about nonthreatening. And I loved it! It was a perfect mix of stretching, strengthening, and balancing. The instructor pushed me right to my limits but not beyond. Not only did I keep from falling over, I kept up with the whole flow.
And at the end of class, Jason, who doesn’t know me from Eve, came over to congratulate me, “Wow,” he exclaimed, “You’re really strong.”
I’m really strong.
I’m really strong!