As a kid, physical exertion for the sake of itself was something to be endured, rather than enjoyed. Perhaps it’s unfair to blame my elementary school gym teacher for this, but I’ve carried a mild hatred of the man for the last quarter century. That has to account for something.
I can’t fully recount all of my childhood grievances with his teaching, but making me do sit ups in front of the class as punishment for slooowly tying my shoes comes to mind. Granted, it was a calculated move on my part to avoid what I deemed a pointless activity, but he didn’t have to be a dick about it.
This was an age when a line of “Get in shape, girl!” products were a real thing marketed to young girls. (The pink ribbon on a stick quickly found itself on the bottom of my toy box.)
Back then, mastery of the monkey bars was the currency of coolness. Couple that with a decent cartwheel and you may as well have been Beyonce. I was capable of neither.
It was somewhere in those early elementary school years that I enrolled in jazz dance classes. I sulked and complained every week, sticking it out barely long enough to perform in one recital – a cheap adaptation of The Wiz.
My beginner class happened to be the scarecrows. The itchy straw that was crammed into the wrists and ankles of the full body spandex suits added insult to injury. I hated every minute of it, yet it was nice to channel my disdain for class into a costume, and away from the truth that I was just a terrible dancer.
In upper elementary school, I played a few seasons of softball. I enjoyed it for the most part, except when I got bored in the outfield and picked clovers.
More than anything, it was social hour, occasionally interrupted by a few swings of a bat and small stretches of standing in the field pretending to look like I was paying attention. I played until middle school when suddenly we were expected to learn to steal bases by sliding into them- a move that seemed dangerous and stain inducing. I was (and am) anti both.
In high school, I played a couple seasons of tennis. Not because I really cared about it, but because I wanted to be able to say I played a sport. The only alternative, field hockey, involved practices with far too much running, and (from what I heard) occasional puking. No thank you.
By the time I was 19, it seemed the world was falling apart. My family certainly had. I left college after a semester because as it turns out, if you don’t pay, you can’t go. I moved home.
Six months earlier, my home town felt like a runway. Returning, it was more like an overcrowded terminal of people waiting for a plane that was never coming.
I wanted to bolt. Leave. Go, well, anywhere. But instead of running away, I just ran. I joined a gym and ran. For hours.
I could lie and say that those miles cleared my mind, gave me perspective and kept me sane. But the truth is, as my dedication to the treadmill began to reflect itself on the scale, the control I thought I had began to spin out completely. I showed up, day after day, sometimes twice, because shrinking felt powerful.
A few months into my obsession, I arrived at the gym one day, unable to face the cardio machines. A yoga class was about to start.
A yoga class. It sounded easy.
By the fifth down dog it was clear that I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Though I see the irony now, it was my ego that kept me from rolling up the mat and slipping back out the door to the judgement of a machine rather than my mind itself.
Finally the postures wound down and we found ourselves lying face up on our mats in the chilly aerobics room. As the teacher spoke about honoring our bodies caring for them like the precious gift they are, I strained to listen over the sound of my heartbeat echoing through me.
The ephedrine I had taken with my breakfast of exactly one cup of cheerios with a half cup of 2% milk (not skim because while I was unhealthily obsessed I wasn’t a MONSTER) was threatening to make it explode. I wondered if she could hear it too, because clearly she was talking to me. Hot tears began to slip from the corners of my eyes and back behind my ears to the borrowed mat, as if the sweat I had left behind wasn’t enough.
It sounds cliche to say that day changed my life, but it’s not an exaggeration. Slowly, over the next few months, miles were replaced by sun salutations. I stopped running in place and started to find my way out of the mental mess I was making.
Yoga, as defined in the Yoga Sutras, is the “cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” Up until that first yoga class, I had spent my whole life under the impression that movement with intention was meant to serve the body. No one had ever suggested that it could serve the mind.
“Cessation of the fluctuations of the mind” is lofty. Completely unattainable, actually. Stop thinking? Right. But it’s the process, not the goal that’s important. You show up to the mat. You breathe. Your mind wanders. You bring it back. Concentrate on the breath. Be in the moment.
There’s always going to be something you can’t lift, climb, reach, or catch. There will be distances you can’t run, and plenty of people that will lap you while you try. We set ourselves up for failure when we make exercise into something that’s only about our body, forgetting that it’s also the best means to care for the mind.