The stunning concept of doing something for the pure hell of it
I did two sessions of very very very gentle yoga-- the first yoga DVD I ever bought, as it turns out-- the week before I got this cold. Then I was laid out for pretty much another week, because this is the cold that eats all other colds for breakfast. On my way home from work last Wednesday, I was all by myself because I'd given my poor Hub this cold and I started thinking that I should do some yoga when I got home. On the one hand, I was feeling a little feisty and wanted to use the other "introduction" yoga DVD that I have, the one that's a step up from the other, twice as long, twice as hard. On the other hand, I still wasn't sure if I was physically up to it. I'd meant to do the other DVD a few more times before venturing into anything harder.
I finally decided hey, what the hell, I'll do the harder one. Do it carefully, and only go as far as I can, and take breaks if I need to, because the DVD doesn't know more about what my body can do than I know. Do the DVD, in a word, mindfully.
So I did.
Essentially, I'm starting over. I know the poses, but it's been a year and my body is forgetful. My flexibility has gone right back to pretty much zero. I'm still terribly nervous about my shoulder; I'm doing my PT exercises every day but a part of me still lives in dread that I'll reach a certain way at some point and feel that flash of dull pain again, signalling that the inflammation is back, that it will always come back, that my bones are too close together and I'll have to get the surgery. So I wasn't really expecting this to be any kind of profoundly positive experience.
Boy, was I wrong.
It's been a whole different experience this time through. For one thing, I've been doing meditation for a year now, and that influences my attitude more than I expected. I can concentrate on my breathing while I move and hold the poses, something that I used to really not be good at. More to the point, I find that I have something invested in the breathing-- I understand what it's for, I grasp the meaning, and thus I think it's important.
Another thing is that my physical therapy has made me very, very aware of what the muscles in my shoulders and back do, why they exist, how they move. I thought it would make me hesitant and more prone to quit; on the contrary, I have ended up working harder because of it. For the first time, I've really heard the instructor on the DVD talking when they add detail to poses, telling me to "sink the spine into the back, pull the shoulder blades together and down, keep the neck long, the shoulders away from the ears". Suddenly it makes sense! it means all the things that my physical therapist has been telling me about proper posture and the muscles that need to be strengthened to keep me from getting injured again! it means that if I do these poses with a view toward working my back properly, instead of stretching out my recalcitrant hamstrings, yoga can actually be part of my therapy instead of a danger to it! Oh, happy day.
The real difference, though, didn't occur to me until last night, after my third session of "real" yoga. I've been doing yoga every other day, using the body scan meditation on the "off" days, and even though I consciously set up that schedule a whole week ago, it didn't strike me until yesterday that I'm not doing this for exercise. It's not exercise for me now; it's meditation. It's one of the things that I do when I have my hour every night to work on my concentration and my ability to relax; it's something I do to keep in touch with my body and with the current moment.
People, it floored me to realize this. For the past twenty years, I can't name a single physical activity that I undertook without an intention of burning calories. I live in a densely populated urban area where I walk to get from place to place, but any time it became something more challenging, like seeing if we could walk home from work (about six miles, last I checked), it immediately crossed the line into exercise. Even paddling around on our beloved inflatable kayak was exercise; I enjoyed it, sure, but again I always had it in the back of my mind that this was an acceptable pastime because it was physical and burned calories.
Every other time I've done yoga before this month, I did it for the exercise-- usually in combination with something more cardio-oriented, like running or pedaling an exercise bike. Not this time. I actually have been doing something physically challenging without thinking about burning calories. THIS IS HUGE.
I remember getting a free session with a fitness coach at Bally's (oy) back when I was newly moved to Chicago, when I was worried about gaining back the weight that I'd lost on my anorexic-level diet and obsessive exercise, back home. The woman asked me what kind of exercise I liked, and for a minute I just kind of stared at her with a blank expression, baffled at the whole notion of enjoyment in combination with exercise. I'd been on the yo-yo diet cycle for more than ten years by that point and nobody had ever told me that I had the option of doing things I enjoyed for exercise. By that point, I really didn't have anything that I liked to do, physically, so I just gawped at the woman like she was a crazy person. I didn't like any exercise. There was the kind I could stand, and the kind I couldn't stand, and that was pretty much it.
I have vague memories of this not being true when I was a child. I liked to ride my bike. I liked to twirl my baton. I loved dancing and swimming and running around the park with my sister, chasing our dog. Having read and adored the (incredibly racist and sexist in retrospect, holy shit) Tarzan books, I aspired to climb trees-- something which I never really got the hang of, which is just as well given my fear of heights. I ran around like any other kid, acting out my imaginary world.
What I really remember, though, is the summer when I was twelve and my dad decided that, as part of my punishment for some completely unrelated thing involving my grades, I would have to do a series of chores every day all summer. Vacuuming the house was one, I remember that. Cleaning the dog poo out of the backyard, which was a disgusting and odeous task. There were other things that I've forgotten, about ten in total, and one was exercise. Every day I had to either work on our Nordic-Trak cross-country skiing machine (remember those?) or run around the park X number of times. Absolutely required. And, like the rest of my chores, it was something I had to get done in the morning before I was allowed to do anything else.
My sister didn't get this punishment, of course, because she hadn't been acting out at school via procrastination and occasional cheating. If she had, I'm not sure whether or not she would have had the exercise portion tacked on. Maybe she would have; that was the summer marking the worst point of the war between my parents regarding my mom's weight, and it's possible that my dad was panicked enough about either of his daughters following in their mother's footsteps that he might have made my stick-thin sister exercise, too. I doubt it, though, because that was the summer he convinced me I was fat. That was the summer his cousins, visiting on their way somewhere else, couldn't remember us kids' names and referred to me offhand as "the chubby one", which infuriated my dad-- at me, for existing in a way that brought on that comment, and he yelled at me about it later that night. That was the summer I saw him forcing my weeping mother onto the bathroom scale. That was the summer he admonished me that I didn't "want to turn out like (my) mother". That was the summer he started criticizing the way I looked, changing forever the way I looked at myself in the mirror. That was the summer he criticized my running on the few times he bothered going running with me, calling me lazy when I was honestly tired.
I came out of that summer associating exercise with forced drudgery, I came out of that summer convinced that I was no good at any kind of physical movement, and I came out of that summer horribly self-conscious about what I looked like in public. I wouldn't go swimming anymore, or go to dance lessons, or play kickball at recess. And since then, I haven't done anything physically challenging (or at least physically interesting) just to do it, just to experience it; I've always had that exercise angle going on, and it never lasts.
So... WOW. I've recognized for a while that I used to have a capability to do physical things for the pure hell of it, and that I lost it, and why, but before now the enormity of what I lost was still a little lost on me because I didn't know, in the here and now, what it was like to enjoy moving without any thought of exercise. Now, I kind of do, and it's a little freaky. It's like I've taken my whole concept of how to tell if I'm "doing it right" and turned it upside-down; instead of looking to other people and their views and judgements of me, instead of looking to the experts who talk about what burns the most calories or has the biggest health benefits, I'm checking inside of me, asking hey, is this okay? we feeling good? we enjoying this? and getting answers, listening to them.
What I'm hearing from inside these days is that I like meditating. I don't do well with sitting meditation, but the body scan works wonders, and yoga works that same me-with-my-body vibe. Possibly it's because what I need, more than anything else, is to get out of my own head and reconnect with my body. And maybe this is acting as a bridge into other activities, reconnecting me not only with my own body, but with the joy of moving my body for the sheer hell of it. Not because anybody else makes me. Not because I should. Not because I'm fat and I deserve to be punished. Just because I like doing something.
I'm vaguely eyeing other activities at this point, but right now I'm just enjoying the fact that I have this one. It's a glowing little personal triumph, all mine.