Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Friday, August 19, 2011
I have tried all sorts of different workouts in my time—in addition to all the outdoor things I partake of, from running and cycling (off and on road), to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and hiking, to kayaking, rock climbing and swimming, I do yoga and what’s variously called Physique57 or Bar Effect (or Core Fusion, or Nalini) classes. In what feels like another lifetime (during my law school years), I was an aerobics instructor. And I’ve tried all sorts of gym classes (despite my non-membership), from kickboxing, to step classes (yes—that goes back some years), to pole dancing and Zumba.
Some of these pursuits promise to make me longer and leaner, to re-shape my body to the ideal—I wish. Actually wait, really? Is that really why I’m engaging in a particular activity? Other activities promise me a calmer mind and Gumby’s hamstrings. The first sounds pretty good, the second sounds implausible, unless I’m willing to give up running (not!). Some of my sports make me no promises. My mountain trails have never spoken to me about their intentions for my body, or at least not that I know of.
What I do know is that far too many workouts are pitched as answers to the mythic pursuit of the perfect body. Mythic—because the very idea of perfection is a myth: Perfect by what or who’s standard? Society’s? By which we mean exactly what?—media generated images of beauty?—By which what I really mean is media manipulated and distorted (aka falsified—I mean you, Photoshop and your ilk) images of the unreal.
How can we possibly think that there is one standard of beauty, when we know (we really know) that each one of us is an individual with our own particular tastes? You think steak is the perfect food and my pick would be hummus. You feel perfect in pink and I feel best in black. You define musicals as the perfect entertainment and I’m not happy unless I’m crying in my theater seat, no soundtrack please. You get the idea. It’s no different for bodies.
To pursue perfection is a trap, a rat maze with no escape. Perfect is a confining concept, one that holds up a rigid not-every-person’s-ideal as a benchmark for all of us.
Instead, I propose we think of the pursuit of “excellence” over perfection. Excellence is individual, though paradoxically, also less subjective. That’s because excellence comes from inside ourselves, it is our mastery of the particular field we have chosen. It is investing our efforts at our personal maximum level in pursuit of our best self, holding our own selves to the highest standard. And this excellence is far different from perfection, that more confining concept, which implies the best of the best of the best, as defined by the whole entire world.
As Carl Jung said, “Perfection belongs to the gods; the most that we can hope for is excellence.”
So to burden our workouts with the end goal of achieving the perfect body is to pursue the impossible dream. Not because you can’t do it. Because the end goal does not even exist!
Uh-oh. If our goal is a chimera, where does that leave us?—On the couch with a box of chocolates? (Not that I don’t love my couch and chocolate). Of course not, or at least, not until we’ve finished our workouts.
We simply cannot be working out just for better bodies. The good news is that deep down we’re not that deluded. Studies have shown that women who are encouraged in a workout setting with the carrot of positive reinforcement about the health and happiness benefits of their exercise are far more likely to enjoy and stick with a workout. Whereas workout settings, which use the stick of negative self-image, shaming the participant into thinking she needs a smaller bum, thinner thighs or a flatter stomach, foster recidivism.
Why we workout matters.
Here’s why I do.
At one level, I work out because I want to be outside, rain, snow or shine, to feel the elements against my skin and know the seasons are changing by the taste of the air I’m breathing; because I want to be strong, to test my mental and physical endurance, to show myself what I’m capable of; because I will not go gentle into that good night, as the poet Dylan Thomas says; and so I can lounge on my couch in a state of well-earned-body-tiredness and eat those chocolates.
At another, deeper level, my workouts brings me great joy and that is reason enough. I am feeling pleasure in my very fibers, the pleasure of sweat, of effort, of turning “can I?” into “I can.” The other morning, running alone in “my” mountains, I started to wonder if my eyes were playing tricks on me. The trail in front of me was streaked with bands of unexplainable light. I blinked, wondering if something was in my eye. Then I realized that what seemed to be coming from inside my eye was actually the sunlight reflected off the veritable web of early morning, as yet undisturbed, silk spider filaments, which criss-crossed my path at ankle level. I was suddenly filled with such gratitude for the privilege of experiencing such beauty and my luck at being physically able, that I spread my arms wide and shouted nonsense-happy-sounds. Don’t worry, no one saw or heard, so you don’t need to be embarrassed and pretend you don’t know me.
The next time you are engaged in your active pursuits, stop a moment, feel the “why” of why you are doing the workout. As Eckhart Tolle recommends in Power of Now, scan your physical-emotional being and ask, am I happy? I hope the answer is yes. If not, find the workout that gives you that answer.
This post can also be found under an alternative title on the Huffington Post.
Monday, August 8, 2011
Today I received an elegant and gracious letter from a woman who had recently read Run Like a Girl. Each time I receive a missive like this, I am moved anew. Selfishly, I wrote a book because I am a writer and I love writing, the very act grants me inordinate amounts of joy. Yet, what started as this selfish act has yielded me a more profound result than ever I anticipated. Some of you, who have read the book, have been inspired or moved to reach higher, and discovered that you could. For the opportunity to participate in the tiniest way in that discovery, I am grateful down to my bones.
I’ll leave it to Yann Martel to say better what I am fumbling to express. As Martel wrote in Beatrice and Virgil (italicized explanatory note is mine), “Henry (the protagonist) had written a novel because there was a hole in him that needed filling, a question that needed answering, a patch of canvas that needed painting—that blend of anxiety, curiosity and joy that is at the origin of art—and he had filled the hole, answered the question, splashed colour on the canvas, all done for himself, because he had to. Then complete strangers told him that his book had filled a hole in them, had answered a question, had brought colour to their lives. The comfort of strangers, be it a smile, a pat on the shoulder or a word of praise, is truly a comfort.”
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
It’s been a couple of years now since I interviewed some of the women in my book. Granted, that’s not quite long enough for a really shocking “where are they now?” But I recently had the chance to catch up with Brett Buckles, who was, as some will remember, in the midst of recovering from a race career ending ski accident in Tignes, France. I was curious to know how she was adapting to her non-pro, or amateur athlete life in the slow lane (by her standards, not mine). And I should be clear here, when I say amateur, I use that term with the greatest respect. After all, the Latin root of the word is amare, which means, “to love,” as in—we do our sports because we love them, not because we gotta.
I also wanted to know if Brett had competed in a rodeo yet, one of the things she’d told me was on her list. She hadn’t…yet.
That’s because Brett is busy with about a million other things. To begin with, she’s coaching our future Ski Cross Olympians. There’s not much of a Ski Cross field in the North America yet, though it’s an established sport in Europe. It’s a fast and furious version of downhill ski racing, in which 4-6 people are on the course at the same time, competing head to head, with Nascar-style rules—“rubbing is racing.” No malicious contact is allowed, in case that wasn’t obvious.
The girls she coaches, 7-10 nationally, at any given time, are, unsurprisingly, slower to take to the sport than the boys. Fear, as you can imagine, is your biggest enemy in the sport, as it is in life, though perhaps a little more obviously when you’re hurtling down a mountain, trying to avoid skirmishes with others doing the same. Based on my fear of small rocks while on the mountain bike, I suspect I would not be good at Ski Cross. Before you leave the gate, Brett says, you have to be 100% confident in yourself. According to Brett, it takes considerably more effort to build the girls’ confidence in themselves. She blames at least part of this on how we are socialized, what she calls, “the being feminine thing,” which tells us we can’t kick ass and still be a girl.
Still. This is still an issue. Sigh. I wish for girls (and women, of course) the confidence to race Nascar rules, in whatever they do.
Fortunately for the girls Brett coaches, and injury notwithstanding, Brett-beats-all-the-boys-Buckles is still faster down the course than the 15 and 16-year old boys she coaches (I wonder how that feels for the boys?), so she can show her girls what’s available to them. So even if most of the time they are learning how to go faster by chasing the boys, at least they know, because they’ve seen it with their own eyes, what a woman can do.
Brett still feels the itch to race, if not professionally, and even if she finishes DFL (dead fucking last). When she has that goal out there, it’s the nudge she needs to push herself to the limit, or beyond—and that’s the pleasure zone for Brett in sports. She’s taken up mountain biking (no surprise) and may compete in triathlons, though she doesn’t love running (no surprise there, either, since even top speed isn’t going to get the wind whistling in your ears).
When she’s not training her girls, or herself, Brett is working on a career in journalism, writing on the gamut from snow sports to reggae music reviews. On the side she’s making jewelry. I think we can safely say that Brett has not confined herself to a darkened room to nurse her self-pity, something I needed to remind myself of on occasion, as I’ve traveled my own nano-length road (by comparison to Brett) to recovery.
p.s. I got out for a first mountain bike ride this past weekend and worked up an honest-to-goodness sweat—what joy!