Friday, August 19, 2011

It's Not About a Better Body

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.