It’s time to come clean about exercise. I hate it. I am aware that there are individuals who enjoy exercise. I suppose there are also people who enjoy three-bean salad, but I am not one of those people.
Exercise for me is simply a means to an end. It is a practice that allows me to eat gummy worms and cheeseburgers. The fact that I feel better once I’ve done it is irrelevant. Recalling that wonderful after-exercise high before I actually put on my running shoes is useless. I’ve thought about making a video of myself right after running three miles telling my procrastinating self how wonderful I feel, but procrastinating me can always find a more crucial task to complete, such as lunch.
But I read the newspaper, and I know how critical that minimum of thirty minutes of exertion, three to four times a week can be to my health. More importantly, I have seen myself in a three-way mirror. So I steel myself to the fact that I have no choice. The experts tell us to make exercise fun, to do something we enjoy. Get in touch with the playful kid contained within. I decided to find an exercise I don’t hate doing. A friend suggested yoga, which is to this decade what Jane Fonda and legwarmers were to the 80’s. But as I was searching for the sort of rigorous workout I normally endured while running, I politely passed.
Growing up I played tennis. My dad was big on lessons for my brothers and me. He played a weekly game at a tennis club he and his poker pals joined. Hardly upscale, it was basically twelve outdoor courts covered by a giant musty bubble of plastic. During the winter we could see our breath and during the summer the humidity drenched us before the first serve. I don’t remember thinking of tennis as exercise. It was simply fun. Perhaps getting back to it at my advanced age of middle fifties was unrealistic, but it might be a great place to start.
After talking my husband into it, we joined our local tennis and swim club for a trial membership. We envisioned ourselves playing doubles with our two teenagers, meeting new friends and getting into shape. In a spasm of over-enthusiasm I spent too much money on the accoutrements of the game. I needed a new racquet, a bag to carry that racquet in, balls, a visor and of course, cute outfits. I may have shopped too soon. We found the club’s contractual commitment to eat “a minimum” at the club’s mediocre restaurant problematic. We also found the majority of members a tad too serious about tennis. (The parking lot was overrun with 10SLUV and MYSERV vanity plates.) The fact that most of these people could easily afford to be club members without playing fast and loose with their children’s college funds put us at a distinct disadvantage. Then there were our kids. Our then fifteen-year-old daughter loved the cute outfits, but was less enthusiastic about the sweating. Our older child preferred to get his exercise by standing in front of random mirrors flexing his biceps.
I joined the ladies beginner league, but during my second match, I injured the meniscus in my right knee while attempting to leap out of the way of a cross-court return. I’m currently in talks with an orthopedist about arthroscopic surgery.
After the appropriate period of rest for the knee, there was my brief dalliance with Pilates. For ninety dollars per session, I lay on a wooden bed creepily called, “The Reformer.” It’s a contraption of levers, springs, and leather straps guaranteed to strengthen my “powerhouse” or as we say in English, my core. For the better part of 75 minutes, my instructor droned the mantra “neutral spine, neutral spine,” but to no avail; my spine was clearly biased. Slow and methodical, Pilates is the exercise without a sense of humor. I ran out of patience and money by my third session.
I had high hopes for Zumba, a fitness craze developed by a Colombian choreographer in the late ‘90’s. I think the word Zumba must be Columbian for “to look idiotic.” Unfortunately I am neither Latin nor rhythmic. I tapped out after an embarrassing hour of mixing up my merengue with my mambo.
My family bought me a bicycle one Mother’s Day, thinking it might be the answer to my exercise quest. The last bike I owned had one speed, one brake and a basket with plastic daisies on it. This new one was a gleaming nightmare. Twenty-one different speeds, front and back brakes, an ergonomically correct seat and more high-tech do-hickies than I’d ever learn to use. I enjoyed riding around the neighborhood despite having to wear the ugly aerodynamic helmet. But while it was certainly pleasurable I was bored. I’m aware I could have tackled more hills over different routes, or schlepped the bike to parks and trails to increase the challenge, but I just couldn’t get enthusiastic. Maybe it was the helmet.
The day I was considering cashing in my Groupon for an introductory Parkour lesson I ran into my yoga friend. After relating my recent frustration with exercise she again suggested I try a class. Maybe it was her genuine enthusiasm, or maybe I wasn’t thinking straight after a mixed martial arts debacle, but I promised to give it a try.
With expectations low and cynicism high, I dragged myself to my first class. It was hardly difficult to find, as there are currently more yoga schools than cupcake shops.
The first thing I noticed about the studio was the scent. The fragrance of sandalwood and cedar wafted through the rooms. When the instructor passed by I was reminded of the Patchouli we wore in high school. While I was struck by the teacher’s toned, sinewy arms and ballerina shoulder blades, it was her mood I most craved. She seemed happy. Not a frenetic aerobic instructor high, but warm and centered, content to be where she was. Before I folded my legs into their first twisted Lotus pose, I knew I needed what she had.
There is a running commentary of constant support in Yoga. There are no drill sergeants yelling, or choreographers counting “…and one and two and kick and breathe…” There are just simple instructions in an even, patient voice. It’s a pleasure not to think, and just listen and follow that voice.
“This is your practice,” my instructor encourages us. “Don’t compare yourself to anyone. Focus on your breath and show compassion to your body.” Trying to concentrate on my Downward Facing Dog, I caught a glimpse of my bare feet and realized my pinky toes are repulsive. Then I spent the next five minutes berating myself for berating myself. I refocused and continued to move through the flow of strenuous poses and movements, feeling a different kind of strength build in my body, noticing my mind begin to settle and judgments fade.
There are numerous pay-offs to Yoga. Along with increased flexibility and strength, my balance has improved. My arms will never look like Gwyneth Paltrow’s, but I’m a much more pleasant person for almost a full twenty minutes after each class. I still pound out the occasional three miles on the treadmill, stomping my feet and knees into submission, all in the name of cardio. But I find myself looking forward to Yoga in a way I’ve never experienced with other forms of exercise. I don’t procrastinate; I get to the class on time, choose my spot in the back of the studio, slip off my shoes and unfurl my mat. I’d like to think I’m becoming more like my wonderful contented instructor. While I haven’t started dabbing on the Patchouli, I’m certainly a more grateful person when I float out of that room. Grateful to learn that cardio isn’t the only way to strengthen my heart.