Saturday, 23 April 2011

Let's Get Fizzy Cool

I have never thought of myself as being a person who enjoys exercise. I think this is principally because sport of any description – with the notable exception of horse riding, natch - brings me out in a rash. Hearing about it, watching it, and most especially being forced to play it – ugh. It just makes me shudder… a long, cold shudder that has been pulled up from the very bowels of hell.

Where does my deep-held loathing of sport come from, I wonder? Is it all just sickening secondary school memories of ducking out of the way of netballs, running miles to retrieve tennis balls, and being whacked in the shins with hockey sticks? That would probably be enough, really. Games and PE were up there with maths and physics as being my most loathed subjects ever at school, and the fact that one had to undertake sports in hideously unflattering gym knickers that left unsightly elasticated grip marks where no elasticated grip marks should be puts it, let’s face it, on top of that pile of misery. At least in maths lessons I could attempt to look intelligent and just be re-running dialogue from Moonlighting in my head. I couldn't do this while I was trying to be sporty in the world’s most unflattering outfit.

Games and PE lessons were – and I won’t go on, because I’m telling you something you all already know – an exercise in the popular, shiny-haired girls lording it over the under-confident bookish nerds like me. And really, what closer definition to hell is there than that, especially when you’re in your formative years?

The fact that I literally have less strength than a hamster (I struggle to open envelopes sometimes, let alone jam jars) meant that things like rope climbing and push-ups were especially torturous for me. I HATE to do badly at things. I really hate it. And boy, was I bad at school sports. I can’t run, not for toffee, not even for a delightfully creamy brie. I have no accuracy or aim. I can’t jump over things, I can’t climb things, I can’t… well, do whatever else it is sporty people like to do. When it comes to all that stuff, I am a big fat zero and it makes me loathe myself when I try. I used to say I wasn't competitive, but then I realised I just don't like to compete if there's no chance at all of me winning, and every chance of me looking like a puffed out loser or getting smacked upside the head with a tennis ball.

I cannot get my head round people doing these things for pleasure, but I guess almost anything is fun when you’re good at it, right? Calculus, torture – possibly even badminton?

Added to this, I used to live within spitting distance (don’t tempt me) of a football ground. I think they wear red, I forget which team – apparently that sort of thing matters a great deal to some people? I’ve never quite fathomed out why. I’m a little bit ‘alt’ looking (you’re a little bit rock n roll) (points for who gets the reference…) and at that point in my life, with my crazy waist-length red, orange and yellow plastic dreadlocks and my youthful waist meaning I still wore pretty little outfits on a fairly regular basis, I looked a lot damn weirder than I do even now with my Mohawk which I love so much. The football fans didn’t like this very much and used to shout pretty nasty things at me as I walked down the street to my own house on match day.

This didn’t happen very often, but enough to be another factor in my general sport-hating attitude. Oh, and pubs that show sport – that’s another one. Being old and grumpy, I refuse to go into a pub unless I know I can sit down. Living in London, this can mean I have to go into a *lot* of pubs before I find one that’s acceptable. There is very little more disappointing than realising that, having trudged around 3 billion pubs, getting more and more thirsty, hungry and irritable, like a child that really needs to go to bed, searching for somewhere quiet to sit and imbibe, thinking you’ve found your oasis – and then realising it’s actually got a big screen showing the f**tball at ear bleeding volumes, and that the other patrons, who were all sitting alone and quiet, nursing their pints like good, peaceful little alcoholics when you walked in (naturally during half time), are going to start leaping to their feet and screeching like monkeys as soon as the ‘show’ begins again.

You’ll be glad to hear I’ve found the perfect solution to this last problem. It’s called giving up drinking and never leaving the house again.

Anyway, I should really stop venting about sports and sports fans, as some of my closest fans fit into that latter category, and we all have our sicknesses, don’t we. I shouldn’t judge. The point of this blog is to say that, despite my loathing of sport, I suddenly seem to have become a person who exercises. A lot. I am even finding myself getting up early to do so. Quite frequently. When did this happen to me??

My first foray into exercise probably began around 12 years ago, when I started doing yoga with the friend I’ve had for longest in my life. I can’t really remember what made me decide to start doing yoga, but it was probably because I wanted to be a bit more like Madonna. Let’s face it, I started counselling because I wanted to be more like Frasier, so Occam’s Razor would suggest that that is the forgotten explanation.

My very first yoga class I remember as being the exact incarnation of the seventh circle of Hell. I can’t think where it was held, but it was in a very big, very bright room somewhere, and all I can really recall is a sense of total outraged indignation that no-one had told me it would be anything like that difficult – and if I had known, there was no way I would have been there. That indignation translated itself into hatred for the teacher, a hatred which burnt red and hot within my stomach. My legs trembled throughout the lesson as if they had the worst DTs in history, and I can recall swearing to myself upon leaving that I would never, never do that to myself again.

However, I somehow ended up going to a regular class with my same friend, first once a week and then twice a week, at a class I could walk to from my house, and I soon realised that I actually loved it. The challenge of it. The magic of the poses that the more experienced people could do and I suddenly realised that I wanted to be able to more dearly than I wanted diamonds. Seeing myself improve, inching along, a tiny bit better each week. The feeling of calm when I left. I was addicted, and for a couple of years, I went to yoga twice a week, went on retreats, knew the chants, was a total convert.

There was one thing that made it very frustrating, though – my total lack of strength. There were many poses which seemed as if they would be forever out of my reach because my arms are weak as matchsticks. I know that there’s a lot more to yoga than arm strength, and that some of the poses I couldn’t do also needed core strength and better alignment and all that. But trust me – my puny arms really let me down. And so I decided to do something about them.

I joined my first gym entirely in order to make my arms stronger so that I could be better at yoga. That was my only ambition - there was no other reason. I remember telling my then boyfriend that I was going to have arms like Sarah Connor's in T2 (the only thing I like about that movie is her arms - otherwise it's *such* a let-down compared to the first one) and him being vaguely horrified. He needn't have worried, it never came to be - my arms are still weaker than a three-year-old child's.

I joined the gym near where I was working at the time and went three times a week at lunchtimes. I would spend the whole morning of every gym day dreading it, but then usually end up quite enjoying it. Aside from anything else, it was the chance to listen to music really loudly for 45 minutes whilst watching aspirational videos on the big screens (I think it's *very* cunning that gyms always seem to show MTV base... no matter how much we all exercise we're never, not having been photo-shopped to fuck, gonna look like those girls, but we keep believing we might one day, so we stick at it), which has always got to be good. In fact, the best thing about that gym was when they got a stash of exercise bikes that let you play Tetris as you cycle. The quicker you pedalled, the quicker the blocks moved. I adore Tetris, I think I probably play an average of 20 games of it every day, so that was an amazing motivator.

I ended up quitting yoga for the gym, something which seems impossible to me now. But no matter how many weights I lifted, my arms never got any stronger, I never got any better at the poses I couldn't do, and it didn't seem cost effective to keep doing both, so I dropped yoga and became a gym bunny. Three times a week of cardio vascular workouts. I shudder at the thought now.

Exercise is a funny thing. It's a bit like cigarettes, or cocaine. No, really, hear me out. You don't necessarily enjoy it while you're doing it, but once you're in the habit, you keep wanting more, and you don't feel quite right if you don't get your fix. I never really loved the gym, but I stuck with it, went to various different ones, even, for a brief insane period, went to spinning classes two or three times a week - if you've never been to a spinning class, don't, you actually think you're going to die the whole way through it - and kept it up until I got made redundant and had to leave due to severe lack of funds.

I was in the habit of exercise by that point and didn't really want to stop, so had a sort of no-man's land period of sometimes going swimming and sometimes riding my bike round the park and sometimes doing nothing at all.

Going to dance classes is actually my all-time favourite way to exercise, and for a brief and wonderous period my DJ life partner and I went to street dance classes that were taught by a French man who looked like Thierry Henry (I might not know about f**tball, but I watch car adverts, alright?) only better looking. And he liked hip hop. I was actually, fully, 100% in love with him which certainly helped, but those classes were ace. They were part of - the only part of, to be fair - the master plan I had that what Twisted Kitten (our DJ duo) really needed to make themselves a professional outfit was not, in fact, learning to work the mixer, but instead learning to body pop. Don't ask me where where I get this stuff... it just comes to me. ;-)

Sadly the classes got cancelled cos mostly we were the only people there, otherwise I'd still be doing them to this day and would probably be dancing onstage with Madonna by now. We tried to find another class, but most street dancing classes seem to be for 13 year olds, or they were on nights when I had uni, so we gave up.

I finally re-joined a gym when I started my PhD. I love my uni gym. It's so cheap it's practically free and it has a pool, which none of the other, much more expensive gyms I've belonged to have. I started off by doing two CV workouts and a swim every week, but somewhere along the line - and again, I can't really remember when or how - I started going to the yoga classes again, and once again got hooked.

This is partly, strangely, the result of my tinnitus. I can't listen to my iPod any more (a lament I could write an entire blog about, oh reader), which really does make the gym interminably boring. True, if I time it right I can watch Gilmore Girls on one of the tellies with the subtitles on, but as soon as I move away from the bikes and onto the cross trainers, I can't really see it any more, so that's not much use. Heaven forbid that I should just concentrate on what I'm doing in the gym. It hurts! You need distraction! As much as is humanly possibly!

Hence, I have pretty much given up on cross trainers and treadmills - my most loathed piece of gym equipment anyway - and am now going to three (count them!) yoga classes a week. As I said earlier, there is something magical about yoga. You watch people do poses that seem to defy possibility. It's like watching Derren Brown, watching a yoga teacher demonstrate a move. And at first you feel like an unfit, lumpen hippo as you attempt to emulate, sincerely believing that they are a shaman employing trickery to fool you and that you will never, ever be able to do what they are doing - which is of course no-one's favourite feeling... but week by week, little by little, you start to improve, until you realise you're doing those formerly impossible things yourself. And that's a pretty awesome feeling. Of course, there's always more impossible things to learn, but isn't that true of life generally?

It was yoga that was responsible for this crazy early morning exercise trend that seems to have sprung up in my life over the past few months. The gym put on a class at 7.45 on a Wednesday morning, which means me leaving my house around 6.45. In the dark and the cold, it was very hard to motivate myself to get there, but now I almost look forward to it. Or at least, I had been until now. To continue the theme of gym-teachers-I-am-in-love-with... I am also, actually, fully, 100% in love with my yoga teacher, Rebecca. My friend P from uni comes with me sometimes to yoga and completely accurately described Rebecca as 'a beautiful angel of perfection.' She's so tiny and bendy and beautiful, I just want to bite her. And she makes me calm and happy. But - the reggae, the reggae - she's leaving! Has, in fact, left! My tiny heart is broken into a million pieces, and I'm convinced the new girl won't be a patch on her. I hope I can continue to get up at 6.45 for this Johnny-come-lately, whoever she may be...

I think it was the fact of all this early morning yoganess that made my first foray into early morning outdoor swimming, as chronicled in this very blog a few posts back, a possibility. I'm swimming in the London Fields Lido every Saturday before work now, and I love it... and I've just started going to the outdoor rooftop pool in Holborn for 8am on a Friday with some of my friends as well. That means almost half of my mornings, I am getting up early to exercise. Twice a week, I get to see sunshine and water doing that beautiful waltz they do with each other and I can kid myself I'm on holiday. I'm sure it can't last. Is this really who I am now?

The thing is, though... it's just so good for me. And I know that sounds stupid because of course it's good for me, that's the whole point. But it's not good for me the way that lentils and broad beans are good for me... things I have to suffer through to get to some benefit which I'm told is there but never really notice until it's taken away...

Exercise, and especially yoga and outdoor swimming, is good for me the way sushi is good for me. I can't believe that sushi is good for me because it's so goddamn delicious it really shouldn't be. And yet I know it is because when I come away from eating sushi, I feel good, not all laden down and guilty, like I do after a Chinese. Yoga and swimming out in the sun iron my brain out. They force me away from the petty little things that I pick at and pick at, the way other people pick at scabs. They are like a magna-doodle for my brain, erasing all the crap and starting afresh. I hope I able to keep this up for a very long time.

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