I've never been a particularly athletic person, so staying fit has always been a challenge. In elementary school, I despised P.E. The happiest week of my school life was when I was recovering from walking pneumonia and was able to sit out on the benches for two full weeks spraying and sculpting my hair. I was small for my age, so I was never as strong or as fast as my peers. My arms have always been my weakest point. For the most part, they are basically decorative. I often liken them to the ones on a Tyrannosaurus rex, used solely for grooming and foraging. When I was 4, I broke my left arm jumping from a chair while doing an impression of a bird at my parents' dinner party. I remember the plaster cast was heavy and cumbersome, and while sawing it off with what appeared to be giant scissors borrowed from a store ribbon-cutting, the doctor warned my mother that my left arm might not grow to the same length of my right. Today, with both sleeves full, I question if this is even medically possible. Occasionally, I try to picture the adult version of myself with one 40-year-old arm and one 4-year-old arm, like a defective mannequin. Still, my left arm remains half the strength of my right. So other than a purse hook, it is essentially useless. I realize this every time I am confronted with a heavy door, and the right arm does all the heavy lifting, literally. (In an ironic twist, my sturdy Cajun genes have given me the leg strength of a 70s-era Earl Campbell. I could possibly even "airplane" the sausage mogul.) My left arm, ever the slacker, simply relies on this lopsided arrangement. I imagine the negotiations between them: You get us through the door; I'll get us the food...
Plus, I'm not a competitive person. I've never cared about who is in front of or behind me. For this I am grateful because frankly, it looks exhausting. If confronted with the words "race ya," I would simply allow that person to run right out of my life. In fact, I find races laughable -- or at best, a crowded human conspiracy making me making me late for brunch.
This lack of athleticism followed me through to adulthood, but my continued physical pursuits were less about obtaining P.E. credits and staying healthy and more about swimsuit season. Of course, exercise is good for the heart, but my real concern was what was it doing for my ass? So I tried various fitness fits over the years. Thanks to working for magazines for the last two decades, I've had access to a wide variety of fitness gurus. Once, I did a story on a New York City trainer who shed 20 pounds off a bloated post-win Miss Universe in less than two months. My personal trial involved maniacal amounts of jump-roping and holding onto buildings upon returning to my office. When spinning first hit the gyms of New York in the late '90s, I offered to be the magazine's guinea pig, only to return to next day's editorial meeting in the office prop wheelchair. I blew out my thigh muscles, I announced as my colleagues collapsed into hysterics, pounding the conference table overcome with laughter. In my defense, years later, I talked my husband into trying spinning with me, and he, too, had a disastrous outcome. A former athlete, straddling the tiny bike, he looked like a circus bear minus the accordion collar. At one point during the exhausting ride, he was adjusting the handlebar height and managed to yank them out of their post, leaving him to balance mid-class atop a unicycle. I did my best to contain the situation. Namely, by distancing myself from my charge and sharing glances of "who brought this guy?" with my fellow cyclists.
And while the gym didn't suit, personal trainers were not quite right, either, their rabid personalities never really meshing with mine. Specifically, their sheer enthusiasm and their love of the outdoors only served to highlight two things I fundamentally dislike: sheer enthusiasm and love of the outdoors. There was also the unconventional improvising enlisted by these go-getters: "Run up that underpass!" "Leap over that dog crap!" "Swing that nutria by the tail!" In some cases, they operated under a fitness umbrella with names that made me realize I had been given fair warning and only had myself to blame -- names like "gladiator, "warrior" and "barbarian." It was like Game of Thrones with kettlebells, and I kept praying the show's creators would kill me off in this episode. I'd emerge from these camp sessions encrusted in mud with leaves and sticks in my hair, strangers offering their concern asking if I had fought off a mugging or been struck by a car. Disoriented from the heat (see above outdoors), I often couldn't discern if this was a polite inquiry or just a description of the next proposed camp challenge. But the trainers were not to blame. They were just different than I. Watching them wag their spoonfuls of almond butter at me wearing their skele-toed running shoes, I knew deep down, other than our cellular structures, we shared nothing as human beings.
When I was pregnant, I decided to go the complete opposite route and try one of those studios for women. Looking back, again, I should have known better. While not a "gladiator," I'm also not a woman who refers to her vagina as a "flower." True to feminine form, upon entering the soft-focus setting, the director referred to me as "sister" and tried to high-five me.
I left immediately.
So when a friend recommended a studio in my neighborhood called Pure Barre, I approached it with the same amount of skepticism one might had their J. Date profile been repeatedly hijacked by the Christian Mingle database. We were off to a promising start with the name, I thought. "Pure" at least evoked something pleasant, not "Dirty Barre" or "Guantanamo Barre." Essentially, Pure Barre is one brand of barre-based workouts. Other than some initial positioning, no dance is involved, but rather, you hold the barre for balance. Or dear life, depending on the phase of the workout. Still scoping the surroundings, I found the location (indoors) a plus, and the presence of a chandelier assured me that no one would be flinging any kettlebells overhead. Inside, the studio was carpeted and meticulously clean, and only socks were allowed in the workout area. There were mirrors all around where I could note, in all angles, the lack of grass or dog feces. The clients, maybe 20 in one class, ranged in age from late 20s to 60s. The instructors even wore light jewelry, so I knew nothing truly terrible could happen here. I assumed we'd be in for a nice stretch or at the worst, breaking a sweat without the fear of encountering a pack of rogue pit bulls.
In contrast to the serene surroundings, the workout was murderously hard. Although low-impact, it was heavy on small, isometric movement, focusing on burning out muscles I hadn't moved since my teenage dance days. But the instructors led us through effortlessly and with encouragement as the music pulsed along with our thighs and glutes. By the second class, they referred to me by name. "Good job, Mary!" a teacher would say as I flopped around like a Lululemon-clad marlin. I was amazed they could personalize the class so quickly and naturally assumed that my flailing had endangered fellow students, landing me on some equivalent of a fitness terrorist watch list. But later, I was heartened to hear other students called out for good form. In contrast, corrections were done quietly -- and for me, often.
But a couple of months in, I got the hang of it. Since weather was never an issue, that was one less excuse not to go. And showing up had other advantages. I became a regular and spending that time with others who were prioritizing themselves for at least one hour of their day gave us an unspoken bond. Not to mention the relief we shared during closing stretch that we had all, once again, made it out alive. And although I worked up a sweat and felt completely exhausted, I didn't emerge from the studio looking like the chick from The Ring, making it a lot easier to sprint to my kid's school post-workout. After three days a week for six months, my butt was its own PB ambassador. More importantly, my core was a rock and the back issues that had dogged me my entire adult life completely disappeared. Shortly after, I celebrated my 40th by sliding into a full split, then blowing out my birthday candles. The marlin was hooked.
A year and a half later, I'm training to teach. I found my match, and I now believe there is something out there for everyone, even if you have to jump over dog crap and swing a lot of kettlebells to find it.
So if the skele-toed shoe fits, wear it. But I'll be at the barre.
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