My Story, Part 1: Fitness
When I was a kid, I’d say I was anything but athletically talented. I remember my parents saying to me that I was smart and I got good grades, and one person couldn’t expect to be good at everything. It was probably a good idea for them to tell me that, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I’m sure I beat myself up about not being great at sports. But I also feel a bit sad when I think back on it, because I think I gave up on athletic pursuits without really understanding that it didn’t so much matter if I won a competition, as long as I enjoyed myself.
I remember being in the YMCA gymnastics program and being held back a level because I didn’t have the strength (upper body or core) to pull myself up onto the uneven bars. I was the oldest and tallest kid in the class, since everyone my age had moved on to a higher level. I was embarrassed, so I quit. A few years later in junior high, I was on the tennis team. I wasn’t naturally that talented at it and I remember feeling really bitter that my parents couldn’t afford private lessons. I wanted to continue playing tennis but I felt that I couldn’t because we didn’t have the money to help me get good at it. So, I quit. I remember in 8th grade, I played the entire season and only won a single match—and I remember that match, the other player and I both being comically uncoordinated.
It’s a shame. So many things in life are about competition and achievement, and I thought that’s what sports was about too. I hadn’t yet made the connection between physical activity and quality of life. I didn’t realize it could be about enjoyment.
Once I became a teenager, all of a sudden body image was part of the equation as well. Now exercise wasn’t just about being the best; it was about punishment. I always had an athletic, muscular build—definitely not small-boned—but I was determined to whip my body into submission. I cut calories, starved myself, did a liquid diet until I couldn’t stand it anymore (which was never very long because I enjoy food so much)—and exercise was part of the plan. I exercised so that I could eat without being consumed by guilt. I went for long walks with the family dog three times a day. Then I started running.
I kept running until I discovered yoga at age 26. So from 15 or so, until 26, I ran. I won’t deny, it made me feel good sometimes—I did experience the stereotypical runner’s high. I had some achievements as well, and some camaraderie, in the form of races run and long runs in scenic places with friends. I started running intervals to try to improve my mile time, and have probably never in my life had a more triumphant feeling than when I completed those sprints even though it felt like my body was just going to give out completely. But above all, the reason I ran is that it kept me skinny. I was terrified of getting fat.
There really is no way to discuss this without sounding both ungrateful and egotistical, so I’ll just put it out there. I haven’t ever really had a weight issue; I have quite a healthy appetite (including a serious sweet tooth) and I do get the impression that there are plenty of people who’d be happy to eat (and drink—I love beer and wine) the way I do without gaining a ton of weight. At the same time, I’ve never been the skinniest girl in any room. A willowy Gisele Bundchen figure is what I was after, but she’s a freak of nature (and I mean that in the best possible way—she is gorgeous) and that just isn’t my body type. So, I ran and ran without achieving the body I wanted, but I was terrified of stopping lest my body drift into that territory that I definitely didn’t want.
I once read an essay that really resonated with me. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten most of the details, but I think it was an essay about why the author quit running—or about why she still runs, but for different reasons than before. Anyway, the line that stuck with me is when she described seeing an old photo of herself that someone had taken at a race. In the picture, she looked like she was scared, like she was fleeing—running away from something, instead of toward a happy future (or perfectly happy in the present, without thinking of past or future). When I read this, it hit me like a thunderbolt: with my running, I was trying to escape from something, but it was keeping me stuck. At that time, I also went to step aerobics classes several times a week. I loved the routines and the music, but there was also fear involved: I felt like if I missed a class, my weight would immediately balloon and I’d become a blimp.
Around the same time I read that essay, I discovered yoga. I tried my first class at the YMCA, where I also took my aerobics classes (and taught aerobics and conducted personal training sessions to get a free membership… I’m nothing if not thrifty). Right away, I could feel that it was something my runner’s body needed. But as I took more classes, I know now that it was speaking to me on a deeper level. I felt calmer and my problems with insomnia all but disappeared. Before I was even quite sure what it was all about, I was hooked. I started going to class two or three times a week. One day, the instructor said, “You know, if you really want to progress in your yoga practice, you need to practice daily.” That was it for me. I took it to heart. I quit running to make more time for yoga, and started practicing sequence from a book for about 90 minutes a day.
I was thrilled at some of the athletic feats my body could accomplish—arm balances, headstand. Here I thought I was no good at sports! For eight years, I did almost no exercise besides yoga. There was still that competitive side of me coming out, competing with myself and accomplishing things I never thought I could do. And there was an element of concern for physical appearance as well. My first yoga teacher had what I considered to be an enviable body: petite and slim, yet muscular. In class, I remember drifting off in thought and picturing her wearing a ball gown on the red carpet! I thought it was sort of a shame that “yoga people” prioritized comfort over fashion and didn’t often dress up fancy or wear make-up.
These musings aside… I believe that what drew me to yoga was the fact that it liberated my soul. It sounds corny but it’s true! For me, yoga was fun. I couldn’t wait to get back on my mat in the evening. If I scheduled an early-morning practice, I didn’t mind the alarm so much. Here was a form of exercise that was enjoyable, that I didn’t have to endure and just put in my time. My mind was blown.
My discovery of yoga sparked a personal transformation tat unfolded over several years. It was all about being kinder to myself, slowing down, taking it easy. I thought this was a permanent change. Only later did I realize that it was the emergence of one side of my personality—but only one side. The pendulum swings, but comes back toward the center.
In 2012, just after I moved to Wisconsin, I attended a class called TurboKick and I guess I would say the experience was fateful. I had joined a dance studio for its bellydancing classes (there’s a great lesson in body acceptance—but I’ll save that for another day) and in typical Elizabeth style, I was getting my money’s worth by sampling all the classes. This kickboxing class pretty much blew my mind. It was just so much FUN! Dancey choreography routines set to infectious pop music. The hour went by so fast. I barely felt like I was exercising! And yet… the next day, I could barely walk. I’m not kidding. For three days, it hurt to walk. Muscles on all dimensions of my body were sore.
I started going to TurboKick regularly, and learned that it was the gym version of a home (DVD) workout called TurboFire, made by a company called Beachbody. I soon learned that the TurboKick instructor, Bridget, was a Beachbody coach, meaning that she coaches people through completing TurboFire and other Beachbody workout programs such as T25, Insanity, and P90X. The more I learned, the more I realized that this company, Beachbody, was onto something… they just have the best, highest-quality workout programs that really work, making people stronger and more fit, guiding them in their weight loss journeys… and besides that, the programs are FUN!
So that’s how this all fits together. After slowing down for awhile and discovering yoga, and having the revelation that physical activity should be enjoyable if it is to be a lifestyle that is sustained over many years, I moved back into faster-paced forms of exercise that do also have that competitive spirit that appeals to me. I love it when I set a personal record for the number of push-ups completed, or complete a cardio session that wore me out to exhaustion the last time I tried it. The difference is that it doesn’t feel like punishment anymore. There is always the sense that I am supporting myself and my own good health with my workouts. If it ever doesn’t feel that way, I take a break or I make a change of plans. Because life is too short to spent it feeling constantly guilty, like you are atoning for some sin.
I haven’t abandoned yoga, either. I still do practice it daily, and teach it every week. We all go through phases in life, and sometimes I feel like it’s hard for my “yoga friends” to understand what has happened to me. I used to talk and think about yoga constantly, and now the conversation has shifted a bit to also include achievements such as single-legged Burpees. It’s also very gratifying to be a coach for people who are on their journeys of getting in shape and making positive change in their lives. Yoga contributes to this for many people, so I do feel that yoga teaching and Beachbody coaching have some things in common—but I think it can be hard for people to see the overlap. The best I can do is say that we all have many sides to our personalities—not just one. I believe that all of these things fit together. The overarching theme is health: physical, mental, spiritual. Certainly the knowledge of anatomy and physiology I’ve gained through yoga teacher training makes me a better fitness coach, and vice versa: fitness coaching feeds into yoga teaching as well. I’ve always been an omnivore in life, wanting to try everything and enjoy everything life has to offer. I guess it just turns out that when it comes to exercise, I’m no different.