Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Bodies in motion

tend to stay in motion--that's part of inertia, too; it's only friction that slows them down.

I was thinking about this last night in my yoga class (yes, I know, I'm supposed to be stilling the lake of the mind, not thinking about anything). For a long time, I thought of myself as unathletic--or, at least, not terribly kinesthetically talented. Certainly, I thought, I'm not flexible; my sister was a gymnast, and one of the things that entertained her the most was watching me try to bend this way or that--and this was when we were in our early adolescence, so, really, if anything it's proof that my joints are, in fact, not very bendy. Even though I played sports, I didn't play them very well, compared to the other girls around me. I see now that, in that pre-Title IX era, only the most athletically talented girls and young women, the ones who were really driven, played sports, and, despite the revisions I've made to my evaluation of my abilities, I am not, in fact, particularly talented. That is, even if more opportunities had existed, and even if I'd started playing sports earlier, and even if I'd played more of them, and even if my high school coach wasn't an asshole, I would not have been a star. I probably would have been better, but I would not have been a star. But, it turns out, I have more ability than I once thought, and I have staying power, and both of those will get you pretty far.

I had to revise my notion of my own abilities about ten or twelve years ago. I started learning how to play a new sport--handball--about 15 years ago, when I was over 30. I thought that learning a new sport would make a useful complement to writing a dissertation, and I liked the fact that handball is bilateral in a way that most sports simply are not. (That is, one must be able to hit the ball with either hand, and hitting the ball with your off or weaker hand is not the same at all as a backhand in a racquet sport.) So I set about doing that, and made slow but steady progress. After I'd been playing for about four or five years, I guess, a few of us were walking home, and one of the other players--someone who had won championships in racquetball and handball, and who had played semi-pro football--asked me whether I'd always been "so athletic." This took me by surprise--I'd never thought of myself as athletic at all, and, in fact, had thought just the opposite. But his comment made me realize that, even though I'd never excelled, particularly, and even though there really weren't that many sports opportunities for girls and women as I was growing up, I had, in fact, played a lot of sports over the years--basketball, field hockey, racquetball, squash, a little bit of lacrosse (only about 3-4 months), and, now, handball. (I also smoked a lot of cigarettes in there, before I quit 16 years ago, but I'm not sure that that counts as an athletic endeavor.)

And, really, I get cranky if I don't get some exercise. I walk a lot--I've never owned a car--and I'll go to the gym just to get on a machine, if I have to, but, really, I'd rather run around a court and hit a ball. Whenever I'm on a machine, I think of the Talking Heads' song "Road to Nowhere," but it's still better than sitting on my ass.

About five years ago I decided to check out yoga. There were classes at the health club to which I belonged, and, even though I now generally disdain health-club yoga (listen up, people, a weekend workshop does NOT make you a yoga teacher, okay? it's not like learning a new aerobics routine), I was lucky in that my first two teachers there were excellent yoga teachers, the second one in particular. But, lordy, when I started? I was unbelievably stiff--hell, I still am, compared to the bendy gumby 27-year-olds and the people who've been practicing for 20 years. In addition, a lot of the more fine-grained instructions--internally rotate this, press down with that, tuck the tailbone--were kind of beyond my ability to comprehend. More and more, though, I'm coming to understand those instructions and understand, on a bodily level, how they work. It's fascinating, really.

What's also interesting is how yoga and handball differ. They're both bodily activities, of course--see the title of the post--and, therefore, contribute in their own ways to health and well-being. But with handball, or any other sport like it, you really don't have time to make tiny adjustments. I'm sure the very best players can do that, but I am never going to play at that level, okay? You can position yourself properly--and the better I get at that, the better I play in general--which affects how well you can play the ball, what you can do with it, etc., and you can try to think ahead, though trying to think in words isn't helpful (which is worthy of a discussion all its own), but you're moving, and so is the object you're trying to hit. It's also worth pointing out that handball, like walking or running, tends to tighten the hamstrings, which isn't all that helpful for one's yoga practice, if you want to know.

Yoga, on the other hand, has a lot of moving into stillness, to quote Eric Schiffman (and probably the yoga sutras, for that matter). You can, and should, spend a lot of time and attention on the alignment (Iyengar-trained teachers are extremely useful for this), even if you don't believe, quite, that it's clearing energy channels or whatever. And, as I've continued to practice, I keep discovering new things in even the most basic of the asanas (poses). Pressing down here, and rotating there, really does enable one to align this or strengthen that. It's true that I'm still stiff, relatively speaking--my joints are naturally pretty tight, and I spent a lot of years doing things that tightened them further--but, in some ways, that's a benefit in yoga. It's harder to get into the bendy asanas, especially the ones that including wrapping limbs around you in odd ways, but one of my teachers has pointed out that this is safer--I won't be flinging myself into contortions because I simply cannot. I have to take it slowly, which enables me to spend more time on the alignment, for example, and to work my way into the asana, which gives me a (potentially) deeper understanding of its subtleties. Another thing that's a trip, for me, is inversions. I didn't do them when I was a kid, so learning how to do handstands (still working on that one) and headstands and arm balances and so on involves all kinds of other challenges--I've never balanced upside down, so I have to learn it for the first time, much as I had to learn how to hit a handball with my left hand.

Overall, though, I still think the most important thing is staying in motion, in doing something, in learning a new language for my body. None of which i would have guessed 30-some years ago.


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