Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Radiant with sweat

I came late to exercise. Years of school PE classes put me off for decades. What was the point of running when you could walk? swimming laps when you could splash around? No one ever told me that exercise is a learned skill, and could be fun. No one ever taught me how to run, or to throw a ball, or to stretch out so that the physical act becomes an expression of joy.

But after I gave birth, I decided I could do anything. Actually, I decided I wanted to fit back into my jeans. After a year of walking fast and gardening I gave up trying to do it myself and reluctantly joined the gym. What a revelation.

It's another world in there. There are strange machines and serious faces as people push themselves to a new limit. Nerds record their statistics on stiff card, and file them away until next time. People run on the spot, and ride without getting anywhere, and it's all utterly ridiculous.

Yet I fit right in. And I love it. After decades of trying to ignore my body, I'm finding myself paying attention. Learning a little respect for it. At the gym, I can push myself and feel my heart swelling in my chest, learn to control my breathing. I can isolate muscles and work on this one, or that, and play with the weights until I am at that point of perfect resistance. I am learning to run, going a little further each week, pushing a little harder. My theory is that if I can relax and breathe through a contraction, learning to relax and breathe while I'm running should be a cinch (actually, it's not!).

Exercise does much more than narrow the gap between me and my old jeans. It's helping me understand that my body isn't separate from me; it holds me, shapes me, affects me. When I'm unfit, I'm constantly tired. I can't think clearly, and feel crotchety and grumpy and old. But as I'm starting to get fit for the third time now, post baby three, I am loosening up again. I have more energy for play and for fun; my body moves faster, and with it my thoughts run quick. I can pound out the pent-up frustration of being home with small children on the treadmill or the boxing bag, rather than yell at the kids. Even my singing is improving.

As I run along going nowhere, listening to house music and thinking about this and that, I find myself feeling awed. Our bodies are more than just houses or workhorses. They are an invitation to play and to worship. After all, on the one hand, fooling around at the gym is fun - let's go up a hill! let's push a little more weight! let's try doing it slower this time! and, for us nerds, what are my stats?! And on the other, as we stretch out and race along, we may feel for a moment utterly at one, glorious, radiant with sweat, as our bodies fly and sing and shout Hallelujah! to the world.

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