I recently, on facebook, saw a picture of a woman in a sorta-kinda handstand. It was captioned: why practice yoga? With the following reasons dotted around the poster: for energy, for longevity, for health, for physical strength and flexibility, and for love.
These are all great concepts, but I’m surprised ‘for fun’ didn’t make the list. It makes me think about the difference between the reason and the benefit.
A benefit of training – I’ve mentioned this before – is health, more specifically to my interests – increased insulin sensitivity. But the reasons are something else. I go to the gym for fun, and to challenge myself, and for development and fitness, and feeling good, and other things – sometimes to prove something, or because of shame or insecurities, yes they do still come up, but I am better at negotiating them than I used to be, and in an overall sense, my training experiences are much more positive and ‘healthy’ than they used to be – and sometimes I’m pleased, sometimes disappointed – but not once have I gone to the gym fired up because I was going to stimulate some insulin sensitivity in my skeletal muscle. Health, for me, is a benefit – but it’s not the reason I train. It’s too vague. Even improved insulin sensitivity, which is quite, quite specific and important to me, is still too vague. ‘For health’ in a general term, is certainly too vague or abstract a reason to get me to the gym, or the yoga studio, the dojo, or a park.
It’s a benefit, a wonderful benefit, a massive benefit, but unfortunately no guarantee. So if health was the reason for my training, if I worked my ass off for years, only to one day get sick – I’d feel a bit like I’d wasted my time. I’ve already been there, actually – when your expectation is for health, and for some reason it doesn’t quite work right – maybe one day you get sick – then you don’t really think about the alternate reality where you might have gotten more sick, or sicker sooner if you hadn’t trained consistently ‘for life’, because what could have happened is always a kindof irrelevant mystery. What did happen, however – is that you got sick. Or maybe you gained weight. Or maybe something else happened, which training failed to prevent from happening, like joint dysfunction or an injury. And then you listen to people talk about personal responsibility and disease – when you actually were doing the right things? It’s an odd place to be.
But if you train for fun, you never feel like you’ve wasted your time. If you trained to achieve something tangible, whether you got sick later on, or lost that tangible thing, or whatever – it doesn’t lead you to resent your training, the time and effort you dedicated to this thing that was a part of your life, and potentially interfered with other parts of your life – in my case – in a big, big way.
And then, there’s training for love. Now that, I get – but it too, is a bit abstract. What is love? Baby don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me, no more.
Just, don’t hurt yourself in the name of love. Don’t starve, don’t punish. That’s not how it works. Celebrate yourself, if that’s a meaningful phrase for you. Enjoy your time spent with yourself. Cherish yourself. The problem is we’re taught to be so critical, to have contempt for our bodies – women are taught that the reason to exercise is only to change themselves, and then you’re expected to enjoy spending time with your body – only to diminish it. To unmake it, so you don’t have to have so much of it around all the damn time. So it often doesn’t quite work out that way – that you can just celebrate yourself, your freedom, with movements and methods that you are told to do.
I think there’s something really weird going on when people go to a yoga class and ask if it’ll burn calories. Nowhere in the lexicon of yoga am I aware of anyone giving a shit about calories before now. I’m glad ‘because of the calories’ didn’t make the above list.
Loving and accepting yourself comes first. Training and sculpting and developing and changing yourself to fit whatever your culturally-influenced criteria might be won’t one day make you love yourself. It only keeps you chained to the wheel of criticism, of criteria, of conditional love. True love comes first. Unconditional love. Love, compassion and understanding, for yourself, even if you aren’t the person you hoped you would turn out to be. Freedom and joy follow. And then training, exercise, movement – these things are exactly what you make of them, on your terms, for your own best interests, for your own good opinion. Not in service to someone else, something else, some vague idea of being good, of making the grade.
Damn the grade.