[By Nic Lindh on Wednesday, 16 May 2012]
Even way back in the day when I was in great shape, I was never what you’d call limber. As a matter of fact, it would be fair to say I had the grace of a phone booth. But who cared? I could run far and fast—that’s what mattered.
Now, many years later, after starting to get back in shape and lose enough weight to look like a human being, I realized to my shame that it was getting difficult to cut my toe nails. Being a Homo Sapien with our unique gift of planning for the future it was clear to me that—if I didn’t make any changes—in 20 or 30 years, it would become impossible for me to cut my own toe nails.
Which is completely unacceptable.
The local YMCA by work, as it turns out, has a noon yoga/Pilates class on Mondays and Fridays. Some co-workers raved about it and lots of stretchy-stretchy seemed like an obvious way to combat middle-age decrepitude, so why not?
Well, lots of reasons why not for a fat middle-aged man with barely enough body control to walk in a straight line: Shamefully enough I still suffer to a certain extent from the stupid male knee-jerk fear of looking like a fool in front of a bunch of women evolution saw fit to hard-wire into men. I’m sure evolution had it’s reasons for doing that, but we’re civilized now, aren’t we? I’m happily married and don’t have any plans to mate with random women in yoga/Pilates classes but it still takes resolve and a willingness to be at a disadvantage to walk into a situation where I’ll look that silly.
I’m sure that kind of fear keeps lots of men out of these kinds of classes. If that’s you, seriously, get over it. You will suck, yes, but that’s OK. So far, nobody’s laughed at me and our instructor has managed to not even roll her eyes at the Special Ed poses I perform. Unless you’re unlucky enough to happen to end up in a class full of assholes, they want you to succeed, no matter how sad your starting baseline. If you’re in class where that’s not the vibe, get out. There are plenty of others.
Also, and this is the important part: Is the potential for humiliation more important for you than the certainty of ignoble decline?
After that sidebar into male insecurity, the obvious question: Why, oh why, would you subject yourself to such testicle-curdling potential humiliation?
Because it works.
I’ve only done it once a week for about six months and the changes are remarkable. Let’s start with the mind. Yoga/Pilates requires you to focus completely on what you’re doing and forces you to pay attention to your breathing. Which is the basis of mindfulness meditation, an extremely useful practice if you’re dealing with a lot of stress (and who isn’t, these days). While not the same thing, it provides a lot of the same benefits.
I’m far from a fan of the hippie bullshit that tends to permeate yoga. Fortunately the yoga/Pilates class I attend has been completely devoid of it. It’s about yoga as a very effective system of stretching, breathing, and balance and doing the work correctly (incidentally, the difference a slight, slight readjustment will do for the effectiveness of a pose is stunning).
But if you like hippie woo, you can find a class like that. It’s up to you. You can put into it what you like.
Pilates is focused on the core muscles, the “corset” that holds you up. Here’s a revelation: Unless you’ve been exercising with a goal to strengthen the core, your core is in horrible shape. Which is probably why your back hurts. I’ve spent my adult life operating under the assumption that back pain is just a cost of being bipedal, but no, turns out sitting in chairs and generally being out of shape is the reason your back hurts.
You will learn the truth of the horrible shape of your core in your first yoga/Pilates class, which, yes, will kick your ass in a massive way. Don’t think it won’t. It’s normal. As an aside, if you go to YouTube and search for videos of yoga or Pilates, you’ll see people doing stuff on mats and it doesn’t look like much. Just stretching and waving your arms and legs around—what’s the big deal? Try it! You’ll learn fast.
So not only do I lack flexibility, but now I’m learning my entire core is too weak to perform its job of supporting my spine and intestines. That’s a dark realization, but a necessary thing to learn. Because it’s fixable. If you do the work you feel better. If you do the work you get more flexible.
Expect to sweat a lot while doing it, and to feel like you have the liquid grace of a panther. A panther that’s being run over by a garbage truck. But you will improve and you will get stronger and you will be able to cut your toe nails without difficulty.
As a point of personal pride, I touched my toes with straight legs the other day in class. Which is something I haven’t been able to do at any point in memory. It can be done. It takes a lot of sweat and a lot of sore muscles, but it can be done. And it’s absolutely worth doing.
Contrary to popular opinion, not exercising is self-abuse. You will pay with pain, sooner or later. Might as well pay now while it buys you something.