Yesterday, I went to a Bokwa class, which is an aerobics class inspired by a South African dance style. Guys, I had the time of my life in that class. I couldn’t stop smiling the entire time and even though I was sweaty and so sore, never in any moment did I feel self-conscious or miserable. The class got me thinking that many of us view the workout process as a session of torture, during which you abuse your body into shape. It most likely started well before it, but I suspect the biggest loser played a big part in teaching us that a workout wasn’t effective unless you felt miserable, ready to throw up and your body was giving in. We watched these people get abused by their trainers and lose 7-15 pounds in a week, and we bought into the idea that this was the norm.
I didn’t realize the subtle ways that the show seeped into my consciousness until I caught myself trying to figure out how much weight I could lose in one week, and I’d go to the gym every day for hours at the time, eat my cereal with water and survive on fruits only. Outside of biggest loser-inspired extremes though, I also see in retrospect how much I just accepted that working out is supposed to be miserable. I am naturally drawn to weight lifting, but I also know that I need cardio to get leaner and for a long time, I believed that meant running only. The problem with that is not only do I hate running, I also have an allergic reaction where my legs start to swell, turn red, start itching and get painful really quickly. it doesn’t happen every time, but 90% of the time.
I’d spend so many sessions getting on the treadmill or outside, and hating my body for betraying me when I was putting in so much effort. whenever the swelling would start, I would try to push through, then end up in the bathroom scratching my legs until the swelling looked like red tire tracks. I’d spend some minutes cursing myself and crying, then got back on the treadmill or just gave up and went home. This made me feel miserable and ashamed for so many years, until last year when I wrote my new year resolutions. I promised myself that it was time to let go of working out as only a way to calculate calories burned (and feel miserable the entire time), or to not listen when my body was obviously not well. Instead I embraced new ways to get a sweat in. I explored pole dancing, fell madly in love with yoga, did more of the weight lifting that I enjoy (forget people telling you muscles don’t look good on a girl), and for my cardio I went back to my first love, dance. That’s how I found my way into Zumba, Belly Dancing, Saturday morning dance sessions in my living room and Bokwa yesterday.
Yesterday I was dancing and twirling and stopping and yelling, and the whole time I’m thinking to myself, why don’t I allow myself to feel this way more often? As we talk about the journey to self-love, there isn’t enough discussion about changing the way we approach working out. I did everything else from changing the way I talk about my body, being more vocal when some says anything I don’t like about my body, being kinder to other people, but changing the way I workout was not on the list. I finally let go of the dream of running a marathon, because it’s just not for me. Not only does it make my body sick, I also simply hate it. That’s ok! I don’t have to feel bad about that anymore. I tried crossfit for a few months, and even though I liked the challenge, I felt it was wrecking havoc on my body and I was too sore and tired to do anything else I like. It was cutting in on my yoga time and I wasn’t having. So guess what? I dropped it quicker than my deadlift weights. That’s also ok!
Now I only do what I enjoy. Yoga, dance, pole dance, weightlifting, circuit training, swimming. I prioritize feeling good above all, because emotional health is just as important as physical health. I spent too many years torturing my body through exercise, like it was punishment for not fitting my idea of beautiful. Now that I’ve let go of that damaging concept, my relationship with exercise needed a makeover as well. No more puking in buckets, running myself to pain and misery, and feeling ashamed for not completing a marathon. I only do what makes my body feel good.
I want you to find your Bokwa. Whatever it is that truly makes you happy when you’re breaking a sweat. This isn’t a substitute for the discipline and consistency that is needed in exercise, but you do not have to punish your body, and you don’t have to be miserable while you’re in it. Don’t buy into that idea. Don’t put your happiness on hold by turning it into a trophy you can only earn after weight loss.
Find your Bokwa!
Isabelle Masado writes about body compassion on her blog "The Dear Body Project". She knows all too well that the personal is the political, is the community. As such, there is no discussing body compassion without talking about the assault on black bodies, trans women, and people with disabilities. Her mantra is, "How can I live in a way that makes room for you too"? She writes to examine, to heal, to redeem.