This summer, I am rediscovering what it is like to push my body to its outer limits. Call me crazy, but damn — it feels good.

The last time I felt this way was two summers ago, when I trained for a half-marathon. As I’ve mentioned before, I “only” got up to eleven miles in my training runs before my dad’s illness cut my concentration to shreds. But the memory of that achievement stayed with me long after the routine was gone: walking the tightrope of my body’s limits, constantly pushing them upwards and outwards, every week achieving something I didn’t think I was capable of doing.

I am currently becoming reacquainted with that feeling, along with the sweet, excruciating ache that stays with you for days afterwards, reminding you that yes, you are alive and strong and whole. This time it’s not running that I’m focusing on, as I don’t think my knees, hips, etc, could stand it right now. This time, it’s that artful form of torture begun many years ago by Joseph Pilates.

I started taking classes at my gym a little under a year ago, seeing it as a good preparation both mentally and physically for my wedding in October. At first, I was truly humbled. After running and doing yoga for years, I had no idea that I could still be so uncoordinated… or so sore. But as time went on, the subtle movements became more familiar, and after about six months I found that the class I was taking at my gym was no longer as challenging. So I started taking a ball class with the same teacher, which was indeed harder, but it was still only once a week. I was quickly developing a new addiction, and I needed a better fix. Stat.

Then, at the end of May, my teacher announced that she would be doing a summer-long progressive workshop at a small martial arts gym in town. Oh, music to my ears. Now, instead of doing just one hour of pilates a week in a large class of varied abilities, I am doing two and a half hours a week, often with only three or four other people, all of whom have been there more or less since the workshop started six weeks ago. As a cohort, we go faster, push harder, and practice better. I love it.

Even as my body becomes ever more capable, however, I am once again humbled by how much I don’t know. Unlike with yoga, I am finding my lack of muscular strength to be a liability, simply because I lack the power it takes to maintain such tight control over my body. I am also remembering just how uncoordinated I am, which is a big reason I started running in the first place — I was too big of a klutz to do anything other than just put one foot in front of the other. So as everyone else is doing eight, ten, even twelve reps of each exercise on the ball, I struggle just to keep my balance in the starting position. Alas.

Here lies a crucial difference: for once in my life, every time I fall off, I get right back on, more determined than ever that this will be the time I nail this exercise, dammit. I am generally far too much of a perfectionist to bother doing anything I’m not automatically good at — “trying” doesn’t enter into my vocabulary, because it implies that “failing” might be a possibility. I hate skiing, because I started learning as an adolescent and didn’t like the number of times it required falling on my ass. As a kid, I couldn’t stand being laughed at in team sports, so instead I buried my nose in a book until college and then took up running, where failure is always a relative term. No matter how bad of a runner you are, there’s always someone slower or more goofy looking out there. Cruel, yes, but true.

My husband, who at forty still possesses more than his fair share of the daredevil gene, absolutely hates this part of my personality. It frustrates him to no end. I myself have learned to live around it, but it still feels great to find something that I don’t give up on as soon as I fall short of perfection. At least once a class, the teacher will demonstrate an exercise that makes me raise my eyebrows and go, “Yeah, right.” Even so, I roll up my sleeves (or more often my pant legs), pull in my belly button, and attempt to breathe through it all. In other words, I try, which for me is a huge accomplishment in itself. And you know what? To my utter amazement, at least 75% of the time, I can actually do it. Turns out my eyes and my brain are holding me back more than anything right now. Go figure.

And so I spend my 2.5 hours a week trying to balance my too-willowy, still ungainly body on a deceptively solid plastic ball, red-faced and puffing, loving every minute of it. I have missed the feeling that comes with pushing the limits of my endurance and strength, tip-toeing around the line of muscular exhaustion, walking up to it and then backing off just enough to be able to complete the exercise. Yesterday, for the first time, I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to finish this set.” But I did, I pushed through that block in my mind, because all along my body knew that yes, it could finish, and yes, it could even continue to the next one. (It helped that we were three minutes away from the end of class, so my body also knew that there was a Luna bar and water waiting at the finish line.)

At this point in my life, I spend every other hour of my week in uncertainty and self-doubt. But for those two and a half hours, I am strong, determined, and forgiving of my own limitations. Every week, I accomplish things that I didn’t think myself capable of doing the week before. I can already feel the roots of that realization starting to reach down throughout the rest of my life, taking hold on things I once felt were completely out of my control, relaxing my need to achieve perfection at any cost. It will take a while, but eventually, I hope these lessons will permeate my life much more thoroughly.

Until then, I will continue to let myself look like an idiot, falling off the ball, picking myself up, and getting right back on again. I have a feeling that this process has many lessons to teach me, ones that I should have learned long ago.

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