Despite physical limitations, most anyone can do most any exercise, perfectly.
I lost over 150 pounds in my 20s. Then I started exercising for the first time in my life (I liked strength training because it made me feel like a super hero). Some time later I became a personal trainer. Because it was still so new and unfamiliar for me to do anything “healthy,” after I got my training certification I had a hard time feeling like I was a real personal trainer. 1
One day, I heard what sounded like a chance to prove myself:
“Coffey, you’ve gotta try Bikram yoga. It’s hardcore – 90 minutes in a hot room, 26 postures held for up to a minute – it’s nuts. And it’d up your endurance.”
I wanted so badly to feel like the real thing, and scoffed at most endurance exercise, 2 so I decided to check it out.
I went to the studio and handed the gal at the counter – a tall, flawless specimen of yogic femininity – $15 for the class.
Then, armed with a mat, a towel, and some water, I walked straight into hell.
The studio was 105 degrees, and it was moister than a drunk first kiss.
I was wondering WTF I’d gotten myself into when the instructor floated in on a thin cloud of white spandex. Moments later, in the very first posture, the beast – the self-hating voice in my head – started screaming…
You’ve GOT to be kidding. You shouldn’t be here.
You’re broken. A joke.
Everyone is staring at you.
…because I was in a yoga class that involved a ton of back-bending, but, I suddenly remembered, my back does not bend.
Everyone has some level of scoliosis, but few people have it like I had it. Instead of one gentle curve, as I entered adolescence my spine had three sharp curves (Pacific Coast highway curves, but without the scenery).
At 11 years old, my spine was getting worse by the day.
I was well on my way to deformity, chronic pain, and nerve damage by the time I was 12.
Normally, a kid with my condition was fitted with a mini iron maiden, a tight, torso-length brace made of hard plastic. Worn over a year or more, the brace would straighten the vertebrate much the same way braces straighten teeth.
But I’d been obese since Pre-K, and by 11 I was far too fat for a torso brace to have any effect – my twisted spine was buried too deep. Surgery was the only option.
I hadn’t ever been active, but I told myself that, if I survived the surgery, then I’d start exercising.
And then I’d really be able to lose weight.
And then my life would really begin.
Most people don’t have “Once I do/have/master X, then I’ll lose weight!” fantasies until high school.
Clearly I was ahead of my time.
Bone was harvested from my hip and used to fuse two long rods to both sides of my spine in one massive, 10-hour-long surgery.
I spent two weeks at a hospital in the Bronx, tripping on morphine and getting stuck with needles. Nurses flipped me several times a day to prevent bedsores. The pain was unspeakable, and as is often the case with extreme physical trauma, I can remember only bits and pieces.
I spent the next school year recovering in our tiny Queens apartment while my mother worked. I spent a couple hours a day with a city-provided tutor who smelled like raw hamburger meat.
It was a strange year.
By the time my back was healed, I was less interested in being active than I had ever been.
My thoughts were of comfort – quick comfort – like with food. Despite 3 countless efforts to lose weight, I got up past 300 pounds by the time I was 18.
In 2003, I lost over 150 pounds.
In 2007, I became a personal trainer. And I felt like a fraud.
Which brings us BACK 4 to 2009. There I stood, a newly-minted personal trainer with a back that could not bend, surrounded by human flexi-straws in a yoga studio that was hotter than Hades in July.
And what did I do? I did what any woman with a PhD in shame and self-loathing would do: I judged and compared.
To my left, a skinny little blonde was effortlessly shape-shifting into a pretzel. She was good at this, which meant I was a joke.
To my right, a sizable woman with a pregnant belly moved elegantly through postures I could only get into if I made a deal with the devil. She was beautiful and strong, which meant I was awkward and pathetic.
At the front, the teacher looked amazing wearing but the mere suggestion of clothes. Obviously she was a real fitness professional, which meant I was a fraud.
And behind her, more awful than anything or anyone else in the room, was my own reflection. 5
Mine didn’t look like the body of a typical personal trainer, 6 which meant I was a piece of [Lengthy string of expletives deleted].
I could have run screaming, but I had something to prove. And, regardless of what was happening in my head, my body felt…better…after a class.
So I dragged my ass back into hell once or twice a week.
And while my body practiced yoga, my brain practiced hate.
The beast spun everything that happened in class into fuel for self-judgement.
Convinced I should be able to move like everyone else, I went to war against my own body to try to do things my post-surgical spine simply could not do. And the beast was right there the whole time, mocking me.
You don’t belong here.
You can’t do this. You’re making a fool of yourself.
I hated my bones for literally not bending to my will.
My frustration and resentment grew.
I stared at my reflection, scrutinizing every flaw.
It was torture.
The beast never stopped chattering, and because I assumed its voice was my voice, I never did anything to stop it.
They’re all staring at you, wondering why you’re not getting any better.
They think you’re lazy and weak.
Eventually, I decided that going to yoga was hurting me more than it was helping me. I quit, and went back to lifting weights exclusively. 7
That was 7 years ago.
Early this year, after months of being more sedentary than usual (ah, the price of writing), I was feeling achy and tight and a tad disconnected from my body.
I decided to give yoga another chance.
Now, why the hell would I do that?
I’d spent years intensely researching self-sabotage (both personally and professionally). I learned a lot, and began teaching folks how to wipe it out once and for all. I gave women practical tools to make drastic, healthy change, and to stay on track under any conditions whatsoever.
Most importantly, I’d uncovered how to enjoy keeping healthy commitments enough to actually keep them. 8
It was time to put my tools to the hot yoga test.
The old studio had closed, but another was close by. I went in and was greeted by a large-and-in-charge, heavily tattooed trans woman. She was the instructor. 9
Things were already off to a good start.
I bought a week-long trial.
I grabbed my things, braced for the heat, and walked into the studio.
I set up my mat and towel, took a deep breath, and faced myself in the mirror.
I scanned my body. My face looked older. My tummy had two babies’ worth of new stretch marks. There was still the same loose skin under my arms. My thighs still had the same textured surface you would expect after extreme weight loss.
No judgement. Just observations.
(Well, almost no judgement. I also noted that my shoulders were jacked and my eyebrows were on point. Progress, my friend. Progress.)
This was going well.
Because it was the same style of yoga, it was the same routine that had left me in self-loathing ruin years before: Twenty-six postures, most done twice, and most demanding a level of flexibility I do not, and cannot ever, have.
And you know what? I did every posture perfectly.
For me. 10
I pushed myself and I reached and I stretched to the best of my ability.
When in mid-posture the teacher said “Your forehead MUST touch your knee,” instead of straining to bend parts of me that cannot bend, I laughed, because being told to do something you simply cannot do is FUNNY if you’re coming from a healthy, care-based place.
It was a hard class. I struggled to do my best, and I did exactly that.
Just me in the moment doing the best I could with the body I have.
I stayed ‘til the end. I rocked it. And afterward I lay in Savasana feeling like a Badassana.
My tools had passed the hot yoga test.
Those tools gave me control of my thoughts. When I am in control – not the beast – I can focus on the moment, on doing my best, and on how cool it is that I am alive and can move at all. I can choose care over criticism.
And when I operate from that place, exercise rules.
Now, before you lump me in with all those saccharine, Pollyanna fitness peeps who make it sound like you just have to decide to shift your thinking and POOF – you’re fixed! – DON’T. The shift cannot and does not happen overnight. It takes practice and time – months and years, not days and weeks. And the practice has little to do with positive affirmations, and much to do with concrete actions, like getting solid sleep, and taking the time to adjust the water temperature so you don’t burn/freeze. Only then can you begin to internalize that you’re worth the time, effort, energy, and care it takes to make big, healthy changes, and to live well for life.
If you’re anything like I used to be, you’ve blown hundreds of thousands of chances to practice coming from a place of self-care and not from a place of self-hate. Don’t worry about it. Every minute can be a chance to practice, and you get stronger every chance you take.
Every day we can choose to operate from a kinder place.
Even when yesterday and today seem identical in every way, we can choose to approach it differently, to see ourselves differently. To act with care.
A few weeks passed. I’m in class and I look to my left and there’s this skinny blonde – a different one than Pretzel Lady 2009 – and she’s bending and contorting seven ways to Sunday. I hear the beast start in with the comparisons and the judgments. But this time, I don’t let myself go there.
Instead, I focus on me. My body. My practice.
I do the best I can. Perfectly.
We’re leaving the studio the beast whispers “Leave, quick! Don’t make eye contact!” Instead, I introduce myself, because I know I’m more likely to treat myself well when I feel connected.
I’m not alone. We all need to feel connected to be able to stand up to the beast.
The bendy blonde’s name is Maggie. The beast wants me to think she lives a charmed life and feels great about herself all the time. But I’ve actually gotten to know Maggie (Coffey 1, Beast 0), and It turns out she’s had struggles, too. Like me, she’s wrestled with eating disorders and shame. She even cried after her first yoga class because she was mortified by how “badly” she’d done.
Boy howdy, can I relate!
I see Maggie working it in class and I know her practice is perfect. For her.
Another day, I look to my right and there’s a super-flexible pregnant chick (again, not the same one as in 2009). The beast wants me to harp on the fact that this a pregnant woman can do this whole yoga thing 1000x better than me. It wants me to feel embarrassed and self-conscious and stupid for trying. Instead, I look over to admire her strength and flexibility.
I introduce myself to her next. Her name is Sarah, and we have a lot in common. Like me, Sarah’s got clinical depression. And like me, she’s found that regular, daily exercise is a more consistently effective depression treatment than drugs and talk therapy.
I feel a happy jolt every time this gorgeous mama modifies a posture to accommodate her baby bump.
Day after day I see Sarah practicing, and I know her practice is perfect. For her.
Yup, I appreciate my classmates. All different ages, all different bodies, all different abilities. But most of the time, I focus on myself. On my practice.
And my practice is perfect.
What makes it perfect is that I keep showing up and doing the best I can do with the body that I have.
No matter what physical limitations you have, you can have a perfect yoga practice, too. Or a perfect strength training routine. You can do Zumba perfectly. Or Crossfit. You can swim perfectly. Dance. Pilates. Walk. Hell, you can jump like a kangaroo – perfectly. Here’s how:
Show up. 14
And keep showing up. 15
And do the best you can with the body you have. 16
Like this? Share it on Facebook (your friends’ll thank you for taking a break from the political posts.)
Thanks to my friends Maggie D and Sarah H. and for being perfect, to Four Wings Photography (fourwingsphotography.com) for the beautiful photos, to Valley Hot Yoga (valleyhotyoga.com) for the awesome yoga, and to Smith College (smith.edu) for the awesome backdrop.
- Let’s never mind feeling like I was a real thin person, but that’s another post for another time. ↩
- Me? Run? Only if I’m being chased. ↩
- …well, you know, thanks to… ↩
- See what I did there?! Ha! ↩
- A giant, studio-length mirror was there to help us “focus on our ‘practice.’” ↩
- …because I wasn’t a typical personal trainer – I’d been over 300 pounds! I’ve since embraced my history and my body, but at this particular moment in my life, I was still working toward that. ↩
- Clients – You’ve heard me tell versions of this story. Most of the time the story ends here. The rest of this piece shows how the Pleasure Principles are continuing to work in my life. Keep practicing, and like me you’ll arrive at deeper and deeper levels of truth, all the while becoming more equipped to care for yourself in ways that bring you deeper pleasure. Go, Baby, go. ↩
- What it this magic?! Come to my free workshop and I’ll tell you all about it. ↩
- Yoga studio owners: as a woman who, like many, has struggled with self-consciousness, shame, and compulsive self-judgment, I’ve gotta tell you that I’m much more inclined to frequent a studio whose instructors don’t all look like Malibu Barbie (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Bring on a teacher who looks more like the clientele you’re trying to reach, and see if that doesn’t positively impact student enrollment. ↩
- You didn’t think this was an essay about me becoming a competitive yogi or anything, did you? No sir. This is about me doing what I can do as well as I can do it, and practicing every day so that what I can do continues to change and I continue to grow, to get stronger, to get more brave, and more confident. That, for me, is perfect. ↩
- Who the hell am I kidding? ↩
- Life is unfair and everything sucks get me outta here. ↩
- Eff this nonsense. Next stop – McDonald’s! ↩
- This is the hardest part for so many of us. Showing up can mean a million different things. Showing up can mean arriving at a studio or a gym. It can mean strapping on comfortable shoes and walking out the front door. It can mean finding a roomy spot in your house, blasting your favorite CD, and hopping around like a bunny. If circumstances have it that you can’t move, showing up can mean simply breathing with intention. Whatever activity makes sense in the context of your real life. ↩
- Every day will be different. Some days, it’ll feel really hard. On those days, the best you can do will be a little less than others, and that’s OK. Some days you’ll have more oomph, and on those days, you’ll explore the limits of your capabilities – safely – and that’s OK. Some days, you’ll be distracted and you’ll just go through the motions. Some days you’ll feel like a big, fat fraud. Some days, you’ll wonder why you ever waited to make exercise a regular part of your life. Some days you’ll be trapped in unkind thoughts. Some days, you’ll be horny as a toad from the minute you start moving. Some days, you’ll sense that you’re getting stronger and you’ll feel proud and accomplished. Some days, your body will ask you to back off, and you will. Some days, the idea of doing activity A will make your skin crawl, and so you’ll do activity B, C, D, or Z instead. All of this and more will happen once you’ve committed to exercise every day, and all of it is OK. Keep showing up, and it’s not just OK, it’s perfect. ↩
- To do so safely, first get your doctor’s blessing, and then avail yourself of any resources at your disposal; ideally, certified and insured personal trainers. Barring that, you’d be amazed out of what you can learn from a good book. ↩
- And it will continue to be perfect until and unless you become a competitive athlete, at which point you should probably start reading someone else’s blog. ↩
- Just kidding. You should still read my blog. ↩