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When Frank and I were traveling this month, we made a practice of moving in some way every day. I noticed that when faced with an unfamiliar hike or ride (which was practically every day!), I often defaulted to an old habit of thinking I wouldn’t be strong enough and wouldn’t be able to do it.

I suspect this line of thinking started in middle school gym class. We’d be riding or walking along and I’d notice myself thinking, “I can’t do this” or “I’m not strong enough” or “I’m going to fall and break my tuchus.” I could feel myself withdrawing and contracting away from whatever we were doing physically, mentally and emotionally.

Which was a drag since I’d get sad or grumpy and we were in beautiful places together, forcryingoutloud.

Instead, I’d play with saying other things to myself like “I’m fit, I’m healthy and I can do this” or “Just focus on this step right now” or “I can rest if I need to.” It felt a little unfamiliar and awkward to be running these lines in my head like a mantra but dang if I couldn’t do more than I thought I could.

Which brings me to 4 ways of triumphing over the tragedy of middle school gym class and becoming a sacred athlete:

1. Changing it up is good.

The body thrives on variety. We found that hiking one day and biking the next felt good in that different muscles got attention in different ways. My calves got tight when I hiked and then stretched when we rode. But even if you run or walk every day, change up your route or your focus (e.g. experiment with going a little further or not as far, faster or slower, pay attention to how your feet touch the ground or how you hold your hands, shoulders or mouth). If you do Nia or yoga regularly, just changing where your attention goes can change how it lands in your body, so practice giving yourself a focus (e.g., connecting breath and movement, go more slowly, make more sound, etc.)

2. Moving a little is better than not moving at all.

As Colleen Patrick-Goudreau says, “Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything.” When we were in the car for long stretches, I circled my wrists, did deep belly breathing, circled my shoulders, and stretched my neck (that one might have been more difficult if I’d been driving). When we stopped, I’d do hip circles (what the heck, I’m not going to see the people in that rest stop again), do some squats and stretch my hamstrings. When we got to a campground late, even a short walk around the campground loop was better than nothing. Now that I’m spending more time at my desk, I’m doing the same thing.

3. Having fun and feeling good is an essential part of healthy movement.

When I’m riding my bike down a hill or I come to a vista at the top of a hike, I get a feeling of exhilaration and joy that is an essential part of being a sacred athlete*. Find a movement that you can do that you love, rather than one that you think is good for you or that you should do. There may be things that you used to do that no longer bring you joy and there may be things that you would never have considered doing at another time in your life that appeal to you now. Whatever bubbles some joy juice into your bloodstream, go do that.


4. My body has wisdom that my mind knows nothing about.

Especially if you’ve ignored your body (perhaps by not moving it or by overriding the sensation it has given you), it can take some time and practice to know the difference between listening to your body and letting your mind talk you out of (or into) something. But when I listen to the subtle nuances as well as the more intense sensation AND feel how I feel AFTER I do something, I can start to hone in on when I need to rest and when I need to GO!

Movement is your birthright no matter what your physical condition, experience or age. Become a Sacred Athlete by starting exactly where you are now and moving with awareness, intention and joy.

* Potentially annoying vacation story: One day we drove for what seemed like hours on a dusty bumpy road, then got to a ride but found it was dusty and bumpy and rocky and not well marked. After an hour of that I was grumpy and cranky and frustrated. Then we got a road with not too many cars and long swooping hills. The first hill I road down smooth and fast, I could actually feel the grumpy crankies clear out of my head.

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“Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything.” ~ Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

The horror of middle school gym class is so universal that it’s practically a cliché. I know even gifted athletes who suffered the torments of junior high squat thrusts and rope climbing. But it’s not just the smelly, unflattering uniforms and gang showers (heavens above, do schools still use those??) that make 7th grade PhysEd a tragedy. The problem with the gym classes of my youth was their narrow focus on sports, competition, and everybody doing things the same way. (Note: I was taking those classes 40 years ago. I would love to hear from current physical education teachers about how they teach gym these days.)

True facts about my physical education history:

1. I am terrible at sports.

In elementary school, the only sport available to girls was softball. I was terrible. TERRIBLE. Softball is a game in which at every moment, one person is supposed to be doing one thing correctly: hit the ball, catch the ball, throw the ball. As an anxious kid, the pressure of all eyes on me as I inevitably missed the ball, dropped the ball, or threw wildly off target made my stomach hurt. I never got better. I never had fun. In high school, I played on the volleyball team. I got the award for following directions.

2. I was terrible in gym class.

I got nervous learning sports skills in front of the class. I could never figure out which knee was supposed to go up when doing a lay-up. I couldn’t jump so spiking a volleyball never went well. And somehow, soccer balls either ended up behind me or they tripped me up so I was in a heap picking grass out of my teeth.

3. The President’s Physical Fitness testing was an annual exercise in humiliation.

This was a week of doing a list of skills deemed important by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. The Frasier twins could do everything. Doris and Natalie could hang on that bar for a full minute without quivering. They probably loved Physical Fitness week. I did not. I couldn’t run fast, I wasn’t strong, and in an effort to save some sort of face, my tendency was to give up. (I could force myself to do 50 sit ups but then I was so sore that I could barely get out of my chair.)

4. I hated dancing.

In a progressive move brought on by the late 70s popularity of Saturday Night Fever, dance was added to the PE curriculum. We did dances in gangly tangled lines in the gym but I have a trouble with my left and right and I was usually stepping on the person next to me. I hated it. If you know me, my lack of coordination or athletic prowess is unlikely to be a surprise but it is absolutely true that until I was in my early 30s, I was so self-conscious and uncomfortable that I could barely move on a dance floor.

5. As I got older, I saw exercise as punishment for whatever I’d eaten or for my body not looking how I thought it should.

Over-indulge on the weekend? Extra time on the stair-stepper on Monday morning. Too many restaurant meals on the business trip? Get up at 5am to hit the hotel gym. Don’t look slender and buff like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2? Hire a personal trainer. Movement that was pleasurable, healing, joyful, or fun was never ever my experience.

The human body is designed to move. Sports games and disco dancing a la John Travolta are not the only ways to move. As a culture we tend to focus on competition and performance. If you thrive in that environment and love it like the Frasier twins did, that is wonderful. But even if exercising in squads was great for you, it’s important to remember that sport is just a small part of what the body can do. The tragedy is that many of us take this narrow view of physicality and generalize it to “I’m not athletic” or “I hate exercise.”

Lucky for me, I came across a practice that I love, a practice that isn’t about winning or competition but about awareness, healing, and feeling good. Lucky for me, after a few years of moving my body in a different environment than the no-pain-no-gain, sports-y world, I started to feel differently about my body and my physical abilities. I don’t have to run a marathon or clear the hurdles. I don’t have to dribble any kind of ball. I just need to find a way to move my body that feels good. I just need to invite myself to the edge between challenge and healing and find the joy of moving there.

Even if you flourish in the traditional athletic system and love playing of the game, it’s worthwhile to remember that competitive sports aren’t the only way to be an athlete. I can admire the talents of my beloved UVA basketball team and be amazed by the feats of Olympians and find my own sacred athleticism in other ways.

May physical education for everyone lead to understanding how the body works, how to move with awareness, and how to cultivate joy in our physical abilities, whatever they are.

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