Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The new year fitness craze and playing for fun

A couple of years ago, I was reading some random news on the Internet and came across an interesting and inspiring snippet - a lady's New Year resolution to do just one push-up every day.

Most of us make resolutions to eat healthy, get fit, lose weight, find a mate, find a new job, etc. only to slide off course in a couple of months. Instead of that, taking baby steps goes a long way.

A post by a blogger I have recently discovered through No Meat Athlete talks about forming habits instead of vague resolutions. I've become a fan of that blog - zenhabits.net and check it out pretty often.

Let me tell you a personal story about my inspiration to exercise.

When I was a child, I suddenly developed a craze for gymnastics. The India of my early and middle childhood years had no private television channels but the state run Doordarshan regularly telecast events such as the Olympics and the Asian and Commonwealth Games as well as Wimbledon and the other Grand Slams among many other competitions.
 For me, the Olympics and other summer games held a special appeal because of the wide array of sports and the sheer feeling of an international atmosphere that they create. Gymnasts and divers held the highest position of honor in my mind because they performed twirls and jumps that were out of this world and frankly very dangerous.
Around the time I was twelve years old, Doordarshan ran a weekly four part series titled, "Nadia", based on the early life and achievements of Nadia Comaneci, the golden girl of gymnastics, the first female to net a perfect 10 in the Olympics. I was mesmerized. My mother had to put up with my wailing as to why she had not enrolled me in the sport when I was still a tender, flexible child under five.  However, I fully knew that I was an extremely timid and sedentary child who could not even hoist herself up on the handlebars in the playground or climb trees like other kids effortlessly did.

On top of that, my school did not have a gymnastics program. In fact, the sport was hardly ever taught or practiced. An opportunity to train came through a program that was probably out-of-school but I was too old by then. I had heard stories of Romanian toddlers as young as two years of age being initiated into training. Twelve is considered too old to start especially for competitive gymnastics though I am not sure if someone else has succeeded in such an endeavor. See, you don't have to be 30 or 40 to feel old, age is a relative thing.

However, I still believed I would manage some of those feats. I scrawled pictures of a female gymnast with a pony tail in various somersaults and poses on blank pieces of paper.

Learning karate during the time I was around 10 helped, too. I still go gaga over Jackie Chan stunts and esoteric Asian masters of martial arts who whack a dozen bad guys like they are swatting a fly.

During school summer breaks, I diligently exercised every morning to improve my flexibility. Those were the times when the model-Miss India-Miss Universe craze had still not caught on and the talk of the town did not revolve around dress sizes, waistlines and weight. My motivation to exercise came from my childhood heroes and heroines and was about achieving something.
In fact, whatever flexibility I still have left after years of plodding away in front of a computer are because of my diligence in my childhood. I was a sincere student, too, and did not slack off during Physical Training classes in school.

Then, there were the tennis stars. Steffi Graf captured my heart like none has ever done since. I watched every Grand Slam semi-final and final I possibly could, especially the women's events. Wimbledon and the French Open were the ones that were aired at a civilized time though.  I cried when Graf once lost to Monica Seles and felt bad that Monica Seles was hurt by a crazed Steffi Graf fan because it took away from a fair playing field and somehow, Steffi's subsequent victories were twinged with a "What if Seles were still in her peak form and not stopped unfairly in her tracks?" 
Today, I do feel bad for Monica Seles, too. She was definitely capable of scaling much greater heights in her career.
By the way, both these players have their own websites - check out Steffi Graf's here and Monica Seles's here.

My parents were avid watchers of tennis, especially Wimbledon and they would rave about the epic Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe duels and Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry.
I dreamed of becoming a Grand Slam champion, too, and vaguely remember adding my name to the list of future champions in either gymnastics or tennis (I can't remember which one).

I still remember the day my father got home a sports magazine that featured Soviet gymnastics champions  - Svetlana Boginskaya and Irina Strunnikova (if I remember this name correctly). I went ballistic, jumping up and down and promptly received a scolding from my father who preferred quietness. My study cupboard had a huge poster of Steffi Graf with Stefan Edberg taken during Wimbledon.

There was absolutely no public lawn tennis court that was accessible to me. In fact, I had not laid eyes on a real tennis court or racket until I came to the United States. However, we played badminton in our neighborhood and we would imagine that we were would-be champions playing tennis.

Then, when I was in my teens and twenties, the Miss World-Miss Universe era had arrived in India with Indian beauty queens such as Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai, Diana Hayden, Yukta Mookhey, Lara Dutta and Priyanka Chopra to name a few and I was inspired to enter the Miss India pageant, too. I began a daily regimen of sit-ups, full Hindi squats and spot jogging for half an hour every morning along with watching my diet and whittled down to my slimmest that I could ever remember. I ditched my Miss India plans later but continued the exercises on and off. 

Today, what one sees and hears day in and day out is about toning and tightening the butt and abs, losing twenty pounds and 'Before' and 'After' photos. Heck, even Reader's Digest now features some version of "Lose x pounds" on its cover.
Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten our childhood tendency to play for play's sake. Exercise can be fun and should be. That's what the author of zenhabits.net says in this post, too.

I've recently started to learn yoga and as I try to perform the Padmasana (cross legged lotus pose with feet on top of your thighs) and the bridge pose, I try to envision the child who believed she could be a gymnast some day. Maybe I will get more flexible with regular practice, maybe I won't get very far but the very fact that I am doing something is an achievement by itself.

As one of my teachers had signed in my autograph book as I left school (I don't remember the exact words but definitely the gist),
"Ideals are like the stars
We may never reach them but 
they will guide our way."

My sports and fitness idols guide my path and as my yoga instructor and virtually every Zen master would say, "It is the journey that is important".

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