A Strong Core Leads to a Straight Spine
Preetal strode into work in the mornings, shaking out damp hair from her yellow helmet. Her shoulders were always back and down, a carefree swagger in her hips. She had this beautiful caramel skin, and always walked in slightly out of breath, bearing stories of her morning yoga, or her run through the park. Wistful and heavy from no morning exercise, I asked her questions.
“What asana did you work on today?”
Taking that as a request, she would drop down to give me a private demonstration on the mosaic floor, muscle and sinew holding up her weight, her curves lending rhymes and rhythm. She smiled, pulled funny faces, and sometimes huffed when she couldn’t hold it for long enough. To me she was an alien — free, unconstrained — a different breed, intriguing. How can one be so much at ease with one’s body, I wondered, how can one be so kind and inclusive to it.
“I was always a fat child,” I’ve often caught myself telling my friends. The older friends know this about me without a doubt, and the new ones find out soon enough. But if I look back at my childhood, rewinding back to the days when I went to school in a beige box pleated uniform, waddling through rain puddles in the monsoon, I realize that this proclamation is fabricated.
I wasn’t a fat child. I just believed I was.
The realization is shocking and saddening both. In class 8, I was about the same height as I am now, I weighed the same too. I had jet black hair that my mother, school rules and social conditioning, made me comb down. The curls I now take pride in, were mere wires forced into braids. I wore glasses, big and black, and I did my best to constantly shrink into secrecy.
This continued in varying degrees into early adulthood. Through the seasons of life, especially the rough ones, I placed myself on one side of a balance scale, and ironically never matched to anything else on the other side.
On the other side of my twenties, still working on making myself inconspicuous, I gradually felt shifts in my inner environment. I could feel the vibrations of small, persistent cries from frail voices in my mind.
I ignored them for a while. But over time, fighting the urge to unfurl was more painful than the fight to stay hidden. Eventually, I drew a circle around an advert for a Zumba class near work. At my non-committal best, I didn't tell too many people about it. Clandestinely, I made a call, and a subsequent visit. I wore old tights and a neglected sports bra lying in the bottom of my drawer. I didn't want to make any commitments.
The first class was on the roof of a sports club, and since it was summer, there were large standing fans at all corners. I went back for the second class, then the third. Eventually it was firmly integrated into my routine, and I went and got a new sports bra.
Exercising regularly brought about changes. They were piecemeal and surely not Instagram-friendly, but they were there. My mind felt like it renewed itself after every workout, I was thinking straight and sharp, feeling content. My skin shed its outer layers, revealing supple signs of life. I moved suitcases and furniture with grace. I shed not just weight, but also inhibitions. Muscles peeked out from secret places and assured me of their intentions.
Once you're feeling the true force of a fit body and mind, you cannot stop. I grew out of Zumba and signed up for Yoga, and we grew to become lifelong friends. The daily hour I would spend in exercise soon became my time of prayer, an intimate ritual of self care. I also started playing around with my routine- I would run, take Body Combat, Pilates, Boxing. I would take stairs and hikes to nearby places.
I learnt to take pride in simple, local , seasonal food, not opening packets to feed myself, eating with the sunset. Earlier shaming myself for my appetite, I now took pride in it. Peeling open a banana after a big meeting or workout, eating rice, fresh yellow dal and ghee (with my hands), chewing mindfully, shadowing my mother around to see how she cooks, really absorbing what my grandmother says about eating. Trying, as far as possible, to only eat food she would recognize.
There are the obvious physical changes. But they feel secondary, like a happy side-effect of tectonic internal life changes. There are far more private shifts I notice, late in my bed some evenings, or while entering a room of strangers alone, asking for directions or when I publicly make mistakes. I sense it when I give myself credit where deserved, while accepting compliments, while trying something new, while speaking my mind on a podium — real or imagined.
Yoga taught me that to have an upright spine, you need to work on your deep core muscles. Everyday in class, in the rock-walled belvedere surrounded by creepers, ageing trees and woolly dogs, I worked on my core, and it felt symbolic of something larger. It would rain sometimes, and sometimes it would be cold enough that I would exhale clouds of mist . Sometimes, deeply entrenched in my class, I feel large lumps stuck in my throat, real as reptiles. I imagine it is from growth, from strength, from deep prayer; from accessing deep places of hiding and shame, from contacting burial.
I worked on my posture continually, I still do — on the way I hold my head when I’ve made a fool of myself, or when I’m told I’m not good enough. I work on how I speak to myself, on what I tell myself in private about my thighs and my talents; about my beauty. I worked on how I handle disappointments, and on how how I handle change. It isn't an easy job, and neither is it a quick nor completed.
Some days, the wind gets knocked out of my lungs and I lay paralyzed from fear or insecurity, from guilt or grief. It helps to run or take a class in dance. “Keep your eye focused on something so you don’t loose your balance,” my dance teacher said, when she was mid pirouettes, sweating, laughing.
Its a piece of advice that I carry overall. And If I feel like eating cake on some days, I do.