Archive for March, 2011



March 10, 2011

For months I’ve peeked into the dark cave of the spinning room at my gym and felt a curious pull to experience its inner mysteries. Pounding music, the acrid smell of sweat, the instructor yelling into a microphone, legions of red-faced and totally buff women generating enough electricity to power our fair town. That was the party I wanted to go to. Instead, I would walk right on past to the magazine rack where I hoped to find a back issue of People magazine to keep me company on some boring piece of cardio equipment.

For the last year, just getting to the gym has been enough. When I returned to my workouts after having Leo, I’d look at myself in the mirror as I did my bicep curls and think: “Not bad for having delivered a baby three weeks ago.” When I resumed workouts after having the cancer surgery, I’d catch a reflection of myself in the mirror while walking on the treadmill and think: “Not bad for having just had surgery.” When chemo started I made it a point to continue exercising for both my physical and mental health. “Not bad for being on chemo,” I’d say to myself while I did my ab routine.

This morning I dropped the kids off early and made it to the gym in time to score the last spinner available. I didn’t think too much about it, or else I would have lost my nerve, slunk out of the room and headed for the comfort of the Oscar issue of People magazine. I just hopped on and began adjusting the seat, handlebars, pedals. Everything seemed to move in some direction. Fortunately, our instructor, Jane, helped me out. She pulled hard on the straps, caging my feet in. There was no escaping now!

Then the music started. A thumping fast rhythm, and I was following the other ladies, going up and down in my seat, standing and pedaling, leaning forward, then back down in the saddle. In the front of the room, Jane waved her arms up and down, conducting us like an orchestra. I couldn’t stop smiling. The craziest, dumbest grin plastered itself on my face. Thank God my private party of one was happening in the last row. This was a blast! This was like dancing and riding and flying all at once. If Jane caught me smiling, then she’d surely hop off the instructor’s bike and come ratchet up my tension. I had heard she’s that kind of teacher.

By the third song, my smile had migrated inside. My mouth was open, sweat dripped down my face, and I was huffing and puffing with my head down, knowing my heart rate was probably through the ceiling but I didn’t care. I had been holding my body so tightly, in protective crash-ready position for months, that I forgot how to let go and feel easy and free and strong and delighted by my body. For over a year, since being pregnant and then with the cancer treatments, I had been careful not to push myself. Always careful, careful, careful (a word I catch myself using too often with my preschooler). But now I was curious to see what this body could really do. I tightened the tension on the spinner and proceeded to climb up the fictitious hill we were endeavoring to scale along with Madonna, every muscle in my legs and butt burned with the effort, and it sucked and was exhilarating at the same time.

I began to tell myself the same old tired phrase: “Not bad for…” But as quickly as the words formed, they disappeared. The story of everything that I had gone through, the sad story I kept spinning around myself without even realizing it, simply ended. In the space that opened up I realized that what came before me doesn’t matter. I understood that if I keep telling myself the same story of cancer and hardship then I will always be defined by cancer, even though I made it through the treatments and as far as I know am disease free. It’s just like the self-help guru Byron Katie asks: “Who would you be without your story?” In this particular moment, who I am is a woman cycling like mad on this bike and feeling, dare I say it, okay. No, not just okay, I was downright energetic and healthy and so deliciously, salty, sweaty, smelly ALIVE.

Okay, so I did need to pay attention to my stomach muscle, which is still healing from the ileostomy reversal surgery I had 6 weeks ago. I wasn’t dumb. But nothing hurt. Nothing was uncomfortable, that is, until Jane came around and asked how I was doing. I gave her a big smile and a thumbs-up. Hmm, perhaps not the best response? She said I looked a little too good, and on the next chorus she cranked my bike’s knob to maximum tension and shouted at me to give it everything I had. “For the next 8 seconds, go as fast as you can, drive it harder,” she ordered. “Go, Shira!” she shouted above the ear-deafening music. “Give it everything you’ve got. Push! Push! Push!” By the time the song ended, my legs were jelly and I was panting for air.

The sweat was so healing. It’s as though my body wasn’t just detoxing pollutants but also ridding my mind of false limitations. As a child, I was always the chubby kid who went to diet camps, got picked last for sports teams, and laughed at during gym class when we had to do the Presidential Fitness Tests. My elementary school gym teacher, Mr. Mingle, would lift the girls up to the hanging bar, step back, and click on the stopwatch. Some of the gymnasts could hang for up to two or three minutes. It seemed like those little bodies just swayed up there forever. But when Mr. Mingle lifted me up to the bar, I immediately dropped to the floor like a sack of rocks. He didn’t even have a second to fool with his watch.

This self-deprecating, sad, fat girl still lives inside of me. Like a ghost, she rattles around my mind and haunts my body. For the last 10 years, I’ve been trying to prove to her that things are different. I attended countless hours of power yoga and suffocatingly hot Bikram yoga. I ran hundreds of miles. I cleansed my colon twice a year and had half a dozen colon hydrotherapy sessions. I attended the gym regularly. I had unmedicated labors with both of my children (well, at least the first 28 hours with Toby). I lost the baby weight and more, and now fit into size 2 jeans.

None of it matters. That little girl still cries because her father teased her by snatching away her ice cream and hiding it under the kitchen table (“for her own good”), even though he was the one who had scooped it out. She still scans the room at parties and public venues to check if she’s the fattest one there. She sucks in her belly and tries to make herself small. She doubts anyone will ever truly love her for herself.

My Shamanic therapist, John, says the key to healing from cancer is practicing self-love. Following the ancient Hawaiian process of ho’oponopono, John says that I have to embrace all the wounded parts of myself, forgive myself, and bring in love (in the words of the ho’oponopono meditation: “I love you, I am sorry, I forgive you”).

Oh, little girl, what would you say if you knew that when you grew up you would have the kindest and gentlest husband who loved you unconditionally? Who would even look at you nude after childbirth and surgeries and with an ileostomy bag swinging from your stomach and tell you he wanted to make love? What would you say if you knew you’d be surrounded by so many loving friends whose support and generosity know no limits? What would you think about your wonderful, round Buddha belly if you knew that, one day, it would grow two beautiful boys? How would you feel about your strength and stamina if you knew your legs would carry you 26.2 miles to the finish line or up and down mountain passes with heavy packs?

The truth, the absolute honest truth is that there was never anything wrong with me. I had a certain shape. And so what that athletics weren’t my bag? I had other interests, like performing in plays and writing poetry. With all the pain, all the dieting and cataloging of food and the desire to be something or someone else, that little girl simply couldn’t realize she was perfect exactly the way she was.

Towards the end of spinning class, Jane cooled us down to “Stairway to Heaven.” I had to laugh—the perfect end to a rocking playlist for us 40-somethings. I had made it through the hour, and to my great delight I hadn’t turned into a puddle of sweat and bones and viscera on the floor as I had feared. My inner coach was throwing a great big happy dance inside of me, but this time the cheer had changed from “not bad.”

“How did you do?” the woman next to me asked as she stretched out her hamstrings.

“Really good,” I said.

%d bloggers like this: