Friday, September 6, 2013

An Athletic Rebirth

I resigned from my old gym a few weeks ago. They wouldn't let me do it over the phone but made me come in an fill out a form, obviously making the process as cumbersome and irritatingly slow as they could. So, in the part of the form where they asked for 'any other' comments, I wrote the following:
"I started doing Crossfit & realized that the entire business model of traditional gyms is based not on getting me stronger and fitter but on selling me stuff (classes, but more like personal trainer sessions and suchlike). Crossfit trains and treats me like I'm an athlete, not a consumer."- Gully Burns (8/10/13) 

I had started training at Paradiso Crossfit (PCF) about three months earlier. When I started, I was immediately struck by how extraordinarily difficult everything looked. I'd walk in for our orientation classes just as the final normal group workouts were wrapping up and just kept on repeating to myself 'Erm, that looks hard' when I saw the athletes work (especially when they were pulling stuff like this: Paradiso Crossfit 'Fran' January 9, 2012). The trainers literally seemed to have a different relationship to gravity than me. Watching one of the senior coaches (Zeb) demonstrating a move called 'box jumps', I swear he seemed to be floating up on some kind of hidden wire rather than just jumping up and down.

Now, previous to this. I had torn the lateral meniscus in my left knee doing kickboxing in 2006. I was on crutches for a solid six months, all told (now that was interesting), had it repaired surgically (pretty groundbreaking stuff, surgically speaking) and then couldn't bend the knee beyond 90 degrees for a very long time. I worked through rehab and then practiced yoga very carefully and precisely for years. I had qualified as a yoga instructor and was busy practicing one of the more traditional, athletic styles (Ashtanga Vinyasa). My perspective was: "I'm in my forties, I need to be really, really careful. Let's leave the hard stuff to the younger crowd and work out how to stay mobile and healthy". But even in yoga class, I just found that the people teaching had some other set of priorities going on than helping me. I had a particularly horrible experience in a teacher training course that I was taking and was left feeling pretty disgusted with the whole lurid, pseudospiritual, over-sexualized activity of what modern yoga seems to be.

Moreover, I never thought that I'd be able to squat deeply again, let alone do any weightlifting, let alone sprint or run or drive myself athletically. Previously to my injury, I had fenced competitively for just under 20 years, and had thrived in a competitive sporting environment that relied mainly on skill and technique over pure fitness, stamina or strength. I had reconciled myself to thinking that my days of competitive training were done. The lifestyle component of PCF's fitness training is entitled 'Everything is everything' and presents the question: "What is Fitness" to newcomers like me. I was struck by the answer that it could be stated simply as 'the ability to do physical work' and an extension of this is that health can be thought of as the ability to do physical work over the course of your life.

Now that resonated strongly. It's not necessarily about being the strongest, the hottest (yeah, good luck with that, matey), the most flexible or the most agile. Its simply about being able to do physical work and to be able to keep doing that work over all the many years to come. For me also, not getting injured is a crucial part of that too and I think that Crossfit athletes could really learn a thing or two by studying yoga with all of its introspection, its self-study, precision, patience and its focus on compassion for oneself, (but that's a post for another day).

Finally, I was struck by the generosity and consideration that my fellow crossfitters have for each other. I remember that some of the personal trainers in my old gym were pretty rude and standoffish to me, probably because I wasn't paying them at the time. At PCF last week, a couple of the gym's stars were training at the same time as a bunch of us taking a group class. I don't know who they were, but it was pretty clear that they were considered minor celebrities in the gym (or maybe they were just a couple of advanced practitioners doing their normal thing; I don't know). Halfway through the workout when I was waddling around carrying a pair of heavy kettlebells and basically just trying to put one foot in front of the other, I almost ran into one of them. He immediately apologized and stepped aside seeing how I wasn't really in any state to even just walk in a straight line. In my old gym, I expect I'd have gotten a nasty look or a snotty comment at least. Not so at PCF.

So now, beyond all my previous imaginings, I'm in an environment that allows me to train physically beyond anything I'd have previously imagined. I'm able to do so intelligently and almost entirely free of any ego-driven silliness. The people training and teaching there are friendly, supportive, genuine and don't see me as a customer to be sold stuff but an athlete. This is a transformative, elevated and powerful conversation to participate in. Even more so, because my athleticism is really nothing particularly special, at least it isn't yet.