It occurred to me, as I gasped for breath, that there were worse places to die than on a cliff in Acadia National Park (Detroit, for example). I staggered up the steep, rock-strewn path, grabbing every possible branch for support and, just when I thought I could not go on, the sky opened up like a giant blue parachute. With one last heave, I stumbled forward and collapsed. I lay splayed on my back, staring into the wild blue yonder, certain my husband would find me dead. Yet in my stupor, I heard birds twitter in the lofty trees and waves batter Maine’s rocky shoreline. I tasted the salty breeze that teased my curly, sweaty and tangled hair. I heard a tour bus grind its way up the winding mountain road, and smelled the toxic fumes spewed in its wake.
It was surreal.
As it turned out, that June day in 2013 was not my day to die—although, as far as near-death experiences go, I’d give it a solid nine. I’ve read about people who had near-death experiences, and some of them said, “My life flashed before my eyes.” I get that, because as I lay sprawled in the dirt, inhaling the lingering bus exhaust, a slide show of my own life flickered through my head. Regrets rose up like spirits from ancient graves. I should never have married that chef in Minneapolis. I should have finished college or joined the Peace Corps. I should have square-danced more, protested more, risked more. Biggest regret—I should have exercised more. Uncle Joe—God rest his soul—had been right. It’s hell to get old.
I’ve never been fond of exercise, although I love to be outdoors. My life-long theory has been that if I wasn’t overweight, I didn’t need to exercise. My rationale was based on the Federal Government’s height/weight ratio charts, like the ones taped to the wall in the nurse’s office of my junior high school. Accordingly, I’ve never been overweight. The day I confronted Uncle Joe’s truth on that cliff in Maine, however, I was so far removed from my junior high school days that I was staring down eligibility for Social Security benefits. It occurred to me that perhaps my theory was outdated.
As I struggled to breathe, chastising myself for years of inertia, I heard plodding footsteps on the path. I sat up and saw my husband, Michael, trudge into view. He was hunched beneath the burden of a 30-pound camera bag strapped to his back and another one of similar weight slung over his left shoulder. He balanced his tripod, with a camera mount the size of a bowling ball, on his right shoulder. In the tradition of “old masters” of landscape photography, like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, Michael shoots film with old-school cameras most people have never heard of. I marveled at his ability to tote that load up such a steep incline (he and I are the same age), as well as his dedication to such an archaic art form.
Earlier that morning, I had set up the tripod for him and then hiked on to the summit, leaving him to assemble his equipment and shoot a photo of the coastline. Now I watched him struggle up the path, bent like a boomerang beneath the weight of his gear, and even in my misery, I felt a twinge of guilt—I usually schlepped the tripod. But perhaps it’s just as well I had been unencumbered by the top-heavy tripod on such a steep ascent. Things could have turned out worse. I could be dead.
When at last he reached the summit, Michael eased the tripod and his camera bags to the ground. He sat down beside me, expelled a deep sigh, and pushed his black, George Burns-style glasses back up on his nose. His breathing was labored but steady. He, unlike me, works out at the gym. I, of course, was still gasping.
Observing my distress, he put an arm around my shoulder and said, “Are you okay honey?”
“I…might…need…resuscitation,” I managed to say.
I tried to breathe deeply while Michael looked at me with pity. He knelt behind me and massaged my shoulders.
“You’re trying too hard,” he said. “Relax.”
I leaned into him and closed my eyes. “O…kay. But I don’t…know if…I can…go on.”
“Sure you can,” he said. He gave me a fond little pat on my shoulder and planted a kiss on the top of my head. “We’ll sit here until you’ve recuperated. You’re just a little out of shape. A few more days of this and you’ll be ready to climb Mt. Everest.”
He was so wrong. By the end of our vacation, my body felt like it had been run through the wringer of the old washing machine that used to sit, hobgoblin-like, in a corner of Granny’s back porch. I popped Advil like M&M’s and drank a copious amount of beer, having discovered in the course of our evening pub crawls that beer is an excellent muscle relaxer.
As we sat in a Bar Harbor tavern one night, Michael said, “Promise me you’ll lay off the drugs and alcohol when we get back home.”
“I promise. I’m also going to start an exercise program.”
We clinked our beer bottles together.
When we returned to Savannah, the reality of keeping my promise set in, and I recalled why I had avoided regular exercise in the past—I hate to exercise. Nonetheless, I moved forward with my plan. I joined Curves. The Curves program is an exercise circuit on which the exerciser alternates the use of hydraulic strength training machines with in-place low-impact aerobics. It is not all that strenuous. Curves should have been perfect for me. But after a few weeks I got bored and dropped out.
I contemplated other types of exercise. I confess, my heart was not in it. I still wanted an easy route to better health. I realize there is no such thing, but I had not yet come to terms with that reality. It was not helpful that I have a long history of avoiding physical activity. In fact, my aversion for breaking a sweat goes all the way back to my senior year in high school.
The gym teacher, Mrs. Bute (pronounced “booty,” appropriately, as I recall), caught Betsy Butler and me hiding out in the girls’ locker room during gym class. We were supposed to be outside playing field hockey. I’ll never forget the smirk on her face as she marched us back out to the field where she made us play midfielder positions—the ones that do the most running. Of course all that running ruined our Nancy Sinatra hairdos and, as if that was not punishment enough, she gave us an F on the last report card of our senior year.
I was in dire need of some guidance, so I asked a friend if she could recommend a good form of moderate exercise.
“Try Pilates,” she said. “It doesn’t involve a lot of vigorous movement.” She had heard my field hockey story.
Taking her advice, I found a Pilates studio in my neighborhood and stopped by one day to check it out. I opened the door and found two young women stretched out on mats in impossible positions. Contraptions along one wall resembled guillotines. The women seemed startled by my appearance, as if I had just landed a flying saucer in the parking lot. They gathered their wits, however, and came over to greet me. I told them about my disastrous experience in Maine, and asked them if they could help me get in shape so I could go hiking without the need for a portable oxygen canister. The young women assured me that Pilates would be my salvation.
Everything sounded good until we discussed class times. Classes were either early in the morning (I’m retired, I don’t get up early) or right after work (I don’t go to work, I go to happy hour). I said I would get back to them.
How was a person like me, whose last regular exercise had been in high school gym class, supposed to overcome inertia? I came of age during the Vietnam War, women’s lib, and Woodstock. Exercise was just not part of the ‘60s and ‘70s culture. If I wasn’t protesting something, I was getting high on something. I didn’t know one person in those days who exercised for fun, much less for health benefits. Besides, gym memberships weren’t even invented yet, unless you were into boxing.
By the 1980s, however, a physical fitness craze swept through America, thanks in part to Jane Fonda’s exercise videos. Women were buying leg warmers and exercise outfits and mimicking Jane in front of their TVs every night. I, however, had not forgiven her for her traitorous support of the North Vietnamese at the height of the war, and refused to buy into her reincarnation as a self-proclaimed exercise guru. I continued my indolent ways.
Now, at long last, I’m ready to get healthy so I can go hiking with my husband. I’m not talking about hiking the Appalachian Trail—which is 2,100 miles long—but I am inspired by that notion. I recently read A Walk in the Woods, Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson. I think Bill and I have a lot in common concerning our attitude about exercise, except that he reformed and actually did hike the AT. When giving serious consideration to such an arduous undertaking, he concluded that, “It would get me fit after years of waddlesome sloth.” I knew just how he felt.
Motivated by Bill’s trek through the wilderness, I began walking the 1.5 mile trail around the lake near our house. The trick was to time my walk before the blistering Georgia sun rose too high, and before the odious gnats that plague us here on the coast began to swarm. Walking the lake’s shoreline was tolerable, even enjoyable, but I knew I needed something more—something that would engage more body parts than just my legs—but what?
A true southern gentleman, Michael tried to help. He convinced me to go to the gym with him three mornings a week. Because Michael’s intentions were good, I rose zombie-like at 6 AM, swilled down a cup of coffee, and arrived at the gym by 7 AM, three days a week. It was grueling. I thought perhaps Pilates would have been a better choice. But I love my well-meaning husband, so I persevered—until I injured my shoulder on the weight-lifting equipment.
I won’t lie. It was a relief to have an excuse to quit. I hated the gym, and not just because the workout made me break a sweat, although there was that. My main aversion to the gym was psychological. Savannah is a military town, and the gym was patronized by men and women in the armed forces—and let me just interject—for whom I have the greatest admiration and respect. However, not only were they all military-fit, almost all of them were at least two generations younger than me. I felt like Grandma Moses. I had to start seeing a shrink.
My quest for the perfect exercise continued. In the garage, Michael resurrected the bicycle pump from beneath an avalanche of old garden hoses and fluffy pink insulation and inflated my bicycle tires. I like riding my bike—in cool weather. By this time it was August. In Savannah the heat is as thick as jelly. Michael hoisted my bike back up to its hook on the garage ceiling.
Against my better judgment, I tried Zumba. I didn’t last long. Halfway through the first class, hot stabbing needles of pain shot through my knees and I was sent hobbling to the sidelines—yet another discouraging reminder of Uncle Joe’s proclamation.
Then one day during happy hour, one of our friends, we’ll call him Georgio, said he had recently taken up yoga and had been encouraged to stand on his head in the first class. I was speechless. I had not realized that Georgio was a stand-on-your-head kind of guy. Besides, he isn’t much younger than I am. His wife, we’ll call her Claudia, said she also did yoga and that it had done wonders for her flexibility and strength. I was intrigued, but I was not about to be pressured to stand on my head.
I found a power yoga studio online that advertised “silver” yoga classes which, to me, translated to “senior,” which equated to “easy.” The word “power” puzzled me, but I thought it was a reference to yoga making one feel powerful. Also, the website specified that they did not turn on the heat during silver yoga. It was still August. In hindsight, I should have asked some questions. Instead, I bought myself some yoga pants and headed over for the next silver yoga class.
Indeed, the heat was not on, but neither was the air conditioning, although ceiling fans whirred at top speed. Several young women strolled in, as well as a few “silvers,” and even a couple of men, one of whom, to my amazement, proceeded to stand on his head. I was stoked, but I did say a prayer that a headstand would not be required. I rolled out my mat and psyched myself up for an hour of revitalizing stretching.
I thought I was going to die. Who knew yoga could be so strenuous?
I don’t remember much about that class. It’s all a blur. I do know that it was hard. I had not expected yoga to be hard. Just as I was about to faint, we went into cool-down mode. By then, I felt like I was on life-support. As we lay on our backs breathing deeply, the instructor handed each of us a cold, damp cloth. I could have put an oxygen mask to better use. I lay on my mat, catatonic. Time passed—I might have passed out. At some point I realized that everyone was putting their gear away. I staggered to my feet, rolled up my mat, shoved it onto the shelf, and stumbled outside into the sweltering heat.
In the car I collapsed and turned the air conditioning to the arctic setting. The cold air revived me and, to my surprise, a feeling of triumph crept over me. I had pushed myself through to the end of the class (no headstand), and no one had to call the EMTs. I decided I wasn’t quite ready to give up on yoga. One thing was certain, however—I had to find a yoga studio with air conditioning.
This time I did my research. I found a studio that advertised the “mind, body, and spirit” benefits of yoga. I liked the holistic sound of that. I called the instructor, I’ll call her Jen, and had an informative conversation with her. It went something like this:
“Is your studio air-conditioned?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Do you turn it on?”
“What’s the temperature?”
“Whatever temperature is comfortable for you.”
“Is it power yoga?”
“No, I teach Eastern yoga.”
“How is that different from power yoga?”
“Let me put it this way, the word ‘power’ has no business being placed next to the word ‘yoga.’ Yoga is not boot camp.”
“So I don’t have to stand on my head?”
“How large are your classes?”
“I teach private instruction.”
“Sign me up,” I said. If I passed out, she would be the only witness.
Eastern yoga turned out to be just what I needed to complement my nature walks, but it’s not easy. Even so (and I cannot believe I’m saying this), I enjoy pushing myself a little farther each day. I feel stronger and my joints are more limber. I even have more confidence. It also beats playing field hockey.
The other day at the studio I picked up a copy of Light on Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar. It was like looking at a copy of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. The man demonstrating yoga positions in the photographs was a veritable contortionist.
“There is no way I will ever be able to twist my body into one of those positions,” I said to Jen.
“No, probably not,” she said, “but it’s enough to aspire to that. Yoga is a process.”
Indeed. Kind of like writing.
So, with Bill Bryson and the India Rubber Man for inspiration, I’m walking 1.5 miles around the lake several times a week (good for the heart) and practicing yoga (good for everything else). I can now work through a simple yoga routine without collapsing. I am hopeful that my next hiking experience will prove less difficult than the last one. At the very least, I’ll know what my limitations are.
I still work to overcome my aversion for sweating (and gnats). But, who knows? People change—sometimes a lot, sometimes a little, and sometimes change is “a process,” like yoga—and writing. So while this is not a Hollywood story of an underdog’s heroic transformation into a crowd-pleasing winner, like in the movies Rocky and Seabiscuit and Breaking Away, one thing is for sure—my years of waddlesome sloth are behind me.