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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sam Malone in a Bar with a Beer: On Eating Disorders and Eating Well

Only Ted Danson could have great on-screen chemistry with a lemon rind. 
  One of my favorite television shows is Cheers, a 1980s sitcom centered around Sam Malone, a recovered alcoholic who owns a bar. (When I was pregnant I watched all eleven seasons in the space of about three months because I was/am very prone to binging on good things, as we will soon learn.)  In a lot of ways, being a person who's had or has an eating disorder is like being Sam Malone--constantly surrounded by a thing that has the power to destroy you. The big difference is that, unlike Sam Malone who can abstain from beer, we ex-anorexics, ex-bulimics and ex-binge eaters have to eat every day multiple times a day. Depending on where you are in your recovery or how you're feeling that day, breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks can feel like battles or emotional triggers or a million other unpleasant things. I
       I've been very vocal both on this blog and other mediums about my past history with eating disorders, particularly my anorexia diagnosis in high school. For a long time, I told "my eating disorder story" as a kind of neat little narrative of down fall, utter despair and miraculous recovery complete with an epiphany about the meaning of my life and a new appreciation for my body. In reality, that journey has been a lot messier and treacherous and drawn out than I think I wanted to admit to myself.
      After seeing a therapist recently for some other life issues, it's become clear that I jumped into a pattern of binge eating pretty quickly after announcing myself "recovered" from anorexia and leaving my outpatient treatment program.  For the most part, I maintain a diet that's as free as animal products as possible (no meat, fish, dairy, eggs, gelatin) because of ethical reasons. I'm also fortunate in that I crave pretty healthy food--most of the time. Some days it's salads and veggie stews and fruit smoothies. Other days it's chocolate chip cookies and tater tots--and I can't just eat six tater tots, I have to eat half a bag of the gross processed frozen kind that make me want to tear my stomach out. To be honest, most of the time I feel totally okay about that. I understand that the occasional overindulgence isn't going to make me gain hundreds of pounds and doesn't mean I'm a failure of a human being. What I am starting to realize though, is that these junk food binges are becoming a regular part of my life in a way they haven't been for a couple of years. They're not healthy and, if possible, I'd like to take care of what ever issue is causing them.
    I'm a big proponent of mindful eating--eating the food I want, whenever I want them as long as I'm both actually hungry and actually craving them. Believe it or not, I actually lost a lot of weight once I embraced that approach. Sometimes, however, I forget about the mindful part and start letting myself eat just whatever because "Body acceptance! Diet free lifestyle!" This past summer, I've fallen back into some old habits which include skipping meals and then compulsively eating vegan candy and/or fried potato products out of loneliness or sadness or some other depressing reason. It's definitely not at an out of control point (been there, done that) but I'd like to get back on track with healthier eating before my dance season starts, particularly since it looks like I'll be donning the pink tights and a tutu for Nutcracker this year and sugarplum fairies with low blood sugar are no fun. Plus, as a fitness professional, I think it's important to model healthy life choices for my clients. To me that includes demonstrating that you should enjoy your favorite dessert every now and then with no guilt and that you should fuel your body with nutrient-dense foods on a daily basis.
   For people with eating disorders or a history of emotional eating, just living normal life is kind of like being an ex-alcoholic in a bar.  There's food everywhere. We have to eat every day. We have to choose every day to do the right thing for our bodies and our minds. It's really hard sometimes and I don't know if I'll ever get it right.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fitness Reviews: Pole Dancing

Yesterday, I did something me-from-five-years-ago never would have done. In fact, me-from-five-years-ago probably would have blushed and clutched her proverbial pearls at the thought.

    I pole danced. 
    Like, I lifted myself up on a pole, jumped onto a pole, spun around a pole--and it was fun! 

  At the beginning of the summer, I decided to push myself out of my comfort zone by trying a few classes in the area. I'd read so many fantastic things about what a great workout pole acrobatics and dance are, so I knew right away it had to be on my agenda. Finally, this week, the stars aligned, my Monday night was free, and I headed to Aerial Arts of Rochester to try their Level One Introduction to Pole class. 

     I arrived about twenty minutes before the advertised start time and I'm glad I did. The class filled up a few minutes after I arrived and several folks were turned away. As I waited for class to start, I chatted with some of the more experienced students who assured me I'd love the workout and become addicted! While I sensed a spirit of camaraderie among the regulars, I also felt completely welcome to the group as a newcomer.
   I expected the pole studio to look like a standard aerobics studio just . . . with poles. While it did have a nice wood floor and a wall of mirrors, the dim lighting, music, and decor added a little bit of club atmosphere. That's not really my scene (to put it mildly) so I started to get nervous. Some girls embraced the pole-dancer look in sports bras and booty shorts, while others (like me) wore more standard fitness attire. I also noticed a wide variety of ages and body types in the class.
      After the instructor (who was subbing the class) introduced herself and instructed us to find a pole partner.  Because of the large number of students in class, we took turns practicing various moves on the poles. I didn't mind this at all because 1)these moves are challenging physically and after a few reps I was glad to take a break and 2) it gave me a chance to meet and learn from a more experienced student. 
    We did a short warm-up of light stretching then got right to the good stuff. The teacher would demonstrate a movement, break it down slowly, then let us practice on our own while she walked around the studio correcting form and helping people when they had difficulty. Then she'd repeat the process with a new move. At the end of class, we put the moves all together to music. 
    For all the planning and research about pole workouts I did before trying the class, I really didn't expect it to be so much stinking fun to dance around a pole. It reminded me of being a little kid on a playground, swinging and climbing over a jungle gym. Like, I see now why people get addicted to this. As a dancer I definitely had an advantage in some ways (balance, coordination, body awareness etc.), but other elements of the class (like the hip shaking during the choreography section) definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone. We learned how to do a simple step around the pole, a fireman's spina pirouette, and a fan kick along with a couple of other things. I didn't fall on my face--hooray--but I did end up on the floor with my legs in a weird pretzel shape around the pole at one point. I couldn't get up and had to ask my pole partner to untangle my legs. We're close now. Also--my upper body is not as strong as I thought. Pole has taught me this. 
    The instructor was patient, friendly and helpful, making everyone feel successful even if they didn't master all the exercises. It was far more of a self-directed class than I expected. There was a lot of stopping and starting and working on your own (under supervision) with encouragement from other students. This allowed for a lot of time to practice and play with different choreography so I didn't mind at all. I'm sure the higher level classes have a more aerobic component without as much stopping and starting.  And even though booty popping and hip shaking isn't quite my thing, I never felt like it was untasteful or overboard. 
       My only real criticism is that the warm-up seemed a little short--only about three minutes--and not super thorough. Since the exercises we were doing were primarily strength-based it would have been beneficial to add a couple minutes of light cardio to get the blood pumping and prep the muscles. 
    Despite the short warm up and the reluctant hip-shaking, I totally loved my first pole class! If the studio weren't an hour and half long drive from my house, I'd be back every week. I'm hoping to continue attending when I can and also have plans to try out another type of class at Aerial Arts! 

If you're local to Rochester or visiting, you can drop-in to the Level One Pole class at Aerial Arts of Rochester on Monday or Tuesday evenings for $12 or sign up for a multi-week session.

Have you tried pole? Would you come with me to a class?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

MFA Monster

     I had no real intention of studying creative writing in college. In high school, I enjoyed writing and idly dreamed (as book lovers do) of writing a novel someday, but writing didn't seem like the kind of craft that could be honed in a classroom. Authors, in my idealistic teenage imagination, were born with great stories and witty prose in their veins, scribbling out masterpieces in dingy urban cafes or lakeside cabins. I felt far too conventional and practical a person to Be a Writer but, at the beginning of my sophomore year of college, signed up for Intro to Creative Writing because 1) it fulfilled a requirement for my English major and 2) I wanted to conquer my fear of letting things I wrote be seen (and critiqued) by others.
    Long story short, I learned that writing, like dance, was something that (duh) improved with practice. Studying writing meant studying books, figuring out what made good stories good and dull stories dull. To my great surprise, I didn't recoil at criticism when it came to my work--I relished it. I also stopped making fun of the term "creative nonfiction", learned that I have no talent for penning poetry, and that writing good fiction is stupidly difficult. But I got better. I submitted some creative nonfiction pieces to national contests and magazines and had a bit of success.
     I took more creative writing courses over the next two years and accidentally added a creative writing minor to my double-major. I started thinking about pursuing an MFA in writing after graduation. When Graham was accepted to a small liberal arts college in rural upstate NY (far, far away from any university offering an MFA in writing), I put that idea on the back burner. It was his turn to earn his bachelor's degree and my turn to support our family.
     Ultimately, I'm glad I didn't pursue a master's degree right out of undergrad. I needed some time off from being a student to write freelance for a while, start a business, have a child and do other Responsible Adult
Things. Still, there's been this little nagging voice in my head since I walked the stage and got my bachelor's degree telling me that I really haven't learned enough, that I ought to be studying writing. I call it my MFA Monster.     Every few months the MFA Monster has me spend sleepless nights browsing the websites of low-residency MFA programs, calculating the amount of student loans I'd need to take out, agonizing over whether or not I had it in me to pursue another degree. Then, just as I'd begin an application, I'd discover some road block I didn't have the energy to overcome--an exorbitant application fee, extreme anxiety, a big business decision. The MFA Monster would retreat and I'd put aside that dream for another few months.
    Now's the time. This is the year. I'm letting my MFA Monster out and setting him loose on sample submissions and personal essays, narrowing down lists of schools, and marking application deadlines on my calendar. I've been working on numerous creative writing projects but really crave the support system and mentoring involved in an academic program. My whole life I've had a tendency toward overestimating my own maturity and jumping the gun (moving away from home permanently at 17, getting married at 19 etc.) I suppose I'm realizing now that I'm not as mature and capable a writer as I want to be and that I need more training and practice.
  I'm not entirely sure why I felt the need to blog about this before even being accepted into any programs. There's a significant chance that I won't even be accepted anywhere and will be walking away from this dream with my tail between my legs and will spend the rest of my days writing fan fiction and drinking boxed wine out of a plastic cup while whining to the pizza delivery boy about how how "I could have been great if they'd given me a chance!" but that's a risk I'm willing to take.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fitness Review: Holy Yoga

         Yoga and I have never been best buddies. I'm an impatient person who finds it difficult to sit still. Deep breathing and meditation and self-acceptance aren't really my thing. Pilates, with its emphasis on precision and control appeals to my Type A ballet dancer brain, so when I head to the mat for cross-training, I'm more likely to do the Hundred than a Down Dog.  In college, a dance teacher recommended yoga to me to help with my tight hips, back and major anxiety problems. I made the mistake of taking a couple of classes from a teacher who burned incense in the studio and rubbed herbal ointments on our foreheads in resting poses. It immediately turned me off and it was several years before I tried another yoga class again.

        Fast forward to pregnancy and childbirth and parenthood. As I've journeyed (or, more accurately, stumbled) through these different phases of life I've become more aware that the reasons I tend to shy away from yoga are the very reasons it's good for me.  Last year, I started taking a friend's yoga class and started incorporating more of the practice into my own exercise routine and classes.
Jesus At The Core, Charleston,

This past week I had the opportunity to take a Holy Yoga class in Rochester as part of a Christian wellness conference. Founded by Brook Boone, Holy Yoga encourages its practitioners to connect their "entire being, body, mind and spirit with God: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit" through the discipline of yoga. I was a little apprehensive to try the class at first. Too often "Christian" versions of things are cheesy and low-quality. I expected it to be either corny or else full of burning incense, smelly ointments and flowery cues. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the practice was both mentally and physically challenging while encouraging a worshipful mindset.
Yoga for your mind, body and spirit

Brooke Boone instructed the slow flow class by candlelight on the first evening of the JATC. She led us through a series of poses interspersed with readings from scripture. She often used cues to help us use mental and spiritual focus to overcome the physical challenges of the yoga practice. I'm always surprised by how our emotional tension carries over into our muscles. I loved that, while there were moments of rest in the practice, we concentrated on scripture or prayer during those moments rather than emptying our minds (as in many yoga practices). My one complaint was the use of worship music during the class. Some might find the upbeat, victorious song selections empowering but I found them distracting and annoying at times. We were often encouraged to sing along to the songs which wasn't really my style. As a person of faith, I prefer to worship through movement and the last place I want to feel pressured to sing is at a yoga class!

Overall, I'd definitely recommend Holy Yoga, particularly to Christians looking for an uplifting and challenging exercise experience. It encouraged me to take more yoga classes throughout the summer and to keep up with regular home practice. Click here to find a Holy Yoga class in your city.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

New Blog Series: WNY Fitness Reviews

I love group exercise classes. As a toddler, I spent time hanging around the aerobics studio at our neighborhood gym, watching my mom take and teach group fitness classes, always joining in for the stretching at the end. (I thought thera-bands made the best toys.) As an introvert to the extreme, I prefer solitariness in almost every activity--shopping, traveling, movie-watching--except exercise.

I think it's common for dancers to trend toward structured group workouts because that's what we know. We spend our lives jumping around mirror-lined studios, following a teacher's instructions, spending months and years learning and mastering different combinations of movement. We know how to step on beat and check our alignment. One of my biggest flaws as a fitness instructor is underestimating how uncomfortable many people feel trying a new class for the first time. I try to make everyone feel welcome and safe in my classes but I forget that for a lot of people, just moving in public is downright terrifying. 

To help myself improve as an instructor and stay in shape during the summer months when my teaching schedule is slower, I'm making it my summer goal to leave my Pilates and dance aerobics comfort zone by trying and reviewing a variety of group exercise classes in the Rochester and Buffalo areas. Every class will be at a studio or gym I've never attended before. Some will be in familiar styles, like barre and yoga, while others will be totally new to me like aerial dance and pole fitness. I'll also be trying my hand at individualized workouts like running (eek) and lifting (ugh).

My first review--covering a Holy Yoga class I took this week--will be posted on Wednesday!

Do you have any suggestions for classes I should visit?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Swan Lake Recap and Summer Plans

What a whirlwind week. Yesterday a cast of just a few dozen kids and teens performed a mature classical ballet with beauty and maturity. Even more than their dancing, I'm proud of their patience, diligence and send of humor during the rehearsal process. Both Swan Lake and the performances by my jazz, tap and pre-school students went smoothly. The kids had fun and the audience loved it  

This was my third year producing and directing a student performance so I felt pretty prepared by Tuesday's final studio rehearsal. Too prepared.  On Wednesday I realized we didn't have nearly enough backstage volunteers to handle the 20 - 30 performers under age 10 in the cast and sent a frantic email to almost everyone I know locally asking for help. On Thursday--the day of our first rehearsal in the auditorium--I found out that our videographer wouldn't be able to record the show after all and that the print shop I'd counted on for programs was closed for the week. Thankfully, a very dear friend and fellow dance school director stepped in to take care of both of those tasks and volunteered to take photos of the performance.

A whole other set of potential problems was waiting for me at the auditorium. The stage hadn't been cleared or cleaned since the school's play a few weeks before so I spent the hour before dancers arrived moving set pieces and props around. Shout out to the high school student who helped me move a heavy sap-covered log after I interrupted his piano practice with my cries for help! Despite that minor inconvenience, the backdrop still on stage from the play ended up being a nice addition to Swan Lake so it all worked out nicely.

Once we got the theater set-up the stage rehearsals were mostly easy sailing. I had a crew of fantastic backstage volunteers who helped the kids get lined up and in order so I could focus on other things and actually watch my dancers. Not every piece was technically perfect but no one left the stage in tears or stood frozen like a deer in the headlights!

Now that the dance season is over, I'm looking forward to a few months of focusing on other aspects of my life: swims and walks with my son, lots of time working in the garden, and taking as many dance classes as I can. One of my biggest priorities this summer will be to spend some time working on the book I'm editing about dancers and body image. I also plan to submit my first MFA program application by the end of July (more on that later).

Before I do any of that,  I should probably clean my house. A distracted mom and two year-old can make some big messes.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Swan Lake: Crunch Time

My students are less than a month away from performing excerpts from Swan Lake at our annual spring showcase. We began the rehearsal process for the corps de ballet sections way back in January (due to the limited amount of time I have with the dancers each week) and I was filled with a lot of doubts: Who was I to condense and re-stage such an important ballet for a cast of mostly recreational ballet students? How would I stay true to the story's original darker themes while being sensitive to the fact that the cast and audience would include young children?

Over the past several weeks I've discovered that I'm more capable than I thought. My students are also far smarter and more adept than I realized. Choreographing and staging any ballet--but especially a story ballet--requires the courage to be vulnerable. You're taking ideas and worlds and shapes you've formed inside your head and releasing them into the world. It's a lot like writing in that sense but with one significant difference: when you write stories you're not using real live people as your tools. As a choreographer your subjects are dancers, real people with thoughts and feelings and opinions In this way making dances is fundamentally collaborative--adjusting to the strengths and weaknesses of your subjects while striving to stay true to your original vision. Writing is more comfortable for me because I can work through my ideas in isolation. The backspace button never gets impatient when I have to rewrite a sentence over and over again the way a dancer might when I re-choreograph a phrase of music.

A few days ago I had the full Swan Lake cast together to work through the entire ballet for the first time. I dreaded the worst--total chaos in the corps and confusion during the pas de deux--but things actually went smoothly! It looked like a ballet--a ballet that needed lots of rehearsal time, but a real ballet that told a story. I'm always looking for things to polish and tweak in my choreography but during that rehearsal I made sure to take some time and just enjoy the fact that things were working. I wasn't as crazy and incompetent as I assumed!

I'm excited to see how everything shapes up in the next month as we put the finishing touches on choreography and costumes. I can't wait for my hard-working students to share this ballet with an audience!