I hated gym class as a child. I always did everything I could to get out of participating in gym, not only because I didn’t like it, but also because I feared that I wouldn’t be able to do it. When faced with a physical challenge I believed I couldn’t handle, I always gave up without even trying because I convinced myself I would fail even if I did try. I didn’t want people to see me struggle and I didn’t want to be made fun of for my inability to carry out what was required of me in gym class. My excuse that I couldn’t do something often carried some truth and I used that to my full advantage at every opportunity.
In my junior high gym class, we all had to run laps for a certain number of minutes. We ran in groups to music while others counted our laps. I always managed the least amount of laps – even with regular physical exercise and in building up from running nine or ten minutes to running for twelve minutes – and people encouraged me during the run – but I hated being so far behind everyone else, physically and metaphorically. I didn’t see the purpose of running if I couldn’t run well or didn’t enjoy it, and it was an exercise in personal humiliation rather than fitness and health for me. I hated gym class because it showed me my limitations and weaknesses and caused me embarrassment and frustration.
There were times when people let me ‘get away’ with not participating in gym and times when people forced me to participate, dragging me kicking and screaming to the outdoor field to play frisbee. In writing this, I realize that I also hated gym because I knew I would be a detriment to any team I was placed on. I would drag other people down and my inabilities would be problematic for them. That was embarrassing for me and another reason I used to avoid participating. There were times when people tried to get me involved by passing the frisbee or ball to me so I could participate, but I got angry with those people because I felt I would perform poorly and I felt I would make other team members embarrassed or angry. I hated when people included me in things I didn’t like because it made me accountable if I failed.
The same is true of group exercise classes now. I do private pilates classes partly because I fear ‘getting things wrong’ in front of other people and being judged or criticized for it. I fear that people will feel that I don’t belong in a class with them because they can do things that I can’t, and I fear that I will make massive mistakes if I don’t have individualized attention. Pilates is a discipline based on precise controlled movements, and doing them wrong can have adverse effects on my body (and anyone else’s). I use these things to justify taking private classes even though my family and instructors have encouraged me to join group classes. I’m a very stubborn person – if that isn’t already obvious – and I will stay in private pilates classes. I have found, however, that I’m not adversed to group yoga classes. I would like the privacy of one on one bikram sessions – especially for the particular attention to the form my body takes with the postures – but having done group classes many times (even though I find it embarrassing) I know I can manage them without having a teacher’s primary focus on me. Quite honestly, now that I have done bikram yoga with as many as seventy people, I don’t think I would be comfortable in a private session when I came up against poses I struggled with. It would just make my flaws and weaknesses more apparent to me, especially since I have proven to myself that I can ‘do’ group classes.
I understand that – ninety nine percent of the time – other people aren’t watching my yoga practice and don’t care that I can’t do the tree pose. They are much more concerned with their own practices. I tend to compare myself to other people too often – especially to women who can do the yoga in a way I will never be able to – but I have found that it’s easier to block other people out and stop comparing myself to them if I practice near the back corner of the room and can look at myself directly in the mirror (rather than right at someone else who is doing the standing bow pulling pose better than I am).
Everyone has their methods of coping with whatever it is they have no power to change. Some people love group classes because they bring out a competitive side. Some people prefer smaller classes or private classes because of the specialized attention. Some people prefer to practice privately at home by using videos because they don’t want to be seen, criticized, or instructed. Over the years, I’ve developed what works for me – as everyone does – so that exercise is a method of developing and sustaining health rather than an act of public humiliation.