Slow Exercise Is a Form of Resistance
As a millennial with much-higher-than-the-national-average student debt, I spent years managing feelings of disappointment, fear, stress, and even stretches of depression by engaging in intense exercise. I would run six quick miles at least three days a week, rapidly lift weights in as many boot camp classes as I could fit in, and zoom through vinyasas in hot yoga. Moving fast was a form of avoidance that still made me feel accomplished.
Eventually, I was forced to slow down when my knee, shoulder, and back muscles started flaring up. If I wanted to continue exercising, I had to stop jumping and sprinting and start walking, jogging, and practicing yoga in mild-temperature rooms.
It was an irritating comedown, but eventually, I began to understand that slow exercise — or what I think of as movement that doesn’t focus on speed, but on a mix of physical integrity and meditation — isn’t a compromise; it’s part of an entirely different way of moving through the world. Even though I’m now fit enough to engage in intense exercise again — and I do — it’s the slow stuff that helps me tolerate the bad feelings I’d typically try to push away.
But intense exercise is what’s in. Lightly jogging through the park or swimming an unhurried breaststroke are activities that seem steeped in the luxury of having the time to do them, while the rest of upwardly mobile America is trying to be as efficient and productive as possible with high-intensity interval training (H.I.I.T.) classes and marathon training rigorously penciled in between commitments and obligations. If you can get in a workout that will chisel away at your body and make you look and feel amazing, why would you spend hours taking a walk?
Today, there are many fitness classes available to people hoping to be worked to the bone. I often scroll through reviews on ClassPass and find complaints that a yoga class, of all things, was “too slow” and didn’t allow the reviewer to “work up a sweat.” These are westernized, New York City-based yoga classes we’re talking about, often with background music and Pilates moves worked in. Even then, some students say they end up terribly bored.
Scientific studies about exercise have found that moderation is key. But how can people be expected to moderate their fitness when the rest of contemporary life is a nonstop, jacked-up grind?
Particularly in the U.S., the concept of exercise separates moving from living. If we can just get the minutes in, with as much activity packed in as possible, we can optimize ourselves for the modern age.
Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and creator of something called the Nutritious Movement approach — a fusion of biomechanics, physiology, and kinesiology that treats movement as a form of nourishment that should be fully integrated into your lifestyle — believes that much of what Americans conceive as intense exercise is “the natural balance to almost total sedentarism.”
“We are so undernourished in many ways — diet, movement, nature, community, rest — that most of what we do to ‘optimize’ is really just getting us to a baseline of well-being,” says Bowman.
We often conflate efficiency with effectiveness — especially when it comes to our bodies. This can be troublesome when vanity is thrown into the mix. Over the past few years, the fitness industry has rebranded the ideal, telling women (and men) that they don’t have to be thin, but strong. CrossFit, for example, now prominently features women in its promotional materials. But anytime exercise is turned into a race for results, health easily loses out to image.
Alyssa Dodson, an instructor of structural integration — an alternative medicine practice that focuses on reorganizing the body’s connective tissues through intensive bodywork — and former dancer for the Martha Graham Company, sees the marketing of athletic physiques to regular people to be misleading. “[Non-professionals are] not going to get the body they see onstage unless they do eight to 10 hours of that work,” she says. “And that’s not necessarily healthy. We were all injured.”
Yoga, on the other hand, is a mind-body exercise that’s not meant to be chiefly about physical results (though you very well may see them), but about contemplation and integration. Traditional yoga practices center around pranayama — the control of your breath — and meditation. As with meditation, during yoga people may find themselves distracted by an anxious thought, the sound of birds chirping, car horns honking, or a loud conversation down the hall as the instructor’s voice coos in the background. The idea is to bring yourself back to practice with your breath.
But in capitalist America, what people commonly understand to be yoga — even if it’s slow — is movement that is challenging, with holds and stretches that require reserves of strength and flexibility that you’re meant to acquire over years of practice.
Trainers often encourage regular exercisers to stay in shape by continually increasing the intensity of their workouts over short periods. The idea is to avoid stasis by always being on the road to improvement. In this context, everyone’s “goal” bodies are always at a distance; we work them out and hope they obey.
I get the sense — from people reporting boredom in yoga classes to the fervor with which everyone and their cousin is signing up for a marathon — that many of us privileged enough to punctuate our work schedules with exercise are working our bodies into submission. If you “smash” that extreme physical goal or achieve a strong, svelte physique, maybe you’ll feel empowered, refreshed, and able to lead a more productive life. But often, one of the major problems in any overburdened person’s life is time itself — the perceived or real lack of it, the stress that often comes as a result, and the illness that may follow from stress. For me, the constant expectation of productivity only exacerbates this cycle.
Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, a Harvard researcher in neuroscience, biological rhythms, and sleep, has been studying the effects of yoga and meditation on physical and psychological health for nearly two decades. His studies have shown that mind-body exercise — which includes practices like tai chi and qigong — can help people better tolerate stress, which in turn can lead to increased productivity.
“You have to work at both levels,” Khalsa says, using poverty-related stress as an example. “You have to work at the systems level, where you’re changing the underlying societal weaknesses that generate the possibility of poverty. But at the same time, you have to work at the level of improving people’s functionality to cope with life effectively.”
It makes sense that some (or many) people need to be productive because it’s a matter of life and death, like, say, doctors and nurses. And more scientific studies are showing that mind-body exercise can help us manage those circumstances more successfully. But the meted-out rhythms of slow exercise are often more about attention than measurable results: To become adept at any form of movement, you have to become closely acquainted with what you’re unable to accomplish. Uneven breathing and the tightness of your muscles may be signs to adjust your position or pose. Hopefully, you can bring that same attention to those you care for — including yourself — before you bring it to your company’s bottom line.
In the introduction to How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Bay Area writer and artist Jenny Odell proposes an alternative to the goal of achieving productivity in every facet of life through the idea of “resistance-in-place.” She writes:
That is to say, the common notion of productivity in our society has little to do with the world in which that productivity takes place, but rather, with the capitalist forces that seek to shape this world as well as our bodies. Odell argues that if we begin to recognize different ideas — “of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communication” — we can begin to collectively resist those forces.
Bowman believes that even people who don’t have the time or physical ability level to exercise can still integrate this kind of movement into daily life: “Start with your habitat on the smallest level. Wear clothes and shoes that allow you to move and bend and twist comfortably at all times,” she says. “Walk for some of your errands or meetings.”
In the best cases, slow movement isn’t a retreat into the privileged self, but a challenge to the pervasive and potentially harmful idea that we need to achieve productivity at all costs. Our bodies, even if they are not shaped to efficiency, are a part of this world all the same. Instead of embracing slow exercise to further self-regulate, or to lay out a path to individual success, perhaps we can move in a way that focuses our attention — not only inward, but out.
Slow Exercise Is a Form of Resistance
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