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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

For most of my life, my physique could be compared to that inflatable tube man you see in the parking lots of furniture stores and used car dealerships. I was gangly, clumsy and lacking in co-ordination. At school, I was generously described as “bookish” and I would happily read my latest library book during recess.

It’s perhaps no surprise I ended up as a librarian; over the years I transformed into a cardigan-wearing, cat-loving cliché. My main form of exercise consisted of shelving textbooks and squatting to retrieve lost pens. If it was an especially rigorous day, I would dive under my desk to plug in a loose power cord.

Weightlifting with books was no longer an option during the early days of the pandemic. I needed something new – and the solution came from my mother.

Mom has been interested in health and wellness for most of her adult life. When she was 17 her car was hit head-on by a drunk driver. The police officer who responded to the crash told her that she must have a guardian angel because no one should have been able to survive the accident. Her skull was fractured in two places and she suffered from memory loss, migraines and chronic pain.

Her recovery literally began step by step. By walking her neighborhood, she was able to regain a sense of control over her life. Her quest to feel better led her to learning as much as she could about the body, the mind, and the relationship between the two.

Mom returned to the workforce as a Pilates teacher after raising me and my brother. While teaching Pilates, she noticed that she felt more connected to her own body and her symptoms became more manageable. Her purpose became clear: she wanted to help others manage their pain and increase their functional movement. After years of studying and working, she opened her own studio. As a teenager I would attend the occasional class, although I usually skipped to study or, more likely, to read. Even when I went to university, I never used the sleek multimillion-dollar athletic facilities on campus. My closest experience to going to the gym would be writing an exam in the field house.

During the pandemic, Mom began to offer virtual workouts. This was my chance to exercise without any witnesses; by turning my camera off I could contort into bizarre positions without anyone watching. Yet on my first day I was so distracted by dust that I could barely concentrate. Sprawled out on the wooden floor, I had a new perspective of the underside of my furniture, and I was desperate to grab my broom. I vowed to have a better cleaning schedule.

The first few classes I took with Mom were difficult. My heart would pound, my legs would twitch and then Mom would say, “All right, so the warm-up is done.” The next day I was highly aware of achy and stiff muscles. Despite the soreness, I felt in tune with my body. I learned to love the delicious feeling of finding a new stretch that released tension I didn’t know I had or the way I could hold a difficult position for a few seconds longer.

The classes were also a way to connect with Mom. Seeing her onscreen was no replacement for a hug, but it was the next best thing. As I bent into a squat or leaned into a lunge, she would be doing the same movement. Our bodies were mirrored despite the distance. I began to pick up on her verbal cues; I would know what she would say before she said it. After class, we chatted about our week and I held onto these conversations like a life raft. Talking with Mom brought a sense of normality to the panicky days of 2020.

I kept up with the lessons for months. Then, in the shower one day, my hand brushed my shoulder. My fingers crawled over my deltoid, unsure of what I was feeling. Clarity dawned: it was muscle! This was the “tone” that magazines talked about. My hunch was confirmed when I finally visited home. I thought something was wrong with my thigh because it felt lumpy. Mom laughed and told me it was muscle.

Nowadays Mom trains a wide range of clients, from world-class athletes to those recovering from car accidents. There are perhaps more similarities between the two than would be expected: many people have an uncomfortable relationship with their body. Something needs to be fixed, something needs to be better. I’ve noticed this in myself. Once I started feeling toned, I wanted more. I had an image of a super-buff librarian carrying towering stacks of books up the stairs.

But Mom, with her tinny voice coming through the speakers of my laptop, reminds us to breathe. She tells us to love our bodies, no matter where they are on their journey. Right here, in this moment – sweaty from our workout, sprawled out on the dusty floor – we should appreciate all that our bodies do for us. The physical component of a workout is only half of the challenge: mentally, we must appreciate what we can and cannot do. We should be proud of ourselves for doing our best.

After two years of Pilates, I don’t have rippling muscles and I still have a passing resemblance to an inflatable tube man. My father even claims I have “noodly arms.” Yet these days I feel more centered, more balanced and I don’t get winded in the warm-up. I’ve graduated to five-pound weights and one of these days I’ll do a proper push-up. None of that really matters, though. I’m in the moment and experiencing something new.

Elizabeth Nash lives in Ottawa.

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