Sunday, August 13, 2017

Shit's fucked; try qigong

Well, it's 2017, a hateful warmonger is in the White House, Nazis and racists are terrorizing innocent people, facts are meaningless, and the United States is so divided it's tearing itself apart.

Shit's fucked up, and the dismaying state of the union has besieged so many of us with feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, powerlessness, and rage.

So I've been doing qigong, the traditional Chinese practice of meditative movement. Well, I don't know if I can fairly say I've been "doing qigong" as much as I've been trying out different qigong videos on Chinese YouTube. (There are Western-produced videos available, but I wanted to check out content produced by the practice's culture of origin.)

There are myriad forms of qigong, so much so that finding concise information about it is rather hard to do. But the bottom line is that it calms the mind and gently stretches and strengthens the body. It's something anyone, in any sort of shape, can do. And it's what's helping me wind down and get to sleep these days, rather than endlessly scrolling through the bountiful evidence of our country's undoing.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Don't Count on Me

Hey, here's a thing:

This is FigureRobics, a Chinese workout-video series in which they count to eight in English over and over. I've looked at several of these videos, and in all of them the counting is a central feature. It's really the only distinguishing feature, other than consistently good hairstyles for both the male and female performers. 

I have an opinion about counting to eight over and over in workout videos: it's repetitive, depressing, and cultish. Like, yeah, existentially we're all just ticking away the eight-counts until we leave this world (of sass), but must you be so literal about it? Billy Blanks does it with his crew in his early Tae Bo videos, and the counting is definitely framed as an expression of zealotry—a titillating, ritualistic way to show how ALL IN they are—but I think they cut it out after the warm-up. Either that or I learned to tune it out, because the background music wasn't too bad and I could focus on that. Here, all you've got is a lonely high-hat house loop, evoking a hiccuping kitchen clock. 

I was excited to do my first Chinese workout video, and these floor exercises seem fine, but yeah no.  

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Jessica Smith's Plain Dealing

YouTuber Jessica Smith is the new fitness maven in my life. Her appeal is so straightforward yet sneaky I find myself constructing all sorts of tortured descriptors like "distinctively bland" or "normcore fabulosity" to explain her non-mystique. She has the blank, gentle directness of a good therapist, combined with a wellspring of interesting exercises that you won't find in other workouts. She's got the three Cs of effective presentation, a thing I just made up: competent, confident, and casual. Jessica doesn't go for fancy locations or kewl workout clothes or high-polish production—she's typically in her living room (like you, the viewer), filming on her laptop—but her workouts challenge you in perfect doses, and together with her no-pressure motivational style, it all adds up to an addictive home-workout experience. 

Working out with Jessica is like working out at a friend's place. Her dog, Peanut, is usually hanging out with a bone or napping; she wakes up near the end of the workout to lick her sweat. You wouldn't think it's adorable every time, but it absolutely is. Peanut is a chubby little nugget of dog delight, and I will watch her sniff the door or stare off into space any old time. 

Jessica shapes her workouts with real intention and delivers fully conceptualized, well-structured videos. Take, for example, the "Low Impact 'Quiet' Cardio 30-Minute Workout" above: it manages to be truly low-impact (no shoes needed) while making good on the promise of 30 minutes of cardio. She has us do "quiet" squat-jumps, by which she means focusing on a controlled jump all the way through the legs and feet on the way up and down. That kind of attention to detail is hard to find outside of a ballet class. I did "'Quiet' Cardio" on a low-energy day, and, like many of her videos, it gently sucked me in, pushed me to do well, and left me feeling like I'd gone on a nice long run. 

Her exercises: they're dank. (Yep, dank. It's 2002.) Jessica's choreographic vocabulary is truly impressive. Her moves are built on basics—squats, lunges, pliés, jumps, arm movements, yoga poses, floor exercises—but she always adds some sort of twist. She might have you do a curtsy lunge and then hinge at the waist while doing a tricep curl. Or she'll add wide arm circles to a leg-lift series, so that you're working upper and lower halves in new and different ways. If you're into body meridians and that kind of whole-body energy circuit–type thing, you'll love her.

In fact, Jessica's are the only workouts I've encountered that approximate "Rhythmics" levels of innovation and fluidity in the choreography. She and "Rhythmics" are about the only home workouts I do anymore, the latter for that vintage/femme/euro vibe and Jessica for no-frills, American-girl body maintenance.

And I mean "American girl" in the historical, New England sense (though she lives in Florida): Jessica is a walking-in-place embodiment of favorite Puritan girl's names—Verity, Prudence, Amity, Felicity, Tenacious. Industrious and a bit modest—no booty shorts or heaps o' cleavage; no close-ups except for in her Q&As, where she fights the good fight dispelling myths about diet pills and toxin cleanses—Jessica is refreshingly, admirably basic. She's the friend who's always fine to eat at whatever restaurant, even as you change your mind four times. She's the officemate who never talks shit about anyone and is pleasant to talk to at lunch but equally fine not talking. And, as my best friend put it, "More than any other workout-video person, it feels like she's in the room with you, watching you and knowing what to say and when."

She also has a huge line of walking-workout videos, but I haven't done any of those. I've skimmed through a couple, and they seem suited to both beginners and anyone who wants some cardio without having to go outside. I've enjoyed all of her ballet titles, her HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts, and some of the more conceptualized ones, like the aforementioned "'Quiet' Cardio" and this "Rise and Shine" morning workout:

So hip-hip-hooray for Jessica Smith. I could spill 500 more words about how she fits into the zeitgeist of DIY YouTube success, but I'm more interested in her message than her medium. What comes through most of all in Jessica's work, as well as in her judiciously served commentary, is the importance of feeling good rather than looking good. That sounds like a cliché, but it's hard to overstate how difficult it can be to internalize that message when society, the media, and your own demons are constantly telling you there's something wrong with the way you look. Jessica only wants you get to know your body, to appreciate it, and to maintain that contraption so that you feel good spending all your time on earth inside of it. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

What A Feeling! Freedanse and Flashdance

VIDEO: Freedanse, free on YouTube
STYLE: Dance aerobics and conditioning
INTENSITY: Light to moderate/high
STRUCTURE: Warm-up (8 min.), Pilates-style conditioning (17 min.), dance aerobics (20 min.), cooldown (6 min.)
GIST: Height of '80s aerobics earnestness, with an appealing Euro twist. Takes a minute to get going, but a quality sweat sesh overall. Beginner friendly, but those with choreography pickup and Pilates skills will have an easier time.


Yes, nostalgia junkies of the internet, there it is: that ass belongs to Marine Jahan, the French dancer best known for bringing the flash to the famously overrated Flashdance (1983). Nobody cares about the lame love story that takes up the bulk of the movie; they remember, in reverse order, 1) Jennifer Beals in a welding mask and 2) the dance sequences—training SOHARD to "Maniac," the one with the water dumped on her, and wowing the snooty judges at the big audition. That was Marine! She crushed it, made the movie, yet never got a film credit for her work. (I found several other sources confirming this, my favorite being the Marine Jahan entry in this self-published reference guide, "The Jennifer Beals Handbook: Everything You Need to Know About Jennifer Beals.")

Freedanse (1984) was Marine's shot at marrying the film's success with the burgeoning aerobics craze to make a hit of her own. With her hairspray-encrusted Julie Andrews 'do and a game troupe donning the height of hi-cut activewear, Marine brings a loose ease and a hint of European sophistication to the proceedings. Note the French-style spelling of "danse" in the title—mais bien sur

Before we get started, though, Marine needs to take some slow-motion time in the spotlight, serving up at long last her byline, along with some danspiration, the theme song ("All your dreams will come true with Freedanse!"), and a good look at her leotard's crotch strip.

It goes on for a while. Then we get to the actual workout, and we're ready to go, like ready freddy doing the freddy ready—and she starts with head rolls. Which, ok, yeah I've been to dance classes that start straightaway with stretches, but lady, you're in the world of workout videos. That means cardio warm-up. In class, you get by on the threat of public shame; you don't stop just because your stiff head rolls are like a busted rake across your shoulders. At home, you need a smewwwth transition past the "I am but a tatty jumble of nerves and fat" stage. Don't make me wait for those step-touches, Marine.

So we're stretching . . . 

. . . reaching . . . 

. . . pulsing our pubes, together.

I like these downward-dog relevés; she does them neutral, turned in, and turned out. The calves appreciate the thoroughness. 

There's a decent amount of floor work, much of it in the Pilates vein. Lots of butt clenching. The music goes from generic keyboard groove to aggressively corny synth-harmonica. You have to either get on board with it or face sudden feelings of hostility and self-doubt. "Am I this music?" you'll ask yourself. "Do I look like how this sounds?" You probably do, but that's ok.

The cardio section begins pretty innocently, with simple step-touches and arm raises, but quickly gets you panting with a long, high-kneed pony section. And she's very precise, Marine. No grapevine or reaching palm is taken for granted. 

The harmonica funk returns, this time with lyrics about "going to the health spa, better than the corner bar," and you're doing this broken jumping jack spine roll thing, and if you stick with it you actually ascend to a higher level of human comedy, and that alone is an accomplishment.

It's usually by about this point in the video that I'm totally sold on it. All the conditioning exercises are just a long preamble to Marine's body beats dramatiques. The big finish is a series of step turns, which you're encouraged to jazz up into Freedansing ecstasy. Just look at this guy on the right:

Those are head rolls to make the angels sing. 

Once I finally did this video to completion, I looked forward to doing it again, and we enjoyed a fun week-long fling together. I haven't felt the desire to do it since, but it's totally decent and as authentic to '80s aerobics as you'll get outside of the Crystal Light National Aerobics Championships. Find yourself a dance belt, inhale hairspray in a brightly lit closet for a while, then give Freedanse a try. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Inner Thigh Gap Clarity

"Inner Thigh Gap Clarity": postmodern prog-rock band name or title of a real, creepily sunny workout hosted by a 14-year-old? Oh, you thought thigh gaps were just lulz whipped up in 2k14 by overstimulated Reddit bois with misplaced ambitions? You are mistaken. Thigh gaps are a movement—by girls, for girls—ensuring that every little lady grows up in tacit, unrelenting fear of her own body! Just ask our fresh-faced presenter, here to inspire us toward Inner Thigh Gap Clarity, because everyone knows that 10 minutes of squats and lunges can defy age, postadolescent metabolism, and the endless variety of human musculoskeletal composition!

Here's one brave Thigh Gap Warrior Princess feeling the thigh gap love:
Maddison Rose Okay so I might get hate but I really want a thigh gap. I am 13 years old and I'm very insecure about my thighs, my stomach and arms are not bad but I'm still working on them. I know I'm not "fat" I would just like to know if this really works! Thanks!

Or this lassie all hopped up on diuretics/snake oil/speed? oh god i hope not speed GIRL POWER:
Miss Montgomery I'm eating less, doing other exercises and taking diet pills AND doing this so hopefully i become a size 0 and have a thigh gap. Thank you for the easy to follow video!

Inner Thigh Gap Clarity, brought to you by these assholes: "Life. Wisdom."

This comment is a true tHIn$PirAtIO—actually, I can't snark anymore. It's too sad:
M Rachel I'm 98 lbs right now and my goal is to be anywhere between 88-91 pounds. If I eat healthy and do this work out once a day (first half morning second half at night) do 200 sit ups a day and, walk a mile or two, and either do an hour and a half of jujitsu or fourty five minutes on the bike or playing just sweat will I reach my goal? It it realistic/healthy? And will exersizing so much make me look bulky and bigger and skinnier and delicate?

I kind of love the presenter girl, because she's competent but casual, unconcerned, ironically, with flawlessness in her presentation. The exercises are fine: they're squats and lunges, and nothing can take that away from them. But nothing can guarantee a thigh gap. Which is why I'm giving three cheers for Caprilover73, who is probably exactly what her user name sounds like—a righteous pseudo-New Agey 40-something, and who is going into battle against thigh gap quackery. 
Don't obsess over a thigh gap because the most of the fittest people in the world dint have them. Olympians who train every day have amazing bodies, but no thigh gap. No one looks at them and in shorts you'll still have toned and nice legs, but healthy ones too

You go with your comment-thread activism, Caprilover73. As for Psychetruth, fooey to you and your clickbait ridiculousness. Good riddance, I say!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Aerobics Girl in a Pilates World: An Invalid's Ballad

It took orthopedic surgery on both my feet, but I'm finally learning to like Pilates. Note the "like" there. We will not be naming each other godparent to our firstborns, but we're at least on Christmas-party-invite-list terms. 

Because I've been unable to work out aerobically during recovery, Pilates has been just about the only "serious" exercise I can do. And since I've avoided it for most of my adult life, because BORING BORING BORINNNNGNGG, it felt like an enriching pursuit -- facing fears and climbing every mountain and such. 

I found the above video, free in full on YouTube, tried it out, declared it worthy, and have been doing it every few days at the park or in my back yard. Why the outdoors? Because if Miss Sports Bra in the video gets Malibu to distract her from the deliberateness, the care-ful el-o-cu-tion, the HOLY MOTHER OF MANWICH THIS BURNS real talk of Pilates, then I need some pretty clouds and a nice spring breeze. 

There is no panache to be found here, but to be perfectly honest, the model/presenter's body makes up for it. She is a beast -- a silent, smiling (a little too much), perfect ponytail-having beast. It's a shame about her tits hanging out so egregiously, but whatever. 

This is a true beginner's video, in that it's approachable but not a cakewalk. And it's a decent length. Despite its "total body" label, the workout is focused mostly in the abs, butt, and legs, though a lot of the moves are on all fours and shift weight into the arms. As a true Pilates beginner, I set a goal to be able to finish the entire workout, all the reps and all the exercises, by the end of my convalescence. My powers are increasing, especially in my biggest avoidance spot, the outer thigh. There's still one exercise I "can't even," but the others have gotten easier surprisingly quickly. Yearnin' learnin'!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Reaching Out for a Better Day with "Sit and Be Fit"

Hark! The online comments sing. Glory to the eternal flame of sass, the everlasting calves, the comfort and joy of the mobility impaired—the only woman about whom the internet has nothing and will never have anything bad to say.

Today we're spending time with Mary Ann Wilson, RN, of the long-running program "Sit and Be Fit." Like all titans of public television—Bob Ross, Julia Child, Kermit the Frog—this lady was niche-branding herself long before the first Angelfire fanfic site ever plastered ungainly type across an animated wallpaper. With kind twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks (blush game on fleek, always), and the legs of an MGM hoofer, Mary Ann Wilson embodies the indomitable spirit of the body electric. Be you wheelchair-bound, waylaid by injury, or merely very lazy, "Sit and Be Fit" is here to inspire your slowly calcifying form toward kinesis.

And decent kinesis it is! I've given Ms. Wilson her due before, here, but, like most of the able-bodied population, my only experience with "Sit and Be Fit" consisted of watching with a dopey grin for a few minutes while channel surfing, perhaps trying a few moves if feeling puckish, because WhaT a gAS! 

This time, I came to "Sit and Be Fit" hashtag-authentically, with two bum feet and three weeks in post-surgical boots, which are like little boats that buoy your standing weight up into your hips instead of through your feet. Or something. The first week, my walking pace was that of my grandma's at 91, and my condition generated lots of enjoyable sympathy and Vicodin and people fetching me things. Fresh off the painkikis, walking felt like moving around a slack bag of bones formed from petrified Olive Garden breadsticks. 

Now, I've got a nifty peg-leg swag walk and I go down stairs backwards because it's faster. I can take the boots off as long as I'm not standing, which puts me so patently in the show's target demographic that I'd be a lax ambassador of sass indeed if I didn't seize upon SABF's fresh relevance to my current life experiences.

If I wanted to be truly auth, I could catch the show on my local PBS station any weekday at 7 or 8:30 a.m. Ms. Lady has her shit together on the informational front: even the most tech-befuddled senior would be able to look up local showtimes on her website. Her press kit? A marvel of old-school PR–new media synergy, occupying 12 neatly laid-out, web-friendly pdf pages. Here are some fun facts about the program:

  • The show operates as a nonprofit and has been on the air for nearly 30 years, since 1987.
  • It tapes in Spokane, WA. 
  • Mississippi and Alabama do not air "Sit and Be Fit" at all. Of course.
  • Mary Ann's daughter, Gretchen, often joins her to demonstrate modifications. Kewt!
  • When she was a young RN, Mary Ann specialized in post-polio rehabilitation. 
  • Aerobics got her through her husband's death. MY HEART.

As I am incapable of rising early to catch the broadcast, I turned to the few episodes available in full on YouTube. My selection, "Engaging the Pelvic Floor," had my number: I love workin' on my taint!

Also known as pee-pee muscles, or what you're working when you do kegels, 
or, as illustrated by this NSFW pic, what makes your dick curve upward when erect

Mary Ann starts by introducing her helpers for the session, which is nice of her. 

Then we get into some knee lifts and leg extensions . . . 

. . . and finish the warm-up with a gentle foot massage, which was perfect for my tore-up frankenweenies. Somehow, Mary Ann knew it was time for me to start cajoling them back into fine action. 

We proceed to the pelvic floor in the best way possible, by feeling up our butts. "Locating the sits bones," she says, sure, but as we rock from cheek to cheek, riding along on the beautiful heiney sea, we are reminded of the miracle of human evolution, a multimillion-year process that yielded dumpling-shaped flesh cushions attached to our posteriors. What a wonderful world!

This booty action warms up the undercarriage and prepares us for the pelvic floor exercises, which Mary Ann explains in a top-drawer use of kinetic imagery: as you contract, visualize the sits bones getting closer together. That's what actually happens in there, on a very tiny scale, and it's something I hadn't really been able to understand, despite reading approximately 24 pages of a conditioning guide called Pelvic Power years ago. Mary Ann's explanation gave me a bit of a eureka moment, one made all the sweeter by occurring in communion with my bum.

After the ass play comes the first aerobic section, where we walk our feet out and in—a seated box step. After three weeks cut off from aerobics, I was there for it. I also wished my socks were as slouchy-cute as hers.

Let's take a moment to appreciate Ms. Wilson's face-giving skills: smiley but not plastic, sweet as a snickerdoodle and calmly perky. Her Clara Bow eyebrows, always expressing some gentle affection, are practically support staff. 

Then she does this cute knee raise, which is harder than it looks. Can she help it if it happens to make her shapely legs look even shapelier? No, she cannot.

During the finger-articulation exercises, I gave thanks for my non-arthritic hands, despite a long-running finger-popping compulsion. (Apparently, science says my mom is wrong—knuckle popping does not promote arthritis later in life—but I still don't 100% believe it.)

She also has you work your finger and hand muscles by pretending your rolled-up towel is a ball of dough that you are kneading, which is an analogy I can get excited about.

It continues like this, alternating between the lightest of aerobic movements—there's a salsa portion, of course—and targeted conditioning and flexibility exercises.

After some standing or seated stretches, Ms. Wilson makes time for a meditative moment, wherein we cross our elbows and sway our arms like we're hugging the whole world. It feels incredibly comforting.

Then, in the style of the great "Rhythmics," we're treated to some serene nature footage while Mary Ann takes us home: "While you're flying along, think about all the people in your life who bless your life, and send blessings to them. You're going to such beautiful places on this trip. Keep reaching out with us for a better day." 

I shall, Ms. Wilson.