Despite not being particularly athletic when I was young, I grew up as a gym rat. My mom was a jack-of-all trades when it came to health; she was an instructor of yoga (before it was cool!), water aerobics (which never became cool), aerobics and Pilates. She was the gazelle to my awkward pre-teen baby elephant. Where she jumped and stretched and bopped, I awkwardly and cautiously stepped, and tripped and grimaced. I was in awe of her in her classes. To this day, whenever I hear a song with a beat from the 90s, I remember her sitting on our living room floor with her boombox, recording her latest mixed tape for class.
I was also in awe of my mother’s coworkers, her fellow aerobic lady friends, women with big teased blonde hair, clunky white sneakers and bright neon leggings. They were all horribly in shape, and horribly in a rush. They always had somewhere to go, a next class, a son’s soccer game, out to a lunch. To me, these women felt so full of life and so important. They were the masters of many, making impossible moves look cool to the latest beats.
My parents not being the type to spend money on a babysitter, my youth was spent mainly at the local gym, hiding in the nutritionist office when it was free. I would roam the halls needlessly, looking longingly at the vending machines, watching, disinterested, at indoor tennis matches, and old men getting out of the hot tub. Despite being born in February in the snow, my childhood birthdays were always held at the gym’s pool, with an employee discount of course. My mom would sign us up for the latest kid aerobics, kid ballet, kid hip hop lessons, youth basketball. You named it, we tried it. My mom wanted us well rounded and full of healthy exercise wholesomeness.
Despite all this, however, if I am honest, none of it really stuck. I wasn’t a basketball star, for sure. And I didn’t really have any interest in being competitive, so never got into sports involving balls, or running, or breaking a sweat, really. I did find some comfort in swimming, which helped me transition into the more grown up version of a gym rat: a lifeguard.
My late teens and early 20s were spent milling around various fitness facility pools in the suburbs close to my home. I would put on some chandelier earrings, a full face of under eye makeup, my cute red suit, short shorts and platform sandals to ready myself each day for my own version of weirdly-dressed gym prom. I would emerge from the employee break room in full face to swing my whistle and wander around the pool, gossiping with my fellow lifeguard friends and planning our evening activities. My workouts at the same location had a similar vibe: hanging out on an elliptical machine for an hour or so, fraternizing with the staff, and then calling it a day.
Somewhere between then and now, the gym has become (or always stayed) my refuge. Pre-pandemic, my social life here in The Netherlands revolved around the gym as well. I was fully immersed in a gym girl pack, complete with weekend brunches and pre-planned class schedules. My life was ordered in a way that was identifiable and consistent for me. A recipe for success.
When March came along this past year though, gyms closed, and when they reopened a couple months later, to me, they suddenly felt unventilated and, more problematically, unsafe. I panicked and went cold turkey. Despite a lot of my friends returning to their workout routines, I hide and tried to kick, squat, squeak and punch at home, in front of a little computer screen, in the one room of my apartment, next to my husband on a conference call.
Aside from everything else, this was one thing I had a lot of difficulty adapting to. I missed my friends, my gym instructors, and the symbolic representation of what it all meant. I felt left out, and alone, but unlike before when I could manage that stress physically, I had no easy outlet for it anymore. No refuge.
Now, more than nine months later, I sit here feeling grateful that I have been able to go back to where it all started. We moved, and in moving, we were able to make a gym of our own – a small attic space just big enough for two mats, some weights, a computer screen, and me. Jumping joyously. With this new lockdown comes a silver lining: I can connect to live classes in both my homes – America and The Netherlands. I yell in my pajamas, proclaiming my love for my favorite instructors, who can’t hear me, but who I have missed so much. There is one Dutch instructor who reminds me of my mom’s old crew: a flight attendant by day and a power house Pilates instructor at night, she absolutely outdoes any young male counterpart instructing alongside her in class. Her crazy teased blonde hair blows in the wind as she sings along to the music. Like how I saw my mother when I was young, she defies time with her body, stronger than people half her age.
Yesterday, physically exhausted from a particularly intense yoga class and emotionally exhausted from this pandemic, I even cried. So grateful to be back home, where I feel safe. And where these instructors, like my mom, can remind me that strength comes in many forms. There is power in learning how to channel that strength from somewhere else, somewhere new.
May you all remain powerful, my friends, and well exercised.