my blob of flesh
I was born a pretty normal weight with a shocking amount of hair, and continued being relatively skinny until the first grade. Convinced I needed more nutrition, my mom gave me a ton of PediaSure, a nutritional supplement that tasted like richer, thicker milk, and I became a chubby elementary school kid from drinking too much of it. Many years later I read a PediaSure article and found out they were also useful to quickly give calories to malnourished children, and drinking them by the bottle had made me wider instead of taller despite my mother's best efforts.
Picked to play soccer on the playground with the super good kids only to make the teams fair, I stayed a small chubby unathletic kid until 7th grade when I found out I had high cholesterol. When my mom told me on the phone, I remember being very surprised and felt it a little unfair that my body had betrayed me like this. She made me run and eat healthy and I lost weight until high school when I got lazy and got kinda chubby again.
One day in my junior year my grandma called me fat in an offhanded comment and I was invigorated to prove her wrong, so I ate less and ran a ton and got really skinny all the way up to my senior year. By then, I was so busy with work and other stuff I never really thought about my body as a partner, and instead saw meals as necessary sustenance of equal value in any form. I had never really been satisfied with my body through its alternating skinny and chubby times, but thankfully it was never a huge deal for me. In a horrifyingly encouraging way my mom told me earnestly when I was young that it was ok to be 醜一點 (a little ugly) so long as I was smart.
Taking that to heart, I thought that barring general healthiness, my physical body was unimportant.
On a whim, I started working out in the last few weeks of my senior year of high school and got hooked. I haven't taken more than 4 or 5 days off from the gym since then, 4 years later. My only introduction to the weight room before was a PE unit, where I mostly remember the horror story about locking your knees with the leg press and where I spent most my time vying for time on the leg extension machine, hidden in the corner of the room. When I started, I didn't know anything, and I was seriously weak as hell- I couldn't do a pull-up and could only bench the bar.
The gym has been good to me since, and I am grateful for the steady friendship of the weights. I can see, feel, and appreciate how my body has changed over the years, and I feel confident in the ability of my mind to exact change on my body. I looked better and felt better.
But through all this I always had a feeling of dissatisfaction, like I hadn't reached a place I wanted to be. It was the same kind of feeling described by Ippo in Hajime no Ippo, when Ippo starts boxing because he wants to understand what strength is (an idea still being explored in the manga, 1100+ chapters later). My goal when I started and my goal now still is the ephemeral and vague status of being strong.
In this process, my relationship with my body changed. I used to just need my body to be healthy, and was happy with a decent container for my brain, like a nice mason jar for the mind or something. After I started lifting, and when the gym became a core part of my identity, the relationship became one of dominance.
When I first started lifting I watched a ton of YouTube videos (shoutout to 6packshortcuts and ScottHermanFitness). In one video this huge black power lifter was doing preacher curls with the ez bar, and each rep was punctuated by him shouting at his muscles. "I'm your master!" Exhale, up. Inhale, down. "You listen to me!" Exhale, up. Inhale down. "You're my bitch!"
That was my relationship with my body, albeit expressed by the dude much more verbally and explicitly. I wanted my mind to dominate my body, to make it do stuff, to make it listen to me. But sometimes the body would fight back, and I'd get injured a lot from impatience and small mistakes. The pain in my lower back got especially bad, and it would often hurt to sit for a long time or bend over. I felt like something was always hurting and it was discouraging to have pain prevent progress.
my yogic wonderland
After about a year or so of intermittent pain, I tried yoga on recommendation from my physical therapist. I went to the free trial at Dodge my junior year and I loved it, so I started going a couple times a week and became a regular at Anastasia's class. The most surprising thing for me about yoga was its completely different approach to the body. "Listen to your body," Anastasia would always say as I tried to stretch out my hips. "Are you breathing?" She would ask every time I held my breath and strained for my feet. It was new to me, deferring to the body and paying attention to what he had to say.
I liked both approaches, and took them to heart, pushing my body as I was used to but paying attention to his comments, complaints, and concerns. I stopped getting hurt and with hard work and good food hit an all time strength high while I was interning at Riot summer of junior year. The gym was my anchor, and I could see my slow but steady and satisfying progress.
my dead weight
Things were going fine until I got diagnosed very recently with PVNS, a joint disease that begins in the synovial tissue and in its diffuse form, spreads out to muscle and bone. A few weeks before my MRI, I was already feeling some pain in the right arm that was affecting my gym going, and had been working through some knee pains from January. It was shaping up to be a shitty year for the gym, but soon became much worse.
A week or so before my initial diagnosis, I remember telling my friend Kat that I would probably be depressed (and I don't use the word lightly) if I was ever unable to work out for extended periods of time. At that point the gym was very important to me, and I was feeling really down from all the breaks I had to take for my shoulder and my knees, but what I was really thinking about when I said that was the far old age, many decades later.
Instead, a week later in the doctors office, my surgeon was telling me my right arm would probably always be my bad one, and would likely not recover to 100%. He suggested I take up another exercise, like swimming. I felt very small in my oversized hospital gown, looking at the lump in my bicep thinking: "Am I still your master?"
It was disheartening. Of course, by then I had already stopped exercising, and was told that I would need surgery requiring many months to recover. It would be a while before I could even lift my arm post-op, let alone lift weights. The gym seemed far away.
At that point, the PVNS had likely been growing for a while, spreading to affect my bones and my joint, seeping out fluid to cause the lump by my bicep. This seemed like a clear case of my body breaking the rules. This was not something I could beat with my mind nor was this something my body told me about in advance; this was uncharted territory. At night before I slept I would often massage the lump in my bicep, thinking about the foreign but at the same time undeniably part-of-me tumors growing in my shoulder.
"You doing ok there buddy? Anything else you wanna confess?"
After my surgery, when I woke up from the anesthesia, my right arm had been miraculously replaced through the might of modern medicine by a simultaneously sharp and dull pain connecting my forearm to my torso. I was unable to move much except to furiously press the morphine clicker repeatedly for my eight minute intervals of relief. My body would continue to betray me in unsuspecting ways in the next few days, like almost passing out the first time I tried to stand up and inflicting me with a persistent and terrible pain, nausea, and most insulting of all, an incapability to pee properly.
My relationship with my body changed again, this time from dominator and listener to submission. I felt trapped in my body, unable to get up myself or go to the bathroom or walk without shivering. But I also lost a lot of embarrassment about my body, an unintended side effect of the PVNS. There is something about the professionalism of a nurse sponge bathing you or taking a catheter out that makes the whole process less embarrassing, and to be frank, there is only so much you can care about when the hospital is hot, the gown is breezy, and you have a small but significant concern of having pooped yourself all the while running a high fever and fighting level 9/10 pain. In one of my PT sessions I got up ready to walk a lap around the wards with my butt exposed from the gown and only reconsidered when my therapist offered me a open front gown.
As I write this, I've been away from school for over a week recovering from surgery. It feels weird to feel so weak, and feels weird to have to exert so much force and effort just to touch my right hand to my right pec. Doctors use the eight activities of daily living (ADL) and the eight independent ADL to assess functional status of patients, and I am definitely still unable to do some of both. Lying in bed stuck with my sling and numbing fingers, almost 20 pounds lighter since January, I certainly don't feel like the master of anything.
But in some sense I am still listening and reacting to my body. It's just that the symbols are much more foreign and confusing, like understanding the different levels and types of pain, how my muscles feel, and what kind of control I have over my right arm.
My body and I have been through quite a lot together now, through being fat and skinny, through adrenaline rushed heart pounding PRs, through imperfect pigeon poses, and most recently, through the pain of open surgery. It is frustrating still that I don't have perfect control over my body, and he still pulls shit like getting sick right before exams or failing the last rep of the last set. It is a little frightening how frail my body can be, how easily things can come apart, but also amazing how malleable and resilient he can be.
It is strange, but somehow, in the process of neglecting him, beating him, listening to him, and now fighting with him, my body became my friend and my partner.
footnote: I was iffy on the section title my bitch but decided to stick with it because I thought it nicely encapsulated the sometimes overly aggressive hyper masculinity of working out