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A gentle path towards greater resistance
WHEN they say don't sweat the small stuff, they haven't done barre exercises.
The moves look easy enough. Leg lifts, arm circles with small weights, squats. The exercises are neatly segmented, and there are often set intermissions in between for water breaks, and mini cooldown sessions.
But make no mistake. A barre class humbles you in its 60 minutes.
Over a virtual live-streaming class, a chirpy barre instructor will take students through an excruciating set of movements involving pliés and relevés, and then, the dreadful pulses. And if you can't pulse your limbs any further, let that involuntary twitching and trembling do the work.
The science behind barre workouts is to exhaust - maniacally, in my view - parts of the body through isometric exercises that keep the muscles contracted as you repeat tiny, one-inch lifts, before relaxing them completely.
Think of them as tiny actions of passive aggression in a relationship, and you get the idea of that small, crackling pop of anguish. By the end of each daily workout, my mat is imprinted with sweat, presenting a new Rorschach test every time.
The barre burn hurts. I've pressed my face into a drenched towel more than a few times, easing my contorted expressions back into place.
Yet, I have somehow willed myself to return to class. It's been 45 classes and counting since May.
There is a part of me that just will not give up. Finding videos of NFL players sweating it out in barre classes has helped. Another thing that helps: the literal guilt-trip from the home office to the snack cupboard needed a solution.
But it's also that with these small movements, you can just try it again. And again. And again. Missed the first beat? Push through on the second. Missed the second one? Persist on the third.
It reminds us that grit can be a gentle thing.
The images of resilience and strength are typified in tough, unyielding personalities. But there is something decidedly more admirable about a tough character that is found in a picture of grace.
Barre instructors put on smiling faces as they lift their legs so straight, their limbs could be used as live-size protractors that draw angles on a flat plane - and you realise that it would be easier to be loudmouthed and aggressive about the whole ordeal.
A Harvard Business Review article noted as well that resilience often has to do with how good we are at restoring and sustaining our well-being, which is enshrined in a biological concept known as homeostasis. The key to resilience, the article said, is this: try really hard, then stop, recover, and then try again.
"We often take a militaristic, 'tough' approach to resilience and grit. We imagine a Marine slogging through the mud, a boxer going one more round, or a football player picking himself up off the turf for one more play. We believe that the longer we tough it out, the tougher we are, and therefore the more successful we will be. However, this entire conception is scientifically inaccurate," the article said.
"Resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure."
Psychologist Maria Konnikova wrote that based on studies, perception is often key to resilience.
"Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened. In a sense, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy," she wrote in the New Yorker.
"Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected."
Which brings us back to barre classes.
Making progress in increments
When it comes to barre, it is in doing the small things ad nauseam that brings progress. It has certainly improved my posture to better handle the longer desk-bound hours.
The beauty is also in the precision. To use momentum would be cheating. Instead, there is respect for exacting form. It forces mindfulness and concentration, as they manifest as beads of perspiration raining down.
That amount of razor focus also shoves out the bigger and looming headlines that come amid a crisis. Before you know it, time has flown by. You've forgotten for a breath or two that we're still battling an uncertain health crisis.
And haven't we pushed through with the small, manageable things? We cook. We try to bake. We eat. We work. We sleep.
And we then repeat the small things we can control, to distract us from the big things that have been knocked out of our hands.
Missed the first beat? Push through on the second. Missed the second one? Persist on the third.
What may keep us going through the uncertainties is the choice to keep going. We decide to take a step at a time, in the small, simple familiar ways we know how.
In pushing through hard times, but feeling no guilt behind taking a rest to recharge, we find ourselves with a toughened muscle - that strong, gentle will to survive.