We’ve Been Trained to be “Good” Students
Historically I was a “good student,” diligently following my teachers’ instructions. In kickboxing classes, when the teacher said go faster and harder, I pushed myself often beyond what felt good or safe for me. In Pilates classes, I mustered my very best posture and kept going even when exercises required more strength or flexibility than I had.
It’s so easy to disregard our internal warning signals and continue on in an exercise class despite discomfort, pain or fatigue. We want to look good, do it “right,” get maximum benefit and/or prove to ourselves and others that we’re strong, capable and talented. Sometimes we’re afraid of being judged if we do things differently or take a break. Or maybe we just don’t realize there’s an alternative.
An Alternative Way
The Feldenkrais Method® taught me how to listen to myself and stay within a range that was comfortable for me. I was encouraged to go at my own speed and rest when I needed to, not when the teacher said to rest. This didn’t come easily at first. Like most of us, cultural values of hard work and competitiveness were deeply instilled in me. I was caught up like everyone else in thinking that bigger as better and that there’s no gain without pain.
In Feldenkrais® classes, slowing down and reducing effort was not only allowed, it was what we were told to do. It took awhile to change my habit of trying hard but I started practicing this approach. Before, I would ignore discomfort, not wanting to call attention to myself or miss out on any part of class. Now I began to do less or take time in the middle of class to go get a prop to make myself more comfortable.
I experienced many rewards from this approach, including fewer injuries, faster learning, better coordination, more enjoyment and a greater sense of well-being. When I fell back into habits of rushing or pushing myself, I felt the effects of feeling frustrated, tired or being in pain after class.
Eventually this Feldenkrais-ian approach was the only one I wanted to take. So I started using it in other places, such as exercise and dance classes. For instance, if I felt dizzy or a little strain in my back from a move in a dance class, I’d ask my leader to go gently, modify it or not lead it at all. Or if an exercise in Pilates was too difficult or felt unsafe for me, I’d only do a couple repetitions at a very slow speed—or I’d skip that exercise altogether.
How to Take Care of Yourself in an Exercise Class
Taking care of yourself and breaking rank in a group setting can be challenging, but the benefits are so worth it. Here are some tips on taking this leap and becoming an exercise/yoga/dance class rebel:
1. Listen to Yourself
Regularly check in with yourself. Among other things, this helps you know your limits before you end up wishing you hadn’t done something. So instead of ignoring a twinge, tightness, discomfort or overwhelm, you pay attention to it. Then you can decide whether you’d like to continue, slow down, make a change, take a break, ask for help, etc.
For example, say a dance class is doing double spins and you suffer from vertigo or your neck is getting sore. Instead of bracing through spin after spin, you could sit out and watch for awhile. Alternatively, you might tell your dance partners you’re not up for anymore spins that night.
Or perhaps you’re starting to feel discomfort in your knees or that your brain will explode if your Zumba teacher adds one more variation. Don’t be shy about taking a break, sitting out the rest of class or even leaving class early.
2. Reflect on Your Intentions
What’s your reason for taking the exercise class? If it’s to have fun and you’re experiencing pain or feeling stressed, you’re no longer having fun. In this way, your intention can serve as a reminder and help you muster the courage to boldly stray from the pack.
3. Go at Your Own Speed
Taking the time to slow down and really feel or understand a movement is far more valuable than hurrying to keep up and leaving having just gone through the motions.
Going at your own pace in dance, yoga or martial arts class doing partner work might mean not pairing up, and instead, practicing on your own for awhile. Or you can ask your partner to do the exercise in slow motion or just practice one part of it. You might be surprised how often your partner is happy to comply. They might even be relieved because they’re having a hard time too!
4. Do What’s Comfortable for You
What’s easy or beneficial for others might not be good for you. For instance, if all the other people in class are using 10+ pound weights, by all means work your 2 pound weights with pride! And if other folks are going full out into yoga poses, feel free to only do 50 percent of what you’re capable of doing.
You know what’s best for you, not your teacher or fellow classmates. Many teachers don’t have a thorough understanding of the body when it comes to injury and pain. Even those that do can’t watch you every moment or necessarily anticipate when you might hurt yourself. If a movement is uncomfortable (or you suspect it might be), modify it so it is comfortable (or don’t do it at all). Who knows, you might make an insightful discovery about yourself or come up with a fun new variation!
5. Talk to Your Teacher
As a teacher, I applaud people doing their own thing in class (as long as they’re not being disruptive). But when a student hasn’t said anything to me, I’m not sure if they didn’t understand my instructions or if they’re intentionally doing something different.
So if you have an injury, balance issues, a tendency to get overwhelmed or anything that might have you straying from the pack, it’s best to tell your teacher before class. Not only do you avoid unwarranted corrections from the teacher, but it also allows the teacher to support you by offering individual suggestions and alternatives.
Are You Ready to Be an Exercise Class Rebel?
I encourage you to trust your instincts, know that you’re cool, and use these tips to become a rebel in any class you’re in. You’ll not only be taking care of yourself, you’ll also be a great role model for others, giving them permission to stay within their comfort zones as well.