It’s a pretty well documented phenomenon that people tend to resist what is best for them. For example, I could quite happily sit on my butt for the rest of my life and never break a sweat again. This despite the fact that more than ten years each of martial arts and yoga have repeatedly proven that I am slimmer, more energetic, calmer and an all-around better person when I exercise regularly. This knowledge tends to cause a yo-yo effect in my exercise routines. For months or even years I will take every possible excuse to stay home and read a book instead of going to class. Then, when I am practically indistinguishable from a toadstool, I get mad at myself and set an arbitrary workout schedule that I can’t possibly meet in my current physical condition and drive myself into the ground fighting my inevitable failure.
This year I have mostly managed to follow the middle path with a sustainable three times each week yoga and pilates combination, sprinkled with a daily stair-climb to my seventh floor office. As a result, I’m approaching my undergrad college weight and find that I finally have enough energy to go to class as a matter of course without the need to talk myself into it.
Even though I’ve finally learned the lesson that exercise makes me feel good, I still have to face one last front of resistance – the common cold. My years of training have provided me with many examples of times that I forced myself to go to class when I felt a cold coming on and burned it off. But there are just enough memories of times when the opposite happened – when I went to class and ended up weak and gasping, barely making it to the end, pushed over the edge into full-fledged illness – to give me pause.
Because of my tendency to stillness, I can’t trust my inclinations when I’m fighting a cold. I will always err on the side of sedentary ways, and skipping class is a slippery slope I’ve had to climb back up too many times. What I need is a straightforward rule that I can follow blindly, like the neck-up rule. The neck-up rule says that if all of your symptoms occur from the throat up, you’ll feel better for working out. If you feel achy, or have chest congestion, you should take it easy. But even proponents of the neck-up rule recognize exceptions. If your sore throat is very severe, or your chest congestion very mild, the rule may not apply.
For the last three weeks, I have had a cold. Three times each week, I’ve thought to myself, “I wonder if going to class will make me feel better or worse.” Each time, I have summoned my stronger nature and trooped off to class. Several times I’ve had to back off during my workout, but I’ve always made it through and felt better afterwards. Until today. Today, I really wanted to go to the coffee shop and order soup and read my new Harry Dresden book (more on the Dresden Files later). But instead, I was good and went to yoga at lunchtime.
I usually look forward to Wednesday’s yoga class. Yoga teacher Jen Yaros comes to my office building and offers a gentle, stretching yoga class for us bureaucrats that relieves mental tension as effectively as muscle tension. But today I barely made it through. I snuffled and choked and coughed and had no choice but to ignore all the breathing instructions that make a stretch pleasant. I couldn’t balance, I had no strength, and I had to come out of all the poses early. I didn’t get any of the grounding and centering benefits of yoga and left feeling dumb and weak, wishing I had my ten dollars back so I could go buy some soup.
Some lessons take a lifetime to learn. I’m still working on the answer to the question, “How can you tell when working out will make you feel better and when it will make you feel worse?” Maybe someday I will develop the wisdom to accurately read the signs in my own body, but in the meantime, does anyone have a good rule of thumb?