After Gym Class: Learning to Love Movement via Yoga

Malasana September 2018A few weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times entitled “How You Felt About Gym Class May Impact Your Exercise Habits Today.”  This is something that feels so obvious to me I was kind of surprised that it merited an article, but then again, I think way more about my traumatic life experiences (and other people’s) than is probably healthy, so I’m all over this topic.

Exercise and movement are such a big part of my life now that it’s hard to reconcile my current lifestyle (a daily practice of gym, yoga, weightlifting, occasional awkward excursions into Jazzercise, jiu-jitsu, running, biking, you name it) with the first three decades of my life, in which exercise was something you did if you were required to, or if, as one of my ex-boyfriend’s mothers said to me, “You are getting fat. You need to make exercise” (there was a cultural difference, so I’d like to think I’ve let this go, but here I am writing about it on the Internet 20 years later, so probably not so much).

As a kid, I liked to play outside, but mostly I used that time to enjoy being alone, spending time with my dog, reading and daydreaming. When my friends forayed into group sports (softball, field hockey), I gave it a try, but really struggled. I literally did not understand how the games worked or what the rules were. There was no Google to look these things up, and although you might reasonably ask, “Why would you not just ask someone?” it didn’t feel that simple to me. If everyone else already understood this thing that I clearly was supposed to have learned somewhere or somehow, the best my introverted self could manage was to kind of pretend and hope it would all work out one way or another.  Don’t pass to me, I’d pray during the game.  Oh, they’re running that way– must be time to run with them down the field now. 

You can imagine, then, how much I did not enjoy gym class. I was a child of the 80’s, and all I knew of politics was that Ronald Reagan liked jellybeans and that he, in his infinite, grandfatherly wisdom, had decreed that we must complete the Herculean tasks of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. Pull-ups. Sit-ups. The Shuttle Run (ugh). The Mile. The Sit-and-Reach.  I can’t remember what I wore yesterday, but the agony of the Physical Fitness Test is super fresh in my memory. Our gym teacher had big puffy brown hair and chewed gum as she noted, bored, on her clipboard, my subpar efforts. A quick romp through the Internet tells me that I am not the only child who remembers the tests with a lingering sense of shame and anxiety (“Sit and reach. I sat, I reached, I farted. Ruined 5th grade,” says one person.  You can read more of “The Sad, Sad Stories of the Presidential Fitness Test” here).

Middle school was no improvement. Some of us threw hard rubber balls across the gym. Others were hit with a stinging whack (guess which one I was!). It was only an hour or so, but that was nothing compared to the mandatory public shower afterward.  In order to earn a passing grade, we were required to walk into the communal shower area (open to the entire locker room), take off our towel, place it on the low wall, and twirl around once under the shower so that the teacher could see us do it. This had nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with body shaming, anxiety and often bullying from older girls.

So yeah– gym class missed the mark for me. I know plenty of kids who enjoyed it– the naturally athletic ones, the ones whose bodies moved easily through space, who could kick or catch a ball or yell “Pass it to me!” with confidence. Extroverts thrived on the team experience– I shrank and wilted.

Let’s go to the Times article:

“People’s memories of gym class turned out to be in fact surprisingly “vivid and emotionally charged,” the researchers write in the study, which was published this month in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

And those memories had long shadows, affecting people’s exercise habits years later.

The most consistent associations were between unpleasant memories of P.E. classes and lingering resistance to exercise years later, the researchers found. People who had not enjoyed gym class as children tended to report that they did not expect to like exercise now and did not plan to exercise in the coming days.”

-Gretchen Reynolds, How You Felt About Gym Class May Impact Your Exercise Habits Today

All of this is a long preamble to say– despite my struggles with gym class and the US Physical Education system, I have managed to find my way to being a reasonably healthy person who loves to exercise. I like to learn new movement skills and I’m relatively confident as an athlete, even if I’m not good at something (I’m pretty bad at most new things, FYI). Was it a miracle of some sort? Life coaching? Sheer willpower? Nope. It was yoga.

Yoga bridged the gap between the social anxiety, poor body image and low self-confidence that I felt as a human adult attempting exercise. I’ve taught yoga for several years now, and I think I have an understanding of why yoga managed to convert me into an active adult when other modalities failed: it teaches body awareness, creates confidence, and it’s essentially non-competitive.

One of the most crucial skills that I began to develop when I began doing yoga was proprioception*. This is simply the sense of where your body is in space.  Some of us don’t develop this terribly well, for many reasons, but luckily it is a skill that can be learned and taught. Chronic “klutzes” may find themselves moving gracefully! It’s pretty awesome.

Once we have a greater sense of where we are in the world, it’s natural that we start to feel stronger and more confident. As I continued to practice yoga, I built strength and found that I could actually enjoy moving my body through space in a deliberate way. I also found that I could appreciate what my body was able to do, and to find ways to nurture it so that it could work even better.

I often remind my students that one of the best things about the yoga practice is that we can stop anytime. This may sound a little silly, but for me it’s quite meaningful. If exercise has been challenging for you, committing to a 90 (or even 60) minute yoga practice may feel too overwhelming. Perhaps it’s not the physical challenge that scares you, but social anxiety. In that case, too, knowing that there is no pressure to compete or keep up, that there are very few rules to be memorized, no team to let down, and that nobody in the room has any expectations of you can be tremendously freeing. You really can stop at any time. You can sit down, or do a different pose, or you can try something on one side you didn’t do on another. You can roll up your mat and practice another day.

Having this freedom– to try something different, or to simply stop when we need to– has an interesting psychological effect. Because they don’t feel that they have to, often I find that students are eager to practice and even try things that might always have been outside of their comfort zone. The anxious students, gaining confidence in themselves and finding that they can be comfortable in an “exercise” environment, find themselves relaxing and engaging with fellow students.

The pressure to perform is off, and the joy of movement and play has returned. In this way, yoga has the potential to repair the damage caused by a poor educational approach to exercise (I’m looking at you, Presidential Physical Fitness Test). I have seen time and again that learning embodied awareness and cultivating an appreciation for movement and our body’s abilities leads not just to greater health and more functional movement, but to strength and confidence in the rest of our lives and in our relationships with others.

Of course, not all yoga classes are created equal. In order for to be truly empowering, a yoga class should include instruction on and time for inquiry (rather than merely imposing external alignment principles). Variations on poses should be taught and celebrated, and students encouraged to meet themselves where they are that day (teachers– we’ll take a look at how to create this kind of environment in an upcoming blog). Otherwise, yoga classes run the risk of simply recreating the same uncomfortable, inequitable experience so many of us lived through in that gym class.


*Yoga and meditation can also teach interoception (a sense of the internal state of the body– am I hungry, thirsty, tired?) and exteroception (a sense of what’s going on outside of the body). This means we have the potential to use and care for our bodies more skillfully, and to engage with the world around us in a more mindful, integrated way. 

4 thoughts on “After Gym Class: Learning to Love Movement via Yoga

  1. Even though I did not mind gym class (but, I do understand and knew those who did not like it), I too appreciate yoga very much for the – there are no expectations, no competition, and nothing the student “must” do. Especially as I get older and maybe I am tired or a body part doesn’t feel too great, I can still go to class and do whatever it is my body can do that day without judgment or expectation. That is a wonderful thing. Thanks much for the post LW, and a big thanks for creating the space at YF in which these things can happen.

    1. Laura, you have my sympathy over your junior high gym class shower situation!

      I am all too familiar with mandatory group showering in school. But to be honest, I think that what girls at my junior high went through may have been worse than what you had to endure? Probably in high school too?

      My junior high was what would now be called a middle school, grades six through eight. The junior high was in the same building as the high school.

      My school district required gym class five days a week every school year starting with the first grade and going all of the way until the twelfth grade.

      In grades one through five no one was required to shower after gym class. In fact the school didn’t even have a locker room much less showers.

      However, beginning in the sixth grade we were all required to shower in a group shower setting after each gym class.

      In the junior high girls locker room there were a total of twenty shower heads lined up on a wall, ten shower heads per side of a fairly narrow shower room.
      There were usually roughly thirty girls in each gym class, so we all had to share a shower head with another girl about half of the days.

      Some girls would just face the wall at all times and just stare at the wall while they showered. That’s what I tried to do as much as I could.

      On the other hand, many girls would stare at other girls while they showered.

      But worst of all, the gym teacher would have a high school girl assist her for each gym class.
      Part of the high school girls job in assisting the gym teacher was to supervise the junior high girls as we showered.

      The high school girl that supervised us when we were in the sixth grade was a very nice girl and even though she would stand at the entrance of the shower room and watch us (which she was instructed to do by the gym teacher) she never made any comments about any of our bodies.

      However, the high school girl that supervised us in the seventh grade was a real witch.
      She would stand there and make comments to us every day about how she had bigger boobs when she was in the seventh grade than any of us had, and she would mock girls who did not have any pubic hair yet.

      In the eighth grade the high school girl that supervised us as we showered was my next door neighbor girl.
      She was extremely nice to all of us and never made comments about our bodies, but I still had the added embarrassment of having to be nude in front of a girl who I had known my whole life.
      Her brother was in the same grade as me, and even though I highly doubt that she did, at the time I was afraid that she might tell her brother details about my body.

      In high school the girls locker room had what I guess are called shower trees?
      They were four shower heads on each poll which meant that you were always facing another girl as you showered, and you had a girl on each side of you as well.

      There were thankfully no assistants supervising us as we showered in high school!

      However, in the twelfth grade we had a gym teacher who took full advantage of her authority for her own pleasure.

      She would stand there and very openly stare at our bodies as we showered.
      She would always have a smile on her face as she watched us shower.

      If one of us were to make eye contact with her as she was staring at us she would actually eye us up and down and get a big smile on her face.

      On a few occasions her girlfriend would be in the locker room with us and they would stare at us and whisper to each other.

      I am so, so, so angry with myself that I never had the guts to report her to the principal at the time. But back then I guess we felt that we couldn’t do anything about it.

      I did tell my mother about it at the time, but my mother said that it was just something that all students had to go through and that similar things happened when she was in school.

      Can you imagine if that were happening now???

      I would think that the teacher would be fired and possibly face a lawsuit or jail time?

      When my daughters were in middle school and high school showers were no longer required.
      They did choose to shower after their gym classes and said that most girls did. But thankfully they said that no one ever made crude comments to anyone else and no teachers ever stared at them.

      1. Hi Lisa–

        Thank you so much for this comment. We also had group showers required in my middle and high school, and while it sounds like your experience was much worse, I can relate to much of what you shared. I’m so sorry that you had to live through this– what a terrible experience for young girls to live through. I’m so glad that your daughters had a better experience!

      2. Thank you Laura! I too am very happy that the locker room experience was much better for my daughters.
        As much as I hated the showering situation when I was in school, I’m glad that it wasn’t my daughters that had to go through the harassment that I and the other girls in my gym classes did!

        I certainly didn’t intend for it to come off as a competition for who had it worse between you and I. That’s a contest that neither one of us would want to “win.” I just meant that I wish that I had only had to do a quick spin under the shower like you mentioned in middle school.

        I was also not aware that you also had to do the group showering thing in high school. I hope that the high school showers were less anxiety causing for you than the middle school ones were!

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