Exercise as Penance

Opening my bleary eyes on the world yesterday, I was watching the morning news when they flashed a short piece on the latest exercise craze – yoga in a `hot room’.
There was the commentator, sweating like the proverbial, surrounded by people in varying degrees of undress and cardiac arrest, yoga-ing like mad (isn’t this supposed to be a gentle exercise?) in what looked like tropical conditions.
Is this a new form of penance? Monks used to flagellate themselves with leather whips to beat the sin out of their hides – today, we exercise. The more brutal, uncomfortable and miserable an experience it is, the better we like it. No pain, no gain, we say. I bet the monks used to mutter that to themselves as well when they started drawing blood.
The commentator quite seriously offered advice to anyone thinking of joining in this self mutilating madness – check that your instructor is insured and knows CPR. No, really, I’m sure he wasn’t joking.
In fact, the Touchstone Yoga center warns that hot yoga can be extremely dangerous and should only be done with careful guidance – with an instructor who knows CPR, presumably.
Exercise used to be a fairly simple business. If you were the sedentary type, you did your `daily dozen’ in front of an open window every morning and made sure your leisure time included some sport, like tennis or golf. There was a fair bit of walking involved in daily life anyway, and most young people had bikes or ponies on which to work off the peanut butter sandwiches.
I grew up in the circus, so life was anything but sedentary for me – when we were touring, the day usually started with putting up the circus tent and a million and one other tasks. I learned to equate exercise and sweat with work – and expecting to be able to show something for the effort.
But I’m not sure the shift in perceptions of exercise as daily work, or a pleasant change from sitting around in an office chair, to something the most sadistic drill sargeant would reconsider, is just about keeping in shape.
There is a deep vein of guilt running through these people – they seem to think they need to suffer to look good in lycra. They seem to need to hold up this suffering as proof their lives are not as shallow as some others might think. So they talk about their work outs as if armed men forced them into it every day, or the economy depended on it.
They embrace more and better ways to feel excrutiating pain, and regard those who prefer to avoid these excesses as letting the side down, proving what a poofy bunch we westerners are.
Ah, it’s very sad. The monks whipping themselves in their lonely cells at least had a deeper goal in mind than killer abs. But it’s the same fervour – no wonder they say they have a `passion’ for exercise – since that word means to suffer, it seems most appropriate.
But I’ll save a discourse on the misuse of the word `passion’ for another day…


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