Learning How to Breathe

I just altered my ‘About’ page to change my age. It was my birthday this week and I am now a ’43-year-old female professor.’ Around 12 friends joined me for dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant–my favourite kind of food–and drinks afterward. The celebrations had begun earlier in the day however. First I had had a bath instead of a shower (what time wasting luxury!) and then I did a yoga class at the gym, following the advice of several women who had said that the instructor was extra hot eye candy. I quite liked him, for both his focus on technique and the way he corrected me by grabbing and then lowering my hips (thanks!), but he is not really my type. I don’t appreciate men who are prettier than me, essentially ruling out anyone under the age of 40. But wait there’s more. After yoga I decided to stay for the kick class, indulging in some forbidden extra cardio. I loved it.

I got some great gifts too, including two cookbooks: one features Moroccan and the other Somalian food. When oh when can I buy a really expensive tagine dish for the oven? I’d like a colourful one, maybe a glossy tangerine shade. I also received many funny and sweet birthday cards, including the one pasted below. I will indeed have perfect thighs, and they definitely won’t look like those skinny chicken legs. And yes, A and D, I did fish that card out of the recycle bin in order to photograph it, and then I tossed it right back in again. I am not the least bit sentimental. Nor am I a hoarder. If you suggest scrapbooking, for example, I will counter-suggest that you bring your treasured memories to my house, where I will burn them up along with all the well-wishing cards I have ever received. 


The yoga instructor–who resembled Justin Timberlake except that he was much better looking–focused on breathing, which Hatha instructors tend to do. He asked us to close our eyes and concentrate, feeling our breath move up and down our spines; in a soft, soothing voice, he suggested that we forget about the external world and instead experience the materiality of the air, rendering it palpable all around us. Every now and then throughout the class, better-than-Timberlake would remind us to breathe, and to breathe audibly, relaxing our throats as we sucked in and out that lifegiving essence. This got me thinking.

Marcel Mauss was right when he said that the body is not natural; among other things, we have to learn how to sleep, spit, walk, and relax our faces, receiving lessons that are both historically and culturally specific. Brits tend, for example, to hold their eyebrows higher than North Americans. Check it out. We also have to learn how to breathe. When teaching Mauss’ article on ‘Techniques of the Body,’ one undergraduate noted that the African exchange student then staying with her had never before experienced a cold Canadian winter. He went outside in January and found himself unable to fill his lungs with air. On the verge of passing out, he had to run back into the warm house. Slowly, he mastered the art of breathing more shallowly, adjusting his intake according to the shifting temperature. How fascinating! Well at least I think so. 

My trainer often reminds me to breathe during our back and leg sessions. During these workouts I am meant to inhale while lowering or retracting, and then exhale during an explosive lift or pull. Instead of creating yogic stillness or a new sense of embodied being, these techniques direct the breath in order to produce forceful movement, providing energy and momentum. In bodybuilding the breath is a tool, something external that can be used to get a better pump. The body is understood mechanically, and its surroundings are fuel for creating muscle. Breathing is not valued in and of itself.

In keeping with my ongoing comparison of yoga, bodybuilding and Weight Watcher’s practices, I am trying to end this blog (well, this is the fifth paragraph after all), by making a pithy remark about breathing during a Weight Watcher’s weigh in or some such thing. But breath is simply not a factor in that corporate weight reducing world. The only breath  at Weight Watcher’s is the hot air expelled by the members who blather on about hidden food caches (man-closet anyone?) during the meetings. The Weight Watcher’s body is essentially an obstacle to be mastered and disciplined, and then reclothed in smaller fashion sizes. Bodybuilding is not about physical mastery in my opinion, but I have reached the end of my own hot air for the day, so you will have to wait for another blog to hear about that rebellious notion.

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

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