Thursday, May 31, 2007
Fly away Nightingale

The pursuit of 'wellness' is tiring and quite possibly futile.

It is 9pm and I am sitting on the couch with my friend Ryan telling him about my day.

I had seen the evil Sapt and spent an hour lifting 4 kg weights, my face screwed up like a used tissue.

I had gone to a meditation class and in the morning I went to South Kensington where a pretend Geisha in a very mellow room (where playing was dirge-like electronica designed to be soothing) rubbed Nightingale faeces into my face. "It's an ancient treatment," I tell Ryan who is moving away from me in a sort of horror. "Geishas used it in ye olde times and now some posh day spa has revived this ancient art."

Ryan is practically in the next room. "I don't smell of s***," I tell him. "They purify the faeces before they smear it on your face."

He looks sceptical and allows himself a bit nearer to my (fragrant) face.

"You don't look any different," he says. I must look crushed.

He sighs,"Maybe tomorrow... you might look different tomorrow."

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007
My leg died in meditation
It’s one thing to give your body a workout – but let's not neglect our minds.

All week I have been on an urban retreat at the London Buddhist Centre. I’m not a Buddhist but I love the idea of retreats.

It probably started at school. Mine – all girls and Catholic- used to spirit us away to some disused scout hall or mouldy football clubrooms once a year for retreat.

The retreats usually run by priests or nuns would follow a similar pattern each year.

There would be a theme (Year of Indigenous Peoples, Praying for Peace or Reconciliation and the Family) and a mass at the end. We got into groups and rehearsed bits together. There was always competition as to who would be in the liturgical dance. No one wanted to read. The shy girls who didn’t know quite what to do with themselves used to usher and hand out mass booklets.

There would always be a secular push to get modern music to replace hymns. One year a group of girls fought a bloody battle against the nuns to get Terence Trent D’Arby’s Sign Your Name used in the offertory procession.

The nuns won. They always did.

But I digress… retreats of time-past are different from retreats of today. For a start I now have a choice as whether to attend one or not.

And my fellow retreatees are likely to be strangers of different ages and backgrounds– not schoolmates for whom every aspect of the retreat was heavy with some sort of social meaning; where even the affirmation exercises where you had to write on a bit of paper what you liked about each other, had a schoolgirl sting (Deborah you don’t smell as bad as you used to, Natasha I like you sunglasses, Veronica, you would be cool if you didn’t try too hard…..)

Instead the Urban Retreat in Bethnal Green (see pic above of the Shrine Room) was all about hanging with the hommies in the ‘hood. We chose to be here and chill. We weren’t compelled by nuns or religious instruction teachers or our parents.

There is an article on the Urban Retreat coming up on in a couple of weeks - so watch this space - but in the context of this fitness blog I can’t recommend highly enough doing some meditation as part of your exercise regime.

Practitioners call it a workout for your brain. It does make you more clear-headed and calmer.

However, meditation is not the easiest art. I got up at 5.30am this morning after a sullen 5 hours sleep. “Not enough!” I cried into the pillow as I do most mornings. But the night before at the meditation centre I had promised a Buddhist priest I would go to the morning session and isn’t there like bad karma or something if you break a promise to a priest?

So propelled by guilt and also a sort of wonder (it was still dark, I was walking across the eerie pre-dawn wasteland of Euston Station, I was catching 2 tube lines to go to meditation) I arrived at 6.50 am for the session.

It was fairly straightforward. A group of us sat in a room upright and balanced on a little pile of cushions. We closed our eyes and then we…. just sat. For an hour.

My mind wandered. My heels itched. My leg told my brain, “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here!”

I got hungry, I was cold, then hot. I was tired. I became bored with myself too quickly. How could anyone stand my company for more than 15 minutes, I wondered idly. I’m bored with myself already. ‘Shut up, you’re being negative,’ said the good cop in my head. ‘Keep quiet, you’re meant to be meditating,’ said another voice.

Thoughts wandered to beaches and peaches and whale barnacles and decaying apple cores.... argghhh! Make it stop! ‘People go mad meditating, they must’ – said my unconvinced leg to my brain.

And just when I was plotting my escape a little bell rang and it was over.

But it was too late for my poor old leg. It had died at some point during meditation and could not be revived. I sunk back against the wall in some sort of weird stupor.

I dragged my dead leg behind me to breakfast at the Buddhist café next door.

My fellow meditiators and retreaters emerged at my table like creatures coming out of a fog. We spoke to each other slowly and with care. Each organic cornflake was individual and quite special. Each person in this big, teeming, grubby old city was a seething swirl of inner life, hopes, anxieties, dreams – unique and human. Just like me.

I got the bus back to Oxford Circus – staring down at all the people who passed by – wondering about them all. I felt sleepy but also more aware. I felt like my mind had gone to the gym and was now on a post-exercise endorphin high.

I thought for all the turmoil of meditation – the dead legs and the rancid thoughts – it's worth it for this nice feeling of calm.

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It's not working out

I prefer a recline to an incline

So a week into my fitness kick and I go back down to the horrible old gym and weigh myself on the awful scaly scales.

Despite having been to the gym 3 times that week, I still weigh the same. How can that be?

As for my other bad habits, there was only one serious night on the sauce but that night I didn’t eat dinner, so surely the two cancel each other out?

Alas! Alas! I cried, as I stepped from the awful scales. My fitness kick was not working! Would this be a road I could not take alone? Would I have to call in the (hideously overpriced) professionals?

I met with one today. She has the peppy manner of someone who can muster endorphins at will. She is toned, tanned and quite beautiful. Her name is Sapt (because she sapped my strength and she is a South African Personal Trainer) and for the foreseeable future she will be my personal trainer.

She puts me on the treadmill for 10 minutes at moderate incline. We make small talk and she is impressed I can hold a conversation while walking up a fake hill. I am beginning to think that while I feel like the most unfit person in the universe, maybe there are others worse than me.

We do others things with hand weights in front of some unfun mirrors. She tells me her favourite exercise is lunges and we do some of those, but I am all wobbly and have to grip her arm for support.

There is no incline and we are not small talking. Yikes! I am rubbish at lunges.

Later I get on the mat and do some chin-upy things. Then more lunges and then something on a machine where I have to lie on my stomach and lift up some weights using the muscles in the back of my legs.

“They are not very strong,” says Sapt. I agree.

Sapt thinks the reason I have maintained the same weight since I started my fitness drive is that I am not challenging myself with different exercises and I have “plateaued.”

Whenever anyone says plateau I expect it to be followed by the word “maaaannnnnnnn…”. At the gym it is used a lot but not in a fun, party way. At the gym it means – ‘all the exercise you have been doing lately has counted for naught because your body is used to it and has rendered it ineffective.’

Bummer. I hate plateaus. Sapt aims to get me over the plateau. Whatever.

I know tomorrow I won’t be able to climb stairs – or probably even get out of bed (although I am like that most mornings… hobbling like an elderly person, sleeping like a coma patient) - but that is because I have shocked my body with new exercises such as lunges and that weight machine thing.

I didn’t enjoy my hour with Sapt at the gym. But I booked in for another session and hobbled away.

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Monday, May 28, 2007
The very good facial
Many health, diet and fitness programs have a non-food based reward system when you start to see results. For example – buy a new dress when you’ve lost the first 5 pounds, or treat yourself to a facial if you’ve got through a particularly rigorous diet without cheating.

I have decided to subvert this by treating myself before I have done any of the hard work – as a sort of backwards incentive.

So yesterday the taste of buttery toast still on my tongue I skipped down to a very posh day spa in Mayfair.

The interior was cool, green, and tranquil – like a pond. Music (not Enya thankfully) was piped throughout in less so a wall of sound than a wall of Soma. Out the window was a red phone box covered in stickers that read BUSH = TERRORIST, but such concerns of the outside world diminished in the pond. Nothing could touch us here (except the therapist who would actually be doing quite a lot of touching).

From the ambient waiting room, I was lead into a Balinese room, “usually for couples” explained my therapist.

“Gross” – was my response – “Gee some couples are weird and kinky.”

She nodded but otherwise remained discreetly discreet. I was asked to disrobe – which alarmed me somewhat since I was here for a facial.

She explained the reasons my stockings had to come off was that she was going to give me a welcome foot massage to chase away bad spirits then she was going to ring a pewter bell and we'd be off and racing.

Up on the bed I hopped and she began doing things to my feet that were.. oh!.. god… yum.. that feels nice. Stifle that moan, I told myself. What the hell was she doing down there? It was amazing – I haven’t felt that good since that night with Barry at the swimming pool.

Then abruptly she was attacking my face with… stuff… mmmmphf – cool and green… goo. That’s it – goo. And something thrown across my eyes like soft jelly disc, maybe a chicken fillet? Then something else on top. A bandage? An eye patch? A mask?

I felt like the English Patient when he is found by nomads, burnt to a little crisp. I am in the same cave at the English Patient with cool, gooey stuff and bandages on my face. Except I am in Mayfair, having a facial.

The therapist peels the mask that has set on my face and then throws my face in the bin. “Good-bye face,” I say. Then she is pouring something on my skin – ahhh, burning! I really am the English Patient.

She explains its ‘enzymes’ and its ‘strong.’ She throws another chicken fillet on my face and then runs her fingertips across my skin like finger rain. I can’t see. I start to feel weird. The enzymes are being ‘forceful’ in the way enzymes are wont to do and her fingertips are running like a crazy person over bits of my skin that aren’t hooded and masked and then she is behind me - what - I can’t see… oh she’s rubbing oil though my hair.

God – stifle that moan I tell myself. This feels so weird – but good. Then it’s weird again because she is going something to my neck and shoulders that … ahh… god…. where do they find these therapists that feel like they have 500 fingers. I thought I was here for a facial….

Some more goo is slathered across my face. It is cool, tingly –a great counterpoint to the aggressive forces that were the ‘enzymes.’ She is now doing something to my arms and hands that is - well, quite good really.

I have given up any pretence of surviving this insanely good, slightly weird facial with a stiff upper lip. I am out of it on pleasure, I’ve got a smile on my face like all is right with the world, I don’t even care that I am in a Balinese room in Mayfair, with a chicken fillet on my face, with no clothes on – for a facial.

Then the little pewter bell sounds again– my time is up.

Maybe I would have enjoyed my facial more had it been a reward for good diet behaviour but then again if I had on enjoyed it anymore than I already did – well that would be illegal.

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Welcome to the diary of a reluctant exerciser. Having previously shunned fitness regimes in favour of bacon sandwiches, Brigid Delaney vows to finally shape up, get fit and eat more healthily. Over the next three months read how she gets on in a brave new world of gyms, exercise classes and no bacon sandwiches.
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