Posted at 20:46 on 12 May 2011 by Pandora / Blake
My new exercise regime this year has been a wholly positive experience. I've felt less back pain since I started, and my physio tells me that my back problems have lessened. I've gained strength and energy - and there have been stimulating knock-on effects where my partners are involved.
For years, my back pain was a monster in my attic. Thinking about it made me ashamed and frightened. I didn't know how to confront it, or how to think about it. Since I became sexually active at about the same time as my back problems started to develop, in all that time, kink and sex have been my primary route to body positivity. It's only this year that that's changed.
I note now that I am coming to this from a position of able-bodied privilege. Not everyone's body plays by the rules; not everyone can benefit from exercise. My chronic back pain doesn't count as a disability (although if I'd left it untreated it probably would have eventually, once I developed RSI). I am lucky to have had a condition which was fixable, lucky to have had the means and the encouragement to start fixing it before it was too late. I empathise with people who aren't able to negotiate successfully with their bodies, and who don't have a clear path to improving their situation.
Since I am writing this from my own experience and therefore from a particular, privileged perspective, I welcome any contributions from people with disabilities. If you are minded to add to my limited perspective, I'd be very glad to have my ideas enriched by what you have to say.
Learning and D/s dynamics
In addition to the original two pilates and one swimming session a week, I've now added a weekly squash game to my schedule. Tom is teaching me how to play, and I'm loving it.
First, I love the game itself. The speed and competitive thrill of it are compelling; the adrenaline rush addictive. As a break in a long work day it's unparalleled. I can work the morning, then play a game of squash mid-afternoon - during which hour I am wholly inhabiting the moment physically and mentally, focussing on nothing beyond the game - which refreshes me enough that I can work through the evening. Right now, that's exactly what I need.
Then there's the interpersonal aspect. Tom is a great sports tutor. He's perceptive, patient, encouraging, offering articulate praise and constructive criticism. He tones down his game enough that I can realistically play against him, but every time I demonstrate improvement he steps it up a notch. Sports have always been a big part of his life and he loves finally having a girlfriend he can actually share it with directly.
Me, I just love being taught things by my doms. It's the same when D is teaching me iceskating (or new programming languages or processes, but there's something unique about being taught a physical skill). I love the matter-of-fact, pragmatic submission that comes from a relationship of teacher to student between friends. We are equals and it doesn't preclude them learning from me in other contexts, but in this particular field, he has more experience and right now, I am here to learn. Applying myself and earning praise and respect from someone I think so highly of is a great pleasure. The flush of excitement I feel when I please them is very different in tone from how I'd feel with a teacher to whom I did not also sexually submit.
Meditation and physical learning curves
Swimming and pilates are less energetic, less exciting than squash, but no less important. Due to the nature of my back problems I needed to begin with these gentler pursuits first; if I'd dived straight in with a high-impact sport the consequences could have been disastrous. Both pilates and swimming are meditative experiences for me; positive, but in a different way.
The pilates session I go to is slow, controlled, deceptively useful; halfway between a martial arts kata and the wholesome calisthenics practised by Victorian ladies in their living rooms. The bio-feedback it's taught me has helped me listen to my body in a new way; take its needs seriously and engage with it productively. Movement is essential for physical wellbeing. I suppose I've always known that, but the truth of it has settled in my consciousness these last few months. Regular, controlled exercise of all its parts is necessary to keep the body happy, and it's amazing how effusively a neglected body rewards you for your efforts. After spending all day in an unnatural position at my desk, a mere hour of stretching leaves me feel light, floaty, like I'm at home in my skin rather than fighting with it.
Swimming is more of an immediate pleasure. The solitude of it is marvellous, and I've always felt an elemental joy at being immersed in water. As soon as I start to do it regularly, the capacity of my exercise-starved body leaps forward, as if it were desperate to reward my meagre efforts so as to tempt me to keep going. The number of lengths I can do in an hour seems to increase by the week. I spent a few months polishing my back and breast stroke before getting bored, and now I'm teaching myself front-crawl with remarkably swift progress.
Perhaps it's just that, having been an awkward sort of nerd at school, I have very low expectations of myself in any physical activity. This year I've been surprised by how easy and immediately rewarding physical skills have been to learn, how swiftly I see improvement. I spent my teenage years feeling trapped in a hostile body, and even after the spots faded and I realised how much fun sex was, my primary pursuits and talents were all very much cerebral. My body was an inconvenient necessity, frustratingly limiting in its persistent needs, more of a hindrance than a help.
I don't know if school sports are taught all wrong, or whether I just needed to come to this consensually, in my own time. Despite my identity as someone who was picked last in games, even as a child I enjoyed playing musical instruments, hiking, climbing trees - but it wasn't until I discovered sex and kink that I started thinking about my physical relationship with myself, and to accept that in some contexts, my body might be a comrade rather than a liability.
This year, it's felt like all my body needed, all along, was some love and attention. Enjoying the sensations of power and control that accompany swimming, it's finally sunk in: my body is not the enemy. In fact, if I only listen to it, it's a grateful and supportive friend.
I always thought I had no time to go to the gym, but I hadn't appreciated how much more time you have with the added energy you gain through regular exercise. The rewards have been manifold: a swift, predictable improvement that motivates even my short attention span; a feel-good boost during and afterwards; better sleep at night; better confidence; increased libido (not that I needed it!); greater physical and mental stamina in the medium term.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's also had a positive effect on my sex and kink life. Confidence, energy and feeling at home in myself all carry over into sex. Reduced back pain makes play less of a minefield, and I'm pretty sure my endorphin response has increased somewhat, and my pain tolerance has gone back up to what it was in my early twenties. (Fun fact: OKcupid's profile data suggests that women who enjoy exercise tend to find it easier to achieve orgasm.) I wonder, would I have had the confidence to start topping if I hadn't felt more at home in myself, fitter and more powerful?
Finally and most significantly, my back pain (and the slight but enormously humiliating disfiguration of my kyphosis), which has affected my quality of life since I hit puberty, feels manageable, beatable. I have hated my body for being the wrong shape, for giving me pain. But like much racial prejudice, I think this hatred has been born of ignorance. I didn't understand how quickly and positively my body would respond if I made friends with it.
Exercise, kink and disability
I don't mean to imply that less healthy bodies are the enemy. Pain is never fun, and illness sucks. But I think there's truth in the notion that the true enemy is not the ill or injured body, but a society that does not accommodate the differently abled.
Regular exercise is certainly not an option for everyone, and I'm very lucky that I've been able to make it work for me. I'm writing about this here partly because of the extent to which the way in which exercise has improved my relationship with my body mirrors the way in which kink has. Both have not only improved my confidence, but my trust in my body, my liking of it, my respect for what it's capable of.
Is, perhaps, kink more accessible than exercise as a route to body positivity? I know full well that health problems can hinder someone's practice of and enjoyment of kink, but I've also seen the joy it can bring to people who otherwise feel betrayed by their bodies. Kink bridges the boundary between mental and physical; without much physical exertion, it can have positive physical effects. Kinky play can be a hugely positive way of befriending your body; learning how it ticks, focussing on it and enjoying the experience of living in it.
I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity and the ability to befriend my body through exercise. But you don't need to be pain-free or able-bodied to enjoy consensual pain or power play - and doing so can connect you with your physical self in a way that is healthy and rewarding.