A note from Chad – “Hanna and I started our training journey a little over 5 months ago now. She frequented one of the gyms I work at, and right away upon seeing her was impressed by her quiet determination to train hard. You just don’t see that very often anymore. She also moved so well through difficult exercises even before I got to her, so I immediately knew she would be a very fun challenge in regards to programming for such a skilled person physically. It’s very rare to get athletes (and I see everyone as an athlete in their own way) who combine their innate physical gifts with sheer determination to get better each day. Those people are special. Hanna is special. She is a great person, wonderfully caring friend, and a very, very strong willed, physically gifted woman who impresses me more and more each day.”
Without further ado, Hanna take take the mic…
There’s an oft-quoted line by Shakespeare that might be one of his most famous of all, “Though she be but little, she is fierce!” Little certainly can pack a punch, and as small as they might seem, the following six letters have left a rather large mark on me: t-h-e g-y-m.
The gym used to just be a place I drove past. That’s all it was, just a pile of bricks with lots of bars and ‘bells and boxes and benches, and weights that just sat there strangely. The only gym I knew was portable in the sense that it came in the form of a hot pink yoga mat, always at the ready to be unrolled to receive my bare feet, my grounded palms, my upside down self. This was also included with a walkman which had recorded music from various Denver shows and events. For a solid seven years yoga studio floors were the only thing I felt underneath my body as I bent, folded, twisted and balanced in every direction possible. A decade steeped in yoga has also taught me much beyond bending, including the deep inner practice of contentment, yet what brought me to the doorstep of a bona fide gym was intense inner discontent and a highly honed self-criticism skill worthy of a gold medal. My critical perception of myself makes me squirm, but I credit my propensity toward commitment plus what I had learned of karma, or action (essentially, the sage advice of “put your money where your mouth is”) with armoring me in the bravery and hope it took to venture out of the world I knew into the curious-looking woods of Something New.
Yoga had taught me (among many lessons) to honor and be grateful for my body in a way that I had previously never been exposed to. How I even got there was 19-year-old me stumbling into a gym- after never having been aligned with a physical discipline in any way, no sports, no dancing, no exercise, nothing- bereft in deep heartbreak, thinking, I’ve gotta do something. At that time my body had become the only thing I felt like I could control in a chaotic time and, like a sad statistic and a story you’ve heard too many times, I danced around the edges of anorexia, dropping to 100 pounds and obsessively eating less than 1,000 calories a day. In the newness of the gym I frequented the corner that had the scale in it and I flirted with running and some eight-pound weights for a few months. It was there I found yoga, falling madly in love and dedicating my life (and my eventually no-longer-100-pounds body) to the practice. That practice is still very much my cornerstone, and I have been teaching for the last ten years. But as miraculous as I’d come to view my body as, standing on my head, standing on my hands as solidly as my feet, my body with it’s inconceivably amazing systems, like a universe within, the temple for my soul… All that, yet my mind still struggled with loving my outer form, like wrestling a very cranky alligator. These feelings started long before I earned 19 years of age- I vividly recall wrapping duct tape around my ribcage when I was in elementary school, trying to look, feel, be smaller than I was. What’s most perplexing about that is I’ve never not been averagely-sized, nor had anyone in my life ever taught me to feel physically inferior. It was just some nasty, craggy barnacle I picked up along the way and hadn’t succeeded in scraping off yet. What was different now than 10, 14, 18, 26 was I really, really, really, really wanted to do something about it. At 27 I spent a year committed to five days a week of cardio. I learned, as I’ve learned before, as I keep learning most every day, that I am a hard worker. You can call me many things, intense being one of them, but committed another. At 28 I started getting scientific about the food I chewed up and swallowed. I became a slave to measuring and while that gave me some sense of control and purpose it also stockpiled worry and alienation, toward myself and others. I believe that many people can pull that specificity of diet off with ease and calm, but I haven’t been able to achieve that gracefulness yet.
As 28 turned into 29, during my three days a week spent in my neighborhood gym, away from my yoga mat (that’s all it felt like at the time- time away from my yoga mat), I found I was starting to need heavier weight. I needed a squat rack, somehow I just knew this. As much as I loathed the prospect of venturing out of my often-private gym, and I put it off for months, it was those two words that finally made me cave: squat rack. That, and four other words: ten dollars a month. I could swing that, I reasoned, ten bucks for one day a week out there in the wild abyss that was sweating around other people…
Little did I know that squat rack would become my siren call.
I hear it now, calling me, Hanna… Hanna… Grip me, that cold metal barbell says, perched all alluringly on its rack like a beautiful woman. Duck under me. You like that feeling, don’t you? Yes. Place me against you. Look at your own eyes in the mirror. Close them. Exhale. Open them. Tell yourself you’ve got this. Stand on your tip toes. Push me up. Step backward. Take me under your own control. Get set. Sink down. Explode up. Like there’s a great white shark under your ass (a personal favorite from my coach’s mouth). But at that time, ten months ago, the squat rack didn’t talk to me like that. It said, oh look, the rookie’s here. Damn right I’m a rookie, I said, but a yoga teacher I once had taught me, “do not despise the days of small beginnings.”
The point of all this back story (and, God help me, there’s more) is this: when I reached for my first dumbbell, it was out of desperate hope that it might be my salvation. This would later turn into fierce dedication, but that treasure was yet to be discovered. What I want to cry out to you is this: I did not trip and fall into the gym already athletic, I did not skip in carefree. I was strong to a point, honed in a way from the skillful practice of the art of yoga, deeply body aware, but mentally weak (between my ears is still my weakest link). I did not slide in seamlessly amongst the Hammer Press machines and 45 pound plates, the confident girl, the ex-track star, a PR holder at my high school, no. I was the girl who got in a car accident at 17 and felt like she’d won the lottery when she got to, thanks to a note from her chiropractor, sit out of gym class for a marking period. All I had, and I realize this story parallels many people’s stories, was my willingness and my work ethic. Pretty soon my neighborhood gym was a thing of the past. My nerves and neuroses still walked over the threshold and the mud mat with me, but I started to crave the clanging, the people, the energy, the accountability, the inspiration. Enter: my coach. You may all know him here as a showmestrength guru, but all I knew him as was a guy who quite possibly may have had a backwards ball cap surgically attached to his head, but boy did he look like he knew what he was doing. Lone wolf that I am, hermit that I can tend to be, opening my space to him wasn’t exactly easy, but I am so glad he’s on my team now. He uses words like potential and athlete and strong, all in conjunction with my name. He’s taught me that you should never (ever) have hundred dollar shoes and a ten cent squat. He’s asked me to eat like I mean it, sleep like I mean it, treat myself like a Ferrari, feel the weight and commit to it, trust myself, trust him, that the greatest ones know how to turn it off and on like a light switch, and think act breathe dress walk talk like a major league player. I hear him in my head often. Coupled with his faith, intention, and eyes that can see things I can’t, I’ve held 200 pounds on my back and 300 pounds on my hips. I never knew I wanted a coach, I never knew that I needed one, but I did, and I do.
While I still press my kettlebells in hopes of a force-to-be-reckoned-with physique, I know, even more so now, what I knew before, that my greatest muscle lies beneath my hair, under my scalp, below my skull. My mind, your mind, our minds, can be our ally or our foe. Beyond thoughts though, I’ve put my money where my mouth is. I’ve worked toward something I wanted, and I still want. I showed up. A lot. I laced up, suited up, pulled-up, hair-tied-up, hopes up, pushed up, jumped up (one legged and two), woke up, and just basically did that shit up. Anything I have has been earned. I did it, but I didn’t do it alone.
What I realize much more clearly now as 29 is on the cusp of 30 is when I wrap myself around something, I sink my claws in. In the gym, those six letters that have become a most hallowed haven, it’s not just my hands that grip the barbell, it’s my heart. My spirit force deadlifts too, not just my glutes and hamstrings. I’m still a rookie, I still squirm sometimes, I occasionally try to wiggle around what’s been programmed, but I am braver, bolder, happier (happier!), more confident, more passionate about the days that mark my life, more unabashedly and unapologetically myself, and I daresay I’m even a little louder too. I have learned that stepping up to my deadlift requires my presence and fortitude just as the first Samasthiti asks me to ready myself and open myself to the coming yoga practice. It’s not such a black-and-white dividing line, it’s not just time in the gym or time on my yoga mat, because how you do anything is how you do everything. I am practicing the skill of being me anywhere and everywhere, whether my bare feet are on a sticky mat or my hands are clinging to the chin-up bar. My foray into the gym has reminded me that life is for creating and adventuring, and curiosity at what the truth really is. If there was once a time I thought I’d never step foot back into a gym with the sole purpose of picking heavy objects up off the ground, moving them around a little, then putting them back down, what else about myself is there to discover? I didn’t think I’d ever exercise for pleasure, not punishment, but here I am finding myself uplifted, mighty, and fulfilled. It’s not all roses and clover, though, believe me. In fact, it’s rarely roses and clover. Training is hard. It kicks me to the curb, it sometimes spits me back out. It reminds me there are higher peaks. Oh, you think you’re good? You think you’re fit? Watch this, it says. Watch her. Watch him. But that’s just the food chain, the trickle down effect, the honest-to-goodness reality that there will always be someone better than me in every category you could dream up. But. They’re not me. And I’m not you. As Carl Sagan says, “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
Though I be but little, I am fierce. Fierce… Those are six beautiful letters.
More about the author :
Hanna Riley is a highly sought after yoga teacher in the southwest Florida area. She has been teaching the goodness of vinyasa yoga for 10 years, and is very passionate about human movement, art, and movement AS art. She loves breathing, sweating, bending, yoga-ing, crafting, creating, writing, cats, laughing so hard her face hurts, handstand, giving gifts, giving (and receiving) hugs, sprinting, lifting heavy objects, really loud music, and rainbow colored anything.
To learn more about more about her teaching, or to just tell her she’s pretty awesome, hit her up at email@example.com