Hey, Don’t Get Bent out of Shape

Up until ninth grade, I was extremely bad at all things athletic. In gym class, I was the kid who threw the ball in the wrong direction when I wasn’t stumbling over my Sasquatch feet. Even my best friends neglected me when we got to pick our own teams, inventing terrible excuses to justify their treachery. “Nicole [the greatest athlete in the school—and perhaps the world] just looked so lonely standing there. We didn’t want her to feel bad,” they’d say, or, “We did pick you! You just didn’t hear us because we whispered your name.” For a while, I took the abuse and hung out in the corner of the gym with the kids on crutches who still managed to beat me at Around The World. But then, suddenly, everything changed. I don’t remember how it happened, but one day during the summer I was 13, I found myself alone in a room with a VCR and a copy of Denise Austin’s Beginner’s Yoga Essentials.

If you aren’t familiar with the fitness phenomenon that is Denise Austin, here are just a few of her mantras to help get you up to speed:
• You can—because you believe that you can.
• Strive to IMPROVE, not attain the impossible.
• Just remember these four little words: you can do it.

Wow! What a switch from the advice of my faithless friends to “try video games” and “get into craft projects.” Ms. Austin really believed in me. Even from her tiny-rock-ledge-overlooking-the-Grand-Canyon setup somewhere in Universal Studios, she knew that I could be in shape if I tried hard enough.

I practiced Beginner’s Yoga Essentials until I memorized every sequence, inspirational quip, and scene change in the video. By the end of high school, I still didn’t know how to serve a volleyball, but I could sit cross-legged without the usual searing pain in my hips. Success!

Now that I’m a grown-up and slightly more athletic* than I was in middle school, I continue to practice yoga for three reasons:

1. This lady claims that the key to toned shoulders and gams lies in daily repetitions of Salutations to the Sun:

2. I like to tell people I have a “home practice” so they assume I’m a doctor or something important like that
3. It really does make me believe that I can do it

I mean, OK, sure, it’s not like I haven’t had one or two laughs at the expense of Denise Austin’s cheesy motivational speeches. But how different is repeating “I can do it” from chanting the ancient Hindu mantras or practicing pranayama breathing as the real yogis do? All of these things may look weird to an outsider, but each is a form of internal encouragement that helps deepen a stretch, strengthen balance, or just keep us calm.

I’m no yogi, but here’s what I know: every time I participate in a “fun and easygoing” pickup game in the park that turns out to be hypercompetitive and intense, I embarrass myself somehow and consider moving to a different time zone. But instead I think about Denise Austin, the first person who I felt truly believed in my athletic abilities. “You can do it,” I say to myself. I lunge into Warrior I pose and I say it again: “You can do it.” And then I topple over onto someone’s camera or puppy and I’m asked to leave. Which I suppose, since I didn’t much want to be there in the first place, is a little like winning.

*Pro tip: Toss the ball to the most hypercompetitive person on your team. Tease energetically if he/she fails to catch it.

Mari Zagarins

Mari Zagarins

When Mari isn't running, biking, hiking, or jumping-jacking in and around her home in Montpelier, she is practicing her facial expressions in the mirror and contemplating whether she should learn to swim.