Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Zen And The Art Of Kickboxing (With Chronic Illness)

I’ve mentioned before that yoga is not really my thing.  While it certainly is a workout, it’s not enough for me.  What I mean is, I’m too high maintenance for yoga.  I need to be moving, need to be mixing things up.  If I wanted to be left to ruminate on my own thoughts, I would stay home.  That’s something I already do.  I don’t need new age music and the smell of sweaty feet to awaken my true self.  And I mean no disrespect to people that truly enjoy yoga.  I wish I did.  Again, it’s just not my thing, and I think I’ve given it a pretty fair shake. 

And I’m not a runner, either.  I have tried to convince myself otherwise, even with illness, but I immediately feel how hard running is on my body.  And I don’t like it.  When I work out, I want to do it hard, but not to the detriment of my already fragile joints.  I’ll happily walk all over the place, though.  And my standard workout routine is doing a walk aerobics video that has one, two, and three mile walks.  So I do each of those once a week.  (Although with all the traveling I’ve been doing this summer, my routine has gotten off, and I’ve been trying to eek out two three-mile walks each week)   

So, if not yoga and not running, what?  Well, I’ve decided to take up kickboxing, not so much as a way to learn personal protection, but as a way to express my feelings in a different manner than I already do. 

When I first met with my instructor, we talked about my fitness goals and other things I was hoping to get out of learning to kick box.  He mentioned stress relief, and that was certainly a draw for me.  He ventured that you want to beat the shit out of something.  He said it, I didn’t.  I didn’t elaborate about what is causing my need to “beat the shit out of something”, but I couldn’t agree with him more.

For the past probably six months or so, I’ve been dealing with anger issues.  Not anger issues to the point that I need anger management, but anger issues that are keeping me from focusing on more important things.  I’ve been working on channeling my anger, if not directly at the person the anger is related to, then at least, away from myself.

The last few years have been so totally focused on my health.  And not health in terms of getting fit or in shape.  Health in terms of not dying; health in terms of simply trying to live.  I’ve put so much time and energy into adapting to life with chronic illness, and trying to survive all of the other curveballs that life has thrown at me along with illness, that it’s really nice to have something else to put my energy into.  To put out everything I have to give when I get onto the mat.

I really like my instructor.  He’s pretty hot, which is a plus, but more than that, he’s teaching me how to distinguish between physical obstacles and mental ones.  He doesn’t let me cop out when things get hard, and honestly, I need that.

I’m not a quitter, but there are definitely times when I know I wallow in self-pity.  And I hate that about myself.  It easy to ratchet down the physical stuff when you don’t feel well.  So it’s also nice to be able to push the physical to the limit; to the point where I’m crawling on the floor, sweat dripping everywhere, totally wanting to puke.  Come on, you all know that I have masochistic tendencies.    

My instructor also emphasizes the fact that this is my time.  It’s my hour to be totally alert and focused on what I have to do.  My time to focus solely on making every move count and getting the most out of myself that I can. 

And when I think about it, doing an intense workout for an hour is so much less time than I’ve spent in much more challenging and less fun situations.  I’ve spent countless hours in doctors’ offices, getting blood work and procedures done, laying on the couch because I’m flaring, and generally trying to adapt to life with illness, that it’s time to focus my energy on something else.  It’s time to let go of all that.  It’s my time.  To do something I enjoy doing, regardless of how easy or difficult it is.

There were certainly some foibles at first.  My hand-eye coordination (or lack thereof) is clearly more of a problem than any limitations that my illnesses put on me, I’m sorry to say.

I’ve been amazed at what I’ve actually been able to do.  I think sometimes, unknowingly, we kowtow to illness a bit.  I know that I may be functioning at “higher levels” than some people with my illnesses, but everyone should do something.  Keep moving.  Find something that makes you feel good and good about yourself.  Illness is a full time job.  It can suck the life out of you. 

And let me tell you, there’s nothing more life affirming than kicking the shit out of a punching bag while a hot guy cheers you on.  Now you see firmly where my priorities lie.  But seriously.  Do something, even if it’s in the privacy of your own home and no one else is watching you.  It certainly does help to have a cheerleader, though, someone who makes you accountable and doesn’t allow you to wuss out; even when you are on all fours on the floor, trying to catch your breath.  And especially when you are sweating buckets and don’t even care that this is happening in the presence of a really hot guy.

It’s great to feel pain that’s not illness related.  That might sound weird, but it feels good to know that the pain I’m feeling – coincidentally more in my muscles than my joints at this point – is actually the result of working out hard.  I haven’t been able to say that in a long time.  I haven’t been able to feel that, because I’ve been too busy concentrating on my illness related pain (and rightfully so, I think).   

Of course, I haven’t been able to do every single move to perfection.   My legs only kick so high, and it’s hard for me to straighten my legs at the knee.  My elbow extension varies.  But my instructor has taken this all in stride.  He’s found workarounds for some things, adaptations if you will, and rarely, we scrap certain moves all together.

I ultimately chose to go with private lessons because I was self-conscious about being in a class where people older than me could kick higher than me.  This is purely my own issue.  But I didn’t feel like I’d be able to fully concentrate if I was worried about other people looking at me weird.  Although sweating buckets and getting my ass kicked by and in front of a really hot guy doesn’t help matters, either, but that is a whole other story. 

The Zen thing about kickboxing is that it forces you to clear your head.  You have to concentrate on the moves, or else run the risk of missing the bag and punching the air, or better yet (although it hasn’t happened to me yet), snapping yourself in the face with the stretchy band.

Or maybe what’s Zen about kickboxing is that it’s not really Zen at all.  It’s awesome.  It’s kick ass.  And it makes me realize that I’m tougher than I thought and not quite as fragile. 

I’m challenging myself, and challenging my body to work out hard, to go to places that it hasn’t previously gone before (either healthy or sick).  All I can really say (to both kickboxing and illness) is: Bring it!

(And if you’re lucky, maybe I’ll post some pictures eventually…)


  1. Which walk aerobic video do you use? I am looking for something I can do along those lines at home. Thanks! And kickboxing sounds awesome!

  2. I use one by Leslie Sansone.

    This is the specific one, which has a one, two, and three mile workout:


    Personally, I think she offers a relatively good workout while keeping it mostly low impact. And if I'm having problems, I just improvise.

    But she has many others, so you might want to check them out.

  3. Wow Leslie, I am so impressed with your kickboxing. I have been following your blog for a while, & have felt the pain you have been going through physically & emotionally. Its great that you have channelled your anger so positely. I have SLE & find the biggest challenge is not to let myself become totally absorbed by the illness. I have just watched a TV programme about the iron man challenge in the UK, which involves a 2 mile swim, 100 & something mile bike ride & then running a whole mararthon back to back! Although none of us with SLE or RA are going to be trying this kind of thing, one of the competitors said that the challenge is 70% mental, 20% physical & 10% diet. I think this holds true for our illnesses too.

  4. "there’s nothing more life affirming than kicking the shit out of a punching bag while a hot guy cheers you on"

    Yay - you go girl!


  5. Ruth, thanks for your comment. I don't think there is a ironman in my future, and I'm okay with that. And I agree with you 100%. The mental challenges are the greatest obstacle we face.

    Thanks, Anonymous! :)

  6. You rock, Leslie! (But I already knew that!) :)

  7. I'm very impressed!
    I tried kick boxing a couple of times, when I was much healthier..and it kicked my butt! I was in a class, and felt very intimidated.
    Having a good instructor makes all the difference in any workout routine.

    With my balance issues, pain, and vertigo...it's so hard to find a good exercise routine. Some days...often for weeks at a time...I just can't. And it makes me sad.
    I have found that dance makes me happy.

    I used to really love Yoga, but the balance issues...well are a big issue. However, I will say, my it was totally because I had a great instructor.

    To Elizabeth: I've also used Leslie Sansone's videos. On my cable network, they have an Exercise On Demand Channel, and they have a few of her workouts there for free. (If you have that option)

    Good luck on continuing to feel great with this workout.
    I understand the anger issues. I need to find a way to work mine out too.

  8. I'm so glad you've found an exercise program that helps your body, mind and spirit! In my early 30s, before my diagnoses of fibromyalgia (2000) and undifferentiated connective tissue disease (2002 or '03), I thoroughly enjoyed cardio kickboxing, boot camp, and step exercise classes. Kickboxing was a wonderful stressbuster (I was SAHM of 2 preschoolers at the time). My neck and upper back gradually became more and more painful, then I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. As part of my initial treatment, I had to stop all exercise except walking for 6-8 weeks. Every time I did kickboxing or boot camp classes after that, I realized my neck, shoulders, and upper back would become a lot more painful--it was more than post-exercise soreness. My doctor and I agreed that I needed to stick to other types of exercise. For a while, I still did interval and step classes. Interval exercise became too strenuous and, as my fatigue worsened, I couldn't get to a.m. step classes or do much of anything. About 3 years ago, I started taking Pilates in order to work up to doing cardio classes again. My Pilates instructor introduced Zumba to our area and I've absolutely loved it. I can only manage 2 classes a week, barring migraines, but I've still been able to see a difference in my body. The music and cardio exercise in a group setting lift my spirits and help me feel better physically. I have to do Zumba at lower impact and lower intensity than a lot of people in my classes, but so do some of the "older" ladies and beginners. People of all fitness levels can participate and still keep up. It does take a few classes to catch on, so don't give up too soon if you try it.

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