Neighbor to The Ann Arbor Aviary, the circus school where Fortuna and I train together and work, is a traditional gym. Through the walls, you can hear the familiar clang and clank of barbells being hoisted and dropped, the particular grunts of people working hard.
People who love to work out talk about how it makes their bodies feel—the exquisite focus, the burst of adrenaline, the sore muscles, the ritual of it, the euphoria. I appreciate physical exercise for all of these reasons, for the energy it gives me, and for the stress relief.
There is fascination in growing ever stronger as you learn new skills. There is satisfaction in setting a goal and reaching it. There is power in learning body awareness and technique.
Closer and closer my feet creep towards the ground. On bendy days, I can see my toes and the balls of my feet. I wriggle them and grin. Some days, I forgive my body for its weaknesses and imbalances. Other days, that’s hard.
If you’ve ever done any kind of body work, you may know the feeling: this is farther than I’ve ever gone before. Will it ever be enough?
I want to feel what it feels like to touch down
I want to feel buoyant there. I want it so bad, to be skilled. The fact that I care so much about “getting” chest stand bears addressing. What is there to get? I am doing chest stand, but am not done with it.
Some days, I obsess about relaxing, and the relative length of hip flexors, torsos, and legs.
Others, I truly believe the full expression of the pose, whatever that is for my body, won’t come until I’m able to open my heart space in a way that’s both flexible and strong. How do we know we’re ready? What do we do when we’re afraid?
I contemplate heady life questions, while also breathing as calmly as possible in such a compromising position.
Knowing your limits
New York-based aerial arts instructor, circus performer, and blogger Laura Witwer writes about how knowing one’s limits is a way to prevent injuries. She talks about knowing your limits as part of learning to take calculated risks.
The tricky part about limits is: until we have quite a bit of experience, we often don’t recognize our limits until we’ve gone past them. That’s part of the reason why, Witwer tells us, and I would agree, it’s so important to seek out training.
Let me tell you about the first time I dropped down into splits on the silks, muscle memory clearly remembering a teenage gymnast body, not the work-addled, grad student body I actually had. I limped for a while after that.
Let me tell you about the last time we did too many shows in a row. Months later, I’m only now getting the splits back on my right side. There is pleasure, and at times, pain involved with being in a body as it moves.
Less fitness, more circus
Consider mainstream obsession with thin, white, heterosexual, able bodies, with dominant standards of so-called “perfection,” “symmetry,” and “balance.” Then imagine those standards projected onto an activity, which one must do endlessly to maintain their image (figure). That’s fitness culture.
Fitness culture encourages people to push past their limits toward some imagined goal:
No pain, no gain.
Pain is just weakness leaving the body.
Excuses are for people who don’t want it bad enough.
Toxic messages teach us to push past limits, shutting off or ignoring the body’s instinct that says, “stop.” This kind of relationship with our bodies is risky and causes pain and injury, damages trust for ourselves, and lowers our self-worth.
Circus arts are not about that. Most of us are still unlearning the messages about bodies we took in when we were kids. So, it’s no surprise when we get hung up on achievement, a certain aesthetic, “getting” a particular skill.
But I wonder if, at the heart of circus arts, is respect for our bodies and other people’s bodies. Whenever I find myself getting too attached to what I can do, or not do, I remember circus is about knowing your limits through careful exploration and play. About learning to be in the bodies we have now.
Playing harder isn’t always playing better. Play is about communication and being in your body, about power, and risk. Flow, or float, is where you’re in deep play, and that’s where it’s at in terms of making connections, feeling euphoric. In other words, making art.
Back in cheststand again
Chest on the ground, butt up up up. When I am here at the wall, I am learning to transfer the weight from my neck to my chest. I am learning how to breathe steady breaths while exquisitely uncomfortable. Wanting this is absolutely absurd.
Who am I to be this strange?