In my younger days, I showed very little promise when it came to physical prowess. When sports teams were picked at school, I could reliably expect to be chosen second (or, on a good day, third) from last: yes, I didn’t even reign supreme when it came to sporting uselessness. In consequence, my rather tardy choice to attempt gymnastics, when few would be foolish enough to hazard such a course of action, delivers a regular stream of surprises and minor epiphanies.
When hard at work hanging from the rings or the bar, I often find that I don’t recognise my own body – it seems weirdly swollen, deformed or corded by the effort expended. On the plus side, I do give very good “vein” which is much appreciated by the National Blood Service, but seems to have few other practical applications. Over time, the once impossible becomes merely very difficult and ultimately can even feel quite restful (compared to the new impossible now being attempted). There seem to be a number of components to making progress as a geriatric gymnast – though these only become apparent in retrospect. A chap (or at least this chap) needs the following:
- To develop a certain amount of strength and stamina – often in the most unlikely of places – before an action can be attempted. Once the attempt is possible, the necessary anatomy does then start to adapt more rapidly to the demands placed upon it.
- To gain sufficient confidence that a manoeuvre will not result in sustaining a terrible injury – which often comes down to working out how to safely exit an unwanted position in a hurry.
- To work out how to lock parts of my body together (and to work out what they are doing when out of eyeshot) as most gymnasts seem to go for clean body lines and a minimum of flail.
- The final element is to work out how to release the parts of my body which shouldn’t be locked. This is usually the last part of any given progression to be mastered – it can take a long time to work out how to unlock just the muscles I want (and indeed to work out which ones these are).
As each activity is mastered, another harder one becomes available to try – and I have the impression that there is likely to be no end to this process. As I achieve each new summit, a whole range of much higher peaks suddenly becomes visible. Whilst this could be off-putting, I find it rather encouraging and pleasingly the continuing ascent requires very little equipment (though does benefit from high ceilings and a minimum of breakables within a nine foot radius). I don’t need to keep find heavier weights, just moving the dead-weight provided by my body slightly differently offers all the challenge I could ever need.
As the most discerning of regular readers might (perhaps) have realised (but don’t feel bad if the fact had passed you by), I am mildly obsessed by my trek through the foothills of gymnastics. I have started looking for opportunities to see more advanced students in action – though I’m looking more for something impressive (that I might one day be able to try) than anything which would score 6.0 points in a formal setting. In pursuit of this interest, I stopped off on the Southbank on my way home from Cambridge to visit the interior of a giant, inverted purple cow. I was slightly disappointed to find the interior of the cow was even less anatomically accurate than its exterior, but still like to think of myself as being seated in the rumen (which is more roomy(rumy?) than the reticulum, omasum or abomasum). This visit was not just to critique the veterinary research carried out by the Udderbelly Festival, but to see a show called Bromance. This involved three young chaps of the sort of varying heights which that most famous of house-breakers, Goldilocks, would have found familiar (I think she would have plumped for Beren as the baby-bear analogue: I feel the dead hand of JRR Tolkein at his naming). The piece involved the confluence of physical theatre, dance and circus-style gymnastics and was very entertaining (and daunting, if inspiring, for me). I strongly suspect the theatre and dance elements existed (at least in part) to allow the cast to recuperate for/from the gymnastic elements – especially, as on the day I saw them they were onto their second performance by 18:00). On the plus side, none of the lads seemed vastly more hench than me (and I could check as by the end they were down to their boxers – always handy for the audience member looking for training tips) which offers some hope – though all did seem more generously buttocked than I (something for me to work on, perhaps). I also noticed that two of them sported bandaged knees, and one had some sort of shoulder support – so their mastery (and performative frequency) had not come without cost. In addition to their far greater mastery of the art, I particularly noticed their skill with dynamic activities – whereas my strengths (such as they are) lie with the hold (it is more than enough challenge to achieve a hold, little resource remains to move around). My own increased dynamism will have to await an increase in confidence: at the moment I have little faith that my body in motion will perform as desired (and the spatial volume which may be affected by failures will also increase significantly).
Anyway, I had not really expected all this mid-life idiocy to have any positive benefits to the rest of my life – well, except, perhaps, from keeping me from the ever weakening grip of the NHS for a little longer. It turns out that I was wrong, as I learned at my singing lesson last Thursday. One of my many major challenges with my plan to become a singer is my very poor breathing skills: I’m not at any obvious risk of turning blue, but singing does require a chap to breathe beyond the level of mere subsistence. I have always tended to breathe from my chest, and even towards the sunlit uplands thereof, which is far from ideal: I should be breathing from rather lower down. Well, on Thursday, I suddenly found I was breathing from the correct portion of my body (a portion I could feel complaining at the work thanks to that morning’s training session) – finally I was able to release the relevant muscles to breathe properly. I’m not sure my singing has ever been better – despite the challenges of the roulade (which is not just a tasty desert). I owe it all to gymnastics! Or so I think (though I’ll admit that there may be easier to routes to improved breath control).