Aches and Pains, Breaks and Sprains

We keep playing despite the risk of injury. Maybe the real problem is here.
We keep playing despite the risk of injury. Maybe the real problem is here.

This week, one of my favorite skaters fell hard during a drill. She’s just coming back from a long illness, and I know it’s discouraging to take a fall like that just as you’re getting your strength back. There was an audible pop as she went down, and she seemed to be in a lot of pain, but after some rest, she was able to get out on the track again. I was glad she came back out, yet worried about her safety. This got me wondering about pain, how we deal with it in derby and elsewhere in life.

“No pain, no gain” was a major reason I avoided the gym and any form of strenuous exercise for most of my life up to this point. Yoga was the first form of exercise I encountered where the motto was, “No pain? Great!” I believe pain is your body’s alarm system, a way of telling you where your limits are. If you learn to respect those boundaries and work with them gradually, you end up with a rich practice and a healthy relationship with your body. That’s why I prefer a slow and mindful practice and also why yogis emphasize the importance of good alignment to avoid potentially painful situations.

But it’s not quite the same in sports, especially derby. We talk a lot about safety, wear pads and helmets, and learn how to fall safely. Still, every time we put skates on, we take a pretty big risk. Great skaters fall all the time, and despite all their conditioning, good form, and constant practice, sometimes injury is a matter of chance. But we keep taking that chance practice after practice, game after game, because we gain something from the sport that outweighs our fear of pain.

On the other hand, there are the everyday pains of derby. Personally, my feet hurt. My low back and hips are sore pretty much all the time. My hamstrings are tight, and even my neck and shoulders get cranky sometimes. I’m trying to improve this situation by (a) skating better, (b) practicing more, and (c) doing at least a little yoga every day. I think this pain is temporary, and if I treat it right, it’s just a stepping stone on my derby journey. Again, I gain something from the sport that outweighs not just the threat of pain but the reality of it.

And finally, there are the bruises. If you’ve ever hung out with derby players, you’ve probably taken part in a conversation about bruises. There’s always a bit of pride involved, and usually a story about how we acquired said bruise. I currently have a nasty one on my shoulder from my first scrimmage. It’s two weeks old and still makes people ask, “Holy cow, what did you do to yourself?” Getting it hurt, but I’m proud of it because it’s proof that I went out and did something scary and survived.

I still don’t like pain, but I no longer believe it’s to be avoided at all costs. A certain amount of pain on a day-to-day basis is acceptable to me as long as I feel I’m gaining something from it. As for those unpredictable injuries, broken bones, dislocated joints, and even concussions are risks I accept while simply hoping I can dodge them. It’s hard for me to say why I’m willing to take those risks for derby. I still don’t believe in the “no pain, no gain” slogan, but I’m starting to understand that without a certain amount of risk involved, life just isn’t nearly as fun.

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Skate Fast and Jump High

rollerderby-112223_640Photo by Greyerbaby

Last night at practice we practiced jumping the apex, which looks like this:

For every cut track, we had to do 5 pushups. I did a lot of pushups.

This is the first time in my life I’ve been so very bad at something yet loved it so much. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been terrible at a lot of things including but not limited to baking, housekeeping, dating, trigonometry, paying bills on time, scheduling, hyphenating, activism, and pretending to like people. But for most of my life, the things I’ve been bad at are the things I’ve avoided. Why is derby different?

Last night, as I watched the other skaters jump the apex (some successfully, some not), I pondered how we all ended up here, and how this sport is not at all what I expected. I knew the league would be a bunch of incredible, strong, driven women. I also thought there would be more fishnets, but what we lack in fishnets and tutus we make up for in dedication and tattoos. But what I really wasn’t prepared for is how the challenge of derby makes me want to be stronger. The funny names and crazy outfits are fun, but the real reason we stick around is that the challenge is intoxicating. I have never pushed myself this way before, and I love it.

You know why I can’t jump the apex yet? Because I’m scared of jumping with wheels on my feet. This seems like a reasonable thing to be afraid of, yet I want to not be afraid of it. I have hope because I saw people do it last night, people who couldn’t always do it, people who were afraid before and overcame their fear.

When I set this “letting go of fear” goal for myself this year, I had no idea what I was getting into. But for some reason, the gods of roller derby smiled on me and gave me the chance of a lifetime. Just go fast and jump, right?

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To be Fresh Meat

Nosker's Country Fresh MeatPhoto by timlewisnm on Flickr
You think you wanna play roller derby. You’ve heard about it for years. Your friends have said you’d be great at it. They don’t know anything about it, but they think you’re the type of person who should play roller derby, and you think they’re right. You watch Whip It with your best friend and decide to try out together. You spend $150 on skates and it feels like a big deal because you would never spend that kind of money on a pair of shoes. You spend $80 on pads. You learn to shape a mouthguard. You think about buying fancy leggings. You go to a few open skates and feel self-conscious about everything, and you make an embarrassing noise every time you fall. The avoidance of making this noise will become your first motivator for becoming a better skater.

You try out. You join the league. You feel like this means something, but you still don’t call yourself a derby girl because you’re aware of a vast gap in ability between yourself and the people who tell you what to do at practice. You keep doing your best. You watch them closely. You try to pick the best skaters and mimic them. You learn to look where you want to go instead of at your feet. You fall a little less often.

You take your assessment, which you mostly expect to fail, so you’re not too disappointed when you do indeed fail. For a month, you obsessively work on plow stops and endurance. You retake your assessment and fail. This time it’s disappointing. You try to pick yourself up right away and get back to practice. You’ve spent four months on this, and you really thought you’d be better at it by now. You try to push yourself harder, but it’s hot outside, and you feel tired all the time. For a week or so, you obsess about whether you’re eating correctly. You never seem able to drink enough water. You take a couple days off, but when you go back to practice, people are really nice to you, and everyone has something helpful to say.

The drills start to make sense. You start to apply the things you’ve been practicing. You read your assessment feedback again and again. You think hard about core strength. You put the next assessment on your calendar. You set your financial goals for the coming month based on the cost of new skates. You would still never spend more than $100 on shoes, but now you want a $350 pair of skates. You believe you have a sincere, justifiable need for shiny booty shorts, and you discover a new purpose for those torn up stockings haunting your sock drawer.

There are days when you go to practice because you want to get better, and there are days when you go because you’ve become an exercise addict and you need the endorphin rush. Still, there are days when you go because nothing else seems to be going right. You put on your skates, and nothing else in the world matters. No one on the track knows about the dishes you left in the sink or the bullshit you left at work, and they don’t care. You don’t know if you’ll pass your next assessment, so you try to let go of any expectations about it and just practice.

And you practice and you practice and you practice and you practice.

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My Path of Seva: How may I help you?

butler-159811_640

There is a yogic practice called seva, which just means service. It’s the simplest thing in the world, but it can be life-changing. All you do is serve others. Make it your job to help people wherever you can, however you can. Think about how you can help your coworkers. How can you be a beneficial presence in your loved one’s lives? How can you be the most use in the world? In my opinion, the ideal seva practice is one in which you are able to give much yet feel fulfilled and joyful about giving.

I was doing my yoga teacher training while working as a project manager, and that’s when I started to seriously apply seva to my life. I did not particularly love my work (although my coworkers were all wonderful people), but I needed to keep that job. I wasn’t the best PM ever, but viewing my job through the lens of seva made me pretty decent at it. I felt the most satisfied when I could help my team complete a project quickly and do the job well, but I still wasn’t helping enough. I was not making the world a better place by being there. Nothing happened at that company that couldn’t happen without me. My service was not essential, and I knew I could accomplish more elsewhere.

Since becoming a yoga teacher, I’ve spent most of my time looking for the ways I could do the most good for other people. In my relationships, in my yoga classes, and in derby, I look for the ways that I can be of the most service. The other night, I was getting ahead of myself thinking about which roller derby team I would like to be on. They all have different strengths and weaknesses, and they’re all made up of incredible athletes. The truth is, I would love to be on any of those teams, and if there’s a team that could use someone like me, I want to be on it. To me, that’s part of seva: send me where I’m needed, and I’ll find joy in the work.

The strangest part about seva is that while it opens up all kinds of opportunities for me, I never feel like I’m giving nearly as much as I’m receiving. If I do volunteer work, I feel humbled by the chance to serve other people. I learn more from my yoga students than I could ever teach them. And though I strive to hold up my end of the deal with my husband, I owe him more gratitude than I have words for. In other words, the more I focus on giving, the more I seem to receive.

That’s not to say I don’t look out for myself. It’s become more and more important in the past year for me to take care of my own health and monitor my own stress levels because serving all the time is exhausting. I require time for myself. I have to take long baths, lounge in the sun, eat good food, do my yoga practice and meditate — all those things that help me be happy and function in the world. And through the lens of seva, even those things become more joyful because I know that when I am well and happy, I can help spread wellness and happiness. Seva is becoming a positive cycle in my life.

It’s said that you can reach enlightenment through total dedication to any form of yoga, including seva. Let me be clear: I don’t know what enlightenment is and I’m not all that interested in reaching it. I’m more interested in learning to be a happy human being here and now, not some kind of radiant embodied deity (which is how I imagine enlightened folks). But I can testify that the pursuit of seva has changed my life. When I worked as a PM, I felt like my life had been hijacked. Now, the more I serve others, the more confirmation I get that I am on my right path. I think being on my right path and finding peace in the here and now is far more valuable than the endless pursuit of gloriously useless enlightenment.

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Worry less, practice more.

After a rough practice, I felt pretty rattled and decided to do a bit of skate maintenance to settle down.
After a rough practice, I felt pretty rattled and decided to do a bit of skate maintenance to settle down.

I fell at practice last night and scared myself more than I hurt myself. I needed to get back on wheels tonight* and not let that fall defeat me, so me and my anxiety went to the skating rink with Jennanigans and her daughter.

The cool thing about skating with the Little One (we need to give her a derby name!) is she distracts me from myself. I’ll skate backwards in front of her slowly, pretending to guide her when really, I’m using her as a focal point so I will stop obsessing about the fact that “omg I’m going backwards!” After a few laps like that, I started to feel pretty good, but still struggled with transitions. Going backwards? Not so bad. Getting backwards? Scary, apparently.

One of the lame parts of open skate is self-consciousness (also known as just another form of fear). At derby practice, everyone is working on themselves and you know they’re not judging you. People fall so often during practice that no one even looks twice unless they think you might be seriously hurt. But at open skate, derby girls tend to stick out, and it’s a whole different atmosphere. The thought of a fall like last night’s during open skate made me too nervous to practice transitions on the track with kids.

I spent some time on more familiar skills including one-footed weaving. The weaving was where I got in trouble. Certain rink regulars love to give advice, and I haven’t minded it in the past, but tonight it was just a distraction. I really wanted to focus on my own work, but here I was trying to ignore this guy who wanted me to use my lifted leg as a rudder. He tried to quiz me on how boats work and actually asked, “Have you seen a boat?” I had to tell him, “Are we having a physics lesson now? I just wanna skate. I don’t wanna talk about it. I learn things by doing them.” What I wanted to tell him was I am from the motherfucking Gulf of Mexico. I have seen boats, my knee is not a rudder, and pumping your leg out to the side like you’re working an invisible thigh master is not going to make you go faster.

All the distractions eventually frustrated me enough that I gave up and went to work on the thing I was feeling afraid of. I went in the center of the rink and skated back and forth for around 30 minutes turning around over and over again. I figured out which one was my “bad side” and kept turning that way until it felt as good as my other side. I practiced until it didn’t feel scary, and then I did it some more just for good measure. It was not glamorous or interesting to watch I’m sure, but it felt pretty great.

Some days (like yesterday), I don’t even know why I want to play roller derby. I don’t care about being a star athlete. I’ve never even viewed myself as very athletic. I love the community, but that alone isn’t a good enough reason for me to push myself like this. Yet I am addicted to derby. It’s not just the endorphins from a good workout but the exhilaration of having dome something I was once afraid to do.

Chances are, the next time I put on skates I’ll still feel a little intimidated by my first couple transitions. Just like I used to be scared of crossing over. But crossovers kept getting easier until they became natural, and transitions will be the same. It’s funny to me that I can predict: This is going to get easier. I know it will because I’m practicing. That actually makes me feel powerful in a really simple and practical way. I have the ability to get better because I choose to practice.

*It’s 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, but I’m still calling it Tuesday because I haven’t gone to sleep yet. So sue me.

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