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  • Writer's pictureClaire Higgins

The Movement Practice Log (August 2022)

The grief continues but I'm able to hold space for it as my passion for movement returns. There is an excitement returning about all the ways to move in and through life, a joy at feeling the inner beauty of movement come to life within me again. And hope that even after loss, life can and does move on...

Several weeks have passed since I wrote the above words in my last movement practice log. These entries are my way of documenting my experience during a qualitative research study that began nearly 18 months ago.

I began with 9 research participants. Seven are holding strong - or at least being patient and kind while I slowly take action to complete what was expected to be a 12-month project that was intended to be a stepping stone to a PhD and hopefully offer some helpful insights on what motivates people to practice something that matters to them - in this case a form of movement, exercise and/or sport - over a long period of time.

During July, the grief that hit in Spring began to give way through unexpected forms of movement. A kettlebells class (something the old me would not have gone to, she would have just trained alone) and a yoga class (a practice I had more or less walked away from in my early 30s) had featured in June. July brought a 10k running race the week after I spontaneously ran a 10k one Saturday (the plan had been to run my usual 4K and dad pointed out after I was done a local race the following week. "Why not participate, Claire," he asked logically. To which my mom excitedly replied, "Oh, you should!"

I hadn't seen my mom smile like that in so long. It instantly brought back memories of being a kid and standing by the sidelines with my dad, watching my mom compete. My mom was and is a tough woman. She features often in my memories of sport and work. Her a nurse, runner, and squash player. Myself, a humanitarian, swimmer, and martial artist. We have both witnessed suffering - the injury, death, and tragedy that comes with life - and we have both used physical training as natural outlets for emotions. I think it's just the way we are wired. We care deeply about people and our release is in movement.

And so it was I took my place at the start line the following week. I was there for my mom, who had since appointed herself as my running coach. I also had a clear understanding of my limits and expected timing - 75 minutes to run 10k. I'm a consistent 8k per hour runner - slow but steady, even up and down hills.

I figured with the hot sun that day I might end up with a finish time somewhere between 75 and 90 mins. As the sun glared down on us, I made my way right to the back of over 1,000 people where the last timed marker was placed. Thankfully, I have no ego when I run. I'm happy to fall in line at the back. Just being there was an achievement for me for barring martial arts and CrossFit classes as an adult, I hadn't participated in a group run since my primary school days. At least not one that I actually managed to run in...

As I ran, my mind found its way back to a decade before. Standing on the start line of a 10k run in the Gaza Strip alongside other colleagues from the UN. The marathon and half-marathon runners had set off in the blustery storm. Now it was our turn. The wind blew so hard that day that several of us - myself included - ended up holding onto the back of the armoured vehicles that were sent to accompany us as we ran (or rather, walked) along the coast line. We weren't usually allowed to walk anywhere, such were the security restrictions, and this event was an exceptional moment as we tried to raise funds to run summer camps for Gaza's 240,000+ refugee school children.

I ended up walking past the sandy hills of Khan Younis with another female who wasn't cut out for running either. We were both working on water and sanitation in the refugee camps and our conversation naturally turned to that. I was grateful for her company and especially her lightness in character. Like me, she found no shame in walking. We were both just grateful to do something ordinary that usually wouldn't be allowed.

During the 2 years I lived and worked and Gaza, I got very little walking in due to the movement restrictions. But I did run yoga classes from my home, up to 6 classes a week at one point. I taught Vinyasa mainly as that's what most students wanted but my favourite classes were the Ashtanga primary series I would quietly run for 2 of the more advanced students, and the Restorative classes I would run for 3-4 of the students who enjoyed the opportunity to lie under blankets on bolsters in seated yoga poses, for extended periods of time. Many safe moments were created in those classes which was precious for a part of the world often stricken by conflict and bombs.

The other day, I happened to teach Positive Psychology to one of these old Restorative Yoga students. We were going through a journal research study on resilience and mindfulness practice and discussing other ways in which to practice mindfulness, when she reminded me of those old Restorative classes. Tears came to my eyes. Almost 12 years have passed since I put aside my yoga teaching hat and yet the pain I felt at the time is still present. It is one of abandonment and grief - an abandonment ultimately of myself and what I once loved. After teaching yoga in such a meaningful space, to students like her who meant and mean so much to me, where was I to go?

I still remember my last night in Gaza. A group of yoga students packed into one of their cars and circled round my building block, tooting their horn and blasting music. Living on the first floor, I heard the commotion but it was only when one of them called and yelled down the phone for me to come out that I realised the commotion was for me. My face broke into a smile as I saw the nutty students whizz round the corner shouting out thank you. Prior to leaving, I had trained a few of them to to share yoga safely and raised funds to buy them yoga props. They were grateful and so was I. They in turn gifted me with a Kindle which soon turned into a full-blown reading addiction.

In my early 30s, which seems so long ago now, I was transitioning from working in war zones to living in my childhood home in Dubai. The sudden shift from a life of meaning and clear purpose to one of commerce and commodification was too much for me. I was generously offered an opportunity to teach at a local yoga centre but the way forwards from there felt tacky. I didn't know who I was. Would I be Claire, the humanitarian who teaches yoga, or would I become someone else?

I decided to be Claire, the kid-now-grown-up who would regain her black belt in karate. And I continued to practice yoga for myself but not teach.

A couple of years later, my own yoga teacher qualified me to run women's leadership retreats using yogic and seasonal principles. It had been an enriching 6-month course and I had thoroughly enjoyed it. Yet when the moment came to teach - and along with it the social media pack and guidelines for using her work - my inner being and senses revolted. I couldn't teach someone else's work. I'd rather teach my own and if needed, teach freely. I ended up handing back my certification and walking away.

My journey as a movement student and teacher has had so many twists and turns in life. There are areas of movement where I perform well - like swimming, where in July I easily banged out 100 lengths - and areas where I struggle but keep going - like running. Then there are spiritual forms of movement - yoga and martial arts - that seem to come with so much weight. It's as if I dump all my stuff on them, something I'd never do with running or swimming, and expect them to "help" or listen to me. Does that mean that running and swimming are not spiritual? They certainly can be in practice but they seem to come without the weight of my conditioned mind. My body instinctively knows how to move freely, albeit more slowly on my feet than in a pool.

July also brought a spontaneous lake trip with my partner. Both of us are water lovers and he surprised me after my 10k run debut by saying, "Promise me you won't say no..." and within hours, we were on our way. The next morning, I woke up on my stand-up paddleboard named Sally. Don't ask me why I picked that name but Sally she is, and Sally doesn't get out half as often to play as she would like. The coldness of the water brought life back into my body after the very hot run the day before. And I probably did more lying down on my back, being tugged along the lake by my partner's little boat, than I did actually standing up and paddling around. It was bliss.

As July ended and August began, my movement practices took me back into the gym. Each Friday evening after work has become "me time". At around 7 or 8pm, I excitedly shut down my computer, tidy my desk, write my to-do list for my next day at work, then grab my bag (prepared in the morning) and speed off to the gym.

Hardly anyone thinks to go to the gym on a Friday night which is perfect for me. My partner is away and that is my time to pull out a Sealfit workout for the day. Sealfit is a bit like CrossFit and I do an onboarding workout. Challenging for me but nothing like the real Navy Seals do! During the work week, I mostly run outdoors. I'm often on a time limit of 30 mins as work is so hectic these days. So it's a real treat to clock off and know that the gym stays open until 10pm, and that nobody is going to look for me until the next day. That gives me plenty of time to train and after, relax in the steam room and sauna. And as an introvert, I need places to hide and I have far too few of them.

Now, as August gets underway, yoga is beginning to find its way back into my days. I've typically leaned on my yoga asana (posture) knowledge for stretching after fitness. Hardly yoga, says my yoga teacher-trained mind. Yet this knowledge has been a fantastic way to keep my body in shape after working out. Occasionally, I'll do a Yin Yoga session to ease tension in my body. But it's so sporadic that I could hardly call it a practice. Then the other day, I effortlessly found my way to a cushion, sat down to breathe for a few minutes, then worked my way intuitively through a yoga routine for the next 30 minutes. I started my day with my clarity of mind and ease in body, and I was grateful. Now that is what I would call a practice.

Another surprise gifted by July's movement has been our home garden. Once a rambling and overgrown mess, it is now weeded and shaped. I have never gardened in my life but with my best friend now gone, and nobody needing me after work when my partner is away, I have time on my hands. It is also summer and the days are long, so getting started at 6pm or 7pm on a weekend can still see much done. My labour has been enough to restore some beauty and harmony into the garden. I've spent hour upon hour squatting and pulling the weeds, grateful for my judo pulling strength and flexibility from yoga. Some people complain of aches and pains after gardening but so far, touch wood, the way I have trained my body to move is holding me in good stead.

When I garden, I find myself present in the joy of tidying up or my mind wandering to the parallels between gardening and martial arts. I'm fascinated by the movements I need to do just to tidy the garden up, and how close some of them are or could be to the martial arts. Like sweeping up the leaves. Ever mopped a dojo floor?

Looking ahead to August, I'm conscious there is no firm "practice" - by that I mean one that comes with a set of philosophy or beliefs. Like karate, judo, or yoga. In these practices, great teachers from history like Gichin Funakoshi, Jigaro Kano, and Kirshnamacharya have inspired me. Many more are there - living and dead - to turn to for wisdom and strength, waiting (I hope) for my eventual return.

This is the power of a movement practice that is based on philosophical principles or spiritual beliefs. But I'm not yet there with my timing and readiness to return to such paths. For now, I run, swim, lift, squat, and stretch. Simple forms of human movement, mostly outdoors or alone, that are gradually helping me to once again feel whole.


Claire Higgins is a Positive Psychology Practitioner & Researcher and Self-Defence Instructor. She holds a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology and directs Inner Athletics.


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