I’ve blogged before about my complicated relationship with exercise. Well, actually, it’s not all that complicated – I don’t enjoy exercise, but I do it because of my weight issues, plus the general benefits it has on my health. I’ve tried so many different forms of exercise, including some of the more faddier ones like Zumba and Bokwa, neither of which I was very impressed with. But, finally, I think I might have found one I actually enjoy.
As part of my Ladies’ Circle groups’ calendar of activities for this year, we were supposed to be doing a pole dancing class, but try as I might, I couldn’t find a local class. One of my friends suggested we try anti-gravity fitness instead, so I booked us in. I enjoyed it so much I booked myself a fairly pricey four-week course (four one-hour sessions), promising myself that if I liked it, I would do a four-week course from time-to-time to break up the monotony of going to the gym. I’m already mulling over booking myself another course for as soon as this one finishes.
Anti-gravity fitness was devised by Christopher Harrison, who’s some big cheese in the Cirque de Soleil. The exercise is a combination of yoga, pilates and acrobatics, all performed using the Harrison Hammock®. Of course there had to be a trademark somewhere in this – it’s a money-making fitness craze, after all. You can actually buy one to install at home, which would be awesome, but I’m scared it would pull my whole house down.
Having a knee injury and a birth defect in my lower spine, I tend to be quite cautious about what my body can do. I’m terrified of injuring my knee further, or throwing my back out, something which can be done by the smallest of gestures (once, by a sneeze) and which leaves me in agony for days. But the anti-gravity fitness classes have got me feeling a little bit more confident with my abilities, and a bit more willing (although I do still chicken out sometimes) to try something new and challenging.
At the start of every class, we climb into the super-strong anti-gravity hammock and get into our womb poses (see the top picture). At my first class with the Ladies’ Circle girls, I arrived late, and the girls were already in their wombs, looking for all the world like a load of bright purple alien cocoons. It was a little unnerving! You sit entirely encased in your hammock, soles of the feet together. Some people like to swing, others don’t. Personally, I like to gently swing from side to side as I hang there, leaving the stress of the day far behind. This decompresses my poor old spine like nothing else I’ve ever tried. Being in a seated position, but without all your weight pressing through your lower spine, feels incredible to someone who suffers from lower back pain.
After the initial relaxation, my instructor tends to like to get us flipped upside-down for the first pose of the class, usually in a variant of this move.
The first time I attempted this, I thought I was never going to do it. In fact, I didn’t, my bad knee wasn’t quite flexible enough to get into position, and I felt too panicked about leaning further backwards to help it along. At my second class, and feeling a bit braver, I did it, and I felt a sense of accomplishment that I’ve never experienced before. At the class last night we had a new girl who attended, and when the instructor flipped herself into this pose, I sneaked a look at the new girl’s face, and her jaw was just about down to her chest. She looked horrified. Yet, a few minutes later I was giving her an upside-down round of applause as she swung down to join us.
The first time you go upside-down, it feels like quite a lot of pressure on your head, and a couple of times I’ve had to come back up because the feeling was so intense. But traditional yoga maintains that inversions are the most important poses, as they stimulate blood flow to the head and brain and other internal organs. Yoga teachers claim that the traditional headstand and handstand are the ‘fountains of youth.’ I can’t do a free-standing traditional headstand or handstand, but I can easily flip myself into a handstand using the hammock. The upside-down poses are my favourites. They look so difficult, but using the hammock as a pivot, and being brave enough to allow gravity to do the rest, it is so easy to get yourself into position. You basically just tip yourself backwards, lift up your legs and trust the hammock to hold you in whatever wrap you’re using. Trust in the hammock, and in yourself, is probably the biggest obstacle.
There is a bit of a fear that you’re going to fall out of the hammock at first, and I must admit I do still feel a bit like this sometimes when we try something new. But once you’ve realised that the hammock will hold you, this fear does disappear for the most part. To be honest I have more of a fear of accidentally letting rip a huge fart at these classes, at any exercise class in fact. I think I’m scarred from the time I went to a pilates class and another woman in the group did the loudest fart I’ve ever heard. Afterwards, the room was so silent you could have heard a pin drop, and my lungs were bursting from trying not to laugh. I’ve fallen off a gym ball in front of some people before, but I think I might actually be so embarrassed that I’d spontaneously combust if a fart slipped out. This is genuinely more of a fear for me than slipping out of the hammock altogether. So far it hasn’t been an issue, so maybe being upside-down helps prevents attacks of gas. Sometimes I wonder if these thoughts are going through everyone else’s heads in the class, or if it’s just me – the weird tubby girl wobbling about at the back of the class, thinking about farts.
But, I digress.
The hammock can be used for other toning exercises too. These are great for anyone who has joint issues, because they support your weight during exercises like these.
Our instructor has us doing some pretty brutal moves, like pull-ups and planks, all supported by the hammock. After one week’s class, I got down on the floor to do my back exercises the next evening, and couldn’t get back up because my stomach muscles were protesting too much. I genuinely thought for a moment that I’d have to wriggle downstairs like a worm and call 999 for help.
Sometimes the hammock does dig into your skin where your entire weight is being supported by it. I was left with a bruise in a rather uncomfortable place (let’s be no more specific than to say it was in the ‘pant zone’) one week, but I am getting used to it. Our instructor refuses to listen to us whining about it digging in, she just tells us we’re getting a deep tissue massage.
I am not massively fit, I’m a bit fat and I’m not hugely flexible (apart from my shoulders, for some reason), but I’ve been able to get into poses that I thought would be impossible. If you’d shown me pictures of these moves a month ago and said I would be able to do them, I’d have laughed at you, but I’ve done all of these, although possibly not as well as the ladies in these photos!
It’s even inspired me to pick up my old yoga books and work my way through a few lessons of traditional hatha yoga, on which a lot of the poses are based.
Anti-gravity fitness is kind of faddy, like some of the other exercises I’ve tried. But I think because it is partly based on forms of exercise which have been around for centuries, it feels like it’s rooted in a bit more reality than something like Bokwa, which I’m still genuinely baffled by. I come out of the class feeling a foot taller than I actually am, with a lovely stretched out spine and no joint pain from having bounced around on a treadmill or in an aerobics class. I might not get up as much as a sweat as in the gym, but I do feel stronger, having worked muscles which, until now, I swear have been entirely dormant. I also sleep like the dead after a class.
I think I’m going to treat myself to another four week course. Hanging upside-down like a bat is just way too satisfying to give up…at least until that accidental fart slips out anyway.
I’m a serial dieter, and I’ve tried many, many different diets to try to rid myself of the cursed chub that I’ve had since I was a kid. I’ve done Weight Watchers, low-carb, the cabbage soup diet, low GI and calorie counting to name a few. The most successful in recent years has been the calorie counting, which I managed to keep up for a couple of years and I lost around 30 pounds. But a holiday in Rome, a holiday in Gran Canaria and then Christmas in quick succession meant I piled about 10 pounds of that back on.
After Christmas I attempted to go back to the calorie counting, but the weight just wouldn’t budge. I don’t know whether my body is just used to that amount of calories now, or if I was just finding it too hard to stick to again, but I lost a couple of pounds and then put them straight back on. I was at a weightloss deadlock with my hated belly and hips. The thing that really spurred me on to do something was the fact that I’m going to the BAFTAs the weekend I get back from two weeks in Florida and I have had to commit to a dress. The dress I’m wearing was a bit snug, so I was panicking about the weight I’ll inevitably pile on while I’m in Florida, after two weeks of pancakes, burgers and my beloved ice cream (food of the gods). I was also feeling a bit vain about my holiday photographs. Last time I went to Florida, in 2010, I was horrified by my photographs because I looked like a hippo in all of them. It was those photos that inspired the original 30 pounds of weightloss on the calorie counting diet. I did not want another set of Hippo Goes on Holiday photos. Cue drastic action.
I decided to try the fasting diet. It’s an idea that came out of a BBC documentary where Dr Michael Mosley tried various methods of incorporating fasting into his daily routine. What he settled on was having two days a week where you eat just 500 calories, and the rest of the time you eat normally. What it means by ‘normally’ is your recommended daily calorie intake (2000 for a woman). You can’t expect to trough your way through 4000 calories a day and still lose weight. It supposedly has a lot of health benefits like lowering blood pressure, making you more responsive to insulin and the reduction of a hormone that causes ageing and cancer. But all I was interested in was the fact that it shakes up your metabolism and shifts weight.
I was worried it would be difficult. There’s no mystery as to why I’ve always struggled with my weight, it’s because I really like my food, and I’ve been known to get grumpy, irritable and light-headed when I’ve gone without food too long, but I haven’t experienced any of those symptoms on my fast days. I haven’t really even felt that hungry. I haven’t experienced the sleeplessness that some people did when they tried this, and I haven’t been cold on my fasting days either. In fact, I’ve been warm, with a really red, rosy face! This is an odd side-effect that doesn’t seem to be common, I even emailed Dr Michael Mosley to ask him about it and he said he had no explanation! He did seem to find it quite amusing though.
I’m surprised that I’ve also noticed a change in my eating habits, I’ve naturally started to eat less on my non-fasting days. I’m more in tune with when I feel full, and more likely to stop eating instead of continuing until I feel uncomfortable. It sounds stupid, but this is something that most people are guilty of doing. We’ve become accustomed to not feeling hungry, and a hunger pang strikes fear into the heart of most people. What you learn on your fast days is that hunger pangs don’t last. You feel hungry, but after ten minutes it’s gone away again. In the past, I’d have reached for a snack the second I felt that pang, but I’m learning not to. I’ve definitely been snacking less and I’ve been leaving food on my plate at the end of a meal, something that was unheard of before!
I was dubious about whether it would work, but I’ve seen a steady weightloss of around a pound a week, sometimes more. In six weeks I’ve lost 6 1/4 pounds, which is more than I’ve managed to lose in such a short time since early last year. It means I can go to Florida without worrying, because even I can’t eat enough ice cream to put six pounds back on in two weeks, and it means I can get into my dress for the BAFTAs. I’m going to get straight back into it as soon as I get back and tackle the remaining blubber once and for all. The hippo is hopefully gone for good!