Saturday, March 14, 2009

Zen of Cheddar

While I was lying on my back, with both legs stretched straight over my head, my billowy, two-toned pink drawstring trousers, which I call my jam band pants because they remind me of something a groovy girl would wear to a Grateful Dead or Phish concert, slipped down my calves and knees and exposed most of my thighs. In this position, called the plough, I couldn't avoid looking at the backs of them. Usually, they are safely out of sight (my sight, not others'!), but holding this position for a few seconds, I can no longer ignore them or the fact that they aren't looking good. All along the back of my big, pale thighs are--horrible visu--the dreaded bumps and pockets of cellulite. My legs are fat.
My legs have always been burly, as well as out of proportion with the rest of my body. An ex-boyfriend memorably remarked that I am like a Brazilian soccer player on the bottom and a supermodel on top (except for the face, of course!). I myself think that I missed my calling as a speed skater. Or I should have been studded out to an Aussie Rules player or a Brazilian soccer player so that we could breed super children with unusually muscular legs. Our children would kick ass.
Sitting back upright, I was thinking about my own ass, which has grown over sized like my legs. Together, my thighs and butt have advanced forward and have startrd a campaign against the boundaries of my clothes. They are making contact with areas on my shorts and capri pants that have remained unexplored for years. The seams of my clothes cannot handle the strain of their relentless attack. A week ago, on the ferry from Georgetown in Penang back to Butterworth on the mainland of Malaysia, I bent down to take a picture of Penang Hill, which had been obscured in pre-dawn darkness on my way over to Penang much earlier that day. My lime green shorts, which I bought eight years ago at Meg, one of my favorite boutiques in the East Village in New York City, finally let down their defensive walls and split, right along the crack of my ass, now exposed to modest Malaysians and snickering teenagers. Luckily I had a sarong with me, courtesy of Andrea in Melbourne, and wrapped it around my waist to cover my shame. My ass had won the battle, and I shuffled off the ferry in defeat toward my third night train in four days.
How did my backside get into this position? My legs ended up behind my head because I was doing the group-led hour-long Thai yoga and Qi Gong exercises before the first lesson of the day in Nuad Bo-Rarn, or the ancient massage of Thailand, northern style. I am enrolled in a two-week course at the International Training Massage School (ITM) in Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city. For someone who isn't involved in the healing arts, either in receiving or giving them (I don't even do yoga or get massages regularly and I once cried doing Tai Chi!), it's a stretch for me, both literally and figuratively, to learn and perform the intimate and contortionist postures of Thai yoga. I don't have a knack for it, and probably have no business learning it, but I am giving it a go. Last year, during my first visit to Thailand, I received a full body massage in almost every city I visited, and I became quite intrigued by this active style of massage, which is likened to performing yoga on the receiver. After a very good massage at Wat Pho in Bangkok, the first training school for massage in Thailand, I got it into my head that it might be an interesting thing to learn. On top of that, knowing how to give massages is a great skill that you can bring anywhere, provided you are licensed. Furthermore, it probably does me, who's so rigid in both temperament and body, a lot of good to push myself into new and uncomfortable territory. But I must say that thus far it's been a trying and frustrating experience, and not a few tears have been shed this past week.
And then there's the ugly sight of my legs. And how did they get like that? I don't think I need to tell you. It's the Cheddar of course! And the beer, and wine, and nuts, and general gustatory overindulgence over the past five months since the Berlin Marathon at the end of September. I should be fair and not blame cheese, but my own lack of restraint. I wouldn't say, however, that I have eaten with abandon, but I have consumed more than someone should at my age who is also not exercising regularly and vigorously. But maybe I have to admit that I have drunk with some abandon. And then there were the buffets on Lady Elliot Island on the Great Barrier Reef, which never do anyone any good. And eating cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and most moments in between for two months in London couldn't have helped. In short, it's no surprise that my body has taken a beating and that it in turn is taking it out on my clothes.
But it still comes as a shock to see the unappealing changes in my hips, thighs, butt, and stomach. Only five months ago, my muscles were so defined that people would comment on them. It's embarrassing to be in this current physical state, especially in front of my classmates at ITM, many of whom do a lot of yoga and other meditative exercises. They are trim and toned and comfortable with their bodies. To add insult to injury, the women aren't "subtle" on top; their boobs are big and round, like the bare-chested dancers carved onto Hindu temples. And if they are subtle on top, so, too, is the rest of their bodies.
At ITM, I hide my legs in my jam band trousers, of which I now own three pairs and plan to buy a fourth tonight at the Sunday Walking Market in the walled old town of Chiang Mai. I also keep quiet about my Great Cheddar Adventure. My quest for cheese seems out of place in the company of this international lot who are looking for physical and mental harmony, for themselves and for their future clients. (Some of them do need to find balance, as some are quite out of whack!). Furthermore, I feel that if I mention my unchecked love of cheese, my fellow students will remark to themselves that it's no wonder--and all my own doing--that I am so flabby.
It is interesting to note that without my even mentioning it, the topic of cheese comes up. Westerners love their cheese and find themselves missing it while in Asia. One of the young Canadian women in my class went out to a Mexican restaurant in Chiang Mai the night before our exam in the desperate search for cheese. She didn't come away satisfied. She got way more beans than cheese. Another Canadian said that she was really missing cheese and wine, and a fellow New Yorker from Astoria, a petite yoga instructor who is originally from Turkey, stocke the fridge in her hotel room with Gouda. I spied it when I came over to practise the sixty-three postures of Level 1 on her the night before our exam on Friday. Believe it or not, I can't relate to their needing cheese while away from home for a brief time. There is just so much good and cheap food in Southeast Asia, everywhere, all the time, that I don't feel the absence of Western food. But maybe it's because I've eaten more than enough cheese in the last few months!
I passed the exam, with a high mark, but with many, many mistakes. I don't feel comfortable at all learning and performing these moves. In fact, I'm in a great deal of discomfort these days. My stomach is in knots because I am so anxious--anxious because I am having difficulties learning the moves; anxious because my trip is halfway over and I am not sure whether I have done what I needed to do to write a book about it (e.g., taking notes, doing research, updating my blog, etc.); anxious because I've got to do a lot of planning for the remaining five months of my trip (e.g., seeing if I can change my flight back to the U.K., setting up dates to work on dairy farms in Wales and England, making a dentist appointment, visiting relatives, possibly renting a car in the U.K., which is a big stretch for me because I have become phobic about driving, especially on the other side of the road); anxious because in five months I'll be back in the U.S. and there's a lot I want/need to accomplish upon my return (e.g, continue learning how to surf and give Thai massages, getting back into shape and losing this unwanted fat, going to the beach, reconnecting with friends, organizing my pictures, starting to write a book proposal, replenishing my bank account with some part time work, taking out accident insurance, etc.). So much is whirling in my mind, that when I am doing the supposedly calming exercises before class, I am far from centered; I keep thinking of what I need to do.
I'd rather not have a knot in my stomach and a mind that can't stop processing a long list of regrets and things to do, but this discomfort is all part of the journey I am on. I've given up my comfortable job and apartment to go on an adventure, and an adventure isn't an adventure without a good measure of anxiety about traveling unexplored places, in the world and in yourself. By the trip's end, which will come too soon, I will have grown, not only in my body that is expanding outwards and downwards, but also in my mental outlook about myself and the world. It is this mental growth, which is painful right now, that I am after. I'm like a big wheel of aging Cheddar that is being flipped daily and getting a bit banged up and bruised in the process. By the end of twelve months, the bruises around the rind will still be there, but the rest of the cheese is complex, yummy, and satisfying.

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