Comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort. ~Peter McWilliams
For my 37th birthday last December, I took myself to my first Physique 57 class. For those not familiar with Physique, it is a type of ballet barre method with studios in New York City, LA, and the Hamptons. Physique also produces DVDs with hundreds of thousands of devotees. The class moves rapidly from arms, shoulders, and back to thighs, seat, and abdominals so that after 57 minutes, not only have you worked out your entire body, but you’re not quite sure what just hit you.
The Physique formula is efficient and effective – fatigue each set of muscles and then stretch them. And when I say fatigue, I mean FATIGUE. The instructors uniformly encourage you to “go toward the burn,” a concept that initially brought some complex emotions for me.
I don’t know about you, but I have a little voice in my head that steers me toward comfortable experiences and away from uncomfortable ones. For example, Ben and Jerry’s while watching Sex and the City reruns – comfortable, good, yes; running – uncomfortable, bad, pass the Chunky Monkey. But a few years ago, running actually changed my relationship to discomfort. Since then, I have made personal study of exploring my ability to tolerate discomfort and see what benefit might lurk in that space.
I remember my first Physique 57 class, during which I very nearly vomited. As we worked our thigh muscles through a series of lunges and squats, I didn’t believe it was possible to do what was being asked of me. The burning sensations were too powerful to tolerate and I had to back off, take a break and then rejoin the group when I regained control of my legs.
The pleasure-seeker in me might have campaigned for leaving the building and never turning back, but something had piqued my interest. In addition to the motivating music, the fit and encouraging instructors, and the 20 or so other people challenging themselves, the idea of leaning into the discomfort appealed to me.
Since December I’ve taken about 2 or 3 Physique classes per week and in that time I have practiced going toward the burn much like I practice staying with the breath in meditation. Without lamenting perceived failures or anticipating future challenges, I can experiment with just how much discomfort I can stand.
When I take a Physique class now, my muscles still burn but, rather than stopping to get the relief I intuitively crave, I become curious about that discomfort. I linger there, and even lean into it. By doing so I notice it is not constant. There are in fact moment-to-moment variations in the quality of the discomfort: one moment, red hot streaks down the quadriceps muscles; the next moment, a powerful surge of ability; the next moment, a pulsating warmth that encircles my thighs, and so on.
The sensations are different every time, but by resting in that space, I learn more about my body, it’s limits and abilities. And I have gotten stronger, physically and mentally.