Thursday, August 7, 2014

What's With the Turtle Head? - My First Master's Swim Class

Yesterday I took my first master's swim class at the YMCA. It was an emotional roller coaster - I laughed, I cried, I thought I might literally drown a few times. But I made it through.

I had been thinking about taking swim lessons of some kind for a couple of months, at least. I don't know if it's just the fact that I'm a relatively new runner, or if I just happen to have particularly weak knees and shins, but running too much causes me a lot of pain with shin splints and the like. I need to be able to diversify my cardio workouts with some low-impact activities. I've been getting into cycling some, which I love, but I currently have a heavy hybrid bike, which doesn't give you the same kind of workout as a road bike - i.e. I have to pedal constantly to keep that heavy thing going at any kind of speed. I'm going to get a road bike in the next month or so, which I'm really excited about.

My other big option for a low-impact cardio workout is swimming. I don't have a strong history with swimming. I am kind of terrified of the ocean, and I dislike being underwater without holding my nose. I'm Martin Short in the men's synchronized swimming skit from SNL. So I knew I had some work to do to be able to incorporate swimming into my workout regimen in any meaningful way. Also, in order to not drown while doing so.

Several weeks ago, John and I decided to make an attempt at doing a swimming workout. Armed with a "beginner's swim workout" that I printed out from the internet, we took our best shot at it. We failed, miserably. After flailing and gasping our way through the warmup - just the warmup! - we clung to the edge of the pool at the end of the lane and wondered how we would EVER get through the rest of the workout. The lifeguard was even laughing at us, albeit goodnaturedly. I knew, then, that lessons were mandatory. My technique was nonexistent, probably life-threateningly so. I certainly wasn't going to be able to complete a worthwhile workout with my current skill level.

I looked into lessons at the YMCA, where we have a membership, and eventually decided to try a master's swim course. I signed up, spent the next two weeks being terrified, and yesterday, I finally padded out into the pool area for my first class. After breaking not one, but two pairs of goggles, I met my coach. A former college team swimmer, he asked me why I wanted to learn to swim better. "Is it to be able to survive if you fall off a ship, or are you wanting to compete?" I told him that I wanted to swim as a workout and also that I maybe, maybe wanted to do triathlons one day. I later wished that I hadn't revealed that last part, as I gasped my way along the assigned laps while he assessed my skill level. After two laps, he had seen enough.

The coach paired me with one of the other two students, a woman named Yasmin, to work on stroke drills. Yasmin is around my age and probably a month or two ahead of me in ability. For that reason, she was able to show me what she was working on, and give me pointers from her point of view as someone who was probably gasping like me not too long ago. She and I poked along our laps while the coach worked with the other, more advanced, student (a woman named Sarah) in the other lane, periodically observing us and offering guidance.

My guidance mostly consisted of the coach asking me, "What's with the turtle head?", meaning, why the hell was I craning my neck and head back up and out of the water to breathe. The answer was, quite simply, because I had no clue what to do otherwise. The coach and other students demonstrated the correct technique to me repeatedly, but I was struggling to catch on. In order to breathe while swimming, one is supposed to simply roll one's head to the side at the beginning of the stroke. There's no lifting your head out of the water whatsoever, but for me, that came naturally, even if it wasn't graceful or efficient. I guess I'm trying to get my mouth as far away from the water as possible before drawing a breath; leaving so much of my face in the water makes me feel claustrophobic. ("Claustrophobic" is the word I use because I feel like it sounds more legitimate than "Afraid I'm going to drown.")

Trying to force myself into using the correct breathing method, in addition to paying attention to all the other little techniques and tweaks (keep your elbow, not your hand, up high on the stroke; pull your hand along an imaginary line down the center of your body in the water underneath you) proved to be a little much for me. I could do any one thing at a time, but the moment I got my stroke position right, I would either do the turtle head or my head would sink and I would almost drown; the moment I rolled my head to the side for air correctly, I would lose every bit of form in the rest of my body and start flailing. I was a disaster.

Halfway through class, I got to the point where I was starting to feel panicky. My tenuous grasp on technique was falling completely apart mid-lap and it was starting to scare me. Rationally, I know that I'm not likely to drown during master's swim class at the Y, with a lifeguard, a coach, two other students, and 5 other lap swimmers immediately nearby, but I don't feel rational when I'm trying to breathe and my face is in the water. I was getting tired from trying to swim too fast, and I loathe being the worst at something. Yasmin found me standing on the ledge at the end of the lane, fidgeting with my goggles and getting ready to give up. I couldn't bring myself to swim another lap; the fear and frustration was getting to be too much. The coach was swimming laps with the advanced student, so I was waiting for him to get to the other end of the lane, affording me the most time to climb out and slip out of the pool area unnoticed. Yasmin swam up and asked me if I was okay; I blinked back tears and tried not to sound like I was about to cry. "I'm just having a really hard time. I don't know if I can do this. I can't get the breathing right."

Sweet, wonderful angel that she is, Yasmin gave me the best pep talk. Her manner of speaking is very calm and quiet, so it contrasted pleasantly with her words; I was hearing what sounds like an affirmation yelled by Tony Robbins spoken very softly by a Middle Eastern woman, and it soothed me immeasurably. "It has to be difficult before it gets any easier." Things like that. And you know, it might be cliched, but I needed cliched at that moment. After talking me down from fight-or-flight level, Yasmin showed me some of the techniques she had used to get better at the breathing technique. I worked on those for awhile, and my coach continued to give me pointers. Sarah, the advanced swimmer, put in her two cents as well, and it really helped me to hear advice from three points of view, from varying skill levels.

I'd like to say that it got easier from then on out, but it didn't. I was no longer trying to sneak out of class, and I wasn't crying, but I was still struggling, and I still kind of hated it. Learning to swim correctly reminds me a lot of learning to ride a bicycle when I was a kid; it feels really dangerous and unnatural until the magic moment when the pieces all fall into place. During my very last lap of the day, the elements came together for a few brief moments: my stroke position, the follow-through under my body, and my breathing technique were all present and accounted for - probably barely passable, but still functional. I experienced just a glimpse of what it feels like when you're doing it right, and it changed everything. When I emerged from the water at the end of the lane, I saw my coach and fellow students all standing and watching me. "That was so much better!" my coach said.

"It felt better." I told him. It was true, and not just for the swimming itself. I felt better all around, because I had faced something that I was actually a little bit terrified of, if I was being 100% honest with myself, and didn't give up when I was feeling my lowest. This is especially significant for me right now as I am in the process of rebranding myself, so to speak, as an athletic person. It's not about the way that I look or act, necessarily, it's about my self-perception as being strong and capable. After a lifetime of being told that I was just naturally unathletic - and worse still, believing it - changing that idea of myself has taken more than a little bit of work. Even after over a year of running regularly and several months of weight lifting, and experiencing considerable improvements in both areas, I still have trouble identifying as someone who is capable in a physical way. I was always encouraged to rely on my smarts, not my strength, and as a result, I never fully explored the latter until relatively recently.

So I came out of master's swim class feeling pretty good about the whole thing. I feel confident that with practice, I can improve and feel comfortable in the water. Practicing on my own is a way less daunting idea now that I have an idea what techniques to actually work on, and it will be a lot less pressure to work on my laps and drills for a few days without the watchful eye of my coach on me during my inevitable bumbles. Hopefully I'll feel somewhat more confident in my ability by the time my next class rolls around on Wednesday. I'm actually looking forward to it.

Note to self: Need new swim goggles. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Recipe: Quinoa With Sweet Potato & Dandelion Greens

Everyone knows that quinoa is not only delicious but super healthy, and my husband and I count ourselves among the quinoa devotees. We eat a lot of quinoa in my house! Quinoa is frequently used as a side dish or as a replacement for rice, but I have rarely served it as any kind of main dish.

I'm always impressed by how healthy and vibrant quinoa salad recipes look, but here's the thing (well, a couple of things): First of all, I'm a comfort food girl and a hearty eater. I try to eat healthy, but when it comes down to it, I can't eat just a salad, ever, and be satisfied. I need warm, filling food! Therefore, the cold quinoa salads just look like a nice little snack to me. Secondly, I'm a shamefully picky eater, considering how much I try to eat healthy foods. I have dislikes that border on blatant faux pas, and a long list of food texture issues. For example, I absolutely will not eat raw onion. I will barely eat cooked onion. I have to chop mine very finely in the food processor so that I can forget that it's in my food. I feel like so many quinoa salad recipes rely pretty heavily on raw onion, and that's a huge NOPE for me.

Looks gorgeous, right? Yes, but I see raw onion (NOPE), cucumber (MEH sometimes), and mint (MEH sometimes). But if you're into that sort of thing, the recipe link is above.
I'm pretty much a 5-year-old trying to eat healthy.

But I digress. The point is that I came across this recipe on Pinterest a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn't get it off of my mind. (This blog, Climbing Grier Mountain, has a ton of insanely amazing looking recipes that I'm excited to try. Go check it out!) Was it finally the quinoa "salad" that I was looking for? I say "salad" in quotes because this is definitely more of a main dish as far as I'm concerned. The roasted squash, the sauteed dandelion greens, and the quinoa, all served warm, with a whole-grain mustard vinaigrette, is overall not very salad-y. It seemed so gosh-dang cozy! I knew I had to try it.

I tweaked the recipe a little bit. I decided to use sweet potato instead of squash, because I love sweet potato, and I didn't feel like dealing with squash. I skipped the onion because it's raw and NOPE. It seemed like more of a garnish, anyway, and I didn't feel like I was totally compromising the integrity of the recipe by omitting it.

Anyway, enough of my yakkin'. Now I'm going to show you how I made it! First, I preheated the oven to 400 degrees to roast my sweet potatoes. I don't know why I chose 400, but it worked. A lot of my cooking is totally off-the-cuff. Next, I combined 1 cup of quinoa with 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan, covered it, and set it to boil. Once it rose to a boil, I turned the heat down to low and let it simmer for 15 minutes while I was doing my other prep. Once it had simmered 15 minutes, I took it off the heat and let it stand for at least 5 minutes.

This is one reason why I love quinoa. It's so easy and quick.

While the quinoa was cooking, I got my sweet potatoes ready to cook.

First, I peeled the sweet potatoes. Well, I whined internally about it for a moment, and then started peeling, and I hated every minute of it. I loathe peeling potatoes. It might be that I need to get a nicer peeler, but as it is, I would rather do almost anything than peel potatoes.

Once the sweet potatoes were finally peeled, I diced them up into small pieces and coated them with just a bit of olive oil. Then I spread them out in a single layer on a foil-lined pan and popped them in the oven for about 20 minutes or until they could be easily stabbed with a fork.

While the sweet potatoes were roasting, I prepared my dandelion greens. This was my first time cooking with dandelion greens, and I'm not going to lie, it made me feel super rustic, which I loved. It was like I had gone out a-gatherin' in the field to find greens for dinner. Didn't Katniss Everdeen survive on dandelion greens for awhile? That may be the singular reason why I was drawn to this recipe, now that I think about it. After rinsing the greens, I trimmed them, which I honestly had no actual idea how to do. So I just chopped off the stems that were long and tough, and then cut the rest into pieces a few inches long.

Once the greens were prepped, I minced some garlic and heated up a skillet on medium heat. I sauteed the greens with the garlic and 1 tbsp of olive oil until tender and wilted.

I removed the greens from the heat and set them aside. Somewhere around this time, I removed the quinoa from the heat and set it aside as well. Then I got to work on the whole grain mustard vinaigrette. I combined 1/4 cup of olive oil with 2 tbsp whole grain mustard, 1 tsp of red wine vinegar, a squeeze of fresh lemon, and a little bit of salt and pepper, then whisked it all together. I set this aside for later.

I can't even explain to you how good that dressing smells and tastes. It's kind of like honey mustard. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. By this time, the quinoa had sat long enough, so I fluffed it with a fork. I then removed the sweet potatoes from the oven, and combined them with the quinoa.

Now, to assemble the dish. Because I was preparing this for work lunches, I divided it into two Pyrex containers. First is the quinoa and sweet potato mixture, then the sauteed greens, then it's topped with the whole grain mustard vinaigrette. 

Even though I had dinner in the works, I couldn't resist making up a little bowl of this to try, and boy, is it delicious! The tastes all really come together in this satisfying, filling dish. The fluffy quinoa with the sweet potatoes topped with the slightly bitter garlicky greens all covered with the tangy whole grain mustard vinaigrette dressing - it's the perfect wintry quinoa main dish. I've been converted.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

2014 and The Warrior Energy Of The Swords

Every New Year's Eve, I do a big tarot reading for the upcoming year so that I can get an idea of what's coming for me, energetically. I focus on the year ahead, shuffle my tarot cards, and then I do a layout with one card for each month of the year. NYE 2013 was much the same for me, and here's what I got for 2014:

At first, I was a little freaked out by my 2014 reading, and with good reason, I might say. Do you see all of those swords? Swords are considered by many to be the most difficult suit of the tarot deck, and while I actually love the air element and swords (I'm a Libra cusp and Aquarius rising), I know that it's not the easiest element to be immersed in. I even consider the Queen of Swords to be my tarot card! I have so much air influence that getting out of my head is one of my big life challenges, which I've been working on for about as long as I can remember, with fairly good success. From that standpoint, I wasn't too happy to see that apparently I was facing a whole year of dealing with the same issue! 2013 was a huge year for me, full of excitement, ups and downs, and many momentous events, so I was kiiiind of looking forward to relaxing a little and coasting through 2014.

But, you know, when does the universe ever want us to coast? Furthermore, when do we ever really want to coast? It may seem like a great idea for awhile, but at some point you gotta keep doing the work and moving forward. With this in mind, I tried to stay calm and spent the next few days really thinking about the suit of swords, and meditating on what facing a year with half of its focus on swords would mean for me.

I started thinking about my goals for 2014. While I firmly believe that my goals are all within my reach, I definitely wasn't a slouch in the department of dreaming big for myself when I set my intentions for the year. I achieved two things in 2013 that I never, ever thought that I would be able to do: the first was quitting caffeine, and the second was running my first 5K. I cannot overemphasize how much these two achievements had previously seemed completely out of reach for me. I had spent the better part of the last decade [seemingly] hopelessly dependent on caffeine, and I had spent my entire life being told - and worse, believing - that I was naturally unathletic. When I finally set my mind to both of these pursuits and succeeded, it was through sheer force of will. In fact, ever since then, my husband has repeatedly affirmed about me: "You have the most willpower of anyone I know." 

With the pride of those accomplishments glowing within, I set my sights high for 2014 with a few more audacious goals. The difference this year is that now I *know* that if I just focus my intention on it, that I can accomplish anything. The reason why I was able to accomplish those two huge goals in 2013 was because I simply made myself keep working at them, and I wouldn't give up. And I eventually realized how the Sword energy is set to support me this upcoming year. Many associate Swords with mental patterns and thought processes, and since overthinking is usually a bad thing, this evokes a feeling of turmoil. However, the Swords are also associated with ambition, courage, and force of will, and these can be some of the most important elements in achieving our dreams. It's the part of you that just does it and keeps doing it no matter what; it's the drive. 

Furthermore, I came to realize that the energy of the swords is that of the warrior. The aforementioned ambition and courage, along with a disciplined refinement of focus, are what make the warrior victorious, and that is what I know to be the key to my own successes. The warrior aspect of the swords is subtle but makes all the difference between daydreaming, obsessing, and overthinking versus planning, executing, determination, and ultimate accomplishment. It makes me feel very confident and supported to know that I can tap into the sword warrior energy in 2014.

What will you do this year with the sword warrior by your side?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Better Late Than Never...

When I was a kid, I was sure of two things: One was that there was a lot more to how the world works than what I was being taught. 

I spent the better part of my life battling the fear that came along with that first piece of knowledge; having been brought up in the South, in the Baptist church, I was taught to view life in a way that was usually short-sighted and consistently terrifying. Everything was about fear - fear of hell, fear of retaliation, fear of those who are different, fear of our own desires - and from a very, very early age, I realized that that simply did not work for me. 

My brother and me as kids. 
My idea of God was always that of a benevolent, loving force, and being told that He was sitting in heaven, watching and waiting, ready to judge me and hand down punishment, was very difficult for me to deal with. When you're a child, you don't necessarily have the cognitive ability to think that your own judgment is correct. You instinctively believe that the adults around you are telling you the infallible truth, because that's what adults do. So, when I found my own beliefs at odds with those of my parents and my Sunday school teachers, it disturbed me on a very visceral level, because I automatically assumed that it must have been me who was wrong. And I tried for a very long time to fix my beliefs. 

I remember lying awake at night, thinking about death and dying and trying to imagine what it would be like to go to hell, to be punished for the fact that my brain would not allow me to think the way that the adults thought. It seemed astonishingly unfair that I would have to suffer for something that was as natural a part of me as my fingers and toes, because the idea of not believing that God is love and only love seemed as feasible as cutting off my extremities. 

For years, I vacillated between actively trying to reconcile my beliefs with the adults' beliefs and just flat-out faking it in hopes that I would succeed in making it. And even when I got to the point where it didn't make me lie awake in bed, frantically praying to God to help me believe the right way so that I could be good, it still took awhile for me to truly make peace with it. I eventually realized that I could have my own beliefs and that that was okay, but then I had to start the work of refining what those beliefs really were. I had spent so long just trying to convince myself that I wasn't wrong for questioning, that I had never really taken a hard look at the questions themselves, my answers, and what they meant for me. That was the next part of the journey, and I'm still making my way through. 

The other thing that I was sure of was that I wanted to be a writer. I wrote constantly as a child, indiscriminately. Illustrated picture books, short stories, poems, novellas; there was nothing that I wouldn't write, and I wrote joyously, free of restraint. Everything that was on my mind or in my mind found its way onto a page. Somewhere along the way, however, I fell victim to the self-doubt and malaise that terrorize teenagers. Not only did I no longer feel that I was capable of writing, but the act of writing began to make me feel uncomfortable. When I was younger, I was able to transmute my sensitivity into art, but as I grew older, writing felt more and more like being skinned alive and put on display. And I eventually stopped doing it. 

The reason why I'm starting this blog is to combine these two certainties of my youth into one passion project, to hold myself accountable to my 6-year-old self by practicing my art while exploring my spiritual side. I plan to use this blog as a place to talk about my holistic journey: spirituality, happiness, fitness, good food, and how it all comes together for me. I hope you'll enjoy it.

Me, all grown up.