When I first went to see Kriss Brooks I was fifty. I had been a serious modern dancer in my teens, a folk dancer in my twenties and thirties, an enthusiastic aerobics person for the next few years, and a dedicated computer-potato for the last five. I had accepted as an inevitable sign of aging the daily difficulty of climbing out of bed and getting my stiff, sore joints moving. But the lower back problem was too much to ignore. Physical therapy didn’t feel like dancing, my criterion for living. It was boring, a downer, it was a pain in the back. I first turned to weight training as physical therapy.
But these days I think of weight lifting as a long, satisfying joke on the universe. It is an unexpected, great and continuing pleasure to be so strong, to have a body that is increasingly able. At the time in one’s life when one gets intimately acquainted for the first time with aging, with portents of decreasing possibilities and capacities, this is just short of miraculous.
It took a surprisingly short time (at 30 minutes, twice a week) to stop aching when I got up in the morning. It took a bit longer to lose what I had assumed was permanent tendinitis in my shoulders. It was only six months before my back quit hurting.
Take the back problem. Kriss’ strategy for that was indirect: I kept wondering — while we did leg exercises and arm exercises and shoulder exercises and chest exercises and upper back exercises — when were we going to start working on “my back problem.” When I figured out that I didn’t have a back problem anymore, and inspected that interesting turn of events, I began to learn a thing or two – in my body as well as my head, indeed in my life – about the integrated, interconnected, options that were becoming mine for moving more freely, lifting, working, and believing in my strength. Of course I knew those things before. But of course you have to change your life/body to remember them in the present. I think part of what Kriss Brooks means by calling her gym Options, is that the process of getting strong in one way opens windows on how to become strong in other ways. The changes in your body become a good concrete, in-your-face reminder of your power to change your life. ‘
My body changed. Like many active women my bottom half was considerably more muscley than my top half. You could role marbles down my sloping shoulders. It took me a couple of years of working out to definitively confirm that I too had triceps muscles. I didn’t try to do it on purpose, but my shoulders today are square and even. I like them a lot. There were other developments: I didn’t know it was possible to have serious muscle between my collar bones. I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror one day, stopped for a second look, then zeroed in on a lump (ALL lumps are suspicious by definition) at the base of my neck. Thyroid problem, I wondered? I moved my arm around and (after an astoundingly long time) I suddenly figured it out: MUSCLE!
Kriss Brooks is an extraordinary teacher in the most profound sense. When we work out she concentrates her formidable attention and energy on every exercise. I can do more in a half hour under her intense gaze than I can do in an hour by myself. If she pushes me, I respond with great confidence in her knowledge of what I’m capable of doing, I truly believe that she knows better than I what I’m capable of doing beyond what I can already do. I’m never bored in part because her creative and experimental approach means we never do the same workout twice. Nonetheless every serious muscle group knows it’s been worked hard by the end of the week.
Kriss Brooks has a deep knowledge of body physiology and how to work slowly and carefully around body injuries as they heal. I found it remarkable that there was not a single false step in the process of resolving that lower back problem. That too makes her a great weight trainer. There are other important facets to her power as a teacher: We work in a highly competitive academic world, and as a woman I wouldn’t be in that world if I weren’t (among other things) an all-too-skilled self-critic. The possibilities for beating oneself up over what one can’t do, weights one can’t lift, progress too slow – they are limitless. Kriss joked one day that for women like us, she didn’t dare use the common weight lifting term “work to failure,” because none of us could stand to hear the word. Think how thoughtful and skillful a teacher she is, to create a work-out “culture” in which I don’t feel competitive with myself, my past selves, my future selves or anyone else. At the same time I feel the pleasure of her respect, and her serious ambitions as well as my own for getting as strong as I am able.
Finally, it is important to remember that broader Options agenda – to strengthen our lives, hopes, possibilities as we strengthen our bodies. It helps to have a mentor who embodies much of what one hopes to become. Kriss is a lot of things – start with strong, really strong; strongly warm, kind, compassionate; a wise person and wise teacher; strongly determined that we should make ourselves stronger, and live more dancing lives. I don’t know if there is a personal weight trainers’ guild yet- but I hope it’s clear that this last paragraph would be my charter for the standards all weight trainers should aspire to.