I am a songwriter, composer, singer and violist.
Just over a year ago, I started practicing olympic weightlifting.
It wasn’t completely out of the blue. I’d practiced yoga, cycling, running, bodyweight resistance training and some other forms of weightlifting, but it still feels as if the sport found me. From the very first day, I was hooked. Never has a sport (or anything, really) affected me so profoundly, and this is my first attempt to put some of that into words.
The first thing that I noticed was the simplicity and elegance of the sport. It requires a bar, bumper plates, a platform and special shoes. There are only two lifts performed in competitions: the snatch (where you lift the bar from the ground to over your head in one movement) and the clean and jerk (a two-part lift – from the ground to your shoulders, then from your shoulders to overhead).
There is a general routine that I follow every time I go. It’s a long list of tasks that happen in a specific order, many of which happen even before the real training begins: get dressed, eat toast, bike/walk to gym, put on shoes, wrap wrists, fill water bottle, stretch/warm up, bring barbell to platform, get a stack of weights, write down the daily workout.
I’ve never been particularly good at sticking to a routine, but I’ve had very little trouble following my twice a week minimum lifting routine for a year (minus a few weeks here and there when I’ve been away or sick). Engaging in this lengthy routine at least twice a week has helped me in two main ways. First, it’s helped me push through some of my inertia in other areas, specifically in my creative practice. Getting started has always been difficult for me. But another more recent revelation is this: perhaps some of the things I was having trouble sticking to or getting started weren’t actually things that I wanted to be stuck to in the first place. This is one that I’m playing with a lot, as I find myself shifting from things I’d always felt like I should be doing to things that I feel a deeper drive and satisfaction from.
Another particular thing about weightlifting is that the work happens in quick spurts. One will do maybe three reps max (or one rep if working at a high percentage of your max), which lasts under twenty seconds, before taking at least a one minute break.
I’ve actually started practicing music in this way. Rather than playing the same passage over and over again, I’ll play something once or twice and then physically walk away from my instrument for a minute or two. When I come back, I’m relaxed, refreshed and reset. Things that I’ve practiced in this way feel almost bulletproof when it comes time to perform them.
Weightlifting essentially requires you to use all of your muscles at once, in a very precise and coordinated burst. It also requires a ton of flexibility and balance. It is rigorous, and I have never worked my body so hard. I’ve also never been this strong before, stronger than I ever thought I would be. I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as an athlete, at least not past the age of seven or eight. Now that I can squat the weight of pretty much every person I know, the confidence is palpable. And this is just one of the ways in which I find myself to be actually profoundly different from my earlier ideas of myself.
I should mention that at the time I got into lifting, I was going through a kind of artistic reevaluation. I had been experiencing a lot of challenges, both professional and personal, and had stepped back considerably from playing many shows or focusing on my songwriting in a big way. My career as a freelance musician was feeling unfulfilling and unsustainable. I didn’t know the way forward, but I knew for certain that the only way to find it was to take some time away. I didn’t stop working altogether but for the first time since I’d started freelancing I took a mental break from the hustle.
I’ve always written songs and composed music. It’s been an involuntary reflex to my being alive. I’ve always believed myself deep down to be a composer. But from adolescence onwards, I dealt with huge amounts of anxiety and self doubt that often manifested in an inability to trust myself, interfering both with my creative output and my ability to make good career choices. I managed to make two solo albums and participate in many other projects, but it always felt like I was operating with one hand tied behind my back. There was a certain amount of resistance against truly committing fully to my writing.
The only way one can lift something really heavy is to release all sense of doubt, all of your ideas about whether you can or can’t do it, and just focus on the actual task. It doesn’t mean the doubt can’t exist anywhere, but in the moment of the lift, there is only room for the task. It became my meditation. A meditation with easily measurable results.
Almost immediately, this mental process began to work its way into other aspects of my life. I first noticed it in my reading. I was able to focus better than ever before, and could read through an article or chapter of even something fairly technical (like an article on recording technique, or a business manual) quickly, and retain it. This is something I’ve had trouble with since I was a teenager.
Then I noticed it in my playing. Especially my playing under pressure. I am now able to consistently release whatever it is that’s bothering me or distracting me in a particular moment, focus on my body, breathe and then play to the best of my ability. Nearly always. This is something I’ve had to work on very hard over the years, and though it got better through my yoga practice, psychotherapy, and running, it has become most consistent since I started weightlifting.
And now, I’m noticing it in my songwriting and composing. I am not necessarily feeling any more creative, but for the first time in my life, I’ve been able to work at it for at least two hours nearly every day. Whereas I used to get overwhelmed very easy by the idea of working on my songwriting, I now approach it the same way I approach lifting – task by task, with room for doubt in my larger psyche, but not in the exact moment of undertaking the task. In this way, I’ve actually been teaching myself (with some help from knowledgeable friends and plenty of internet articles and tutorials) how to record my own music, something I never in a million years thought I’d be able to do.
I think that the simple physical act of getting up from under a very heavy thing is profoundly mentally transformative.
Another thing I’ve noticed, especially when practicing heavy squatting, is all the ways in which my body tends to work against itself under stress. At some point I realized that while I was working with my legs to get back up again, I was actually PULLING the bar down with my arms. Once I stopped doing that, the motion became a lot easier and I could increase the weight on the bar. So, another question I ask myself these days, which is also a very popular question in Buddhist meditation, is “What can I release here that isn’t helpful?”
It’s also taught me patience. We mustn’t hurry. Sometimes progress happens so slowly and imperceptibly (and sometimes in reverse!) that it feels impossible, and then there is suddenly some magical and unexpected gain.
And now, I am asking a whole lot of questions, that I hope to address in conversations and future posts.
For starters, I’ve been thinking about the way the arts and athletics are generally placed at odds with each other in our society. Both at school and in my family, you were either an artist or a jock. You couldn’t be both. The crazy thing is, playing music and playing sports share so many elements. They are both deeply physical tasks, and to perform well at either one of them requires almost identical mental training.
Why does conventional music training often deny its deeply physical nature?
Could cross training of this sort (not necessarily weightlifting) become an official part of conventional music education?
How can I further break down these barriers to reveal the essential interconnectedness of all physical practices?
I have thought an awful lot about being a woman, and how all of the subtle things we are taught growing up go firmly against what is required of us to perform. We are taught to shrink, to not be too loud or bold, to hide our bodies, or if our bodies aren’t hidden, that we must be sexualized. But we are also taught to be ashamed of our sexuality. In order to perform, one must be big, take up space, command attention, be fully present in our bodies and be comfortable in that. We must release our need to be liked and approved of. We must release our worry about what other people think, release our need to compete. These are all issues that I have been able to address through weightlifting and other physical practices. I am so eager to keep exploring this connection.
And as I continue my journey, I will continue to track my anxiety levels, both in performance and in daily life, as I know there are still some very profound connections to be made.