The Undignified Business Of ‘Exercise’

In The Importance of Being Earnest Algernon reassures himself that he is “not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End.” Upon hearing that “the gaol itself is fashionable and well-aired; and there are ample opportunities of taking exercise at certain stated hours of the day,” Algernon is dismayed: “Exercise! Good God! No gentleman ever takes exercise.” Algernon was right. The popularity of exercise in our times–or, as it is now called, ‘the pursuit of fitness’–speaks to the fact that there are fewer gentlefolk among us now; very few gentlemen and very few ladies. (We can well imagine some dignified female counterpart of Algernon’s exclaiming “Exercise! Dear Lord! No lady ever takes exercise.)

Exercise is an undignified business.  Most descriptions of the indignities of exercise restrict themselves to wallowing in descriptions of the engendered sweat,  and sometimes the blood and tears, the body odor, the rumpled and stained clothes, the ungainly bodily contortions, the falls, the slips, the many losses of grace that engaging in exercise inevitably entails. These descriptions all too often elide the profoundly misanthropic nature of exercise, its ungraceful response to human adversity.There is nothing dignified about making explicit your painful anxiety about increasing infirmity, your insecurity and vanity about your personal appearance, your abiding fear of your inevitable fate; there is nothing dignified about a desperate, overt rejection of a fate shared by all humans, nothing dignified about this disavowal of community and commonality in the face of an advancing misery of body and mind.  To be exercising when others around you are not is a profoundly elitist and vain notion, an indulgence in a deadly sin. It is a pathetic grasping at the sublime when resting content with the sordid speaks so much more clearly and distinctly to our essential natures: being sedentary, resting in repose and grace.

Small wonder then that the reaction to exercise and all the frenetic rushing about it entails is already manifest: the injunction to do precisely nothing. Mindfulness bids us be calm and stationary; it urges us to count breaths rather than gulping down more of them in a minute than was ever thought to be a good idea; it bids us slow down and sit down; it tell us that the flat stomach is to be disdained in favor a flat surface on which we may lie down and make like a corpse (the popularity of the shavasnana, the yogic ‘corpse pose’ bears adequate testimony to this fact.) More than anything, the modern acolyte of mindfulness hears the message: stop rushing around (or pulling or pushing yourself up); take that weight off your shoulders and stop trying to stand up with it. Exercise puts a weight on our backs (and other parts of our body); it makes us run around in circles, hypnotized by ersatz indicators of ‘progress’; mindfulness bids us put our feet up (and to close our eyes.)

We should be surprised it took us so long to figure this simple preference out.

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