• Lijing Cobb

Your shirt

In the middle of a session with a client yesterday, a thought occurred to me. What if, instead of trying to remember what I was supposed to do and spending energy on recalling an arbitrary sequence of movements, I did what was appropriate and called for in that very moment? What if I looked at my client and let their whole person tell me the needs of the moment, and fulfill those needs instead? What if I trusted myself to allow the hour I had with them to grow organically, instead of letting it pass mechanically?

You gasp: “You haven’t been doing that already? What kind of trainer are you? Tsk, tsk, tsk.”

Fair enough. Let me tell you who I am.

I, like every one of us, am a deeply complex and contradictory person. I’m super confident, and I’m profoundly insecure.

Having spent a million years in school, finally graduating with the highest degree I could get, and teaching language, literature, and film to college students in a classroom where they generally stayed put for the entire period, I was well prepared to always be prepared, with a lesson plan and a little extra just in case, so that I never ran out of things to say and teach. When I stopped on that career path and took up fitness, I was drawn into a particular group fitness model called Les Mills, where every 3 months they provided me and all the other certified instructors a new release: music, choreography, video. They told me what to say and what to do. They gave me a lesson plan that worked very well, so well that I became a fervent supporter of Les Mills. From 2013 to 2020, I got trained in 8 different formats. Every 3 months I got 8 new releases, and learned all of them by heart so that I could spoon-feed those releases to my participants. People were amazed: “How could you do that, LJ? That’s so much to remember. That’s incredible.” They’d gasp. I was secretly very proud. I was such a great achiever.

For those 7 years I drove my kids around to everywhere with the music of my programs blasting on the stereo. They know every song to every release I ever taught, because I listened to these songs over and over and over again, which drove my husband crazy. While the music played I rehearsed choreography in my head. I was a good, conscientious preparer. When I team-taught with other instructors and they forgot their choreography, they’d sneak a peek at me, and I would graciously feed them the next thing.

I was so good at memorizing a script that was supposed to fit everyone.

In 2018 I went to my first yoga teacher training just so that I could teach BodyFlow (a blend of yoga, pilates, and tai chi, which I considered to be far superior than “real yoga,” which I knew nothing about) in a class that was titled yoga in the gym I was teaching then. You see, all those years of training, rehearsing, and teaching had made me strong physically, and pretty messed up mentally. I examined my fellow trainees’ bodies critically and scoffed at what I saw. With a body like that, how could you teach yoga? I mean seriously, how could you have fat on you and call yourself a fitness teacher? I dished out those harsh words silently and insistently to those who had the audacity (ahem, courage) to be there even though the appearance of their bodies did not meet my expectations.

I had many releases to back me up on the correctness of my expectations. The presenters on the Les Mills videos were all super pretty and cute. The shorter people all wear size xs, the taller people size s type of situation. Somehow I had to top that one too, so at the “peak” of my fitness madness, I bemoaned the lack of xxs in the size selections of Les Mills branded clothing.

I was so good at copying an image that was supposed to be good for everyone.

In March of 2020, Covid. One day we talked about it raging in a faraway place called China where my mom and my sister lived. The next day my fitness studio closed down. One day the studio was bustling with people, the next day I saw only a few of them in a zoom class. One day I proudly offered 6 Les Mills programs in my own studio, the next day I had to say goodbye to them because I could no longer afford to pay the licensing fees. One day I was busy memorizing a script, next day I was faced with having to come up with my own choreography day after day.

But I had bought into the package so much that I tried with all my might to recreate it. I found my own music and matched it with choreography. I continue to memorize what I came up with myself. Sometimes in class when I couldn’t remember what I had written in my own script, I’d pause and say it out loud, “to think that I came up with it myself!”

I was always so well prepared with a script that I pandered to everyone who came to me.

About a year ago, I started filming myself exercising. The filming process usually went very smoothly, and at the end of the hour I’d have a whole class full of new materials that had felt fresh and organic to my body. I wrote those down in smaller, less detailed scripts, and fed those to my participants. I believed that what had felt good for my body must also be good for others (see, progress. I was less discriminating in body types), with modifications and options of course. As far as I could tell, my plans were well received. People kept coming back for more.

But then, I got really busy. Each week I taught the same small scripts to different clients, with modifications and options. On days when I taught 5 lessons in a row, I’d dread the 5 long hours before they started, and feel drained after they finished. There could not be enough modifications and options. I was tired of writing the same story over and over again.

Each week I came up with a different plan, and the day I came up with the plan was by far the best day of the week, when I felt excited, inspired, authentic.

After coming back from our family vacation 2 weeks ago, without announcing my decision clearly in my own head to myself, I stopped writing scripts altogether.

It is a bit frightening to go to my clients without a plan. Ok, all right. It is VERY frightening to go to my clients without my trusty scripts. And since some of my clients read this blog, I’ll just get it out there once and for all: I have no clue what I’m going to teach you these days when you come in to see me. You deserve better. You deserve me being frightened. You deserve to be whole, in your body, in that hour, to move organically for your benefits. Not for my convenience because I wrote a script.

Let me tell you that in the last two weeks I no longer felt like I was a charlatan. Without the scripts I found permission to stay in the moment, and I was always guided by its innate logic. One movement always led naturally to the next.

And I could not be bored. I was writing a fresh story with every client. I no longer put myself on repeat.

Cue scene 1, when what I had been experimenting (at first I thought it was just laziness) over the past two weeks jumped into my head in those clear words.

Yes, the road had always meant to lead me here, to the frightening spot where I risk finding myself over and over again in new and exciting ways, never bored, never complacent, never arbitrary. I think I have found the courage to do that, to have my clients hand me their music and choreography and play it for them right then and there. No more rehearsals. No more rote memorization. No more me over you.

So here is the deal: no more fear. I won’t stay on paper, because you are real. I will no longer hold up the same shirt to you, hoping that the shirt would fit you with a few stitches here or a few rips there. My beautiful shirt might fit you just as well if you are exactly the same size and shape as me, but if not, let’s find you a different shirt that fits you instead.

Let’s do that together.

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