Friday, January 03, 2003
Why I Want To Do the Splits
OK, I’m sure there are those of you with ver-y noble resolutions in mind this year. Being a better friend, a better spouse, counting your blessings, blah, blah, blah. This year, I am going for something tangible. I want to do the splits.
I have never been a splits-type person. My claim to gymnastic fame in grammar school was my marathon headstand, but that is not a glamour move, like kicking into a snappy round-off or arching nonchalantly into a back-bend on the playground. I found that you cannot really get kids to gather around you with the invitation, “Hey – wanna see me hold a Hatha yoga headstand for 10 minutes?” Sadly, I do not have a gymnast’s rubber-band body. I do have the kind of body that – and this is the beauty of radio – that makes people often mistake me for the body double of, say, Catherine Zeta-Jones or Halle Barry – you know, people like that. Nevertheless, even in my more elastic youth, splits were a pipe dream.
So, in high school, I spent a lot of energy making fun of cheerleaders, those über-doers of splits. Believe me, my parody of the Green Mountain Rams cheer squad was something that really cracked up my cool cronies on the school newspaper, who sometimes wore homemade Star Trek shirts with gold rick-rack that their mothers had sewn on the cuffs. At my high school, there was actually a cheerleader with my name, April, only spelled with a “y”: A-p-r-y-l – and, boy, could she do the splits. It wasn’t hard to imagine her as my arch-nemesis – the girl with bangs that really feathered, who could slip accidentally-on-purpose into the splits in the cafeteria: “Oops, I’ve done it again!” Who wanted any part of that looking-glass world where no one could spell, let alone know stuff that really mattered, like the fact that Kurt Vonnegut was God?
But then, recently, I found myself knocking on the door of middle age, and in a moment of madness, I began taking taekwondo with my eldest daughter ... and discovered that I really liked trying to move my body in wild, stretchy ways. Over the past 18 months, I’ve worked hard to be able to kick as high as my head (not to mention kicking a board into splinters every once in awhile). And while splits are not essential for advancing in taekwondo, it is a fact that most black belts can do the splits, or very nearly. And I’m not talking the wimpy forward-sitting kind known mysteriously as the “American” splits; nope, I’m talking the “Chinese” splits, the “Russian” splits. Think Chinese acrobat; think leaping Cossack dancer. Think pain.
There are many methods of working oneself down into the splits. For those who spurn old-fashioned gravity, there is actually a mechanical device called a “Deluxe Leg-Stretching Machine” that looks a bit like a rowing machine built for the Spanish Inquisition. You sit down on this device and position your legs in the “V” leg brackets. As you turn a wheel, the “V,” and your legs, too, open slowly into a capital I—for Ay, yi, yi. Sometimes, before class, women will watch while a man is working himself over on the leg-stretcher, tears standing in his eyes, and she’ll give him a look like, “Yeah, that’s what giving birth is like . .. to the millionth power! Baby.”
All of us oldsters are equal, though, when we come to the end of another vigorous class and are asked to try sliding into the splits, that little voice in our heads saying, [Chubby Checker: “How low can you go?"]. Theoretically, we are at our stretchiest then, when our innards are roughly the temperature of the earth’s molten core, but we shake and sweat with the strain of it, thinking alternately of swear words, and then serene places that will take us away from the pain, and then swear words again. Some children in the class, meanwhile, are able to sit comfortably with their legs at 180, as if balanced perkily on a log, chatting with irritating light-heartedness. It makes me wonder if there is a link between children’s flexibility and their relative emotional ability to adapt, to bend, to stretch to meet the world’s bewildering demands.
When I first started taekwondo, I complained to a therapy-fluent acquaintance about how sore I was from the stretching. She narrowed her eyes and said, “Ah. .. so you’ve just discovered you’re a deeply inflexible person?” Gosh, when you put it that way, not being able to do the splits seems like a moral indictment. But I do think that learning to stretch our bodies is akin to the pain and accomplishment we can feel when opening our minds to new possibilities.
How close am I to doing the splits? I am almost there, and have learned to glory in that feeling of stretching to my muscles’ limits, and then feeling my body give just a little bit more – a tangible reminder that even we grown-ups are more flexible than we think, or than we’re willing to admit.