Athletic Unity: Tumbling VS. Cross-Country Running

When I think about the most meaningful race of my high school cross-country career, it’s as if I can feel the way my clothes stuck to my skin, as I ran in the late-summer heat. I can hear the voice of a spectator cheering the name of my school… powerful enough to make-goosebumps rise on the back of my neck, which was covered by my hijab. I struggled to outrun an athlete who held onto my pace through the last half-mile. But I could still hear the spectator’s cheers in my mind, even as I raced the last hundred meters with my eyes barely open. “C’MON HAYFIELD!” It was that moment I realized the pure sense of unity runners shared. True camaraderie does not concern itself with race, ethnicity, or otherwise. On that cross-country course, I felt connected with even those runners and spectators whom I had never met… because our love for the sport ran deep.

Four years later, my athletic interests have shifted to the sport of tumbling. Though learning new stunts is liberating, the sense of athletic unity is absent. When I toed the starting line as a young teen, I never consciously thought about the way I dressed. It was assumed that runners of all backgrounds were welcome. My coaches respected the coexistence of faith and athleticism which I represented, as I never complained about the summer heat. As I continue to perfect my back-handspring at a local cheerleading gym, I strive to encourage Muslim female participation in sports. But this motive often leads me to feel disconnected from other athletes. Recently, my coach asked, “Don’t you feel hot,” observing the sleeves that covered my arms.

I don’t know where to begin. This question represents a lack of understanding of the value a person assumes of their religious dress. No, I don’t feel hot, or uncomfortable to any degree until my attention was drawn to my attire. The values I represent through religion and tumbling often overlap. If I hadn’t believed in my athletic abilities, I never would have learned to do a back-handspring. Rather than focusing on the fear, I patiently learned how to execute the skill. In the same way, I’ve committed myself to the hijab because I direct my energy in supporting athletic participation of hijab-practicing women, rather than the presumed discomforts it can deliver.

Although I haven’t felt connected with other tumblers lately, I return to the cheer gym with an open mind. During my tumbling class yesterday, I worked with another coach named Jessie. He encouraged me to do a round-off back-handspring for the first time. Jessie heavily spotted my first few attempts until I was ready for a lighter spot. He instructed me to do a power-hurdle round-off and jump up to simulate the push into a back-handspring. I did a round-off, jumped high into the air, and felt his arms catch me. He held me for a few seconds, as I was in shock about not only his strength but also how completely I trusted him. This moment was one of the few times that I felt connected with another tumbler. The color of the arms that held me did not matter, or any other demographics that too often divide us. The expanse of the spring floor was as much mine as it was his… a shared space where athletes come together for the love of tumbling. His hand wrapped around my torso, and his arms supported the weight of my legs. Jessie’s effort to spot me safely was clear. He was as eager to help me achieve my athletic goals as I was.

 

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Beautiful Chaos

There exists

a hunger

inside me,

A hunger that only grows

the more my body tumbles

in the center of the gym.

So I try

to satisfy

this emptiness,

by tossing my body about like a rag doll.

I hold a handstand,

toes pointed,

and quadriceps flexed.

I take a chance on myself.

Can I hold this pose with a single arm?

I lift my left hand off the floor,

and tease gravity.

My back begins to arch,

and my feet come in contact

with the earth.

But I want to be airborne,

a weightless body that is closer to the sun,

than to this universe.

Weightless,

and greater,

than trivial matters,

that beg for my attention.

But I use my body as a tool,

to shift my thoughts.

So I run,

A hesitant attempt to gain momentum.

I throw my body,

in a carefree roundoff,

pushing the ground away from me,

as my hands meet the floor.

Pause.

I am airborne.

I am here.

I am free.

My thoughts have shifted from trivial matters about the past,

to this very moment,

that my body

is suspended.

This body,

that I deeply love and respect.

But soon enough,

my feet meet the floor again,

with a disingenuous greeting.

My ankles absorb the impact.

But still, I crave.

So I tumble about this empty space,

hungry…

My body twists in a haphazard single-arm handstand,

twists in a roundoff.

My legs catch my body as I fall from handstand,

to bridge,

catch my body as I dive into a cartwheel.

My ribs blossom, as I open my body into a beautiful arch,

open my body into a standing split.

I tumble,

harder,

and faster.

Round-off,

handstand,

dive cartwheel,

forearm stand,

front walkover.

Can you feel the energy in the room?

Can you feel the emptiness that falls upon me…

as my feet become grounded,

after only a split second of suspension?

Can you feel this hunger,

even as you,

dear gym member,

applaud me from several feet away?

Can you see purpose in all this movement,

as I try to find myself in this self-made chaos,

in this beautiful disorder?

My tumbling reluctantly evolves into a dance,

as I open the palms of my hands,

open my body into an arch.

Confident,

yet hesitant.

Certain,

yet so unsure of myself.

Let go,

of this weight.

Let your mind and body become suspended.

Let go of the fear of falling.

My back hits the ground as I collapse out of bridge pose.

My ankles take the impact of my falls.

My forearms chafe with the carpeted floor.

But in this chaos,

there was control.

In this frenzy,

there was sanity…

Just a voice pleading,

am I full yet?

 

 

Human: Part III

If you separate yourself from your accomplishments, titles, and possessions, then who are you really? At work, I am Ms. Naima, the math instructor. At school, I am an unfamiliar passerby on the campus of George Mason University. And on Instagram, I am Naima, the yogi, contemporary artist, and blogger. But if we tap into our subconscious mind and explore our inner selves– strengths, vulnerabilities, aspirations, fear– then we discover the aspects that truly define us. Apart from being an employee, a classmate, a community member, or otherwise, who are you? We make myriad assumptions about other people every day, an automatic process conducted by the subconscious mind.

As I stood in front of a college class for a presentation today, I couldn’t help but wonder about the gaps that my audience may have filled in their minds regarding who I am. I shouldn’t be concerned with directly influencing others’ perception of me; doing so is just as ineffective as beating a dead horse. But observing the nature of perception (of humans and the world around us) is intriguing because our thoughts are presumably flexible, and thus, subject to external influence. It is often that I spend the nights in quiet introspection, as I lay my thoughts on the floor of my mind and pretend to be an outsider. These thoughts are organized based on category: art, religion, culture, politics, academia, and more.

I challenge myself to consider the counter-view of my beliefs so that I may gain an awareness of diverse perspectives. Some may call this practice “walking in other people’s shoes.” My history professor and I call it “mental flexibility.” During this process, I observe the contours of my face and employ the imaginative part of my mind. I imagine myself as a single individual among billions of humans. These people do not have unique countenances– no unique race, religion, background, or character. We are truly a unified human race in this scenario (which only exists in the boundaries of my skull). We do not compare each other on the basis of financial status or ridicule unique gender identities (many of which were recently introduced by the millennial generation). We are mind, body, and spirit . We are one collective whole on this planet. We are not a dollar amount, a simulation of photoshopped magazine covers, or titles upon titles of resume-perfect accomplishments.

We are thoughts expressing themselves through character and action.

We are vulnerability– embraced by the self or not.

We are human.

Human: Part II

Temptation lurches inside my chest, aiming to break through my sternum with its fist. But as my thoughts riot within the walls of my skull, logic chases after them. “Listen to me,” he begs. Logic is a feeble opponent, as his rational explanations are drowned out by the adrenaline that fuels the parts of me that are infuriatingly human. Temptation. Lust. Desire. We are ridiculed for accepting these innate aspects of ourselves. But it’s completely appropriate to honor our sexuality. The difficult part about doing so is determining healthy outlets to express it. In this venture to determine such outlets, our desires clash with the moral compass. As I manage my instincts, my thoughts are in a frenzy. Fueled by euphoria, they catalyze the flow of blood that pulsates through my neck and convinces me that I’m nervous. Can we call it “nervous”? Call it repressed. Call it controlled. Call it a battle between logic and emotion. But my only goal is to embrace these human aspects of myself, lust, and desire and all. All the while, we must keep in mind that logic always has the last word… despite chasing after emotion like a mother does her child. Logic tries to hush emotion, until emotion collapses from the fading adrenaline high. He lays on the floor of my mind, like a fish gasping for oxygen on a dock. We cannot berate ourselves for experiencing a diverse spectrum of emotions that are unique to the human experience. Rather, we can implement healthy modes of self-expression in such a way that integrates morality and self-awareness into our being.

Human

Writer’s Note: This poem captures the experience of my nighttime yoga session yesterday. In writing this piece, I consciously acknowledge my personal and innate characteristics. But what is more valuable to me is to tap into my subconscious mind and embrace the aspects of me that make me human. During my early teen years, I always felt the need to berate myself for experiencing emotions that I presumed were shameful for a woman to have, such as lust and desire. But in this poem, I encourage myself to accept that these are emotions that are an inherent aspect of the human experience. I hope to convey a theme of self-awareness, acceptance, and unabashed self-love. Thank you so much for reading. -Naima

Human

I drag my pointed toes in front of my body,

as I walk

slowly.

Poised to dance,

I slide into frog pose.

The eyes close as music fuels euphoria.

Frog pose.

Head roll.

I am human.

Standing split.

Turn.

I am embracing myself.

Open up the chest.

Push the shoulders back.

Every part of me– lust, desire, and all.

Open the rib cage.

Arch the back.

This is me.

Front walkover.

Bridge.

I am infuriatingly, yet beautifully, human.

Camel pose.

Corpse pose.

This is me– accepting and celebrating myself.

Handstand.

Arms outstretched upon landing.

I am emotion and logic.

I am temptation and controlled desire.

I am human. 

Physical Equilibrium

Writer’s Note: This poem recounts the experience of doing outdoor yoga on the campus of George Mason University. The experience focuses on the mind’s activity as I make the campus my yoga studio, which conveys a theme of timelessness and mental wellness. Enjoy! -Naima

Physical Equilibrium

I kicked my right leg behind me,

Shifting my body-weight into a handstand.

Upside down, I listened to the gentle whoosh

of blood travelling from the pulse in my neck

to the temples.

As the heads of passersby turned to observe

this quiet outdoor adventure,

I stepped into their shoes.

From the outside looking in,

I am a yogi,

gently drawing the attention of college students

who are rushing to class.

I am a contortion,

an upside-down figure

a transformative shape.

But this activity is not about aesthetics.

Do we dare sacrifice mindfulness for physical appeal?

In this moment,

my lungs blossom.

Oxygen fills the space between each rib.

The eyes close

for just a moment.

I feel the sun rays

against skin.

I feel the wind

crawl through the fibers of my clothing.

Sound is a coalescence of birdsong and jubilant teenage chatter.

While my photographer captures the image

of me

in physical equilibrium,

I wonder…

How amazing would it be to capture the mind’s activity

in a photo?

Perhaps it would be more beautiful than this graceful pose,

or these pointed toes.

But from now and into infinity,

I stay present.

If I may separate myself from thoughts of worry

or conflict,

then I enable myself to gain a rational perspective,

a well-balanced mind achieved only through a well-balanced lifestyle.

So let me be a contortion,

a shape,

a shadow,

a memory,

a space in time.

Regardless of what you perceive

of me,

I’m glad I lived in infinite forms.

I may live in the memories of loved ones,

friends, family, and community members,

or in the eye of a camera.

Perhaps this perception explains why the word “home” seems subjective.

Here, on these steps where I hold a handstand,

I live.

I create a home.

In mindfulness and equilibrium of mind and body,

I live.

And in this space,

my community members contributed to its positive atmosphere.

My lungs have fully blossomed,

and are freshly supplied with oxygen.

The photographer takes one last snapshot

of my elegant shapes,

albeit unbalanced at times,

but nevertheless,

a work-in-progress.

Stillness

Stillness feels like riding the hills of Fairfax city

After I’ve observed the break of dawn on my drive to school.

Stillness is the taste of the morning breeze,

The feeling of it kissing my skin,

as I turn the corner onto Roberts Road.

Stillness is the blanket of humidor that drove out the winter chill

In preparation for spring.

Stillness is the sound of rain,

Pattering against the mud of my backyard in the night,

Drops of water coalescing with dirt.

Stillness is the deep breath upon performing a controlled power-press

With a 60lb. bar,

The strength emerging in the crease of my triceps.

Stillness is talking to you on a Saturday night,

The sound of your exhale and the silence.

The seconds walking past us without hurry.

Stillness is the engagement of eye contact,

Waiting for a witty remark to further spur the conversation.

But the silence never bothered me

Because it is in that silence that I learned how to be perfectly still

Even among the rush of Fairfax city-life.

The stillness is the break of dawn,

Your brown eyes and the sunset.

It is the morning breeze and the humidity,

Showering the town in rain

So that the trees will glow healthy in the morning.

Let me rise for another Spring day,

When the vibrato of the winter hum

Has diminished,

And the birds tweet to the song of the new season.

To the Weary College Student

To the stressed-out college student,

It is during meager study breaks that you give yourself a pep talk,

A “just keep going” kind of pep talk,

A “hey, I know you haven’t slept well, but you got this” kind of pep talk.

It is during every minute of free time that you snatch the opportunity to study,

Before work, after work, before bedtime.

It is during the classes leading up to the exam that you gaze at the professor,

Counting the hours before you can sleep.

When every study hour has passed, and you wake up on exam day,

I challenge you to carry an infectious optimism from your bedroom to the very campus of your university,

Because you were willing to sit on the edge of your limits for long enough to make it to this moment,

Prepared.

Before you open the exam packet, imagine.

Imagine a positive reaction to the test results,

Imagine yourself celebrating the week’s accomplishments with friends.

I’ve learned that we are more terrified of the possibility of achieving our greatest ambitions than failing.

Could we be as capable as we envision ourselves to be?

As I approach the conclusion of the midterms week,

I would like to honor the bags underneath my eyes,

The tireless pep talks,

The study sessions and “just a little bit more” moments.

I have not only epitomized the stereotypical image of the weary college student

but also achieved my midterm goals while being just that.

Let me wear my sweat pants as a symbol of relentless effort.

We achieve academic success only if we’re willing to crawl to the edge of our limits,

And gaze at the gray possibilities.

Peaceful Prostration

As I lower myself in prostration, blood rushes to my temples. Inhale. I rest my forehead on the carpeted floor as I relax into the posture. Exhale. Uttering prayers in Arabic, I cannot help but to imagine other activities that have helped achieve this state of self-awareness… of complete calm. I can hear the gentle whoosh of blood gently beating in my temples as it does when we float under the surface of a swimming pool. In that moment, the eyes are closed, as we swim in a chlorine bliss, drowning out the sound of children’s joyous squeals… or volleyballs pattering against the surface. Hair floats about our bodies, just as weightless as the body. It is only so long that the lungs can hold in the oxygen that flows to the brain. Rise to the surface whenever you’re ready to return to reality. Gasping for breath, we blink several times until we can gain clear sight of our surroundings. A man lowers himself into a jacuzzi, a little boy runs the perimeter of the pool, eventually joining his friends. It is almost as though the world looks clearer than before we ducked our heads underwater… as if the surface represented a division between a painful reality and the weightlessness of a worry-free mind. But perhaps the two ideas don’t have to be separate. I can carry the calm of the underwater realm into reality, always remembering to re-fill my lungs with oxygen. Let that peace flow through your temples as you walk the earth.

I rise from prostration and eventually conclude the prayer. I turn my head to the right, and then to the left, greeting the angels on each shoulder. “Aslamualaikum wa Rahmatullah.” As I observe the prayer area, I adopt a new perspective of my surroundings. I can juggle the myriad stresses leading up to the mid-terms period because I have found balance. But I realize that my pursuit of a balanced life-style manifests itself in diverse activities that have supported my well-being for years.

When I was in high school, I found strength through the sport of running.

During my transition to an adolescent, I found peace through yoga and meditation.

And for the majority of my lifetime, prayer has been my solace during times of hardship and of ease.

I can trust that if I hold my breath underwater to drown out sound, I will always come back up. Air pressure forces the body to rise.

Inhale…

2, 3, 4.

Dip your head beneath the surface.

Exhale…

2, 3, 4.

And rise again.

Verily, after every hardship comes ease (Qur’an 94:5).

 

Discussing a Writer’s Work

My intention of blogging has never been to aim for perfection. If the pages weren’t covered in subtle grammar errors, the site wouldn’t truly be mine. A few years ago, I worked with an editor who was an Oxford University alumna. Although I was relieved to have had help editing my college essays, this process stripped the work of my voice as a writer. I do not blame my editor, as she was a well-qualified and intelligent adult. But I refrained from being my own constructive critic, which hindered my ability to further develop as a writer.

When I ask my friends, family, and peers to read my blog, I don’t expect that they will assume my work to be perfect in every sense of the word. Even the published work of scholars has room for improvement. The grammar errors on this page are not intentional, but they do serve a purpose, as they convey the inherent imperfection of writers.

A fruitful way to discuss a writer’s work is by offering support and politely suggesting improvements. As my former Creative Writing teacher often said, “Comments are always positive.” In guiding these discussions, we must acknowledge that writing is a deeply personal art form. To insult a work without grounds of literary merit is to insult the writer himself. It is vital to conduct conversations about writing with the foremost intention to offer support; secondly, to offer suggestions about a work (on the grounds of merit, of course).

On another note, I developed a passion for writing at the age of 11. But this passion would not have become such an integral part of my life if it weren’t for the teachers, friends, and community members who offered their unwavering support. I would like to thank Ms. Chase, my fifth grade teacher, for encouraging me to make writing a lifestyle. To Ms. Dove, who humorously remarked that her name would be in the “Acknowledgements” section of my first book. And to Mr. Nelson, my high school Creative Writing teacher, who encouraged me to start this blog where I have observed my personal and intellectual transformation.

May we support writers in unleashing their creative and intellectual drive.