UZBEKISTAN: Let There Be No Oxygen, a.k.a. the Russian Workout

Leg Day“Raise your step today”, said my Russian gym teacher and pointed to the stepper we used at the beginning of each leg class.

I hesitantly turned my stepper over and slowly pried away the grey risers. My gym teacher lost her patience, marched over and quickly attached them to a position that was even higher than I planned on doing. I turned my stepper over and stared at the nearly 40cm obstacle spreading before me.

Shortly after we had settled in Tashkent, my friends and I had joined one of the very few local fitness clubs. The only customers at our location were foreigners, including many Russians. The membership fees were on par with the US rates so I imagine this limited the clientele quite a bit. We had decided to ease our way back into the gym world by attending some of the classes.

What we did not count on was the local belief in the wickedness of fresh and, God forbid, cool air. Every morning when we arrived to the gym, we found the air in the main weight room heavy with aromas of various sweat secretions of several steroid induced looking men, paired with a hot stream of air coming out of the heaters located around the room.

“The gym must be maintained at 25 degrees Celsius!” Was the rule of the Russian thumb. That translated into 77F. I found using the cardio machines more of a workout for my red blood cells and how good they were in carrying as little oxygen to my vital organs as possible.

Once, sweating profusely, I asked one of the trainers who hung around the gym, to turn on one of the many stationery fans attached around the perimeter of the room. He looked at me quizzically, raised his eyebrows and shook his head, not grasping what I wanted. I added hand motions for a fan and for turning things on, using different Russian words to describe what I wanted, all the while walking towards the fan. Finally, it clicked in his head, and, though reluctantly, he turned the fan on. My face was hit with a beautiful breeze of air and I closed my eyes in relief. I snapped them back open when the breeze changed into a faint puff because he turned the fan on the lowest speed possible.

The class exercise room, where our leg lessons took place, had the heater set at 31 Celsius (87.8F).

The trainer turned the music on so loud I felt like I was in the first row at a rock concert. I watched her tap the remote control button higher and higher, the digital display for the volume climbing well past 50. I glanced down at my raised step and dread came over my body.

The lesson started. The trainer tried to scream the changes of the movements over the music to no avail as we flailed through the warm up exercise. Five minutes later, my forehead covered in sweat, I looked back at the heater with its evil red “on” light. I couldn’t help the impulse to shake my head.

The aerobic portion of the class continued. We started jumping forward and backwards over the step. Since mine was raised so high, I found it impossible to step backwards without twisting my body and looking where I was going. The mad pace of the songs didn’t help either.

Finally, even the trainer thought that the room may be too hot and went to the back to turn the heater off. I did a double take and signaled to my friend:

“Holy shit, she actually turned it off!!”

The lesson continued and even though the room had plenty of free weights and weight bars for each person to use as their abilities allowed, the teacher insisted on doing a workout with body resistance only. This would have been OK, even better than weights, if she actually showed the lower and higher level of each exercise. Instead, she settled into a manic pace of high reps of the most advanced exercises I know, screaming over the music:

Ah-deen, dva, tri, cheteere…” One, two, three, four… “Come on, girls, let’s go!”

Our eyes bulged with effort, rolling around as she stopped doing the exercise herself and walked around the gym, adjusting our postures into the impossible perfection of the movements.

One song ended and as we grabbed for our towels to wipe the waterfall of sweat from our faces, she yelled:

“Grab a weight bar!”

Finally, I thought, we would do some normally paced exercise where I could maintain a good form. My joy was short lived. She instructed us to lay the bar on the floor and we started a never-ending session of jumping back and forth over the bar.

The temperature in the room with tightly closed windows kept climbing and the oxygen levels kept dropping. My vision darkened a little and I slowed the pace of the jumps. I heard as if through a pillow the teacher’s voice slicing through the music:

“….six, seven, eight…again! One, two…..eight, AGAIN!”

I lifted my eyes off the ground and my head spun. I felt my heart speeding up faster and faster and my breath getting caught in my chest despite the asthma medicine I used earlier. My throat felt tight as I attempted to keep jumping. My armpits were slick with sweat, my body covered like if I stepped into a downpour. The wail of the decibels crushed me to the ground.

“….seven, eight….again!”

How many of these sets have we done already? The last rational section of my brain signaled through my rising panic.

And then something happened.

Maybe it was that last portion of my sanity, maybe it was my self-preservation instinct.

My body gave up and I couldn’t lift my legs anymore. I stood there frozen, hearing the counts like through a fog. The heat and used up air in the room swirled around me. I felt the sting of tears in my eyes. I couldn’t even do a simple exercise. I was THAT fucked up. Was it the cancer that did this to me? Would I have been able to do this had I not been sick before? It didn’t matter. What mattered was that I just couldn’t do it. I looked around at others, who, while visibly struggling, were still doing it.

I grabbed my inhaler and ran out of the room. I don’t remember coming down the two sets of stairs and crashing through the doors of the cloakroom. I ran into the bathroom, slammed the door shut and sunk to the floor.

I gasped for air while heaving with sobs, tears running down my face, my body convulsing in self-pity of my very first real anxiety attack. The tiled tan floor of the bathroom glistened indifferently, cooling my hands and legs.

Several minutes later, my breathing returned to normal and I just sat there, shoulders slumped, tears flowing over my cheeks. I felt tired and angry and sad.

I felt like the cancer won again. It had lurked in the back of my brain for any opportunity to peek back out and that day it won. It overwhelmed me with its negativity, its strength and its malice. I felt like I failed.

I failed to hold up that barrier against the fear of recurrence that gnawed at my conscience every minute of my life. I failed at keeping the bad thoughts at bay. I failed at stopping the panic that had consumed me ever since July 3, 2012. I failed at not letting my anxiety affect my life. I failed at a simple exercise. I cursed my body and its low red blood cell counts, its low platelets and its messed up chemistry after chemo. How long was this going to spill into every activity I did?

I got up and washed my face, sticky with sweat and tears. I looked at myself in the mirror, water dripping into the sink below, my nose red, cheeks and forehead blotchy, lips swollen. I wiped my face with a scratchy paper towel, took a deep breath and opened the door. Nobody else was in the cloakroom. I walked around the lockers a few times, taking deep breaths.

I came back to the class. The trainer signaled over the shrieking of the music if I was OK. I nodded. Somehow, on the way back up the stairs to the class, my sorrow transformed into anger, and I used this jolt of resolve to march over to the window and open it. A breeze of fresh, oxygen filled air hit my face. I turned back to the class glancing at my mates, gesturing if that was OK. They all nodded with various degrees of approval. I didn’t care. I looked at the teacher.

“Challenge me.” My eyes said to her.

She didn’t say anything. I felt the bounce of a small victory.

I finished the session by doing exercises on the floor, which, though overly advanced once again for our class, were adaptable if one decided to ignore the pace screams of the teacher. I was able to calm down so much, I didn’t even care when several minutes later, the teacher walked over to the window and closed it again, saying:

“Very dangerous. When we exercise on the floor. Cool air. Aw-chen ah-pasna. Very dangerous.”

Christ, I thought, I wanted to punch her in the face. But I didn’t care. Those few minutes of my small victory changed the air in the room enough to be able to finish the exercise in peace.

I never took another class again. Except for Zumba. Because we actually have a teacher who likes to breathe and doesn’t mind the, God forbid, 65 degree outside air flowing into the room.

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