As a child, I was never the “gym kid”. I tried ballet for a while, hopping around the kitchen in pink satin shoes and an oversized tutu. But I was clearly not destined to go far. “Throw your leg higher! my teacher would plead. I stood, my hand resting gently on the bar, feeling both frustrated and completely discouraged. Even back then, my lack of flexibility was evident.
This is precisely why I never considered doing gymnastics. It was as much a mental barrier as it was a physical one. Standing 5’11”, my height doesn’t exactly make me a prima ballerina material – nor, for that matter, does it make me ideally proportioned to become a superstar gymnast.
Simone Biles, former Team USA gymnast and seven-time Olympic gold medalist, is 4’8”. Its small but muscular frame exudes power, while its low center of gravity adds stability and balance. Look at him list of gymnasts who have snatched an Olympic gold medal since 1976and the average height is only 4’11”.
So when I was invited to what claimed to be a “body positive gym” class, it’s safe to say that I was both intrigued and skeptical. The idea of having to wear a tight leotard filled me with dread – exacerbated by the fact that the class was led by former elite British gymnast Claire Heafford.
“I was coached by the first Russian gymnast who was brought to the UK,” she explains. “I grew up in a Soviet training camp in the heart of the original counties – and it was brutal.” According to the coach, it was an experience that fundamentally shaped her, both as an individual and in the way she teaches.
“I didn’t want to do gymnastics for a long time,” admits Heafford, describing the process of getting her coaching qualification as both “traumatic” and “triggering.”
“I waited until I could find a way to do it differently. [Teaching body-positive gymnastics] is an antidote to the way I was taught.
THE GROWING POPULARITY OF GYM IN ADULTS
I have long viewed gymnastics as an elite sport – and in many ways Heafford personal experience of extreme discipline and coercion only served to perpetuate this stereotype. However, in recent years we have seen giant strides taken in the world of gymnastics, primarily at the coaching level, in an effort to create long-term change. Heafford, in many ways, represents this change at the grassroots level.
Starting life in a railway ark in Bethnal Green before moving to Woolwich, Reset LAB gym classes are aimed specifically at adults. A huge space containing all kinds of inflatable mats, ramps and rings, the warehouse looks like a giant playground for adults. Part of a recent wave of non-gym-based workouts that combine fitness with childish play, it’s an increasingly popular workout thanks in part to the non-judgmental environment.
“I wanted to try something that was about the game, but also about strength,” says Hannah, 39, who has taken lessons sporadically since the end of the confinement. She says the lack of pressure to attend every week, combined with the friendly environment, is part of the draw.
“They used to do a ‘less than beginners’ course which was very inclusive and welcoming. It explicitly said, “If you’re bad at sports and don’t think of yourself as a lean, strong person, this is for you.” Claire brings this to all lessons.
It’s a view shared by Chris, 74, a former technical salesman, who is quick to state that he’s ‘not exactly a pinball machine or anything’.
“Four years ago I was 200 pounds of fat,” he says, noting that three months of alcohol addiction rehab changed his life. “When I came out I was clean – just like I am now. When I came out it was almost like ‘I have to keep going, I have to look for the next adventure!’ I even started walking on stilts. He is now in love with gymnastics.
Inclusiveness is at the heart of adult gymnastics
The age of class participants ranges from early 20s to mid-70s, as well as encompassing all kinds of nationalities and gender identities. The diversity of attendees speaks to the warmth and patience not just of Heafford, but of each attendee. This diversity also helps to prioritize fun and progressive goals over the pressure of performance.
“It’s for all levels – even if you just want to come cartwheel,” smiles Jenai, one of the youngest participants in the class.
Although private coaching is available, Heafford limits classes twice a week to a maximum of 12 people. It’s a number that allows for feedback, personal goals and a healthy “working relationship” with all participants according to the coach. This is also precisely what attracted Chris, 44, to the courses.
Away from his day job at an art gallery, Chris – who now has four classes under his belt, says his interest was first struck by Heafford’s in-house wrestling classes. “A lot of [classes] took place in gyms that potentially had a macho atmosphere – or that’s what I had heard from other people who had done them,” he says, after noticing that Heafford’s sessions were different.
“I learn through encouragement and positive reinforcement,” he explains, adding that in the past, encountering overly macho forms of fitness instruction had hindered his progress in the past. An amateur field hockey player whose constant injuries have caused him to “struggle with flexibility”, Chris describes classes as having “a positive and assertive atmosphere”.
“The first session I went from nothing to doing a somersault, and that level of progress comes from the way Claire breaks it down. The way she teaches is so pedagogically sound, it’s amazing what you can do after one lesson.
The mind-body connection is the key to safe tumbling
It quickly becomes clear that gymnastics is as much about pushing mental limits as it is physical in this class. When asked to take turns falling on an inflatable mat from a height of about one meter, a number of participants freeze. This seemingly insignificant fall shows how easily your mind can take over, battling the prospect of physical danger.
It’s something Danielle, who is traveling from West London, knows only too well. A bioneuroemotion practitioner by day, she is used to finding the root cause of emotional conflicts as a way to improve your well-being.
Describing the ‘mind-body factor’ as a key part of class, it’s something the 42-year-old says she ‘really admires’ about Heafford’s work. Danielle says her love for American gymnast Chellsie Memmel, and the reports surrounding his returnare her inspiration to try gymnastics.
It’s fair to say that Memmel’s story is a testament to women’s drive and determination. A former world gymnastics champion, her return to competition at the age of 32 shook the world. Abstaining from sport after the birth of her two children, the athlete’s story is considered by many to be remarkable.
“I thought, ‘If she can do it, I can definitely try!’ You have this limiting belief that you’re either too old to do something or too grown up,” Danielle explains. “I just wanted to do it for fun and do something that would bring me joy.”
It’s a common thread that connects so many course participants: the joy of combining fitness and fun – no matter your age – is a testament to Heafford’s teaching style. Trading clichéd images of pushy parents for a group of horny adults, this is most definitely a course designed to overcome mental obstacles.