“Would you be aware of the fact that you have toes today if I didn’t tell you that you did?”
Sixteen seconds into a seemingly never-ending squat, I am painfully aware that I have toes. Wiggling inside my neon sneakers, my dancing toes help perfect my form—knees over ankles, weight in heels, toes in mid air. Chest up and eyes forward, I wait.
Until, finally, that blessed countdown to release: eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.
This morning, the ranks have swelled. There are the regulars: the tall man in the upper left corner of the room who brings weights from the upper levels of Dodge Fitness Center, the perky law students in the center who somehow manage to be cheerful at an 8 a.m. workout class, the older, graphic-tee-wearing man with the face that scrunches tight during particularly intense intervals.
And then there are the newbies. Determined to stick to their New Year’s resolutions, they come in droves. In either jeans and boots or newly-purchased Lululemon ensembles, they silently join our pack. In unison, we push and pull, shorten and lengthen, hold and release, all under the direction of our enthusiastic and fearless leader: India Choquette.
A 2014 graduate of Barnard College, Choquette teaches exercise classes at Dodge and at the Barnard Fitness Center.In addition to instructing both athletes and non-athletes on campus, Choquette teaches private clients in gyms throughout the city. In a week, Choquette estimates, she trains 300 people. Her mission for all of these trainees is the same: to encourage them to pursue lifelong fitness and to, well, move.
“The movement patterns we do now in life are so limited—it’s walking, it’s sitting, it’s leaning over a computer, but we’re not necessarily doing a squat or plank,” Choquette says.
At Columbia, we certainly spend a lot of time leaning over computers. Here, education of the mind trumps education of the body.
“Our society has given privilege to the mind over movement, without ever even thinking that these things are connected,” she notes. “I would argue that they are the same.”
Choquette says day-to-day physical movement is about how you interact with life. And, like working to understand philosophical theories or the preterite tense, “exercising physically feels hard in the way that things mentally feel hard in life, and then you get through it,” she says.
Her mind-shaping tactic is two pronged. She says that movement can lead to ideas and vice versa, and that fitness allows you—requires you—to be uncomfortable and challenge yourself daily.
Likewise, a big part of Choquette’s philosophy is functional fitness, which consists of moves that mimic everyday movements. Sitting in a chair is a squat, for instance. Getting out of bed is a crunch. Bending down to pick something up is a dead lift.
Growing up on a farm in Vermont, functional fitness was a big part of Choquette’s life. While we use fluorescent-colored weights and silky exercise bands in her classes, Choquette grew up using a natural weight—one that is perhaps foreign to city-dwellers: hay bales.
“You pick up the hay in the bailing twine—it can be 25 to 50 pounds—and you have to swing, and you throw it on top of a pile in a truck trying to get it to land and balance, and that’s a workout,” Choquette explains as she acts out the motion in the modern and sleek fifth floor of the Diana Center, perhaps the polar opposite of a Vermont farm. “I do the same kind of stuff with medicine balls.”
While she talks about collecting hay, hoeing potatoes, and stacking and chopping firewood, I daydream about bringing those activities to the group fitness classes on campus. A sea of sleepy-eyed exercisers coating the gym floor with rough, sweet hay. Hoeing potatoes for our early morning workout used to provide hash browns for our fellow classmates’ breakfasts. Our energetically chopped firewood roaring in fireplaces all over Morningside Heights. A farm-to-fitness movement.
But my fellow early risers and I stand on a spotless gym floor—no sign of hay in sight—surrounded by navy-blue exercise mats and brightly colored dumbells, staring intensely into the mirror as we attempt bird-dog, a circus-like trick meant to strengthen your spine. While trying not to tumble down, you clench your abs and stretch out a leg and the opposite arm and hold. You look like a pig roasting on a spit.
Well, except for Choquette. She looks graceful. And she has a smile, as always. Even during bad workout playlists with remixes of Daughtry and Finger Eleven “hits,” Choquette laughs, her smile as wide as our plie squats, and makes jokes into her vibrant blue microphone. It matches the underside of her hair.
Now, as we roast on our spits, our heavy breathing confirms that we are 45 minutes into an intense workout.But, thanks to Choquette, we are in perfect form.
Form is her signature. When we don’t excel at a move, Choquette will stop and break it down into tiny, digestible bits. She thinks that one reason her classes are so popular is because of this attention to—this obsession with—correct form.
“The more people can understand that this is where their abs are,” she says as she strokes her belly, “the more you can make it mechanical—the more you start to feel your body and understand how you move in life.”
Trainees can tone, trim, and tighten their bodies in Choquette’s classes, but she wants people to focus on connecting with their bodies, not aesthetics. She says that in the United States, fitness is linked to aesthetic, rather than strength, movement, or empowerment. She explains, “There’s nothing wrong with having aesthetic goals, but it is limiting in terms of understanding what your body is. It’s not an ornament.”
If you attend one of her classes, you will notice that she makes no mention of calories burned. There is no countdown to spring break, no Kim Kardashian glute workout. No negativity or body shaming.
“The more you focus on deprivation in any field or in any goal you have, the less successful you are,” Choquette says. “If you can focus on something positive—like learning how to do a pushup—you are going to be more successful than saying you will lose 15 pounds.”
Choquette tries to instill this thinking in women especially. Although she trains many men, she says women “are never taught that their bodies are useful. I think they are taught that they are ornamental.” Her focus, then, is making trainees realize their bodies are strong and useful.
That feeling of pride after mastering one of Choquette’s signature ab sequences and realizing that your body is strong and is useful is as coveted as the cool bottle of water waiting for you after that blessed eight-second countdown. When I finished an ab workout after weeks of failure, one in which I folded and unfolded like an accordion while balancing on my glutes glutes, the resulting excitement powered me through a week of finals. Choquette hopes this feeling of dedication and tenacity is contagious.
And if it’s not, she says, “Just try it. The stakes are low. If you fail, who cares? We dial it back a bit.”
In the days following my interview with Choquette, I can’t help but think about how active she is, and how many of us spend so much time focusing on mental activities, not physical ones. As Columbia students, we can take three midterms in two days, but many of us can barely keep our balance. When Choquette poses for our photographer, though, she jumps, lunges, and planks.
I slouch in front of the mirror while I brush my teeth, but does Choquette do calf raises? Brush and raise, brush and raise. I zone out in front of the TV while I eat—does she do wall sits? I unenthusiastically toss my laundry into the machine, but does she make it a game? Maybe the weight of a mound of polyester, spandex, and lycra becomes a strength-training challenge.
Perhaps. She tells me, “My life is so happy, I don’t even understand it. But I just have laundry, because when you teach fitness, you have so much laundry. Other than that, it’s pretty sweet.”
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