How can we have work-life balance when the “work” part is infinite?
This was my excuse for not prioritizing exercise when I came to grad school. In reality, I was drowning in insecurity. I despised every form of exercise while I was growing up. In school, I always had the slowest mile (by far), and as a result, I faced extensive mocking and teasing. One of my gym teachers even made it a point to have me run for extra time—while my classmates watched and laughed—on days she deemed I was “too slow,” even if I had exhausted myself completing one of my best times and was on the verge of collapse. I suppose it’s no wonder that I’m constantly worried about people judging me at the gym. That dizzying anxiety-shame spiral used to be so debilitating that the likelihood of me going to the gym felt akin to the chances of me winning the lottery.
It doesn’t help that grad school offers us a mountain of excuses for not working out in the first place. Research is infinite by nature; combined with classes to attend, exams to take, courses to teach, papers to read, and other responsibilities, the never-ending workload makes it all too easy to put off working out indefinitely.
Yet three years into grad school (and seemingly infinite months into a pandemic), I’m now leading dance fitness classes—and you can join me!
How did I go from avoiding exercise to leading my own dance fitness classes during grad school? During my first year at MIT, I was overwhelmed by my workload and thus only worked out sporadically (excuses, excuses). In the spring, I happened to attend an outdoor BollyX dance fitness class on campus. As a fan of Bollywood music, I was drawn to the idea of a Bollywood-inspired dance fitness program; however, it did not fit well with the anxiety I had about working out around people. So I danced at the back where no one could see me. To my surprise, the sheer joy and energy I felt from the music and the choreography were more than enough to make me forget about how nervous I was to be there—for the first time in my life, I left a workout wanting to do it again.
So I did just that. In pre-pandemic times, MIT Recreation offered a variety of in-person group exercise classes, including BollyX. The instructors, Fen and Dalia, were some of the most amazing and encouraging people I’ve ever met. Every BollyX class put me in a much better mood; I felt happy and energized (and also sweaty, but we don’t have to talk about that) after every class, no matter how much I was struggling with research or grad life.
I quickly learned that fitting BollyX into my schedule did not mean I was taking away from lab work. It just took a little bit of extra planning. I could come into lab earlier in the day if I wanted to make it to BollyX in the evening, and if I didn’t finish something, I could always come back to lab once the class was over. Most biology experiments have long incubations, so I was often able to time my experiments such that I could work out while my samples were incubating and then return to lab—it was right across the street. Admittedly, I originally struggled to do this; incubations are also a great time to read papers, plan experiments, study, and do most other grad school-related tasks. What I’ve realized is this: I will find a way to do those things no matter what because they are vital to my research project and graduate education, and that’s what I came to MIT for in the first place. I don’t think any of us would ever ignore those things—we are more likely to ignore taking care of ourselves, so that is what we need to actively set aside time for. At the end of the day, exercising for a small, finite amount of time does not significantly take away from the countless hours we spend on work. It also helped that my lab enthusiastically participated in MIT’s GetFit challenge; seeing my labmates making progress on their projects while also racking up hundreds of exercise minutes per week made me realize that I could do the same, and the friendly competition made me that much more motivated.
Photos from a BollyX class at Ashdown House from MIT Sangam’s BollyX and Bhojan event in 2019!
Taking the next step
My friends noticed my enthusiasm and suggested that I should become a BollyX instructor. Despite loving BollyX and consistently attending classes for a long time, I was initially apprehensive about this idea. In my mind, I was still the same girl that people used to make fun of in gym class years ago. My historically awful experiences with exercise caused me to believe that no one would ever take me seriously as an instructor. I was convinced that no one would ever want to take a class with me—even as my friends were telling me they would love to come to such a class. I went back to the same excuses I had before. “I don’t have the time to become an instructor because [insert one of my infinite grad school-related responsibilities here].” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I truly wanted to become an instructor. BollyX helped me get into a regular workout routine, so wouldn’t it be great to help someone else do the same?
It took more time than I care to admit, but I finally contacted Fen to learn more about getting certified. I cannot overstate how wonderful she was every step of the way in helping me learn and prepare. I was even scheduled to start teaching a class in April.
An unexpected twist
A few weeks after I became certified, the pandemic shut everything down, and I never got to teach that class. The pandemic has dramatically altered our everyday lives; the line between work and personal life has never been more blurred. When it comes to working from home, the feeling of “I should be doing more work” is much stronger, and it is tempting to spend as much time working as humanly possible to avoid feeling guilty. On the flip side, motivation to actually do work is at an all-time low. With so little structure in our lives, it is challenging to feel satisfied with our research progress and also make sure we take care of our health and remain connected with other people. I found the cancellation of group exercise classes particularly devastating as I lost my main way of taking care of my physical and mental health, leaving me feeling unproductive, sluggish, guilty, and disconnected.
However, several BollyX instructors soon started teaching virtually, so I decided to give that a shot. I held a virtual live-streamed class via Zoom for my friends and labmates—some of whom had taken BollyX classes before, and some who were BollyX newbies—and I had originally only planned to do that one class. But most of my attendees reached out to me afterwards asking when my next class was, saying that they were hoping to do more.
Snapshots from some of my BollyX classes. I recently started using some lights to make it feel more like a party!
My friends’ enthusiasm inspired me to schedule a couple more classes. I soon started teaching multiple live-stream classes each week. Now, in our eleventh month of quarantine, I am still running those classes. Teaching BollyX allows me to regularly set aside time to exercise and hang out with friends virtually. I’m grateful to have found such a unique, exciting way of connecting with people, taking care of my health, and helping others do the same throughout this difficult time. It’s also been a great pandemic-friendly way to celebrate holidays and special events; some wonderful instructors I met through Zoom even hosted a virtual BollyX birthday party for me! Through my classes, I’ve kept in touch with friends, labmates, and family. I’ve even met several new folks who found my classes online!
BollyX has been my answer to overcoming my workout anxiety and moving closer to work-life balance, both before and during quarantine. Because teaching BollyX requires me to set a schedule for classes and share it with others, I get the dual benefit of structuring my time and being held accountable for workouts—I definitely have to come to an exercise class if I’m leading it! Having specific times set aside for BollyX classes also allows me to be more productive during the workday; if I know I have to stop work at a certain time, I am more motivated to focus in the time I have instead of letting it drag on indefinitely. Moreover, no matter how stressed or sad I get about the current situation, dancing always puts a smile on my face. I don’t feel nearly as anxious or self-conscious as I expected—in fact, teaching BollyX classes brings me joy. If I do get a chance to teach an in-person class once the pandemic is over, I’ll certainly feel much more prepared and confident than I would have before!
My BollyX schedule and class info is here if you are looking for something new and fun to do during quarantine! As we say in BollyX, come unleash your inner Rockstar with me!