In light of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and all of the grief and fear it has caused, I was reminded of an article I wrote 14 years ago regarding the emotional challenge of leading classes in the immediate aftermath of September 11. In gathering stories for that article, I was touched by the patriotism and the efforts of fitness instructors to provide a safe haven for their students in studios and pools across the USA and the world.
Below is the edited version of that article.
October 2001 As my thoughts turned to writing this month’s column, I felt the need to put the dimmer switch on “light-heartedness” and opt instead for an article more reflective of the times. Life had become very different in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. This is a story about how we coped, what we did, what we said, how we comforted, how we inspired and how we redefined our role as fitness instructors.
On the morning of September 11, I was training a client at the JCC in Rochester, NY, when the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. My client and I joined a crowd of people gathered in front of a bank of TVs. We all watched in horror as the second plane hit the south tower. The USA was being attacked and life as we knew it was about to change forever.
The next morning I was a physical and emotional wreck as I drove to my class. I had been up all night watching TV coverage of the unthinkable. Arriving at the gym I was dismayed to see a packed classroom. I was half hoping and half expecting that no one would show up for my 9:00am step aerobic class.
Prior to starting class, I announced to my students that I wasn’t sure I could get through the class. A few faces fell upon this announcement and I immediately felt guilty for saying it. Halfway through class, you could sense a palpable release of stress. Not wanting to appear inappropriate, I toned down my normal atomic energy and refrained from any joyful antics. Instead, I made efforts at consoling my students and reminding them that this was their hour and that they deserved a break from the horrors on the TV. No doubt, I was trying to convince myself as well. After a silent and reflective stretch to soothing music, I thanked them all for showing up and I also thanked them for helping ME feel better. Several people came up after class and told me that the only reason they had showed up was because they knew I would take away their pain for an hour.
Driving home, I felt incredibly proud and relieved to have made the effort to hold class when so much in the USA was shut down on that morning. And I knew there had to be countless other stories like mine. I wanted to hear how other instructors held up and what they said or did in their classes. But I needed help locating these instructors. I reached out to Australian presenter, Greg Keyes, for help in putting me in touch with instructors from around the world. He came through in amazing ways. The response from instructors was overwhelming.
Below are some of their stories.
Simi Valley, California
In an aerobic studio, Adrea Gibbs struggled to keep her yoga class focused as a bank of televisions projected haunting images of destruction on the windows of the studio. She ended that Wednesday morning class with a meditation that sought to remind students of their individual strength and power. “I encouraged them to find that power and strength for themselves, their families, and our country,” says Gibbs. She said many of the participants sobbed their way through the meditation, only to thank her at the end for giving them some vision and clarity.
Charlotte, Tennessee Submerged in a pool, Barb Batson instructed her students to look at a tree outside the window as they calmly floated on noodles during the cool down. She softly spoke them through the changes in a tree during the seasons. After the class, one of her students told her how moving that had been for her. The student said that as a teacher she had done similar things with her students and how in her mind it had helped her understand the order of things and God’s plan. “I asked her if she would narrate that portion of class next time and share her words with us,” says Batson. She said tears glistened in the woman’s eyes as she gently nodded yes.
Sarasota, Florida Christy Samuelson decided to end her classes a little differently. “The day after the attacks, we finished in the prayer position and said Namaste. I then asked each participant to pray for all the lives that had been lost and for America, since life as we knew it had changed forever,” says Samuelson. She went on to say that prior to September 11, instructors would likely hesitate at mentioning God in class, but on this day no one objected and many thanked her for ending class in this way.
Discovery Bay, California Shannon Leyen never had a problem mentioning God in her classes. She says she always ended her classes with “God Bless you.” After tearing a muscle in her leg over the summer, Leyen says she added “God Bless me too!” Since September 11, she has expanded her blessing once again and now says, “God Bless you, God Bless me, God Bless our nation and God Bless the men and women who fight for our liberty.”
Sun Valley, Idaho During the three minutes of silence on Friday, September 14, the National Day of Prayer, Margie Caldwell Cooper recalls, “It was a beautiful, blue, Idaho day and we all sat on the pool deck for those few minutes in silent contemplation.”
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Judy Kosaka searched high and low for American theme songs to uplift her students. She also incorporated red, white, and blue into her attire. “I wanted to show my colors for the country I love," says Kosaka.
Canada John Henderson posted the late Canadian journalist, Gordon Sinclair’s “Toast to Americans” speech to the attendance board. “Every person who signed in, stopped and read that speech and remarked on how timely and suited it was to current events,” says Henderson.
Switzerland Edith Locher wrote a touching commentary for Greg Keye’s Special Edition Global Communique. In it, she wrote, “In each class I have taught since Tuesday, I have committed one piece of music to the American people. Nobody talked, everyone was moving and just giving their spirit to America.”
Australia Val Smith-Orr retrieved an old tape with the song, “New York, New York,” on it. She introduced the song a week after the attacks, by saying, “Girls, let’s dedicate this song to all those rescuers still working in New York and to all those families and people everywhere in the USA.” She says she never witnessed a cool down with so much precision and added, “There was a bit more water in that pool by the time we got done shedding some tears.”
Boise, Idaho Like many Americans, Heidi Hill, from Boise, Idaho and her husband, a United Airlines pilot, lost dear friends in the attacks on September 11. Despite her own devastation, she says teaching through tragedy is important. “This situation will not get better before it gets worse and instructors need to know that for perhaps a long time, people are going to rely on our energy to help them through what is yet to come.” She also says we will need to provide a happy refuge for our clients and treat it as a contribution to public service.
Providing a happy refuge? Is this our post September 11th role as instructors? Is it really a new role? Haven’t our students always come to classes for stress relief, a feeling of belonging and for an hour-long diversion from the tolls of life? I’m sure they have, but like others, I was often too busy choreographing to notice. In the last couple of weeks, I have developed a much greater compassion for my students. This has manifested itself in small ways, such as making an effort to say please and thank you while cueing, instead of barking commands. Arriving to class early rather than rushing in at the last minute in a grumpy mood. Greeting everyone with a warm smile and a pat on the shoulder. It’s hard to put into words, but my classes just feel different now. They feel good and they feel right. More importantly, I feel different – more humane.
As a fitness community, we have made great efforts to strengthen our student’s bodies and now we must collectively strengthen their spirits as well. These stories are proof positive that the fitness community has raised itself up to the occasion. I’m just sorry that I couldn’t print everyone’s comments. I received many responses and I thank each and every one of you for your touching thoughts and stories.
This article is a tribute to all instructors for your efforts at teaching through a national tragedy and for going above and beyond. Each of you has done it in your own unique way, simply by doing what you love, doing what you do best, and by providing a happy refuge to your students.
In closing, I am reminded of words that my pastor says during the beginning of every service. He says, “You are safe here. Drop your shoulders and just relax. All is well.”
This is the message I hope to convey in my classes going forward. I want my students to know that they are safe and that they can relax. All is well.
My thoughts are now with France and our European fitness friends.