I hope my story will inspire you. I am in my fifties and have a myriad of injuries and body challenges but I still work out consistently. It took me forty years to discover something that lights my fire, something I am passionate about and, because it’s never too late, I use circus workouts to keep my body pain free!
My background is; I was a gymnast when I was young. From 2nd grade through 6th grade. It was my #1 passion at that time and it brought me tremendous joy. Plus, I was good at it. I excelled in tumbling but the uneven bars were my second favorite. I was good enough to be considered for the team that trains for the team that trains for the olympics. In 6th grade I was encouraged to start this extensive training and I jumped in quickly and happily.
Unfortunately, my parents were not on board and pulled me out of gymnastics to send me to a private school, complete with uniforms, where I knew no one. All my friends went to a public school for junior high (7th grade here in California) and I did not. This moment in my life crippled me. I was torn from my #1 passion, all my friends and those two things, coupled with my troubled and dysfunctional home life threw me into a self-destructive cycle of cutting, drug and alcohol abuse that I wasn't able to get out of until I was in my early forties. I don’t “blame” my parents. I made the bad decisions, which were the coping skills I learned and relied on. They were negative coping skills that had severely negative life impacts, but I learned from them and I became a stronger person.
In 2003/ish one of my friends introduced me to indoor rock climbing and I fell madly in love with it. This was the first “sport/workout” I’d ever liked since I had been pulled out of gymnastics. And I continued to do it for a little over five years. But the biggest problem with rock climbing is you need a partner, and those were difficult to find. In the end I had two people who would meet me and climb with me regularly, but then the gym in my area closed.
Fast forward to my recovery (from drugs and alcohol) in 2008, where I became awe stricken by the people I saw doing aerial silks. I used to go to burning man. I went for 7 years, not in a row, beginning in 1996. My last year, 2010, I volunteered as a ranger and was up in the early hours to cover my shifts. It was during one of these shifts that I met a silk aerial artist and stood in front of her with my jaw on the dusty playa floor.
“I’ve always wanted to do that,” I said.
“You can,” she said. “I was just like you a year ago.”
She encouraged me to call my local circus school when I returned home to San Francisco. She told me to start with a class called aerial conditioning. I did what she said and was delighted to find that classes had just begun. I enrolled and went to work with gusto. I had rediscovered my gymnast passion. I was 44 years old. I’m proud to say that I’ve been going to circus school regularly for the past 10 years. I started with conditioning and then took a class where you get to try all the apparatuses. I’ve now tried Chinese pole, aerial silks, hoop/lyra, straps, sling, and trapeze. I fell in love with the latter, trapeze. It was mainly because of the passion of my trapeze teacher who used to be a professional artist, and a gold medalist. I went from one class a week to three. There’s something completely zen about being suspended 30 feet in the air, and having to balance on a bar. When I’m up there, I feel completely in my body. I am focused. It’s important to say that I have always been afraid of heights, always. But I also love to push myself, past my fear, past my comfort zones. And eventually I became less afraid. Did the fear vanish completely? No, but it was no longer debilitating. If I look out, instead of straight down, it’s easier. And yes, I got to the point where I was able to do complicated and difficult tricks, high up in the air.
At one point, several years in, I was so comfortable that I was showing off and I hurt myself. The injury took me off the trapeze for a year. It was a hand injury (I tore the tendons in 2 fingers) and it was severe enough that those two fingers will never be the same, ever. But I can use them, they just don’t look pretty and my grip has been compromised. And… I did it to myself by not paying attention. Another learning experience. When I finally got past the beating myself up part, I went in another direction and began seriously studying handstands. I took handstand classes and threw myself into that discipline with the same gusto I’d thrown myself into trapeze. I even hurt myself in handstand class by staying in a handstand so long that my elbows collapsed and my chin met the floor. That was a fun bruise! Training on the floor was amazing. We trained all parts of our bodies. And the best part was that I had so much bonding time with one of my best friends, the phenomenal Karina - who you can learn about in podcast #9.
After a year of handstanding, I went back to trapeze and continued to do both. Once Covid hit, I had to quit going to the circus and for the first few months I was devastated. Training had become a huge part of my life. But not just any kind of training, EXTREME circus training.
I have to explain that I have no intention of ever performing, and I didn’t go into the circus with that intent. I started circus because of my gymnastic past. I was used to extreme training. I was used to pushing my body and testing my limits. I was used to teachers saying “there is no such word as can’t.” I was used to a certain level of pain and adrenaline and the intoxication that goes with it. I’ve tried many other disciplines over the years and none of them worked for me. I found yoga boring, I found running annoying, I don’t play sports because I’ve never been good at them and I’m not very competitive. That said, I do push myself to run several times a week because my dog loves it and I know it’s good for me but only once have I ever experienced that “runner’s high” people talk about. When I do circus though, I ALWAYS experience it!
It took a few months for my circus school to get on zoom and when they did, a teacher that an aerial artist friend of mine always talked about, had openings. This particular friend of mine is now in her 60’s but she spins and contorts and looks like someone in their 30’s! She is truly an inspiration. The teacher she spoke of is one of the top contortion teachers at the school and used to be a performer. Now, while in circus school, I sustained quite a few injuries. Most of them were negligence on my part, but one in particular happened from a teacher pushing me too hard. In both hips. In his defense, I let him. It happened about eight years ago and I am still suffering from it and perhaps always will. There are a lot of things I cannot do, stretching wise, because of the injuries. There is the herniated disk I got in graduate school, which hanging upside down on a trapeze “cured”. I also had two frozen shoulders, not one, but TWO and was able to get past those with EFT (emotional freedom technique/tapping, acupuncture and the most effective way, walking my hand up a wall while screaming in pain but not stopping!)
And those injuries, coupled with a pretty severe shoulder injury thanks to my father and a ganglion cyst in my wrist which means, no more handstands for me, and I’m bodily challenged to say the least. I’m also the kind of person who does what people say I can’t do. So when my trapeze teacher said, “you’ll never get your splits after you turn 50” I was like “challenge accepted”!
When I was in graduate school, I used to sit and study for ten hours at a time. It was during those five years that I developed sciatica down both my legs. I am also a person who pushes through and/or ignores my pain. So after a while I didn’t really notice it. Yes, it hurt 24/7 but honestly, I just learned to ignore it. Bored with being grounded and indoors, I decided to give contortion class a try and it was the best decision I’ve made, all of lockdown!
After the first class, my sciatica disappeared. I recently spoke to another one of my contortion teachers and she said the same thing happened to her!
If I skip a week, the sciatica returns. So of course, being a good addict, I’m not doing contortion classes three days a week for two hours at a time. Am I good? NO F-ing way! I’m the worst student in all my classes, by far. They can lift their legs (while standing) straight up over their heads. I can’t even lift mine half way up. Have I gotten my splits yet? Nope, I have not. But I am closer than I’ve ever been and I believe that with practice and discipline, I will get there.
I had also lost my backbends and can now do them again! Can I do complicated contortion routines? No, I cannot. But that doesn’t stop me from trying :)
When I developed the ganglion cyst and was no longer able to do handstands, yes I was upset but then I turned it around and began to work on my forearm stands instead.
I give myself daily challenges too. Right now I’m working on 10 assisted pull ups and 10 push-ups, 6 days a week. I do believe that giving my body one day off is important for recovery.
The bottom line is for you to find what you love and do that. If you love yoga, yes! Do it! If you love spinning or riding your bike outside, do it! If you love dancing, do it! There are so many options! And I’ve tried them all. I wanted to love yoga and hooping and cycling and spinning, but I just didn’t. When you find something that lights you up, you will push yourself to do it and maybe it’s something unconventional and different like circus.
When I move into my van, I’m having a pull-up bar installed because, personally, I love doing pull-ups. I’m also having a roof rack that will have a pull out bar in the back from which I will hang my sling. I do have my own trapeze, but using it while in the van may not be practical, though I may try! Therefore, I’m now taking sling classes because whatever I do and wherever I go, I am clear that circus will need to stay a part of my life. I am also designing the van to have enough floor space to continue doing contortion, or my version anyway, which is extreme stretching :)
Just because I won’t be stationary, that doesn’t mean I have to give up doing anything that lights me up! My passions are a part of me
~ Kimberly Anne ©
I also recorded a podcast about my aerial journey :) Listen HERE!
The pics below are all from the past few months of contortion training!
Hi, I'm Kimberly Anne! (aka K.A.)
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