The Expression Is Telling

I mount the hybrid cardio apparatus – part bike, part track, part ice cream machine. I preset the look on my face because I already know how I feel about it and I would like to perform my cardio in emotional neutral. Perform is the wrong word as there is no one watching except for me watching the metrics on the dash. It’s people-watching time if you’re so inclined (and I am), so I let my gaze meander through the space. I’m at Harbor Bay Club in Alameda, California. This is a tough spot to complain about doing your cardio in — there’s a beautiful lagoon beyond, an offshoot of the San Francisco Bay. Feathery clouds float in a dreamy sky. Sea birds squawk and dive. It’s a refuge, in fact. But my gaze abruptly stops. I’ve sensed some alarm even before I see it. It’s a face that looks anguished. On the treadmill – a woman. Her cheekbones are stretched and her eyebrows are raised as if she is ready to scream. She is breathing through her mouth and her eyes are hard and searching. “I am too close,” I think; I’m invading her privacy. “Don’t stare, Kelly,” I say. I go back to my own business and count to ninety-nine (a tic I have to pass the time). But curious to see if her experience has morphed, my eyes go back. The despair hangs on her like a bat in a cave.

I think about other faces I see as people are working out, be it cardio, weights, outdoor sports, or Pilates. As a teacher I want and need to watch my students, so I do it closely. Not only to see if they’re in alignment but to intuit how much they’re positively engaged. I love the smiles. The big-as-flying-saucer expressions of lips spreading across teeth and bright eyes when it dawns on a student that what they’re doing is really hard but that they really like it! Jackie was like that. The harder she worked the bigger she grinned. I have her on camera so many times.

It’s normal, in a gym setting to see that iconic grimace. I wonder though – does it reflect the internal experience, or is it something put on? To signal, possibly, to others or to ourselves that we’re legitimately serious about this workout? Is there a choice of facial visage? If so, why choose strain if we could choose ease or even delight? And if we choose the visage of trying to win a fight with all the requisite angst that goes along with that, what does it tell the brain?

Some of us have heard what smiling does to the brain. If you are not familiar, know that you are bringing on a party of feel-good neurotransmitters when you let those cheek and jaw muscles stretch. We get dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. Don’t have a smile in you? Fake it til you make it! (Try it right now if you don’t believe me.) Overall benefits include stress reduction; pain relief in the case of endorphins, and mood-lifting in the case of serotonin. What’s not to smile about?

Circling back to fake it til you make it. Choose a private moment, lest you feel silly. In the car is a great choice. It won’t take long for the forced smile to soften into a real smile. I predict you’ll feel it in your heart. The eyes will also soften and you may tear up in gratitude.

Enforced levity at the gym can be accessed with apparel and musical changes. Too much gray, or possibly just worn out clothes? Splashes of color and goofy socks don’t need to cost much. That hectic, driving soundtrack crowding your brain waves? When was the last time you listened to James Brown? M.I.A.? UB40?

I was never the sunniest daisy in the bouquet. I was more of a ponderer, someone who looked for cracks in the wall, December Capricorn that I am. That I’m a convert to the neuroscience of smiling has been life changing. It’s a core tool in my practice and because I’m a teacher it’s on me to keep it front and center. I’ve started to add the cue “and smile” during instruction. I’m setting an intention to do so more. No more hairy eyeball if you play along. Let’s reap the benefits toward more easeful workouts! In the gym, the studio, and life.