Aspergers & Teaching Les Mills – A Personal Reflection

It’s been a while since I wrote a group fitness related blog post. But having gone through some recent events and anniversaries, I thought it would be a perfect time to pick up on this again.

Eight years ago this week, I undertook my training to become a BODYJAM instructor (the first of what would eventually become 8 Les Mills programs in which I would train). And the road I’ve travelled on since then has been somewhat rocky in some parts, but overall an experience that has helped me to grow as a person.

When I initially became an instructor, I was extremely overwhelmed and excited to become part of what is commonly referred as “The Tribe”, ie. the collective of Les Mills instructors around the world. A group of people whom I thought to be just like myself, ready to take on the group fitness world. 

And being the passionate person that I was, I was ready to get my hands dirty and get to know everything and everyone Les Mills-related. However I learnt quite quickly that being new and passionate about something does not sit well with certain people in the group fitness industry.

At the time, Aspergers or autism were terms that were not even on my radar, so in my mind I was just this new instructor who was super keen to get out there and make a great impression on people. Looking back, it seems that a lot of those efforts were in vain, as I started to become aware of certain comments being made about me, people overtly making fun of me. I would be aware of myself making numerous social faux-pas but not really being able to do anything about it.

And to be honest, it cut me. It cut me very deeply, and it took a while to even get my head around why other instructors would be going out of their way to be totally cruel and heartless. I was very naive to the world around me, and was under the impression that everyone in the Les Mills world would be like me – enthusiastic, passionate, respectful and kind to each other. Certainly not the kind of behaviour that belonged back in high school.

And not only did this happen in Australia, but also in New Zealand, where I had started to regularly attend the filming sessions for the upcoming release masterclasses. I quickly got to know a lot of the Program Directors and International Presenters, and like any new instructor, was totally in awe of what they could do. But at the same time, I also viewed them as simple human beings, and yearned to get to know them as people too, and they were very warm and welcoming in return.

Unfortunately, around 2010, the general atmosphere in Auckland as far as I was concerned began to change. I had just gone through a sudden personal financial collapse that had resulted in me aborting a filming trip halfway through, and was trying to pick up the pieces from that (it was a long hard struggle, some residual effects I still experience today). That trip had also revealed the true colours of fellow instructors I had previously considered to be friends, and the extent of the nastiness that I and others uncovered on their part was emotionally devastating, on top of all the other feelings I was experiencing from the financial issues.

But what struck me the most was the treatment of some of the Program Directors and presenters towards me. It was as if I had suddenly become a leper. And when you are the Autism Spectrum, you typically will have no idea why people’s attitudes towards you would change on a dime unless they explicitly say something to you, which was the case here.

So to be effectively looked down upon for essentially no reason by people that you admire, and to an extent idolise, was a double blow for me. Some of this escalated even further in 2011 to the point where I was publicly humiliated at a filming class. It led me to exile myself from Auckland for over 4 years.

Back in Australia, the repercussions of that filming class (I personally refer to it as the “Filming From Hell”) continued to be felt for some time. Even a senior Les Mills trainer here felt it necessary to minimise me and the experience that I had had, and by that point I needed to cut myself off from everyone and everything.

So I deleted my Facebook in 2012. Five years worth of stories, of friends, of pictures. All deleted with just a couple of taps. It was a major shock to the system seeing that disappear before my very eyes.

But it gave me the space I needed to start healing emotionally, physically and mentally. Keep in mind that all through this time, I still had to teach all my classes and still be the positive role model that my members needed me to be. At this stage, I had been trained in 5 programs and was teaching 4 of them. At the beginning of 2012, I had also broken two bones in my hands during a BODYSTEP class, the effects of which required invasive surgery to keep the bones together (I still remember the morning after I broke my hand, I went to teach BODYPUMP with no bar – that was an experience I would never forget).

By the end of 2012, I felt ready to come back into the outside world. I got myself certified for BODYPUMP. I created a new Facebook account, and slowly broadened my contacts again. On my previous Facebook account, I had amassed over 1000 friends, mostly instructors from around the world whom I didn’t know from a bar of soap. But this time, it would be different.

I adopted the mindset of being very choosy and picky about the people I added to my Facebook account, and to this day I still maintain that level of caution somewhat. The experiences of the previous 2 years were enough to make me ever so careful about whom I spoke to, whom I could trust, because I knew that everything I would say could be used against me in some way. And that scared the hell out of me.

That period of 2012-2013 was to mark the start of a shift in behaviour with me. I had come to realise since the Filming From Hell that not everything was all roses and sweetness in the Les Mills world. I knew that the programs themselves were awesome and I loved teaching them, but not so much the stuff that operated around it. I was sick of the egos that permeated the industry. 

I made it my sole focus in every class to be there for the members, and the members only. No associating with Les Mills presenters/trainers outside of a professional environment, apart from the ones that were already friends and whom I could trust. No being around people who consistently displayed negative energy and lack of respect for other people. 

In essence, I had to start focusing on myself and my strengths, rather than what other instructors thought of me (and believe me, that took a long time). It completely changed the way that I approached the outside world.

At the start of 2013, I added CXWORX to my program repertoire. I ended up getting certified for SHBAM and CXWORX in the second half of the year. Things were on the up.

2014 was another turning point – it was when my stepfather died and also when I discovered that I had Aspergers. I’ve written about this previously at length, so I won’t go into the details here. I also trained and certified for BODYATTACK that year.

2015 I trained and certified in BODYBALANCE. I also achieved Advanced status in AIM2 for BODYPUMP and BODYSTEP. Again I’ve written at length about those experiences previously in my blog.

And the Autism diagnosis was officially confirmed. The Aspergers knowledge is what really has allowed me to come to terms with a lot of what had happened in my life thus far, but just as importantly, the events of the last 8 years. Just having that knowledge has empowered me to speak out without fear of judgement or repercussion. It has enabled me to stand up for what is right for me and for my loved ones.

The years post-diagnosis in my group fitness career have been challenging in their own way, but for vastly different reasons than elaborated above. I learnt that I will never be able to fulfill the expectations that Les Mills want from an “Elite” instructor, but moreover I realised that I am ok with that. I just go out there now and teach to my strengths, of which I have several. They may not meet Elite criteria, but they nevertheless provide my members the best experience that I can possibly give them.

There are a lot more events over the past 8 years that have occurred in my career to this point, in addition the ones above. There are also more details I could add to a lot of these, but they do not really have much relevance here. This is not intended to be a rant or a bitchfest or a pity party, just an honest and open post of some of what I have experienced and endured.

I have loved what I done for the last 8 years, and I believe that I will continue to love it for a long time to come.

Empathy Helps Humanity

It has been almost a week now since the US election. And while I have had time to process it (and I am feeling better), some of it does weigh a little heavily inside me still. 

One of the things that is helping me to move through this is the compassion and empathy shown by other people, not just on FB but out there in society. The knowledge that most people are going through their own individual grief process for a kinder, more compassionate society that seems to have been left behind. 

Unfortunately there have been those who have not shown that level of empathy and compassion, and it does horrify me that some people will simply say “get over it”, “grow up”, “just move on”.

No, no and no. 

We as human beings are designed to express emotions, not repress them. We as human beings need to know what we feel deep inside us is not wrong.

What is wrong though is dictating to people what they should and should not be feeling in times of grief and sadness. We will move on when we feel ready to (and some of us are at that stage already). 

As someone with Aspergers, those emotions can come on very strongly, to the point where I will often be told “you’re just overreacting”. No I’m not. I am reacting in the way that feels natural to me. The sad thing is, societal stereotypes have dictated that I need to keep my emotions to myself, to bottle them inside and portray a strong facade. Repressing emotions is dangerous enough for neurotypical people, and the danger merely intensifies for neurodiverse people. 

Emotions are not a sign of weakness, but they are a sign of humanity. Let’s maintain that humanity.

America, WTAF? – The Morning After

Everybody is unique in the way they are created. Here are just some of the qualities that make me who I am:

  • I am the son of a white French man with suspected Mongolian and Scandinavian ancesty, and a mixed-race French woman with African and European ancestry.
  • I am on the Autism Spectrum with Aspergers (and that in itself spurs off a number of other qualities)
  • I am a gay male

I’m sure others out there can add more qualitative items to that list. Our differences are what set us apart from everyone else around us. But they can also unite us at the same time. I was always taught from a young age to celebrate diversity as much as possible. Being on the spectrum made it difficult sometimes to comprehend that, particularly during the bullying and teasing that I endured during high school. But somehow, instead of keeping me down, I managed to pick myself up and simply find another path to where I needed to go.

Some will call that the path of least resistance, but I prefer to term it the path of most knowledge, as it is the path I forged from the knowledge I gained by being knocked down in the first place.

It has now been 24 hours since the USA went to the polls to elect their new President. I faced a restless night’s sleep as my brain was completely overloaded with so many different conflicting emotions, and it was extremely difficult to allow any space inside.

As an Aspie, my mind is always switched on, even when it is crying out to be turned off. And when it experiences emotional overload as it progressively did yesterday, well, let’s just say that there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that I would get any rest.

I eventually got myself off to sleep around 2am after looking at meaningless stuff and chatting to people (I specifically told myself to stay away from any social media, as that would have made matters much worse). And when I woke up in the morning, some of the fog had cleared, but the heaviness of the heart remained (and it still does even as I write this).

The last time I felt anything so disheartening like this was when Australia elected Tony Abbott as Prime Minister in 2013, on the wave of backlash against Julia Gillard and the Labor Party. It was an extremely cruel night to endure and I actually had to switch off social media for a couple of weeks as it was just too much to bear at the time.

I take so much comfort in the fact that there are people like me who are going through a similar wave of emotions. I am certain that people who voted for Trump do honestly believe they made the right choice for them. But as with anything in life, that remains to be seen for sure. The indicators thus far aren’t exactly encouraging though.

I also take comfort in the fact that while Donald Trump might have won the Electoral College vote, Hillary Clinton by far won the popular vote – in fact, the most number of popular votes for any presidential canditate in history. There are people even today who still insist that Bernie Sanders would have done a better job.

The benefit of hindsight is 20/20, but no one can ever predict what an alternative outcome would have been (and quite frankly it is futile to do so). In saying that, I do honestly believe that with the level of discontent and lingering hatred in the US electorate, even Bernie would not have been enough (remember that Bernie united behind Hillary in the end too, and encouraged his supporters to do so).

I think about all my close friends over in the US who feel the same way I do, and I have already offered to them to come stay with me here in Melbourne. Yes, Australia has its own fuck tonne of issues to contend with (not much dissimilar to the US), but nothing on the magnitude of what they are experiencing over there.

I had a long chat with my mum this morning just after I woke up. There is nothing like a mother’s voice to help reassure her child that everything is going to turn out ok, no matter how dire the circumstances are at the time. She is someone who has been through a lot more in her life than most people, and has always come out stronger every time. She is the person I look to for inspiration in how to be a survivior.

She has recently returned from 11 months in France where far-right extremism is sweeping the country, to the point where the previously fringe far-right Front National party is widely tipped to win the French Presidency next year. And for a country that prides itself on the values of Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood, this is an extremely frightening thought.

I realised today that I will actually be in France next year in May after the second run-off vote for the Presidency has occurred. I certainly hope that common sense does prevail, but I dread that the French people will make the same mistake that has just been made in the US (and also in the UK earlier this year with Brexit, an event which I also found very disturbing).

A dear friend of mine on Facebook who is currently in the US covering the election posted that on his feed, he had seen all different stages of the grief process in one hit. And that in itself is not surprising, as everyone deals with grief in their own personal way. But the observation was made that no one had hit the stage of Acceptance yet.

The way I related to this was seeing it as the death of someone who was dear to oneself. We may see them take their last breath, but we don’t actually accept it until the funeral has occurred and they are either buried or cremated (this is what happened with me when my stepfather died, although unfortunately I was not there to see him pass away, which made things even worse for me).

Donald Trump was elected on November 8, 2016. I see this as the “death”, so to speak. He will be inaugurated on January 20, 2017. I see this as the burial/cremation. The point where I know that it has actually happened and I can accept and move on.

But as we all move on, we also need to deal with the ramifications of what occurred during the election and what will unfold. Times will be rocky, but it will be our differences that help unite us in that period.

America, World, once we have grieved, once we have accepted, we unite as one common society, differences and all. And that includes me and all my unique differences. I am always happy to talk about it with any of you, as engaging in constructive and positive dialogue will help us all move forward.

 

 

 

America, WTAF?

Right now, at this very moment, along with a lot of other people in the world, I have a multitude of emotions going through my head, and unfortunately none of them are positive ones.

I was very privileged enough to make my first ever trip to the US in August this year, when I went to Seattle for a week to visit some lovely friends up there. For those of you who have never been, Seattle is one of the most socially progressive cities in the whole of the USA. A complete melting pot of diversity, whether it be through gender, sexuality, race. And absolutely loved it.

Sadly I believe (and I say this with no melodrama intended) that this will be the first and last time that I visit the US. Leaving behind all my dear friends that I have over there, coast to coast. Not after what has happened today. 
In case you have not heard as yet, Donald Trump was just elected as the 45th President of the United States of America. These are words that I never ever thought I would be writing (and indeed hoped that I would never have to write).

Politics in today’s world is a very complex beast, and there are so many obstacles to overcome, so many hops to jump through. Hillary Clinton knew this better than anyone else, and yet she always managed to find a way forward. And like any other career politician/public servant, she has made bad decisions throughout the course of that career. 

But the thing with her is that she has always approached it from a sense of what is possible and what is good. And there is no doubt whatsoever that she came into the Democratic candidacy being the most qualified Presidential candidate in US history (State First Lady of Arkansas, US First Lady, Senator of New York, Secretary of State).

And momentum was slowly but surely heading towards her breaking that glass ceiling and becoming the first woman to become President of the USA. But alas it was not to be…

Instead the people of the USA chose to elect someone who has been documented as:

  • Not ever having served in public office,
  • Engaging in systematic racism going back as far as the 1970s,
  • Showing himself repeatedly to be misogynistic (“grab ’em by the pussy” anyone?), and
  • Lacking the kind of temperament required to be the leader of any world country, let alone the US President.

Now I get that there has been unease within the USA around terrorism, immigration, and the economy. On the latter score though, the US economy is the best that it has been since before the GWB years. Obama managed to cut the deficit, lower unemployment throughout the country, and even introduced more healthcare coverage to 22 million Americans who otherwise would not have been insured.

Instead, you have chosen to elect someone who will almost certainly reverse all those gains that were rebuilt over the last 8 years. Indeed Donald Trump has committed to repealing Obamacare, and also to devolve same-sex marriage back to state level (which will essentially bring that issue back to square one). To potentially overturn Roe vs Wade. To allow the Supreme Court to gain a conservative bent that will set back the country and have ramifications for generations.

You have chosen the racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic demagogue over the one person who could actually continue the good progress that your country was making. Now I do not deny anyone the right to vote, and in fact it is something we all treasure. We also have a duty to ensure that we are making the right choice for the country and not for ourselves.

Unfortunately, America, the majority of you chose the latter. Your own self-interest. Your own fears. The greater good did not matter to you today. And you might have had your own rationale inside your head for making the choice that you did.

But know this. For those of you who voted for Donald Trump, you now need to own your vote. You now need to take responsibility for that vote and ask yourselves, despite all the evidence that was there to see, what you were hoping to achieve by doing what you did today. And I so hope that you are able and have the power to keep Donald Trump to account in accordance with the values of the USA, particularly as the Republican Party now has control of the Presidency, the Senate and the House.

Is this what you really wanted? Is this the type of future that you truly intend for your children, your grandchildren, and so on? I cannot for the life of me figure out why any rationale, logical human being would want that.

We will wake up tomorrow to a new day, as it will inevitably go on. But we have now veered into unchartered waters. And it’s not just America that will feel the reverbations of this. As the leader of the Free World, this will further unleash a torrent of xenophobia and hatred, and more scarily, LEGITIMISE IT.

We all have a duty, no matter where we are in the world, to push back on this behaviour wherever and whenever we witness it, and declare it repugnant and contrary to the values that we want in today’s society. So I encourage all of you to stand up what is right and good in the world. Just mouthing platitudes won’t do. We all need to be proactive about this. And this includes the people who chose to condone this behaviour in the first place by voting for Trump.

Those who know me also know that I always try to look at the positives (the silver linings, so to speak), but the only one I can see so far is that half the USA wanted to be on the right side of the history today, and those are the people I feel really bad for. My hope and my heart are with those people right now.

But alas there is not much else I can say that can make things better for myself at this moment. So I leave this post by saying this in the kindest way possible…

America, you fucked up big time.