Potential Space

by Alexandra Guhde, PsyD


This past January, I turned 40. The occasion came laden with all the attendant reckoning that milestone birthdays so often bring. As a result, I doubled down on my vow to live a more embodied life, rather than whiling away my hours in the catbird seat of my prefrontal cortex. (If you read my previous post, you know I’m riffing on a theme, here.) And in this spirit — the literal inclusion of the physical — I decided to enlist a certified weightlifting coach to teach me proper Olympic weightlifting technique.

I’ve never had an abiding interest in weightlifting as a sport, or even as a pastime. Barbells scare me, especially when hovering overhead. Maybe it was the fear that attracted me. Or the twinge of envy I felt watching an athlete at ease standing beneath so many kilos of iron. Could I do that? Nah.

It turns out I can. Sort of. Well, I’m learning. And the learning has proved revelatory. The hours I spend assembling the surprisingly complex and subtle movements involved in shifting a barbell from the floor toward the heavens provide me with new awareness of my body in space and time. Also, when I do it properly (or, in my case, as close to properly as possible) it feels so cool.

One of the things that I appreciate — and fear — about weightlifting is that once you commit to a movement, you must move quickly. No hesitation. It is almost the opposite of psychotherapy, wherein once you commit, it’s usually more effective to go slowly. If you slow down while trying to complete a “clean and jerk” or a “squat snatch” — ugly names for movements that are actually quite graceful — the lift becomes next to impossible.

Whereas, if you move fast — trusting your muscle memory — you will achieve a moment of weightlessness mid-lift, in which the barbell appears to float. This moment occurs just as the bar reaches your shoulders, and is generated by a combination of strength and extension in your legs and power from the core. In other words, your relationship with gravity.

In that brief moment of weightlessness, you have a vital, immediate purpose: you must pull your body under the heavy, floating bar, so as to then press it above your head. If you don’t pull yourself under the barbell, you will miss your lift. The intersection of weightlessness and time is small. If you pause, you’ll get stuck, like Atlas, unable to free your shoulders from your burden.

This is, in my opinion, the most frightening, counterintuitive moment of a lift. But, it’s also the most magical. If you commit to your movement, without hesitation, you can use gravity to help you momentarily defy its own limitations. To me, 40 feels like an excellent age for this particular lesson.