In the country of my birth, Russia, I did rhythmic gymnastics and ballet from a very young age, and eventually I competed and performed. The world of gymnastics has its own rituals and involves some very strict practices to give you the best shot at winning.
Rhythmic gymnastics is a sport that combines elements of ballet, gymnastics, other dance, and apparatus manipulation like clubs, hoop, ball, ribbon, rope and free (using no apparatus) -- my favorite was the ball. It requires a high level of motor activity skills such as balance, flexibility, coordination, and strength, which are presented by the gymnasts in perfect harmony with the music chosen for the exercise.
Top rhythmic gymnasts must also possess psychological attributes such as the ability to compete under intense pressure, in which one mistake can cost them the title, and the discipline and work ethic to practice the same skills over and over again.
In competition, the victor is the participant who earns the most points for leaps, balances, pirouettes (pivots), flexibility, apparatus handling, execution and artistic effect. To participate in the sport means that you must embrace traditional practices that have proven effective at getting these artist-athletes to the top.
For both functional and aesthetic reasons, rhythmic gymnasts face extraordinary pressure to be thin; we needed to be lighter in order to jump higher and look better. One week before my performance I would eat very small portions of food, like beet and walnut salads, or carrot, tomato, cabbage and cucumber salad and a very small piece of chicken or beef. We could eat two or three apples a day; no bread, no rice -- nothing else really. We were allowed to drink only a limited amount of water, but I would also drink a glass of buttermilk before bed at night for sure, and in the morning to start a brand new day. Our last meal of salad was supposed to be consumed before 6 p.m. But because most gymnasts start to follow these pracrtices at a very early age, they get used to it and it was not too stressful. You feel that it's just a regular routine of your life; I even enjoyed it.
Another ritual was the sauna. Our gymnastic team would go twice a week, and while we were sweating in there we were told to scoop that sweat into a container and show it to our coach. Our coach would check our weight twice a day, and on those days it was before and after the sauna.
I had at least two workouts per day as well, usually in the morning from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m. and in the evening from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m.. During these workouts I would wrap a big piece of cellophane around my thighs, put pantyhose on over it and wear water proof pants on top of all that, and wear a waterproof jacket, because I would need to sweat and lose more weight.
Although these routines made me tired I always felt inspired. I felt like I achieved something big and important in my life, and that all the discipline was worth it because I always believed that Rhythmic Gymnastics, a symbiosis of art, aesthetics and beauty with the highest physical performance, is a true women's sport and is among the most attractive and beautiful disciplines.
After all those years of practice, the days would finally come to show what I could do.
If I had to perform brand new routines, I would repeat these mentally several times in advance of the performance. And I would talk to my lucky charm( Mickey Mouse) and ask him to give me luck, and kiss him one minute before going on stage.
But the day after the competition or performance, I would sleep the whole day ......... and just relax!
So now that I am in another world and stage of life, teaching and training others, what have these rituals and practices left me?
Most of these gymnastics traditions stay with me. The very first is a discipline in everything I do.
Also, I can not skip my daily stretches because I would feel that my body is very uncomfortable to me. I still do different exercises every day, and automatically hold my abdominals and glutes tight and shoulders back and chin up, all the time -- even if nobody is watching! And before teaching a ballet workshop or any kind of performance on a stage, I have a strict diet and sauna routine and an intense training plan; likewise for a photo or video session, as I do fitness modeling from time to time.
So having been a part of the gymnastics tradition is always helpful to me. And I am glad I had such an incredible experience as rhythmic gymnast in Russia, because it taught me to never give up in my life.
Plus I help a lot of people to feel better, stronger and confident!
I wish to everybody lots of inspiration in this Olympic year of 2014. I believe that it should bring good changes to all of us. And I hope everybody would believe in the magical results of regular and correct exercise!
For more information, visit Alyona Aikina's web site at http://sites.google.com/site/alyonabesttrainer/.
Banner photo of Alyona AIkina by Marcy Maloy.