By Cori Parks
“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain
One of the greatest things about living overseas is that my life and career change about every four or five years. One person’s lack of stability and continuity is another person’s opportunity for change, redefinition and new prospects. Even years ago, when I was a high school exchange student and a Peace Corps volunteer, I could see this coming. I knew that I would one day fuse my passion for fitness with my desire for social responsibility in a multi-cultural setting. And for the time being, I did that in Cambodia, when I opened the first Official Spinning® Center in the country.
They say: “You can take the girl out of the Peace Corps, but you can’t take the Peace Corps out of the girl.” Once you have been part of a network of people who are not consumed by making a living, but making a “giving,” it is hard to deny the wealth afforded in terms of personal enrichment.
I consider it a great blessing to found the first Official Spinning Center in Cambodia, but not from a business point of view. In fact, running a business is my Achilles heel, as is the case for many other instructors who like to concentrate on teaching top-notch classes instead of business transactions. What makes my endeavors here so unique has little, if anything, to do with my bottom line, and everything to do with personal and professional growth.
Open Palm Studio, which is now currently Muscle and Fitness, at the time was located directly across the street from the Cambodian School for the Deaf where 16- to 25-year-olds go to gain the education and skills that will help them to live to their fullest potential (despite the still current burden of being “differently abled” in Cambodia). Coincidentally, I used to be a professional American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, and challenged myself to deliver a Spinning class to young deaf Cambodians.
The cards were stacked against me. Some of the various hurdles I faced were self-imposed, while others were beyond my control.
Music is probably 60 percent of my love for Spinning. I am easily consumed by trying to create the perfect playlist. I want my music to convey the mood of the class profile, so I select some of my favorite songs and blend them together into a long, seamless playlist. I coach as if the music is the wind behind my riders’ backs or what they ride up against. But, music is not relevant to my deaf clients, not only because they don’t hear it, but also because even if they did, my music may not carry the same cultural importance to them.
What my hands remember after 20 years of not practicing as an ASL interpreter has little bearing, if any, on my ability to communicate clearly with my students. My bikes are fitted with Spinning Computers, which are great tools to have at my disposal, but simple adherence to numbers makes any class dry. My challenge was to bring a dynamic and memorable experience to my deaf clients without having the benefit of being able to ask them to close their eyes and listen to my coaching. Khmer Sign Language is different from ASL, so I have to rely on gestures. I have to wonder how silly I look, teaching off the bike and miming situations like pretending there’s a dog chasing the bike, or simulating biking through long stretches of open country road after a cool rain has brought relief to the searing South East Asian heat.
Exercise is not something that young Khmer women normally do, so there is no real cultural context for the notion that exercising vigorously (or at all) is great for the body. They live an active lifestyle, using bikes for transportation, or walking everywhere. Moreover, given the extreme poverty and heat, they don’t have close-toed exercise shoes. For people who get no pleasure from great music, see no relevance to breaking a sweat for their health and longevity, and generally don’t have access to exercise equipment and shoes, why would they come to class? To watch the crazy foreign lady act out scenes while they pedal a bike that doesn’t go anywhere? No. A certain level of education is required before one can successfully convince others to reap the benefits of a sustained physical program.
While I wanted to bring Spinning to young deaf women in Cambodia, I did not do it alone. I put out the word to my pre-existing client base asking for donations of shoes and socks. I was soon inundated with plenty, so the girls could ride safely. Half of my bikes were donated by Frogs Gym in Encinitas, California and an American deaf woman, who is fluent in English, ASL and Khmer Sign Language helps us communicate during our sessions.
Spinning does not leave you when you leave class. It stays with you for the other 23 hours of the day. Things like introspection, perseverance, determination and tolerance for being out of one’s comfort zone are all great life skills that are learned in the saddle, not to the exclusion of the instructor. Yoga instructors often say that sharing the gift of yoga with their students is a rewarding experience in and of itself. Likewise, the lessons I have taught in Cambodia, both in and out of the saddle, have shown me that carrying out charitable acts of kindness leaves me feeling like the recipient of some of Spinning’s most profound gifts.