The Dharma of Working Out

Illustration: muscular arms flexing with a round halo shaped like the sun's corona in place of a head
Illustration by Katie Martin; images from Popperfoto / Getty

This article was published online on May 3, 2021.

Death comes, and the soul, dragged blinking from its nest of nerves, perceives its dimensions for the first time. It swoops; it stretches; it delights; it trails its wing tips in a dazzling, boundless sea. And all the dichotomies, all the infernal dualities—mind/body, I/you, subject/object, wanting/getting—are finally, finally resolved.

But what if there were something we could do about them while we’re alive? What if through, say, very determined bicycling, or running up mountains, or doing push-ups on our knuckles, we could override ourselves? Forget ourselves, and so transcend these binaries that bedevil us?

This is the theme, or one of them, of Alison Bechdel’s rather astonishing new graphic memoir. The Secret to Superhuman Strength is an account of Bechdel’s lifelong pursuit of nondual bliss through vigorous-to-the-point-of-violent physical activity: the dharma of working out, you might call it.

The big questions have always preoccupied Bechdel, the memoirist of Fun Home fame. In one of my favorite sequences in the book, she is in the bathroom, age 9 or so, sitting on the lid-down toilet, clipping her toenails and staring at her cat. She is wondering whether her cat has a soul. “He was definitely conscious,” runs the text. “But perhaps not conscious of himself as a self, as I was.” The cat stares back at her with his small, humorless cat face. Bechdel stands up and looks at herself in the bathroom mirror. “I deduced that the soul must therefore consist in this self-consciousness. How I envied the cat. God knew, no one was more self-conscious than I was.” The cat leaves.

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How to escape this self-consciousness, how to get out of your own head? As a child, Bechdel works herself into a trance state throwing and catching an old tennis ball: “In time I learned that the secret to mastering the woolly orb was not to try. Not to think about it. Not to think at all.” With her skis on, confronting the big slopes, trying and falling and trying again, she learns another route to cessation of mind: exhaustion.

At the same time, Bechdel wants to be strong. The Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads in her comic books are magnetic to her. (“It didn’t really occur to me—despite the endlessly repeated word ‘man’—that these were male bodies.”) As a teenager, peering into her mother’s copy of The Joy of Feeling Fit, she is introduced to the concept of otrada—a birthright condition of “enchanting well-being,” as the book’s Russian author has it, lost in the grind of growing up but recoverable via well-tutored exercise. She runs, she stretches, she jumps around. Otrada is hers. But for how long?

Bechdel’s on a physical journey, and a mystical one, and a political one too. Obliged to look past the “gender psychosis” of the various training programs she encounters in girlhood (TV’s Jack LaLanne talking about firming up the bustline and shedding those ugly pounds), she achieves an autonomous, nonconformist approach to fitness. College radicalizes her, and she comes out as a lesbian. At the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, an epiphany: “Not a man in sight … In that startling void, I underwent a vertiginous perceptual shift! I could see what it meant to be a subject and not an object.” (Cue a Richard Scarry–like full-page drawing of a field of women, all cheerfully and variously busy.) She reads Adrienne Rich: “Two women, eye to eye / measuring each other’s spirit, each other’s / limitless desire, / a whole new poetry beginning here.” And running parallel to all this evolution, sprinting along next to it, the life-in-exercise. Bechdel bikes ferociously, she hikes ferociously; she does yoga and karate, Nordic skiing, Soloflex, spinning, Insanity training. Barely a fitness fad goes by that she doesn’t leap on, a craze that she isn’t crazed by.

There are some juicy tensions here, of which Bechdel the memoirist is far from unaware. Self-forgetting might be one end of working out; self-improvement, leading to self-glorification, is another. “Part of me is still enamored of the ideal of the rugged individual, the enclosed impregnable ego! But why? This fantasy of physical fitness is for fascists! I’m a feminist, for *@#&’s sake!” The flow state, the letting-go-ness, the concentration of no concentration—can it be reconciled with a heroic, neurotic, teeth-gritted striving for strength and beauty? And how much of self-forgetting is just escapism, anyway? A way of blowing everybody off? “I turned forty without attaining enlightenment,” deadpans the text, as Bechdel in the frame pours herself a shot of Loch Lomond and her cat paws at a withered-but-still-floating balloon.

Bechdel has her spirit-allies on the journey. Adrienne Rich, as mentioned, but also those proto-backpackers the Lake Poets: Coleridge and Wordsworth, stomping about in a landscape that was also, for a moment, their shared inner panorama. There’s Coleridge in one frame, vaulting a gate on his way to visit Wordsworth (and his sister) for the first time: “Coleridge’s literal leap into their lives impressed them both indelibly.” The Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, always battling to live in fullness as a woman, shuttles in and out of the text. And Bechdel wrangles lovingly with the shade of Jack Kerouac. On the Road gets thrown across the room: “Macho bullshit.” The Dharma Bums, his Buddhism-inflected account of hiking the High Sierras with Gary Snyder, is carefully studied. “Self-absorbed misogynist prick!” thought-bubbles Bechdel, reading Kerouac by flashlight in her sleeping bag. But his fleeting flow states—“He watches the weather, the sun, the moon, the animals. His self blissfully recedes”—are much to be envied.

Self-forgetting, self-improvement—and self-regulation. Bechdel’s story, as she tells it in The Secret to Superhuman Strength, also contains a lot of what in my own life I call “buzz management.” Which is to say, the husbandry and distribution of one’s personal energies: knowing when to stimulate, when to tranquilize, when to run up a mountain and boil your shitty mood in endorphins, and so on. And the thing about buzz management is that you’re always getting it wrong. You overexcite yourself; you frazzle yourself; you’re bored, and then you’re anxious, and then you’re tired. There’s some surfeit or deficit of electricity, some kink in the wiring, that you’re always trying to straighten out. In Bechdel I recognize the symptoms of a fellow buzz manager: a tricky relationship to alcohol, a tricky relationship to work, a tricky relationship to relationships. I’m 53, and my exercise regimen—push-ups, pull-ups, jumping rope—is basically a means of helping me digest the consequences of my personality.

And the life-in-exercise, of course, is also a steady mortality readout. You watch in fascination as your body thickens, softens, slows. Can’t run: creaky knee. Fifty push-ups? Not anymore. To be gracious and accepting of these changes feels inhuman, impossible. But what are you going to do? The Secret to Superhuman Strength loses me in the final pages, because it ends in serenity and existential forgiveness. Bechdel and her partner make it through 2020—the virus, the Trumpgasm—by working hard on what she is still calling “the fitness book,” and at the top of the trail, guess what, there is hard-won wisdom. “We are a part of everything,” she writes. “Also: this is it. The only thing to transcend is the idea that there’s something to transcend.” Selfishly, I’d prefer this utterly absorbing book to end in a welter of confusion and failed chin-ups. No answers—or only those most fugitive ones, nontransferable, grasped or glimpsed for a second as you’re grimacing past your limit.


This article appears in the June 2021 print edition with the headline “Alison Bechdel’s Spiritual Sprint.”