Finding Freedom through Fitness

Posted: October 26, 2010 in Our work
Tags: , , ,

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With the enervating smog and climate in Manila, exercise is far from the mind of the average Filipino.  In fact, one native trait we’ve adopted is doing almost anything to avoid walking; Filipinos will stay on a bus those extra ten feet, take a tricycle to avoid a plodding two blocks, and of course stand on the escalator rather than step up it as impatient Westerners do.  Let me be clear that we’re not talking about laziness here—we’re talking about self-preservation, which is what’s required if you don’t want to always carry a backup shirt (see our earlier post, Sweaty State of Mind).

Despite all of this, as a former coach, one of my goals at Samaritana was to start a fitness group for the women.  My hope was to help them reclaim their bodies through exercise, live healthier lives, and learn important life skills like goal-setting and working through stress, grief, and frustration. Giving this fitness group a big step toward reality was a generous donation of $1,000 in workout clothes and running shoes from Nike, which we boxed up, shipped to Manila, and hoped we’d find there on the other side.

Our first sign that we weren’t in the U.S. any more was a notice from the Quezon City post office telling us that we’d have to pay $375 to have the packages released.  It seemed like a blatant attempt to extort from the Americans; we’d already paid $300 to ship the packages from the US, so this additional fee would almost cancel out the value of the donation! We solicited help from Samaritana, Nike, the Fulbright office, the University of the Philippines, and practically everyone we knew here, but the message was the same: pay or say goodbye to your packages. Our resources exhausted, we made our way to the post office, praying for a miracle to the only One we knew who was bigger than corrupt government officials.

We walked up to the window with a Filipino friend, listened as a woman behind the counter rattled off a conversation in Tagalog, watched as she flipped through a packet of documents we mostly couldn’t read, and then . . . smiled at us, gave us the packages, and we walked away without paying a peso! We got our miracle, and our befuddled Filipino friend said that perhaps there was a new customs official who changed the rules, but that he didn’t really know what had just happened.

Back at Samaritana, I wasn’t sure how the women would respond, but I need not have worried.  During our first meeting, before there was any mention of the Nike donation, the women talked about how they wanted to get stronger so they could pick up their kids without straining their backs, how they hoped exercise would make them feel more awake and alive, and how they wanted to improve their health.

After spending the last four years handing out equipment to my Mills College cross country and track & field teams, I’m used to the usual cheer that accompanies getting a new uniform, feeling like you’re part of the team.  But for the Samaritana women (many of whom have never worn any such affluent exercise wear) the reaction was better described as pure joy.  They walked taller, smiled bigger, and giggled endlessly when they saw each other in Dri-Fit outfits, ready to work out.

Over the past two months, Super Babae (babae, “women” in Tagalog, is pronounced buh-bah-eh) has grown and taken shape, and now includes three morning meetings per week where the women do yoga, strength training, and jogging.  My short-term goal is to teach them these exercises well enough that they can do them without me, and to empower the women to lead each other so the group can continue beyond the immediate future.  In the months to come, I hope that the morning routines will not be mere exercise, but a means to healing a broken past and a distorted view of their bodies.  We’ll work on goal-setting, reframing our perceptions, and learning how to conquer our fears—all through moving our limbs and sweating a lot.

Every morning before we begin, I ask the women to close their eyes, breathe, and acknowledge whatever it is they’re carrying on that particular day—sorrow, anger, fatigue, fear—and to ask God to help them let those negative feelings fall to the floor as they move their bodies.  It’s a small thing, these mornings of teaching them to be aware of their bodies and to push themselves.  But so much of what we’ve learned here is that healing happens not in big, dramatic moments, but in learning to sit with life as it is, flex your muscles against the things that restrict you, and break free when the time is right.


Thank you to Nike for the donation that made Freedom Fitness possible, and thank you to everyone who has supported our work with these incredible women both financially and through your prayers!

  1. Jacob Maentz says:

    Hi Laura…I haven’t looked at your blog in a while, but I’m glad I came to check it out again. It sounds like you are having a good experience in Manila and doing great work as well. I look forward to checking back and hearing more stories. It would be great to meet up as well if you will still be around in March. I’ll be arriving back in Cebu then and might be coming up to Manila around Easter time. Take care and all the best.

  2. Nathan says:

    This is amazing! I am so extremely excited to actually know people on the ground physically doing something about this issue. And such a practical way to help them engage and move towards spiritual/emotional freedom. Looking forward to reading more. Thank you guys so much for playing such a vital role in advancing God’s kingdom.

  3. Kim M says:

    I’m so impressed by the way you are using your gifts as a coach to minister to the lives of these women. It’s so practical, but something I would never have considered. I know that training for the triathalon really solidified friendships with the women with whom I trained. The support, challenge, and encouragement that I received from them motivated me because I loved our time together even if it was grueling! I can only imagine how much this group must mean to the women you are working with. We are keeping you in our prayers, and I’m so glad Nate left a comment on our blog to remind me to stop by and read yours!

  4. ziwei says:

    Hi Laura!

    It’s so great to hear what you guys are doing and see some familiar faces =) They look great! You are doing awesome work, and I’m so thankful that you’re there at Samaritana now.

  5. Bryan says:

    That is awesome. Amazing story. So cool. Can’t wait for an update on Super Babae!

  6. This is such a cool idea Laura! I like how you’ve incorporated a reflection before each session, we all carry so much with us. I think I need a little of that workout myself!

  7. Cara Tuenge says:

    You are so amazing Laura – my heart swells and my eyes well as I read your story.

    • freeisaverb says:

      Thanks, Cara! So glad you enjoyed reading this, and thanks for stopping by the site! The more people that know about this stuff, the better the chances are that the good guys in this world will get the help they need. Thanks for being one of the good guys. =)

  8. […] the gear–which puts in even richer perspective the donation that enabled us to start the Super Babae fitness program at Samaritana. Thanks to our Patron Saint of Exercise, Krista Ford at Nike, we were able to help […]

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