Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Mindful life: Why a Zumba class taught me how to feel

Marina’s sassy, stompy class is the highlight of my week—and not just because of the endorphin high
March 7, 2024

It is Tuesday night, and Marina, my Zumba instructor, is shouting into her microphone. “I can’t hear you,” she says sternly, as 20 women of all ages stomp across the floor. “Still can’t hear you,” she shouts, lowering the music so that we are forced to turn up the volume of our feet. 

Watching myself dance in the mirror, I feel a sense of dread and frustration about how different my body looks from how it did when I was 22. But then the track changes from salsa to hip-hop, and my self-criticism is swept away with the music.

I suspect that Marina was an award-winning choreographer in another life—because her Zumba sessions have none of the stilted, corny, jazz-hands feel that many other dance-based exercise classes suffer from. Instead, the moves are creative and sassy. Marina weaves a sense of narrative, of humour, of playfulness into the routines. Halfway through the class, I’m red-faced with exhaustion but also with exhilaration; even the shy new starters are swinging their hips with abandon. 

But afterwards, as I stagger back to my flat with aching legs, my thoughts turn to the complicated relationship that I have had with exercise. And a conversation that I shared with an OCD psychologist years ago, when I was in my final year at university. 

I had an unusual clinical profile at that time. Obsessions and compulsions were derailing my life and regular panic attacks were impacting my functioning, but I had “a cheerful manner” and a broadly positive mood. When the psychologist asked me how much exercise I did, I replied: “Quite a lot.” But, in truth, this was a gross understatement. I was a competitive athlete training four times a week with the university badminton club. “Never stop doing so much exercise,” he responded, explaining how it encourages the body to produce endorphins that can protect against depression.

Sadly, I did stop. Or at least I slowed down. After university, and as my commitments and responsibilities increased with age, my activity decreased—and episodes of bad depression duly followed. Integrating exercise into my weekly routine became a constant challenge, and I still often feel that I am not getting the balance right. 

Not that I got the balance right in the past, either. As a teenager, I trained even more than I did at university, and craved the pain that came from an exhausting sprint session. Temporarily the exhaustion would obliterate my anxious thoughts. As well as a coping strategy, I also used over-exercising as a handy self-flagellation tool for perceived deficiencies in my appearance. My approach bordered on the kind of unhealthy addiction that is now actively encouraged by many social media influencers.

Now, I know that exercise should never be a means of self-punishment. And I am beginning to realise that the link between movement and mental health is about something even more powerful than the astonishing mood-boosting power of endorphins. In the modern world, exercise is one of the only ways we remind ourselves that we are bodied creatures—that we are animals rather than just floating minds. Office workers like me spend an average of 75 per cent of our waking hours sitting. As well putting us at risk of serious health conditions like diabetes, this robs us of our sense of our physical selves.

As I try to build more exercise back into my routine, I am focusing on activities that allow me to connect with my body on a more spiritual level. Instead of lifting weights or pounding the exercise bike in the gym, I have chosen Marina’s class—and it is genuinely one of the highlights of my week. And I’m not alone in this sentiment: many of the other women who attend regularly share it aloud to each other at the end of the sessions. 

The sense of wellbeing that I feel at Marina’s class makes me think about one of the key principles of the therapy approach that I follow for my OCD: Acceptance and Commitment, or ACT. ACT teaches us that emotions are experienced mainly in the body not the mind: notice your faster heartbeat, a tightness in your chest, or most commonly for me, a dull ache in your jaw.

When I finish my Zumba class, I feel like I have physically processed some lingering emotions. I am reminded of what my body can do and, in the process, escape my mind. But rather than relying on pain to do so, like my teenage self did, I escape through joy.