Strong Mind Fit Body: Our Beginning

This reflection piece was intended as a script for the School of the Arts Gotong Royong Day Sharing on 20 October 2016 – the actual presentation was a rather candid version of this piece albeit delivered with the same intentions and outline.

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Allow me to begin with one of my favourite poems, titled Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you

Weep, and you weep alone;

For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,

But has trouble enough of its own.

Sing, and the hills will answer;

Sigh, it is lost on the air;

The echoes bound to a joyful sound,

But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;

Grieve, and they turn and go;

They want full measure of your pleasure,

But they do not need your woe.

Be glad, and your friends are many;

Be sad, and you lose them all,—

There are none to decline your nectared wine,

But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;

Fast, and the world goes by.

Succeed and give, and it helps you live,

But no man can help you die.

There is room in the halls of pleasure

For a large and lordly train,

But one by one we must all file on

Through the narrow aisles of pain.

This solitude and the sense of isolation, is one of the most pressing challenges that we face as Singaporeans in terms of good health and well-being. A disease of a nation, when we experience disconnect from those around us it takes a toll on our mental and physical well-being. When my sister and I first founded STRONG MIND FIT BODY at the beginning of this year, it all began from a simple dream – to find an antidote to this sense of loneliness that the greying population experiences along with their physical deterioration.

The process is one that you and I are familiar with in any problem-solving context:

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First, we began with the Needs Assessment. I recall the fear that engulfed us we made rounds around the Firefly Park pavement, too afraid to approach anyone walking our way. The initial plan was to talk to at least ten people every evening for a week and gather an initial sensing of how residents might feel about a community exercise ground-up initiative. We spent a lot more time holding onto each other and avoiding eye contact; our cold and sweaty hands were testament to our anxiety. On these evenings we shared ‘first conversations’ with neighbours who had stayed in our midst for years. We learned about the young sisters living downstairs who were two years apart, had similar haircuts and a flair for playing pranks; we met, for the first time, the active young mom of two staying in the block diagonally across ours who enjoyed morning jogs and evening walks. Every conversation was followed by a celebration and every celebration, was motivation.

Then, we designed the solution. My sister, the expert in fitness and myself in community service. We called our first Engagement Session the ‘Dynamo Series’. Every participant, equipped with makeshift weights (water bottles or actual detergent bottles), stood in a semi-circle and attempted the workouts. After less than an hour of exercising, we sat ourselves in a circle and asked questions like What could we have done better? What did you like? Is this helpful? We had cake then, but we decided it wasn’t such a great idea since we are, you know… STRONG MIND FIT BODY. Nowadays, we have fruits.

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The feedback loop is an important part of what we do – the relationships we build are a microcosm of our sessions; two-way and consultative. We want to be informed by the thoughts and habits of those we hope to serve, so every conversation is precious and every suggestion valuable. Our earlier Circles of Trust (over cake) have now transformed into Breakout Sessions and candid conversations (over fruits). Neighbours are familiar to the call to stand in a circle where they take turns introducing self-designed moves to the rest of the circle. Empowered by demonstrations earlier during the mass exercise, we prize creativity in these Breakout Sessions and every strength training workout performed with appropriate form and informed practice is celebrated.

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The ongoing work is interesting because we never know where exactly our work will take us. We keep learning and we keep improving the ‘solution’ we have designed – as our programme changes and evolves, so do our participants. In the beginning, we found participants more inclined to just follow the “teacher” on stage, taking a more passive stance in the sessions. As sessions go by, we see more and more participants taking on an active role – consulting our Champions (volunteers) for better exercises, proactively giving feedback and having a stake in the process that has been one of co-creation. The STRONG MIND FIT BODY team is growing because every participant also becomes a team player in his or her own right.

I would now like to tell you about the moments filled with fear. Those peppered with regret or anxiety, the times when we wanted to find a U-Turn sign or remain in bed on an early Sunday morning. I want to tell you the story where we hustle.  

The hustle is the emotional turmoil we experience when we fear non-acceptance, disengagement, or judgment for our efforts. It is where we hold reservations and make up stories about the negative sentiments we may be faced with.

The most nerve-wracking of moments have remained consistent – the last 5 minutes before the beginning of each session. The irrational thoughts flash through our minds most rapidly. What if nobody comes? What if they don’t have fun? What if we are not good enough? The countless ‘What if’s almost immobilized us in the first few sessions. It would take an incredible amount of self-talk to take our positions and begin the session regardless of how many residents were present. In time, it gets better because we learn that the people who will love us and reaffirm our efforts regardless of the outcome are within arm’s reach. Our SMFB Champions have each embarked on various initiatives within STRONG MIND FIT BODY, finding purpose and challenge within their capacities, encouraging us immensely with their heart for the residents.

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Today, as we continue to do our good work, we continue to believe in the dream of a nation where individuals take responsibility for their health and remain empowered and confident through old age. STRONG MIND FIT BODY does this in three ways – Neighbourhoods, Academy and Focus. In neighbourhoods, we bring the gotong royong spirit back through community exercise. The accessibility and unity in our sessions are key: we go to the heart of the neighbourhoods, spot suitable venues in parks and Community Centres, acquaint ourselves with the grassroots and the people, build up a strong pool of volunteers who share the heart for our cause and commit. In Academy, the idea is to foster interdependence (the true essence of the kampung spirit). We teach Champions in our midst to take over Workout Leadership under a structured training programme. This element is crucial in deepening our impact and creating lasting change in culture; it is also the key to sustainability.  Finally, in Focus, we specialize. We have begun reaching out to silver zones in the heartlands and eldercare centres to bring STRONG MIND FIT BODY to those we believe need it the most.

And I’ll have you know that the idea of give and take always applies if you enter the arena with an open mind and the attitude of a learner – ready to make mistakes, to be better and to try over and over.

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One of the most valuable takeaways for me has been the avenue for relationship-building with my family members. With everyone’s busy schedules and everyday busyness, STRONG MIND FIT BODY has seen compromise and sacrifice for a community cause that slowly evolved into a family cause. I often evaluate the consistency in my service outwards and compare it with my inward treatment of my family, because we have not truly grasped the unconditional spirit of giving, until we have learned to love ourselves and the people closest to us, in our everyday midst. Service is not just a situation or a circumstance, it is a state of mind that becomes a part of who we are with practice.

In this day, locally, we have more medicine but less ‘health’. Health and wellness, for us, has transcended beyond ‘survival’ and increasingly, we are searching for ways to ‘live’ and not just to ‘exist’. I would like to emphasize the privilege with which we are able to consider healthcare-related issues in this way for as we worry about the elderly to working adult support ratio 20 years down the road, the people across the globe, worry about having their children live past 5 years of age. It is in my deepest hopes that we transform this sense of privilege into gratitude and seek to  protect the health and wellness of one another and ourselves in the future we will create together.

Incredibly thankful for the opportunity to be in the arena and for the trust that has given me hope time and again. It isn’t about what it is, it is about what it can become.

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Perhaps, It’s…

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Find out more about what we’ve been up to at Strong Mind Fit Body

I wonder what keeps him going: the man in the yellow helmet and fluorescent outer wear. Brown boots, expressionless and his hands in orange gloves, I wonder what he’s thinking as he drags the bulky orange barricade that lines the road across the bumpy terrain of grass and lugs it onto the pavement. He uses his entire body weight to do that; when he turns, he pivots on one foot skillfully. It is drizzling and the view beyond the window that encloses this safe space is blurred. This morning, with the taste of hot chocolate in my mouth and the bus’s air-conditioning at just the right temperature, I am curious about the stories of those I see around me. So, I wonder.

Purple polo T-shirt and khaki pants, this man looks curious as I am. Curious, and firm; he slouches over seated at the bus stop, with one hand supported by his umbrella standing before him. His makeshift hand-rest is at odds with the sunglasses resting over his cap. He was prepared for rain and shine, clearly. I wonder what he thinks as he remains seated, looking more carefully at the people boarding or alighting the buses that arrive than at the bus numbers. I wonder if he’s going to be at it all day.

Ladies with their long hair tied into a high bun always carry with them a sense of elegance in their footsteps, especially when they are in stilettos like hers. There is something about her V-neck, knee-length black dress that suggests she has an office. One with a one-way glass door and a 2-metre long desk, two chairs opposite her for people who come in for a review (by her) and a sofa nearby, that she sits on with important clients she’d like to have feel comfortable in her office. Most of her time, though, spent at her table that is marble, probably. She possibly has more people working under her supervision than I can count with my fingers and toes. I wonder what brings her out of bed and into that office every day.

There is a pregnant lady, her hair a mix of brown and blonde. Seated at this bus stop right outside Holland Village, she is texting without looking up to watch the buses come and go. Not once. I wonder if she’s heading somewhere at all. There is a blue lanyard around her neck, the only other thing she brought out of her house. My work at the Early Childhood Development Agency finds me more empathetic than before towards pregnant mothers – the physical changes they go through and the societal expectation that they continue to do things as they would in spite of the immense discomfort they sometimes experience. I wonder if this is her first child, and if she has named him/her. I imagine that the first and last thought of her every day goes something like My dear, I can’t wait to show you the world as she rubs her tummy.

He is looking at something – facing down into the condominium swimming pool, with a stick of sorts in his hand. In a light blue uniform and casual black pants, I wonder if this is what he does at 845AM every morning. He is definitely looking at something in the pool. A stain he is trying to scrub off the floor of the pool? A bracelet the last person who was swimming in the pool left behind by mistake? Or maybe he is gazing into the blue of the pool, thinking about the people that really keeps him going. His family, maybe? A girlfriend? Actually, maybe, what he is really looking at is at the future that he dreams of for his loved ones, for whom he wakes up every morning to commit to his duties at this pool.

This part of Orchard Road, slightly busier, has a mix of working professionals, retail staff and early birds of the tourists. The rain has stopped, as if finally allowing the day to begin for us all. I am occasionally brimming with curiosity, as I am today, about the thoughts and motivations that we find to do the things that we normally do in our every day. I appreciate that I have some sense of purpose that countable others yearn but cannot seem to find; I wonder what keeps us all going, I do. Perhaps, the day–to-day tasks that keep us excited. Or perhaps, the sense of love and belonging that we derive from connection to others.

Perhaps, it’s hope, where hope is not an emotion but a way of thinking. In my learning from Brene Brown, hope is a cognitive process where emotions play a supporting role. This morning, I am thinking that perhaps, it is hope, the way we make sense of our present by linearly predicting the possible future that lies ahead, that keeps us going the way we do. How timely that this morning I am heading to the Scape Ground Theatre for a Singapore Youth Conference, discussing the future of Singapore. Where shall we find hope for the years that lie ahead?