How I Keep Calm: Arm Workouts Done to the Tune of Celine Dion

I’m no stranger to the power of exercise or the power of Celine Dion. But put them together? It's magical.

In the “before times,” I kept calm with a steady rotation of yoga and pilates classes. I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for years and had a class for every mood — a merciless pilates teacher who taught in three languages for when I wanted a burn, a yoga instructor with perfect Sunday morning playlists, and spin classes for a special treat.

In the first few weeks of staying home during the pandemic, I was overwhelmed by the options: Instagram lives from every instructor I followed, membership plans with unlimited streaming, and Zoom training sessions. I turned to YouTube — which I used for workouts before while living in a small town in Guatemala — and I did a few yoga classes, tried and failed to catch midday livestreams, and couldn’t find a routine I liked. An hour-long class felt like an impossible commitment.

I live in Brooklyn, New York, and the news made me afraid to go outside. Not surprisingly, sitting constantly makes you very anxious. I was going stir-crazy, desperate to find a workout routine that could help me calm down.

Then Ashley Spivey linked an eight-minute arm workout on her Instagram story, adding that she planned to do it every day of quarantine. The workout, which requires no equipment, is led by Gwyneth Paltrow’s trainer Tracey Anderson. In a cropped black tank top, Anderson stands in a room with wooden walls and floors on a purple yoga mat. She’s a veteran trainer who released her first DVD in 2003. The aesthetics of this particular workout video suggest it was uploaded to YouTube from a DVD.

There are few verbal instructions, mostly around pushing your arms back or out. I’d recommend muting her due to a non-body positive intro, which promises to make your arms as small as possible while reducing hanging skin. Not today.

Once you’ve muted Anderson, the main goal is to keep your arms up the entire time, through every circle and twist. And since you’ve muted, I recommend adding music. Namely, Celine Dion’s 1996 ballad, “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now,” which clocks in at seven minutes and 37 seconds. The song adds an epic quality to the flailing motions and makes the time pass quicker (it’s a surprisingly tough sequence). I find myself on a journey with Celine, remembering a past lover and the pain of moving on, while my shoulders start to burn.

Much like the arm workout, the song takes a little bit to kick in. At first, you think, I can do this for eight minutes, no problem. Dion, at first, starts off resolute, closed off to memories and scarred by the pain of their relationship’s end: “I finished crying in the instant that you left/And I can’t remember where or when or how/And I banished every memory you and I had ever made.”

But she’s only human.

Soon, she’s a lost cause, and so am I. The song carries me through some of the strangest moves I’ve ever done, including a sequence where you arrange your arms like a DJ, one arm by your ear as if holding a headset and the other pushing back and forth on some invisible records. The feeling in your arms was lost long ago, but it’s all coming back to you now. Just when you can’t go on, the song ends, fading out with some final memories. The workout is a few seconds longer than the song, so make sure you have something good queued up next.

Once Anderson puts her arms down, I do, too. I close my computer, rearrange my furniture, and feel temporarily satisfied. Being fully immersed in something is a rare sensation these days.

I’m no stranger to the power of exercise or the power of Celine Dion. When I’m running late and need to shower, I give myself seven minutes and 37 seconds to get in and out, and Dion accompanies me. It’s way more fun than setting a timer and lets you add some drama to washing your hair, face, and body (Lady Gaga’s “Hair, Body, Face” is another classic shower song).

But what I particularly love about “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” is how the song unfolds and then soars. Quarantine has been a roller coaster, with days that feel long and weeks that feel short. Dion sometimes drops her voice to a whisper, other times unleashing her full power. Since this all began, I’ve had busy, strong days, and quiet, sad ones where simply getting out of bed was a challenge. Finding micro moments of joy is difficult, but necessary.

As Dion sings, “There were moments of gold/ and there were flashes of light/ there were things we’d never do again/ but then they’d always seemed right.” Once the gyms and studios reopen, I’ll probably abandon some of my home workouts. But I’ll always be grateful for the flashes of light (and muscle soreness) they provided in a very dark time.

how I keep calm

How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.

Read More