Roller Derby

Practice of the Week
Roller Derby

Category: MIGHT BE YOUR THING: Not for everyone, but might be right for you! Some practices in this category might be great for "every once in a while" -- either because they are responses to a particular need that may arise or because they are simply enriching occasional enhancements to the spiritual life. Among these practices you may find the one particular practice that becomes your main and central spiritual practice -- or a Key Supporting Practice.

abridged and adapted from
Dawn Skjei Cooley, "Roller Derby," in Erik Wikstrom, editor, Faithful Practices

In the early 2000s, roller derby was reborn in Austin, Texas. Twenty-first-century roller derby is athletic rather than theatrical. Elbows to the face are not allowed. I played for the Derby City Roller Girls in Louisville, Kentucky, for a few years under the name “Liv Fearless.” After our practice sessions, I felt more grounded. Solutions to problems that had evaded me became clear, and I often left feeling like my best self. Eventually, I realized that roller derby had become more than a sport or hobby for me -- it had become a spiritual practice.

Claudia Horwitz says a spiritual practice is “simply a habit that gives us energy and reminds us of what matters most,” and she identifies three characteristics. A spiritual practice:
  1. “connects us to the presence of the sacred or that which has great meaning in our lives.”
  2. “is something we do regularly (ideally on a daily basis) and without interruption.”
  3. “grounds us in the present moment, bringing us into awareness of what is happening right now."
Playing roller derby helped me to remember the wisdom in what flight attendants say: to put on my own oxygen mask on before assisting others. Roller derby never failed to remind me of the importance of me.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj writes,
“Wisdom is knowing I am nothing; Love is knowing I am everything; and between the two my life moves."
Roller derby helped me move between these two. It got me into my body and reminded me that I am made from the stuff of the universe. Whether it was a bruise from a fall, the exhaustion of a well-spent practice, or the completion of a skill that I had been struggling to learn, I would leave each practice session with a deep gratitude for my health, for my life, and for the love and support of my family, who encouraged me to play.

Playing roller derby, I was often more focused on the moment than at any other time during the day. My mind, which is usually running ninety miles per hour, would stop thinking about my to-do list, my worry over my children, my hopes for the church I served. My mind would slow as I focused on my breath, my posture, my muscles, or the move I was about to execute. I would become grounded in the present moment.

There were many times when derby was challenging—when I hurt too much to continue, when I didn't understand the complex rules, when I was frustrated in myself or a teammate. And yet this would pass. Sometimes I didn’t feel like going, but I never regretted attending a practice session. I always felt better at the end.

The downside of roller derby as a spiritual practice is that, instead of every day for a few minutes, it is a few hours a couple of times a week. It is easy to miss one week, then another, and then be unable to continue.

After trying breathing meditations, walking meditations, yoga, prayer, lectio divina, poetry, and journaling, I've learned that if my body is not strenuously engaged, my mind and spirit won't be either. What we do with our bodies affects not just our physical health but also our mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Exercise makes it easier for us to concentrate and raises levels of serotonin, leading to increased feelings of well-being. And if we are mentally or emotionally stressed, our heart rates quicken and blood pressure rises, which can contribute to heart conditions, ulcers, and more. Our physical health, intellectual health, emotional health, and spiritual health are all connected.
“Because the mind and the body are intimately connected, relieving the stress of the body through exercise has an immediate effect on the mind. It is not a matter of choosing what is better -- exercising the mind or exercising the body. Rather, these activities go hand in hand. We need to exercise both our body and our mind. When we give our mind and body what benefits them, a natural harmony and balance takes place. With this unified approach, we are happy, healthy and wise.” (Rinpoche Sakyon Mipham)
I experienced this reality when I played roller derby. My mind would consider the complex rules and strategies and what I needed my body to do. My body would move, test its limits, and stretch beyond what I thought I could do. Who knew I was able to blast full speed ahead and leap over a fallen skater in front of me, landing gracefully on the track and continuing my lap? Overcoming such challenges made me feel good about myself and my capabilities. Seeing the improvement I made was encouraging. And doing so with a host of other women, my teammates, warmed my heart. I was a part of something special.

We had such fun. I would laugh, curse, and sweat. We wore crazy socks and tights under our safety pads We made up secret identities for ourselves. We danced and laughed when standing in line, waiting for our turn in a drill. We played loud music. We called each other names and talked smack, always with a smile. Where else are you not only able, but encouraged, to hip-check someone so hard she lands on her butt?

Roller derby started out as a way for me to make friends and engage my body. It turned into a spiritual practice that engaged my entire being. It connected me mindfully with my body, reminded me of my place in the universe, and gave me space and time to breathe, to be myself. On top of that, it was fun. I still wear the tights.

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