Chan­nel Her Power

Chan­nel Her Power

Women's Health (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

How Danai Gurira stays sane and in shape

if it’s Sun­day, please do not dis­turb Danai Gurira. That’s the one day the ac­tress-play­wright-ac­tivist likes to lay down her weapons (we’re talk­ing prop sword or pen) and carve out time for self-care. “Cre­at­ing ri­tu­alised time and space to nur­ture my­self is some­thing I’m con­stantly try­ing to fig­ure out and de­velop,” she says. It’s not al­ways easy to ac­com­plish, she ad­mits, but it feeds her soul. “There’s noth­ing more fun, more re­plen­ish­ing, than a Sun­day of walk­ing in na­ture, en­joy­ing friends’ com­pany or hav­ing a great meal.”

To­day is a Thurs­day and Danai is en­gaged in nour­ish­ment of an­other kind: din­ner at a pop­u­lar Los An­ge­les bistro. As she talks about her cur­rent projects, it’s clear why she needs – and de­serves – her weekly day of rest. Not only is she a star on one of TV’s most pop­u­lar shows, The Walk­ing Dead, but she’s also been busy por­tray­ing fear­some gen­eral Okoye in Mar­vel Stu­dios’ Black Pan­ther (the high­est-gross­ing su­per­hero flick in do­mes­tic his­tory) and the block­buster Avengers: In­fin­ity War. As if that weren’t enough, she’s the co-founder of a non­profit, Al­masi Arts, which sup­ports and fa­cil­i­tates the dra­matic arts in Zim­babwe and she’s knee-deep in her next project, adapt­ing Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie’s award-win­ning novel Amer­i­canah into a TV minis­eries. For such a busy woman, Danai is re­mark­ably down to earth and she knows that the only way she can tackle her over­flow­ing to-do list is by stay­ing men­tally and phys­i­cally fit. In per­son, the re­sults of her ef­fort are clear. The 40-yearold has a pow­er­ful – al­most re­gal – pres­ence and moves her body with the grace­ful­ness of a dancer: head high, shoul­ders back. Her se­cret? A mix of eat­ing well (tonight it’s sal­mon, Brus­sels sprouts and spinach), spir­i­tual prac­tice, lis­ten­ing to her body and, of course, ex­er­cise. For the past three years, she’s been sweat­ing it out up to four times a week with trainer AJ Fisher, whom she met through one of her Walk­ing Dead cast­mates. Their ses­sions, she says, are ex­tremely chal­leng­ing: “Some­times it’s so in­tense I can’t re­mem­ber what we did.” Fisher spe­cialises in a method she coined called “Corec­tol­ogy”, which aims to even out mus­cle im­bal­ances while im­prov­ing strength, mo­bil­ity and car­dio­vas­cu­lar func­tion.

atyp­i­cal work­out for Danai in­cludes lots of cir­cuit train­ing and Pi­latesin­spired moves, in which she al­ter­nates high-in­ten­sity in­ter­vals and ac­tive rest (that’s when she’ll do the Pi­lates 100, a clas­sic core move from the method). Fisher has Danai wear a heart-rate mon­i­tor and use re­sis­tance bands, which the ac­tress trav­els with so she can do her work­outs no mat­ter where she is in the world. Fisher’s work­outs also fo­cus on paired mus­cle train­ing – obliques and in­ner thighs, for ex­am­ple – “so you’re train­ing your body to work to­gether as a unit.” Ev­ery ses­sion, how­ever, in­cludes glutes work. “It’s the big­gest mus­cle in the body and key for pos­ture and balance,” says Fisher. (Im­por­tant for Danai as she films fight scenes!) Even though her work­outs are metic­u­lously planned and quite chal­leng­ing, Danai loves sim­ply be­ing ac­tive. She grew up par­tic­i­pat­ing in sport (swim­ming, track and field hockey) and still hits the wa­ter when­ever she can. “I don’t re­mem­ber ever not be­ing able to swim,” says Danai, who was mo­ti­vated to start when she saw her older sis­ter tak­ing lessons. “I jumped in the wa­ter and was in­sis­tent on learn­ing to swim with her.” She’s happy in a pool or snorkelling in the ocean, but what keeps her kick­ing are the phys­i­cal ben­e­fits it pro­vides. “It’s a stun­ning form of ex­er­cise and the lack of im­pact on the body at the same time is amaz­ing.” She also stays fit by do­ing yoga and jog­ging with her dog, Papi, a res­cue mutt. When Danai doesn’t ex­er­cise reg­u­larly, she senses the im­pact it has on her over­all state of mind. “If I haven’t worked out, if I haven’t ex­er­cised and con­nected with my body in some way, it chips away at my feel­ing of well-be­ing,” she says. Whether she’s ex­er­cis­ing for work or for plea­sure, she thrives on know­ing that push­ing her­self pays off. She ad­mits she isn’t al­ways mo­ti­vated (“I don’t think any­one loves work­ing out all the time”), but says that feel­ing her body en­gage dur­ing a sweat ses­sion can be re­ally ex­hil­a­rat­ing and re­ward­ing. And when she’s sore from a work­out, Danai chooses to fo­cus on the pos­i­tive. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m in so much pain from that,’” she ex­plains. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I feel the strength in my core, I feel the strength in my back.’” Danai’s work­outs pre­pare her for her rig­or­ous on-cam­era roles, yes, but there’s a real-life em­pow­er­ment el­e­ment to them too. “As women, we’re not al­ways en­cour­aged to find the fullest ex­tent of our phys­i­cal power,” she says. “There’s some­thing so ex­cit­ing about tap­ping into that part of our­selves.” She en­cour­ages other women to find joy by ex­plor­ing dif­fer­ent ac­tiv­i­ties – “it might be lift­ing weights, it might be box­ing, it might be some­thing a lit­tle less [in­tense]” – even if it means tak­ing baby steps or putting a class on your cal­en­dar to help with mo­ti­va­tion. “There’s no need to break records to­mor­row. It’s just about slowly find­ing what feels good and what feels re­ward­ing.” Food helps her feel good too. Danai is a loose “pesca-ve­gan” who says giv­ing up most meat and dairy prod­ucts years ago made her feel “stronger.” She cred­its her up­bring­ing with lay­ing the foun­da­tion for her well-bal­anced eat­ing habits. “I used to have spinach when I was a kid and my mom wouldn’t let me leave the ta­ble un­til I’d eaten it,” says the ac­tress, who was born in Iowa in the US and grew up in Zim­babwe (her par­ents were aca­demics). “Some­how that worked its way into me feel­ing like I have to eat spinach. And now I love spinach – I mean, I love spinach. I want it in my smooth­ies, I want it on the side, I want it with my meals,” she says with a smile as she digs into a plate of the leafy greens. Danai’s par­ents in­stilled in her more than just a love of vegeta­bles. “I was in a home where I was al­lowed to freely find my­self,” she re­calls. To­day, help­ing oth­ers do the same is one of her big­gest mis­sions. “The strug­gles of women and girls is some­thing that I’m very pas­sion­ate about. I have to do what I can in the world. We all have to do what we can.” She’s on a “con­tin­ual jour­ney” to fight for gen­der equal­ity and with Al­masi Arts, she ex­plains, she’s “mak­ing sure un­heard voices are heard and cel­e­brated.” (The non­profit pairs fledg­ling artists with es­tab­lished pros.) Danai, who has won nu­mer­ous awards as a play­wright and was nom­i­nated for a Tony Award in 2016, firmly be­lieves in the power of sto­ry­telling – es­pe­cially nar­ra­tives that high­light the ex­pe­ri­ences of African women. The fact that she didn’t hear or see those sto­ries while she was grow­ing up is what in­spired her to start writ­ing. The global suc­cess of Black Pan­ther has ful­filled her in many ways. “It kind of af­firms that lit­tle African girl’s in­stinct that these sto­ries would res­onate if they were told with pas­sion, in­tegrity and ex­cel­lence.” Though she’s ac­com­plished so much, there’s still work to be done. And Danai has no plans to rest. As she tells young peo­ple she meets along the way, “There’s no app for skip­ping hard work; you have to seek your pur­pose and pur­sue it.” What keeps her fu­elled is “re­mem­ber­ing the goals,” and mak­ing sure that when she’s fin­ished liv­ing in this world, she’ll have given it her all. Even if she takes some Sun­days off.

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