When I was in my twenties I remember people, mostly men, saying things like “wait until you turn thirty,” usually referring to a change in the severity of one’s hangovers, injuries, or gaining weight.
“Things start changing when you turn thirty,” they would say.
And now that I am thirty-two I can say that they were absolutely right. I suffered a total of zero injuries leading up to my thirties. I was a year round athlete, a skateboarder, and a paratrooper in the Army while serving in Afghanistan. Still, no injuries. But now, I have suffered two injuries since I turned that thirty year old corner.
So what happened? Nature. It’s not a new phenomenon. People start getting older and the body changes over time, but it is important to acknowledge these changes in the body with changes in behavior. For some that means drinking less alcohol, taking more time off between workouts, changing their diets, working less hours, or all of the above. I know that I can be a better version of myself at this age than I ever was, but it doesn’t come without some intense reflection and deliberate lifestyle changes.
For me, yoga has become a critical component of such a lifestyle change. And if I may, I would like to share some of what I have learned from my last couple years as I have been slowly developing and deepening my yoga practice.
First, I want to say that there is almost no bad reason to start practicing yoga, especially if somewhere at the heart of your intentions is to improve yourself; whether it is physically, spiritually or emotionally. I will tell you that my reasons were mostly physical. I wanted to find a workout that would increase my flexibility and core strength, and I was attracted to the style of yoga that has been coined as “power yoga.” I mean, what man doesn’t want to be “powerful”?
Many other reasons I’ve heard, and have used myself, to get into practicing yoga sound like attempts to disconnect, to escape from the grind of our daily lives — be it corporate America, screaming kids, packed emergency rooms, traffic jams, assembly lines or a slew of other things that weigh on our consciences and add stress to our lives. We sometimes want a break from our relationships and think that if we can just disconnect from our lives for a couple of hours things will get better.
The ironic thing about starting yoga as a means to disconnect is that yoga actually reconnects us. A vinyasa, or flow style yoga class is all about connecting breath with movement. By focusing on our breath we start to become aware of our physical bodies without the distractions of outside forces. By adding in movement we see how breath energizes the body. The poses help us identify where we carry our stress and where we are injured or weak. We learn how all the muscles and joints in the body work together, are connected, and with this understanding we deepen our practice and become strong in our poses.
In some poses we contract our quadriceps to release our hamstrings, or relax the muscles in our face to breathe easier and relieve tension in the neck, or we engage our core and suck our bellies towards our spine to release pressure in the lower back. Over the course of the class, breath and movement become one, and by being so focused on the moment the mind becomes calm. In a sense, we become so connected to the moment that our mind is free from the stresses of our daily lives.
A certain series of movements may actually simulate stress in the real world, as they challenge us to our physical limits. Many times I will begin to shake, and as my body is quivering my mind goes to the wrong place. I start thinking things like: Seriously, just move on to the next pose already! No one else is shaking as bad as I am right now. You should be stronger than this. But then, I refocus on my breath and call on the muscles I need to find steadiness in the pose and release from the stress. Honestly, sometimes that means coming out of the position all together.
That experience I described above is one reason yoga is so often referred to as a practice. Learning how to stay in the moment, find stillness, and release stress under pressure are lessons that are invaluable in everyday life, but these skills don’t come easy. Yoga gives us a way to practice for the stresses of real life without sabotaging ourselves.
Notice how the thoughts I described above are just like the ones many of us have on a weekly basis. If Friday would just hurry up and get here. Why don’t these other people look stressed? I should be performing better at work. A solid yoga practice can help us manage our stress levels, stay in the moment, and learn how to stop judging ourselves harshly or comparing ourselves to the people around us. It might even teach us when it’s time to remove ourselves from a situation altogether, or dare I say that four letter word: quit.
Personally, I have gotten so much more from practicing yoga than I could have imagined. I am so thankful that I gave myself a chance to discover yoga, and I am grateful to the people who have devoted their lives to sharing yoga with others, especially Colleen DeVirgiliis at Seva Power Yoga.
Despite my years playing sports and my military training, I am discovering strength and physical capabilities that I didn’t know I had. I am developing a new skill set for dealing with stress and strengthening my personal and professional relationships. I have such a deeper mind-body connection and even a stronger connection to people and the world in general. After each practice, I somehow become more aware of just how connected all things are.
I remember eating breakfast one Saturday morning after a class and the food was delicious. And, somehow, I knew my enjoying that meal was dependent on so many other people. From the chair on which I sat, to the plates off of which I ate, to the food that I consumed – farmers, chefs, servers, truck drivers, factory workers and more all worked hard and passionately that I may have had the privilege of enjoying that very moment.
As I stated earlier, I got into yoga for a good workout and ended up with way more than I bargained for. And from talking to other people about their experiences it seems to be true for most others as well. So don’t worry about what your initial reason for doing yoga is, because the reason you start practicing will not be the reason to keep practicing.