At some point during the past 30 years of my life, I’ve actively participated in swimming, Judo, Tae Kwon Do, basketball, track, road and mountain biking, skiing, running and weight training. And though I’ve never considered myself an athlete, physical activity has always been a part of my life. That level of physical condition has helped me stay generally strong — biking 30 miles, curling 50-pound dumbbells, running 10Ks and half marathons never seemed all that difficult. Then I climbed into my 40s, and though I still regularly exercised, I started to feel old and structurally weak despite the strength of my limbs. My scope of health and fitness was lacking something.
Back in my martial arts days, I’d done plenty of stretching. But since college, I had focused on higher-intensity activities and neglected the loosening of the limbs. In my 40s, I started experiencing lower-back stiffness in the morning. I had to put my socks on while lying on the bed. I could feel my lack of core strength. My overall lack of flexibility began taking its toll on my body, and I felt less and less like working out hard. I found myself sapped and wondering if this is how I would feel into and past middle age.
My overall lack of flexibility began taking its toll on my body, and I felt less and less like working out hard.
Just before getting married, I had wanted to drop some pounds from my frame, so I bought the first P90X DVDs in hopes that the convenience and intensity would do the trick. Over the 90-day program, I’d gone through every disc — the crazy plyometrics, the killer back, the burning biceps — and enjoyed every minute of it. But I conveniently excised the yoga disc from my program. I did, once, try it for a quarter hour; I hated every minute. It was not only insanely difficult, but also infuriating. I sweat and shook violently while holding myself in a contorted pose, all the while missing the “high” I got from other workouts. Deviating from high-intensity reps and doing a “workout” while nearly at a standstill bored me. There were no redeeming factors, not even getting a laugh out of Tony Horton in tights. I swore I would never touch it again.
Then, about a year after my wife and I got married, she wanted to try yoga for herself and asked me to come along for the ride. I was reluctant to commit, but in the name of marital compromise, I committed to a one-time torture session. The 90-minute workout consisted of what felt like 200 downward dogs and enough leg-stressing poses to fatigue my hamstrings and quads far more than squats. Poses my wife held, I couldn’t match — and I was the one who’d done far more athletic endeavors than she. I pushed my muscles and flexibility harder than I had ever done before. After what felt like an eternity, we finished with a Namaste. The surprise arrived then, with how I felt after the workout — exhausted but calm, spent but peaceful.
Holding positions for much longer periods of time, rather than repetition, forced my body to use muscles that aren’t typically stressed during weight training.
Those 90 minutes were the first workout that forced me to slow down to get the most out of it. My experience with weight training had become familiar decades ago — form working in conjunction with repetition, targeting major muscle groups. Yoga, however, did something totally different. Holding positions for much longer periods of time forced my body to use muscles that aren’t typically stressed during weight training. This is why yoga practitioners tend to be leaner and possess the ability to do seemingly impossible poses. Hold a Revolved Half Moon Pose for 30 seconds, and you’ll find yourself straining your legs, core, shoulders and back in an attempt at staying stationary — trust me, it’s a workout.
I started doing yoga more regularly, but didn’t become an immediate convert. For months, I continued to dread the classes, yet still I found that satisfaction when it was over. Session after session, I became more in tune with my body. I tried to perfect poses — keeping legs straight, chest upright, breathing deeply and evenly — and that precision brought new levels of physical and mental awareness. As months turned into a year, I saw my body change. My back pain virtually disappeared, I slept more deeply, and everything from running to hardcore workouts seemed easier. Five years ago, if you’d asked me if I’d be doing yoga on a regular basis, I’d have laughed in your face. Now, as I move farther into the active, middle-aged years, it turns out yoga’s my body’s saving grace.