When I first started practicing yoga I was training to run the NYC marathon. I’d played soccer all through college and took up running soon after graduation as a way to maintain my fitness level after losing the structure of an organized sport. I liked what running did for my cardiovascular fitness, but felt I was constantly fighting with my body and mind to make it happen. Motivating myself for a six-mile run felt impossible some days, especially in the winter months. The impact was hard on my knees, I had on and off shin-splints, weak ankles from multiple soccer-related sprains, plantar fasciitis, and tight tight tight hamstrings; in short, many of the chronic injuries that go hand in hand with the running lifestyle. I was twenty-four and moved like a granny, but I could still fit into my jeans from freshman year, which at the time seemed an incredibly valid goal and, sadly, served as one of my primary motivators.
I applied for my yoga teacher training with no prior yoga experience or practice. I’d always felt drawn to what I’d heard of the spiritual element of the practice, and I of course associated yoga with heightened flexibility. The first real yoga class I ever took was the first day of my teacher training. That first practice was a solid 90-minute fast paced class. I was right in the front row. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I’m pretty sure I was wearing my college varsity soccer warm ups circa 2001. Jonathan, our teacher, gave us the last fifteen minutes of class to “finish out your practice on the floor, any way you’d like.” I looked around the room like a total goon and moved my hips up and down in multiple bridges hoping to God it was an actual yoga pose.
I’d gone into that first practice on that first day thinking I had youth and a reasonable level of fitness on my side. I’d always been involved in an organized sport, had found a new pattern in running, and I’d been working in the fitness industry for almost three years at that point. However, I found there was a lot that I couldn’t do in the yoga room. I spent most of the class in improper alignment or just plain doing things incorrectly (sloppy chatturangas galore!), and on top of it all, my body didn’t feel good. I was tight, weaker than I’d anticipated feeling, and unable to keep the pace. I was stuck feeling physically old in my supposedly young body once again. Luckily, with consistency, yoga is a practice that gives back fairly quickly, and things did begin to turn around.
After that first class I set up toward the back of the room, listened closely to each and every verbal cue, and watched the other yogis. I was one of the younger yogis in my training group and at the studio, but it was weeks before I actually noticed this because I was too busy trying to copy the beauty and grace of each movement, the enduring strength and impressive flexibility of many of the yogis I admired. When I finally made the connection that most of the yogis I looked up to were my parents age or older, I wondered what it was that made them seem so young and came up with the answer fairly quickly: they moved like they were young.
Watch how children move and consider how we ourselves moved as children. We could easily touch our toes. We hung from trees, regularly bent over backwards just for fun, ran because we could, jumped in efforts to fly, and pushed our physical limitations in order to get to know our own bodies and capabilities. Children haven’t had a lifetime to store away physical or emotional pain in hidden parts of the body. They haven’t had time to develop chronic injuries. There’s no tightness or prejudice, no pre-conceived notions. They are open, both in body and mind, bright eyed, full of vitality. To me, this is the very definition of youth.
After just a few short months of developing my own practice at teacher training, I understood why the more practiced yogis looked, talked, and acted so youthful in spite of their ages. I’d been witnessing the cumulative effects of a long-time practice before I even knew what I was looking at. If you maintain a continuous, steady practice over a long period of time, you regain a physical openness reminiscent of the capabilities you had as a child, you learn to let go of tension and emotional trauma, creating more space for new experiences, and you gain ground on physical strength month after month, year after year instead of watching yourself grow weaker and more depleted. Now, at thirty, I am stronger and more flexible than I was when I was twenty-four, and I hope when I’m fifty I can say I am more open, energetic, and healthy than I was at thirty. There are certain poses (i.e. arm balances, splits, standing balance postures, etc.) that I am unable to do right now, but in a few months or years, I’m confident I will be able to do them with mastery and ease. I have faith in this idea because I’ve experienced the power of setting an intention, and because there was a lot I couldn’t do six years ago that I’m capable of doing now. This growth comes with dedication to your practice, and it is so rewarding to experience as a practitioner and witness as an instructor.
I was drawn to yoga right from the start, but my commitment to live a yogic lifestyle and maintain a lifelong practice came from my observations of the health and youth yoga provides. I want bright eyes. I want full use of my physical and mental faculties even when I’m old. I don’t want my level of fitness or physical activity to decrease year after year, I want it to grow, and with a continuous yoga practice and healthy life habits, there’s no reason why it can’t. Of course we experience set backs (hello, pregnancy modifications!), but yoga provides us with the structure and the tools to regain and build our strength, flexibility, and youth. Youth and vitality are now my primary goals, and that’s what motivates me to keep practicing.
Consider what yoga has given to you, what you hope to gain from your practice, and what it is that keeps you coming back. Are you getting stronger, more open, gaining peace? Have you found yourself re-experiencing aspects of your youth? Let your goals renew your dedication to your practice.