A consistent yoga practice can be powerful. It’s like standing in front of a mirror and staring at your reflection. This can be frightening for anybody, but for a middle-aged man it is especially so.
First, you see things that surprise or shock you. Is my belly really that lumpy? Is my hair that gray? With time, these judgments soften some. But then it can be easy to swing too far in the opposite direction. “On second thought, I don’t look too bad for 52. My stomach may not be a six-pack, but look at those arms! They’re coming along! All those chaturangas I’ve been doing have yielded some nice deltoids. I don’t look half-bad. I can add some sit-ups, but otherwise, Brad, you’re looking good!”
But if you stand at the mirror longer still, your feel-good thoughts fade, too. If you’re lucky, you land, finally, in self-acceptance. You accept the good with the bad and the handsome with the ugly. But more likely, you will overshoot self-acceptance and land again on the negative.
Only this time, the negativity surges up from near your core and gets vicious. Some of the thoughts are nearly as old as you are. Something your parents said or did, and the confused child that you were twisted the harsh words into a core belief about yourself. You learned to talk unkindly to yourself. You, unconsciously, began to turn down the volume on yourself. And now, decades later, you’re still functioning on this old, buggy mental software.
Wait. We were talking about yoga. And standing in the mirror.
I’d practiced yoga intermittently since my early 20s, but several years ago, feeling confused about my life, relationships, and career, I made a commitment to go to a yoga class every day. At first, this pact with myself wasn’t easy. I was not in the practice of making commitments like this. My default was to think worry, not to do something about them. But some voice inside me was telling me to do it anyway.
First, I began to feel better. I lost a few pounds. My body became firmer, fitter. All this superficial change made me feel better, but what was more exciting was what was happening inside my body, mind, and heart. Yoga involves sitting in uncomfortable poses. With time, these uncomfortable poses begin to work on you. They teach you things about yourself. They become the aforementioned mirror-only a more helpful version. And you start to see the many ways that you run away from yourself. The many stories that you tell about who you are. You also begin to see the ways that you react mindlessly to events in your life. The ways you overreact. And you begin to see the trouble that all this overreaction can cause in your life.
As you take responsibility for yourself, life gets better. You make better decisions. You can choose who you want in your life and who you want to eliminate because they are too toxic.
If you stick with it, yoga can lead you down a path to make big changes in your life. Yoga led me back to a deeper sense of self. It showed me a way to be spiritual again.
I recently re-read a poem I’d read a thousand times. This time, the words landed.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
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A former senior editor and contributing writer at Outside magazine, Brad Wetzler is an author, journalist, travel writer, book writing coach, and yoga instructor. His book, Real Mosquitoes Don’t Eat Meat, was published by W.W. Norton. His nonfiction writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Book Review, GQ, Wired, Men’s Journal, National Geographic, George, Travel + Leisure, Thrive Global, and Outside. He coaches up-and-coming authors to write and successfully publish their books.