There is something unseemly about a middle aged man in a Speedo standing in front of a mirror. The lines etched under the eyes, the hair that migrated off the head sprouting out the ears and shoulders, the age spots. Fifty-six years of gravity are not kind and I might be wise to grant no more than a passing glimpse in the glass, fully dressed, just to make sure I don’t have mayonnaise on my lip or a crooked collar. Instead, I have spent more time looking at my middle aged body in a mirror during the past two years than in my entire life before.
I passed two milestones in my yoga practice this week. On Monday I went to my 500th class; on Friday I completed my second 30 day challenge (30 classes in 30 days). Since I started Bikram on July 1, 2009 I have averaged more than five classes a week. I do not consider myself an addictive personality, yet I am addicted to yoga. This seems inherently wrong, since yoga is rooted in Eastern traditions of relinquishing attachments. But I embrace the contradiction.
There are many ways to summarize the experience of 500 yoga classes. I have done 2,000 standing head to knee poses, though I have yet to do even one with full expression. I have taken at least 500,000 measured breaths in the hot room, though my actual number exceeds that when I consider all the times I pant. And I have spent 45,000 minutes looking at myself in the mirror. What I see isn’t always pretty, but I have certainly come to know it well. I still look like me, but as the instructors say in the daily dialogue, yoga changes the body from the inside out, and over the past two years my body has changed in distinct ways. I have a yoga body.
Yoga bodies are continuous rather than defined; slender rather than chunky; clear rather than rugged. Our bodies become continuous because yoga balances strength with flexibility, so the definition that comes from weight training alone never develops. We are slender because we sweat away so many calories, yet the practice leaves us craving water-filled foods like tangerines and watermelon rather than dense foods like candy bars. We are clear because spending 90 minutes a day in 105 degree heat and 30 percent humidity is great for the skin. No one has pimples in the hot room. Yoga bodies look great on women, sinuous and graceful. They look less good on men, which is, I believe, why many men practice yoga as part of a broader exercise regimen. The studio is full of buff guys who come two, even three times a week, but on the other days they pursue bulk. When one practices as I do, almost every day, defined edges melt away. I am smooth as plasticene.
I am roughly the same height and weight (5’-10”, 165) than I was when I began my practice, yet two inches have fallen off my waist. Some days the love buds at my middle disappear in the mirror completely, but since I am still a sucker for sweets, they always blossom again. My face is thin, my neck is taut, the hollows around my shoulders are pronounced. When I wear an old shirt around the house, Andy calls me Gandhi. My upper body is solid but slight; yoga does little to develop the arms or the chest. This is disappointing since I’d love to have pecs and a six-pack, but at my age, the disappointment is slight.
The changes to my lower body are more rewarding. Posture upon posture with locked knees builds melon thighs. My hamstrings are loose (for a cyclist) while my calves are tight. The wonderful thing about my legs is not just that they are strong, but so flexible. During the night I often pull my knee up to my chin as I sleep, and I have developed a habit upon waking of sticking my leg straight up in the air with my knee locked to salute the day.
I attribute this flexibility to my loose hips. The ligaments between my hip bones and leg bones are so fluid, so light, that when I walk it feels like my legs are dangling from my hips, rather than bearing the gravity of my torso. I am jaunty as a marionette; part Fred Astaire, part Gumby.
The most surprising change is in my hands. Many postures require firm grips, and my fingers have become vise grips, long and thin and very strong. When I clutch them together in Wind Removing Pose I am always surprised how tight they bind; as if they belong to some other man.
Sometimes I look in the mirror and don’t see myself at all. I see my lungs expanding between my ribs or my knee ligaments in perfect alignment, or my back arched to the ceiling. My body doesn’t really go to those places, yet, but I can envision it. When I am in Standing Bow and my arm is straight to the mirror I feel powerful; god is strong inside of me. When I come out of Camel I am tossed back to some unexpected, precious moment from my youth. In my eyes, there is so much more than the aging body standing before that mirror.
I still have classes in which it is difficult to focus, classes that are too hot, classes where mid-way through I wonder why I do this. But I persevere, I complete the class, and I feel fantastic. In two years I have not had a cold or a sick day, and the periodic depressions that defined so much of my life are now relegated to memory.
Yoga works for me; which is why I endure the daily heat and the sweat, and the ridiculous amount of time I spend looking at myself in the mirror.