I’m 57 and I’m standing on a yoga mat. I’m in a Bikram Yoga class sweating bullets, more so than the middle-aged woman wearing a two-piece leotard on my left, or the thin young man in white shorts on my right. The room in cranked up to a hot 105 degrees and my heart is racing. My towel is sopping wet. I haven’t sweat as much since I was fighting in the ring.
I’m standing in a warm puddle of sweat and it brings me back to when I was someone else—that angry eighteen-year-old middleweight slugging other middleweights in Jersey City. Back then, boxing was my yoga. I didn’t realize it then, but punching felt good because it purified me of my anger, fear and hate. All of that negativity during every training session was good because it spewed out of my fists and never coagulated in my mind. Unknowingly, I was purging myself. Today, I have a smile in my heart because of boxing.
One big difference in this yoga class is that there is no coach barking, “Dig deep! or “Get tough! Another big difference is that, thankfully, I don’t see anyone in here who wants to punch the tip of my nose into the back of my brain. Now, it’s only me on my yoga mat beating myself up, gasping for air, pushing myself to stretch and strengthen my old muscles.
I’m new to yoga and I’m enjoying its gentle, meditative philosophy. Om, and its mind-body-spirit thing. At this stage of my life, I enjoy having a supportive teacher who is happy to guide me through various postures, while reminding me to breathe deeply through my crooked nose. I appreciate her encouraging me to release negative thoughts and to avoid all judgments. This gentler, more enlightened coaching is so refreshing. My old anger-fear-hate thing, which worked so well for me as a fighter, has no value here. And, quite frankly, there isn’t much left in me any more. After all, I am 57 years old.
During this ninety-minute Bikram Yoga class, consisting of 26 postures, or asanas, I try to focus on my teacher’s words of wisdom, but my mind tends to wander. Usually, I find myself back in the musty boxing gym preparing for a fight. Sweat slides down my face, chest, arms and legs and reinforces old memories of the pools of sweat lying on the wooden floor-boards around the heavy bag, or soaked into the bloody ring canvas after a fierce workout. During asanas, memories flash before me of a tough, but unhappy, kid seeking refuge and redemption in boxing gyms. I ask myself: Do I have the same toughness now as I did then?
I slap myself back into the present, and look at my soft belly in the mirror. I’m trying to concentrate on my teacher’s words of encouragement. I enjoy being alone on my yoga mat as much as I enjoy being part of this bigger, more peaceful community–a bunch of mild-mannered men and women who wouldn’t dare think about punching anyone on the nose. At 57, my childhood war is over.
But one’s childhood is not always over when it’s over.
Too often my brain whispers to me: Peter, you don’t belong in a yoga class. You’re a boxer. You can’t stretch, or come close to locking a knee. You’re making a fool of yourself. You’re too old.
My brain has been playing this insidious trick on me for ever. My brain has always been my main opponent. Even as a strong eighteen-year-old middleweight, while punishing the heavy bag, or trying to defeat some opponent, my brain whispered the same thing: Peter, who are you kidding? You’re not a boxer. You don’t have the right stuff it takes to fight. Besides, you have asthma, and you hate fighting. Admit it, you’re really a writer.
So, at nineteen, I hung up the gloves and stopped fighting. Somehow, I got into Fordham University. The classroom became my new arena. I began hitting books instead of people. Just like my gentle, song-writer father, I learned to write—not music, but words. But my words were still in my fists. Writing was like switching to another language. When I sat at a desk composing sentences, my brain whispered: Peter, who are you kidding? You’re not really a writer, you’re not smart enough. Besides, you hate writing. You’re a boxer.
Maybe that’s why, standing on this yoga mat, I’m having such a hard time breathing–because I’m conflicted and divided against myself. It’s like one of my nostrils is breathing in the fresh air of the present, and the other nostril is still breathing the stale air of the past.
In the ceiling-to-floor mirror, I look at my love-handles and red sweaty face and realize that I should just stop thinking. Stop thinking! But my brain whispers: Peter, you shouldn’t be here. Your body is not flexible. You should be in a boxing gym, sculpting your muscles, not stretching them.
I slap myself back into the now and try to concentrate. I breathe the fresh air of the present through my nostrils and listen to the steady staccato of sweat dripping from my nose, fingertips, elbows and shorts onto my mat.
I’m ready for the next posture—the Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Janushirasana, the standing-separate-leg-head-to-knee posture. In synch with the other class members, I step three feet to my right, turn my right foot to the right and my left foot to a 45-degree angle. Keeping both legs straight, I stretch up toward the ceiling, then curl my sweaty body up and out, over and down, bringing my forehead to my right knee. At least, I try to.
How could something as easy as yoga be so hard?
I heard someone after a class once say, “Bikram Yoga is torture, it’s brutal—you’ll love it. So, why am I subjecting myself to this torture? Perhaps, it’s because, at 57, I’m trying to embrace the same discipline, concentration and determination I mastered as that strong, young eighteen-year-old boy.
And maybe yoga will finally help me turn my worst enemy—my mind–into my best friend.
Yoga is my new boxing. That might be a little bit of a stretch, but I think it’s a stretch I can make.
(Peter Wood is the author of three books: Confessions of a Fighter, A Clenched Fist, and To Swallow a Toad. He was a middleweight finalist in the New York City Golden Gloves and was asked to represent America, as first alternate, in the Maccabian Games, held in Tel Aviv, Israel.)