This is an installment of Good Fit, a column about exercise.
I have practiced yoga for almost 20 years. I’m even a certified yoga instructor! This might conjure an image for you: fit, flexible, disciplined, dwelling in equanimity. But I can’t claim even one of those attributes. I’m a 47-year-old mom with a big job, a fiancé who spends half his time in Europe (he’s German), and a knee injury. I am constantly thinking about yoga, but practicing it with any consistency has felt almost impossible.
That wasn’t always so. I’ve had boom times in my yoga practice; I’ll commit myself to getting on the mat three, four, or five times a week, and I’ll manage to do it, and for a pretty good stretch—a year, a year and a half. But then something shifts. An injury, getting pregnant (I know everyone loves prenatal yoga, but I thought it was horribly boring), a flare-up of my endometriosis, a new job. Then, of course, things go bust. I don’t mean that I scale back to once or twice a week. I mean that there is a total wipeout. I’ll stay off the mat for three to six months, even a year, the whole time feeling shame over my laziness, and then ashamed that I couldn’t practice one of the core tenets of yoga: to be kind to yourself.
At the start of the new year, I realized I needed help to break this boom-and-bust cycle, and I set out to come up with a healthy, realistic, no-shame approach to yoga. I imagined a quick solution: I would find an expert to set me straight. If someone with authority explained how to just do this and not that, I would miraculously have a robust daily practice. All I was missing was the right instruction manual! And with it, I would find the balance and stability (no pun intended) that I desperately need in my practice to flow gracefully and flexibly to 50. I would stave off the perimenopausal weight that is creeping on. (Yes, it comes for all of us eventually!) Finally, I would feel great, all the time, forever, until I die at a very old age!
Given that I have been on earth so long, I have to say, this is pretty stupid; for me, at least, when life intervenes, exercise is the first thing to go. So this idea that you just come up with a plan and stick to it because someone tells you to … well, that might work for some people, but it won’t for me.
Still, I brought my problem to Julie Peacock, a yoga teacher, wellness coach, and dietician I have known for 19 years. (At least I know better than to trust a random guru—or app—to solve my problems.) Julie was my very first yoga teacher, and I was one of her first students. We are the same age and have been friends even as I’ve studied with her on and off. I think of Julie as pretty hardcore; she’s not just a yogi but a runner and cyclist, and she’s disciplined as hell—not only with her exercise and diet but also as a parent. (I have a picky eater with zero table manners who doesn’t know how to use a knife; Julie’s three kids are gracious and glowing with good health, and they definitely have skills with utensils.) Honestly, I expected her to sternly instruct me to get my shit together and get back on the mat four times a week, no apologies. But our conversation surprised me and led me to someplace much more contemplative and helpful, and maybe more challenging, because what she advised is actually doable.
Julie said I was approaching my dilemma all wrong. “ ‘I want to move my body today’ should be the overarching goal,” she said. “Not to do a certain pose. Not to lose weight, not to live longer, not to sleep better. To move.”
Just to move. Every day. A little or a lot. It sounded possible. It didn’t have to be on a mat.
She started with a simple principle: “Our bodies are meant to move—they need to move,” she said. “They don’t do well when they are sedentary. Science and research has confirmed that. But that movement practice looks different for people and has to be connected to what is realistic and what brings enjoyment.”
Yoga does bring me a lot of enjoyment. That’s why I went through yoga teacher training in the first place: to expand the joy and satisfaction I get from yoga by gaining a fuller understanding of anatomy, sanskrit terminology, and the asanas (or poses) that we string together with a vinyasa (or breath-connected) practice.
But I struggled with the part of my training that required creating a “home practice,” or a completely self-directed, teacherless, groupless practice in your own space. I did it, but I never liked it. Once I’d graduated from my training, my home practice went out the window. Which is too bad, because it’s cheap and adaptable to any schedule. At the same time, taking a group yoga class every day (even on Zoom!) is not realistic time- or money-wise—that would add up to over $100 a week at my current studio’s prices! (I will note here that while I miss my old $80-a-month unlimited membership at a now-defunct studio near my house, I think yoga is undervalued and classes are priced too low overall; full-time teachers can survive only if they have a roster of high-paying private clients.)
So, if the goal is moving every day, it’s not going to be with yoga exclusively. What else should I do?
“The main thing is getting into a practice of movement and bringing energy into your body, using your muscles, breathing heavily,” Julie told me. “This can be as little as two minutes or two hours. There is no gold standard! A walk between meetings, a walk up the stairs. We can start to create balance by having a sense of flexibility in our schedule. ‘If I feel better, I’m going longer. If I am off today, I’m going to do something softer.’”
It sounds so simple: Listen to yourself, set a goal to move, be kind to yourself but also ambitious. The irony is, sometimes it’s easier to just follow a plan, one with specific workouts to be done for a prescribed amount of time, even if you know that you are eventually going to fail it. But I love the potential in removing judgment from the fitness equation, and centering feeling good through movement generally, not via a rigorous schedule of yoga classes.
Since I consulted Julie in January, I’ve tried to follow her advice. I recommitted to her weekly group Vinyasa yoga class on Friday mornings. It starts after I get my daughter to school and before the workday gets crazy, and I can prioritize it. I also picked up a Sunday morning yoga-ish class called “Strong and Stable: Active,” taught by a yoga teacher I practiced with many years ago and geared toward strength and balance for women my age. Both are on Zoom. I might do another Zoom yoga practice one morning a week, but it depends—not just on my schedule, but how I’m feeling.
I got a cheap membership to my local Blink gym ($19 a month), and I love it—no fuss. I go once or twice a week and hit the elliptical trainer for 30 minutes, or walk on an incline on the treadmill for 40. I am contemplating trying a trainer for a month—I know that strength training is especially important as you get older. I walk as much as I can. (I reset my daily step goal to 6,000 from the largely unattainable—and sort of arbitrary!—10,000.) I have even done very short sets of squats in the middle of the day (inspired by an article in the New York Times about exercise and aging).
“The more we become aware of what makes us feel good and what also challenges us, then it’s going to ripple towards doing it more frequently,” Julie told me. I have found this to be true. If I crave going to the gym but I don’t have a ton of time, I go for 20 minutes instead of 30. Or I walk up to the waterfront and back in my neighborhood. Sunshine is invaluable when it’s available. On days when I’m packed with meetings, I put my yoga mat out, dress for practice, and take advantage of two minutes here and there to do uttanasana (standing forward fold) or to sit and practice janu sirsasana (head-to-knee pose) and paschimottanasana (seated forward bend). These may not totally get my heart going, but stretching during the day feels great.
Ultimately, Julie did answer my question. How do I avoid the boom-and-bust cycle in my yoga class? Live each day, decide what would feel good, and do it. Move. This will lead me to my mat at least twice a week. But by focusing on movement and incorporating other activities, the pressure on yoga comes off. Will all this stave off aging and all of the challenges that getting older brings? No, but neither would a psychotic amount of yoga. Still, it will make me more flexible, in all the ways that count.