Navigating Mindful Change Via Yoga

When we find ourselves at a new turn in our journey: death, divorce, marriage, birth, empty-nest, illness, new job, new boss, new city… give it a name, we discover that we must meet ourselves at a deeper level as we hit these pivotal moments. We likely feel a spectrum of feelings: discomfort, joy, stress, perhaps boredom, or pain, maybe fear, as we navigate the changes. Now at a personal life crossroad, I am rediscovering yoga as my threshold and vital mechanism in making the most of a new life cycle.
striving for balance 

Retirement is in my case the current turning-point of the journey. This life passage has been unfolding for me this year in a drastic and definitive way; I sold my house, moved to a new location (outside Austin), and am trying to reestablish a sense of community around myself.

These life-changes pale in comparison to the internal tussle to identify who I am. I’m no longer a cool foreign language teacher at a prep school. I am not dressing for the part, I am not drawing accolades for the part, I am not in daily collegial camaraderie that comes with the part, I am not in leadership for the part.

I am retired, and what that means is I’ve become in a sense, secluded. I am no longer seen or frequented by many people, no longer emailed and cc’d by admin., no longer called to conference and meetings, and no longer asked my opinion or thoughts. This retirement vacuum, while very exciting and happy, and certainly a welcome life-change that I chose to embark on, is still requiring a profound new effort.

Why yoga?

I am blogging as I go through the changes, so today’s blog isn’t so much about answers and reasons. It’s about truths that I am experiencing as I move through my current life passage.

 I had practiced yoga in my 20s, and for those of us that lived the flower power days, we remember the compelling yoga trend of the late 60s. And the pop resurgence (think Core or Power Yoga found in so many strip malls) has made its way back to our young generation with a franchise twist. Frankly some of these trendy yoga-money makers are a little off-point in their financial orientation or pyramid-like teacher-trainer franchise models, but on the other hand, the valuable yoga techniques are being taught to a mainstream population and that can only be a good thing.

Back to the transforming phase: by luck or design (depends on your philosophical viewpoint) I met a yoga instructor at a gym. Ellen is a dynamic, youthful, over-50 retiree-- a poster child for the Training Table and anti-aging: great muscle-tone, trim physique, enviable skin radiance. She has a devoted following among the over 50 group. She is someone who clearly has her own Training Table lifestyle that makes her look amazingly young. 

I met her my first week at the gym in my new surroundings, never saw her there again, but my good fortune or blind synchronicity had her cross my path just as I needed her. Yoga was a top priority goal I’d set for my retirement to-do list.   I have been enrolled twice a week and practice with her.

As I transition from a stressful Go-Go- Go- Pace, and into an unsettling What To Do-Next Phase, I am finding a mindful path forward by the breaths and stretches required of a yogi practitioner. The techniques and tools provided by my teacher are giving my seemingly shapeless world, a new form (if that makes any sense).

So, what am I talking about?  Today, I will hone in on 3 features of yoga that are key to the anti-aging experience and process:

1 Yoga awakens awareness
Our breaths and stillness required of yoga start to open our minds to a more aware consciousness. This helps us power through some of the painful edges we feel as we work through a transition or change in our lives. I can vouch that even though just a beginner’s class-I am at once literally pressing through the muscle discomfort and struggle for balance in the yoga poses, as well as figuratively straining through the tension that comes with my new life phase adjustment.

As I grip my toes on the yoga mat, stretch and extend my arms and feet, clench and unclench my muscles, or struggle to master equilibrium, so too am I working through the mental discomfort and mastery of a new phase in life.

It’s hard to explain how the physical and mental are so united; as I have been attending my classes these past seven weeks, I am seeing the significance of simply being aware of the yoga-and life-change connection. In other words, as I work on my exterior or physical body in the studio, I am conscious that the yoga exertions on breath and muscle are influencing my interior world that is trying to figure out who I am. Yoga helps me grapple with my new, emergent identity.

2)      A new philosophical vocabulary reshapes your world:
Namaste, asanas, chakras, vinyasas, pranayana…  (gratitude, energy flow, spiritual energies…)

Have you noticed when you learn a new word or obscure term you suddenly hear it in a conversation, maybe several times over, or a commercial includes the concept or word, or you read about it in a news headline? That new word suddenly appears everywhere in your life! The phenomenon is often referred to as Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

 I taught French, German, and Spanish for over thirty years and unerringly after teaching my students a new linguistic concept, or even a new word, they would unfailingly see or hear the concept everywhere: “Wait! I just heard that word in class!” They used to marvel at this and become delighted, I would laugh. It’s true and it’s fun. They would get that brain-reward exhilaration that comes with new mastery and recognition.  Baader-Meinhof!   Learn it !  Suddenly it exists!

That is what is happening to me right now as I spend time on the yoga mat listening to my teacher’s new words and teachings. Just as my language students described, I find I hear the words or get cued into the concepts all around me. I am finding myself integrating this new yoga class language into my mundane life.

Suddenly I’m not so bored with my spare time.  I am applying so many turns of phrases, new vocabulary or different ways to look at something, to my daily life. I feel my current life-phase to have become of immense value to me. Simply stated, my relatively prodigious amount of free time of retirement is no longer a yawning chasm of time to fill. Instead, the wide-open time limits are becoming more meaningful. I think there has been a psychic shift of sorts as I’ve moved from an overly scheduled world into one that has so much free time to fill.

 Right now, it is sincerely about the chakras and namastes. The applied intended meanings of the new lexicon are suddenly everywhere in my life and thus just as my students would marvel, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon of synchronicity is raising my consciousness. That, or, my awakening consciousness is tuning me into the elevated awareness of connections and synchronicity.

To recap: Yoga practice leads the physical body and the brain to making a mindful connection, and the view through the lens of yoga, is bringing into focus important life awareness.

Yoga High

To add to these two yogic tenets is the rush of the “yoga high.” Most any person who has taken yoga class can attest to the exquisite release of tension by the time you get through the final breaths on the mat. I get up feeling like something has been unlocked- a flow or energy that makes me feel elated and satisfied. Sometimes I just feel victorious. I made it through a class! I am triumphant! I have vanquished my inner lazy self.

The physiology of the yoga high is a complex chain of events that take place in one’s sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems that allow for better mood regulation and relief from anxiety and depression.

As post-yoga synapses and neurotransmitters get fired up, and the pathways for hormonal and blood flow opens way, and alignment and complex calibration of many body systems line up, I feel a powerful surge of wellbeing, some might say-euphoria.

 I am now re-experiencing that yoga chemical rush that I knew over 40 years ago when I was a young, flower-child in my 20s. I had forgotten how absolutely fantastic I could feel after persevering my yoga teacher’s hour-long instruction. The stretching and lengthening of our muscles, the linking our movements to breath, all help me feel positive and invigorated which lasts into the day.

Yoga has now returned to the Training Table as a key tool for anti-aging and wellness. In a sense, yoga is helping me identify who I am again as I retire.  I know with certainty that I need to stay on the yoga path for my anti-aging journey and I predict that yoga will play a crucial part of my next life phase.