In the recent years of my life I have been traversing the challenging moment of what Carl Jung called eloquently “mid-life transition”. It’s not unusual in the world but like so many things in life, the commonplace becomes extraordinary when it is what you are experiencing directly.
Dealing with these changes has required a vigorous engagement – change and changes have come along relentlessly – both those which I chose to pursue and those which came along on their own. I discovered what I call the “law of unintended consequences” – namely that when one goes looking for change it’s very likely that many other things will change that you never imagined.
Experiencing this effect has made me cautious at the very moment that I most likely need to take the largest risks of my adult life. It’s a conundrum that I’ve been seeking guidance on from many sources. So far the insight I have gleaned from “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell is to follow one’s gut instinct on big choices and to move with courage. From Stephen Cope I’ve learned to focus my aim on my dharma – my true path (which is the essential challenge). I struggle at present to bring focus on what my goals ahead are – what my vision of my own life is and will be. For the longest time as a young man I had a clear idea of what I wanted – to work for myself, to live in the country, to do something creative, to be married and have a family.
Midlife transition has reset those goals for me and left something of a vacuum in its place which I am slowly, and with difficulty, beginning to fill again.
After a lifetime spent living in the NorthEast and New England I’ve been spending much of the last 3 years in Miami, FL. It’s grown on me. It’s a young, diverse city that’s not too large. The weather is extraordinarily pleasant all year round. I only know a handful of people which means that I have a lot of time to work and think which is a marked transition from my previous life where I was happily but overwhelmingly engaged with many, many groups, organizations, friends, families, volunteering, school, etc etc.
Miami has actually been a strangely retreat-like place for me. It’s not hard to find quiet even though the city is noisy. It’s anonymous. After years of living in the country I’m rather enjoying the urban life. Our apartment is tiny – a studio. Everything I could want pretty much fits here. I’ve got a large storage unit back in Massachusetts stuffed to the gills with my previous life and I can’t remember most of the things that I put in it.
In the last 2 years my partner, Heather, introduced me to yoga. It was her salvation and constant practice during and after her divorce and hearing her talk about it I began to get interested. I’ve always been an athlete – active – I bike hard, cross-country ski in the winter, climb, hike, kayak – I love to move my body. One of the things that became challenging during this transition in my life was the way that my body became less manageable and more unpredictable. I always have been able to “power through” anything – 100 mile rides, huge climbs, hot, cold, wet, steep -the harder the better for most of my life. Suddenly now the hills seemed steeper, the wind colder. Most of this has been in my mind – you need mental stability and fortitude, and focus, to weather these types of physical challenges. Even biking, my lifetime panacea, became a problem a couple of years ago when I would go for a ride and realize halfway through that I had been so focused on the raging thoughts, doubts, questions, sadness, in my mind that I hadn’t even noticed the last ten miles. I was a danger to myself – you need your focus when you ride fast on busy roads with traffic.
Thus – yoga. My first class was a revelation. Heather had shown me the basics so I wasn’t a total neophyte but I had never taken a class or really engaged in any sustained practice. 15 minutes in I remember noticing as I raised my arm above my head in some kind of side-twisting pose that I was literally flowing, streaming with sweat – it was running off my body like a river. Amazing! I love to exert myself, to sweat, to feel the heat in my body and this was far, far better than any of the thousands of hours I had spent in weight-training gyms in my high school and college years. We went through the sequence. I didn’t fall down. During savasana – which is the part of the end of every yoga class where you basically lie flat on your back for five or ten minutes completely motionless – I wept quietly. It came welling up out of me from something that had been moved deep inside me.
For two years now I have been practicing. In Miami we go to class 4-5 times a week, if not more. The classes are at Green Monkey in Miami’s South Beach area. This is one of the epicenters of yoga as practiced in the modern, North American way. It’s athletic, vigorous – but personal and meditative. Yoga is challenging for me – and for everyone else of course – but as a 6′ tall man with a body type made from throwing hay bales as a teenager, working out in gyms, racing bicycles, climbing rocks and always pushing myself – the art of stillness, flexibility and balance is a new, welcome challenge. Basically put, I don’t bend so well…. but it’s getting better! The most amazing aspect of yoga is that you make progress visibly and quickly. From week to week – poses that you couldn’t do, or couldn’t reach become possible.
Imagine this – the headstand. Something that we all did when we were little kids in kindergarten classrooms or in our backyards with friends. A simple thing – now try doing one as a 48 year-old adult. Not so easy – in fact likely life-threatening and impossible. When I started yoga I hadn’t done a headstand in a couple of decades. I’m a strong, coordinated person and the first few times I did it – with careful and professional instruction mind you – it was incredibly difficult. Now I can do them as easily as breathing. Each time I go up into headstand I have this moment where I actually feel like I am defying gravity, or am weightless. My legs just “go up”.
I’m not the first person in mid-life to find yoga revelatory. The explosion of yoga across the country and the world is proof of that. I believe though that yoga is finding its moment now as a response, a therapy, to the challenges of living in the modern world circa 2015. This is not the worst of times, nor the best. It is a moment, that’s all. In this moment – to find space in the day to breathe with intention, to clear one’s mind for an hour and half, to focus on the challenging movement, the stillness – is to bring the powerful medicine of the mind and body to the struggles in our souls.
My transition is not complete. Perhaps it never will be – but I do hope for a new moment in my life where I can look around and see that things have a bit of foundation – that I have found new goals, new inspiration, new joy in life. I wish for anyone reading this who has or is going through their own challenges that your journey is rewarding, and your struggles yield to new possibiilties and hope.
For me it is still a work in progress. Yoga is helping – in deep and profound ways. We joke that I am a water-buffalo amid the herd of gazelles in class sometimes – frequently among 30-40 people in class I might be one of only a few men and there are always the ex-gymnasts of dancers who have taken up yoga and can bend themselves into (for us water buffalo) impossible poses. The grace in yoga though is that it takes all comers – there is no judgement, no weeding out, no competition. Like life, it’s something that you are actually doing entirely on your own. No one can do it for you. And what you put into it is what you get out of it.