On the first day of my first real job, all keen to arrive early, I twisted my knee getting dressed. By the time I arrived at work, my knee was the size of a football and needed to be drained. Two years later, in Aikido class, I did the same thing. It seems I had weak knees and was now susceptible to little non-cancerous tumors growing on them that needed cutting out every once in a while. It may have been hereditary—I remember my grandfather, a keen cricketer in his youth, clinically obese and hardly able to walk for the last thirty years of his life on account of his knees.
In my twenties, I dropped out, and with a one way ticket across the English Channel and a Pound in my pocket, I set off for France. My friend and I hitched and walked half way round the world, picking up laboring jobs wherever we could—I built walls and roofs, houses, laid roads, and dug ditches. While working as a pizza chef carrying ten trays of dough, my back went, and what with the knees going too with more regularity, after five years, that was the end of my traveling and laboring.
I worked myself through University as a cook, developing a taste for neat whiskey that I’d only played at while traveling, and making a mess of my liver in the process. After throwing away a promising academic career—I think I had anger issues—I left for Japan to become an English teacher.
There cannot be that many who end up unhealthier by the time they leave than when they arrived in Japan—I managed to pull that off. I worked as a teacher trainer trying to knock the dogma out of the ex-school teachers who got off the plane only to replace it with my company’s own. I worked too many hours teaching and designing courses, suffered from stress and fatigue, and got fat on fast food and beer.
So my knees were shot, as was my back, and probably my liver. I was overweight and suffered from stress. I felt bloated after every meal, developed kidney stones and had to have my gall bladder removed—my body was wrecked, just living your life can do that!
The curious thing was that I had not really noticed that I had got so out of shape, so unhealthy; and find it quite shocking looking back at the old photos now…how could I not know? There were signs—the kidney stones, the gall bladder operation—when they took my gall bladder out, they were supposedly shocked by the amount of cholesterol (this was in Japan).
I was wearing smart designer suits back then, I thought I looked pretty sharp.
That is the scary thing. I am guessing the majority of overweight and unhealthy middle-aged men think they are pretty much OK—could do with losing a few pounds perhaps, but on the whole they think they are fine and do not realize how much they have let their health slip, or how much work it will take to turn it around, or that it will get a little harder each year—they need to start now, today, not wait for the next New Year’s Resolution.
I got into yoga almost by accident, but it became a passion.
I came back to the UK to become a woodwind instrument repairer, having taken to playing the saxophone in Japan.
My flat was burgled in February 2007, and seven vintage saxophones stolen—including one I had made a special trip to New York to buy. I was angry about the whole affair, and was annoyed with myself for being so angry about it. I decided to get back into meditation—I had practiced a little Zen years ago. I came across the ZenCast podcasts with Gil Fronsdal, and began to practice Vipassana meditation. Reading around the practice I found that a lot of meditators were also doing yoga; so I picked up a book from the library, which turned out to be Total Astanga: The Step-by-Step Guide to Power Yoga at Home for Everybody, by Tara Fraser. It had looked the most well laid out and the least embarrassing to take up to the Library counter. Outside London, middle-aged guys did not tend to take up Yoga—they would go to a gym and lift weights perhaps but not Yoga.
I practiced with that book for about a month, practicing in the mornings before work on a bath towel in my underwear while my pet chinchilla looked on. If I remember correctly, I got as far as the Standing sequence, which would take me about half an hour to forty minutes, stopping every now and again to turn the page or check the book. I used blocks, or rather books as blocks, for Utthita Trikonasana as I couldn’t reach my hands to the ground. I was 44, weighed 94 kilograms and had not done any exercise for about four years. I had a bit of a belly and was feeling generally unhealthy.
I remember really enjoying getting up in the mornings to practice alone in the dark. I loved Suryanamaskara A , Suryanamaskara B exhausted me. I was frustrated that I could not straighten my legs in forward bends, had to hold on to the wall in Utthita hastasana, etc. Virabhadrasana A and B were agony, as was Utkatasana, I couldn’t imagine being able to do Ardha baddha padmottanasana. I would ache all over for most of the day but it was a good ache and practice became the highlight of my day. Sometimes it felt like the day was over as soon as I finished my practice and I could not wait for the following morning to come around.
As is the case so often with yoga, I changed other areas of my life to fit in with the practice, ate less so I would not feel heavy and bloated the following morning. I pretty much cut out drinking—I might have a little wine topped up with sparkling water, the occasional martini or a little pot of sake on the weekends. I wanted to be able to wake up early and feel fresh. After a year, I even became vegetarian. I was not particularly trying to be fit or healthy, I just wanted to practice yoga more comfortably. There is no six-pack in the second picture, no bulging biceps either, but I think I look healthier.
I feel more fit, and despite all the advanced pretzel postures I explore these days, I have had no problems with my knees. I am no longer feeling bloated after every meal and recently, while writing my yoga book on the mac, formatting hundreds of photos and links, I noticed I had not screamed or sworn at the computer for not doing what I had asked it to, not once. That was something I used to do a lot back when I was designing training courses. I am calmer. I am in good health.
Hey NYT, my body was wrecked BEFORE I started yoga, now ….not so much!
I see guys on the street my age, perhaps younger than me—I am not talking about the clinically obese, but regular guys who I used to probably believe as being no less healthy than the next guy. I am sure they think they should cut back on the drinking a little, eat a little better, or walk the dog more often; but that is probably not going to do it.
There needs to be a government campaign—one of those awareness-raising ads—that says, “Hang on a minute, you do not just need to lose the odd couple of pounds, you need to rethink how you are living your life”, and it is important because people are dying from this.
For me it was yoga, for them it might be something else—but it needs to be something and it needs to be encouraged and supported.
That is the article I’d like to have seen from the New York Times magazine.
Anthony Grim Hall started practicing Ashtanga in March 2007. He had been burgled, felt angry about it and angry that he was feeling angry. He picked up a couple of meditation books from the library and later some on yoga to deal with the anger. He was overweight (94 kilograms), unfit and certainly not flexible. In the first four years, he only went to two Ashtanga Mysore self practice classes. He learnt from books and videos, and from comments on his blog. He is now 78 kilograms, and feels more fit, stronger and pretty flexible. In 2008, he started a blog—Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga at Home—beginning this blog dealt with his obsession with achieving the “Jump back” (and later drop backs, kapotasana, karandavasana, advanced series, etc). In June 2009, he came across Srivatsa Ramaswami (one of Krishnamacharya’s longest-serving students) and his ‘The Complete book of Vinyasa Yoga’—he spent the next year working out how best to combine it with his Ashtanga practice. He attended Ramaswami’s 200 hour Vinyasa Krama teacher training course in July/August 2010 and practiced an Ashtanga influenced Vinyasa Krama. He has just published a Vinyasa Yoga at Home Practice Book through Kindle that lays out Ramaswami’s sequences and subroutines along with practice notes including hint, tips and suggestions for each subroutine.
This article was prepared by Assistant Yoga Editor, Soumyajeet Chattaraj.