January 31, 2014

The Hockey Player Turned Yogi-Runner. ~ Levi Younger

Growing up in Alaska, all I ever wanted to do was play hockey.

I had a fervor only the innocence of youth can muster; I would play any chance I could.

From the age of four, when my military family first moved from Texas, I put on my tiny little ice skates and dedicated every free moment to playing. Even during the summer months, when the temperatures soared and everything turned green, even the lack of ice couldn’t hold me back. I set up two hockey nets on the grassy field next to my house and rounded up all the neighborhood kids to come play. After an hour or so when boredom set in, they went off to find other things to do, I would stay, running down and back pretending to skate with the professionals I idolized.

It was through hockey that I first found a place to channel my passion, my creativity and my energy. Hockey was also the thing that had helped ease the awkward transition from childhood to my teens. If it wouldn’t have been for the annual pilgrimage to the hockey store at the start of each season for larger equipment and a taller stick, I’m not sure I would have noticed that I was growing up. The years may have been steadily rolling by on the outside, but on the inside the connection I had with the game kept me young.

Hockey was also my life-preserver when times got tough. When my parents began to fight every night and their imminent divorce was just above the horizon, or when middle school came swooping in to obliterate my youth, and when every change my body went through felt like the end of the world, hockey was there. Hockey was an escape from the pressures of school, the popularity game that became so important, and the feeble drama that comes as social groups form and people are labeled. But for me the ice rink was a closed environment, a world unto itself, a place where the hardships of reality couldn’t reach and I was free to focus solely on the present.

Freshman year of high school, I began to channel myself purposefully, both physically and mentally into the game. This was the first time I was able to establish a formal practice. It might not have been yoga proper but the principles behind it: the freedom and the presence of mind that it both provided and required, and the dedication it demanded, were all there. Coming to the rink, either outside for a casual game with my friends, or inside for practice with my high school team, was no longer just for sport. It was an active experience that took me to another realm and allowed my body and mind to become one.

Looking back now, eight years since my graduation from high school I haven’t yet found another activity with the same power. To continue to reach that next plain of existence—my body and soul connected through movement—I spent hours on end training and working to tune myself into the channels of that connection. Nothing else has held the same captivating reign on my soul.

Oddly enough, I have since moved on from the game. After toiling for four years in junior leagues and then at the college level there came a moment when I realized that the flame of desire I once held had slowly been snuffed out. The connection I once felt, had faded and my ego had taken its place. Anyone who’s ever felt an unyielding passion for something, or someone can attest; filling the void that the flame of passion once held, is next to impossible.

One’s pride is quick to assume the place of passion. But it fails in the attempt to replicate the sublimity that comes from an activity done purely for joy.

The more I played for pride in my own skill and propping up my ego, the less I found myself enjoying the very activity I had dedicated so much of my precious time and energy towards. The rink became more of a temple to my own talents and achievements, and less a place of praising the miracle that is life and movement. My awareness of all the eyes on me (largely a figment of my own self-centeredness) created a voice of criticism in my head; an obstacle in the connection between body and mind – one that proved in time, too large for me to work around.

I have found this to be true for most people who commit themselves to a practice and succeed in channeling their passion into that activity. It matters little what sport or activity they subscribe to; basketball, baseball, tennis, soccer or yoga, the human experience is the same. Talented people possess natural abilities and their dedication elevates them to another plane and they find themselves easily, or perhaps, smoothly, achieving movements, poses or plays that others hail for their difficulty. Yet the driving force behind those movements was never the praise of others, at least not at the beginning. And though the very successful tend to grapple with greater bouts of egotism surrounding their skills and abilities, it is an issue that every single person encounters when they routinely practice. To achieve is to set a standard and once we have raised the bar, every achievement following will always be held up to judge its significance and worth accordingly.

However, as Alan Watts once warned: to compare the present with the past is to continually live in the past, a feat impossible for any person to succeed at, even the most gifted. To do this, is to live like the Ouroboros, forever eating its own tail; stuck in the cycle of chasing that which cannot be held, oblivious to the futility of its action.

That is how we often find ourselves in a rut—burnt out on the activity that once breathed vitality into our lives, and floundering in the placidity of our practice.

We replace our passion for pride, allow it to compare our current state with that of our past and thus we sacrifice the gift of being present in the moment at the behest of our ego. Everyone has had moments in their practice when every thought running through the viewfinder of their mind is on everything but the current moment. Work, relationships, worry, doubt, they all make a play for our limited attention and crowd the channels that normally flow freely. Or our imagination creates a roomful of eyes watching our every move, self-consciousness robbing us of the energy and fluidity that a clear mind is capable of. The former often opens the door for the latter. A simple mistake in a posture or action normally taken with ease welcomes the first self-conscious thought and creates an environment of paranoia. Suddenly, we find ourselves critiquing every movement, every action as if every eye was on us and our practice has been tainted. This phenomenon is worsened should we already find ourselves wounded by our ego’s attacks on our present state.

I quit playing hockey at the end of my sophomore year of college. My body had been slowly shaped by years of a very specific activity and countless hours in the gym lifting weights so that I was a mass of overly tight muscle. My legs and butt were thick and tough, spotted with deep tissue bruises that were incapable of relaxing, and I moved awkwardly around on two bum ankles. My first few months away from the game was the chance my body had been waiting for to catch up on all the issues it had endured for the love of the game. But with that love faded and my attention finally diverted from the all-consuming activity that hockey was, the pieces of myself that had been pushed to the wayside for years on end began to surface.

The pain I had suppressed for so long, both physical and spiritual, finally made its way back to the forefront of my mind. My ego may have driven me away from the game I loved but it left me stranded on the roadside somewhere between despair and detachment. An activity that had once captivated me and consumed such a large portion of my energy and desire was now gone, pushed away by the very hands that called for it.

I tried to fill the hole that hockey left with many things. There was the typical revolving door of partying and menial relationships. But those things didn’t even stand a chance at captivating the boy living deep inside who longed for the days when he could spend all his free hours playing the sport he loved. Luckily, I realized fairly quickly that substances, girls, and generally wandering in circles would never fill my cup the way hockey did, or any physical activity for that matter. So I set out trying to find another means of exercising my demons and finding bliss.

It has been through that process of discovery that I have stumbled into yoga and distance running—practices that I have found enlighten me and get my “creative juices flowing.” Yoga and running are the two practices that I have learned create a positive equilibrium within me and fill the void left by hockey. Though neither, individually or together, fill the hole perfectly, I realize now that for what they lack in certain regards (there’s no contact or plays made in either, for instance) they make up for tenfold in other areas. If running is what gets my blood pumping and tests my tolerance for burning legs and thighs the way hockey used to, yoga is what reigns me back in and fosters the connection between the body and mind. It allows me to understand what my body needs to better recover and avoid the injuries I used to purposefully overlook.

So there you have it. The story of the hockey player turned yogi-runner. I can’t say that either yoga or running has captivated me the way hockey once did; I sometimes skip out on runs and my yoga practice is inconsistent at best. And though I’m not particularly gifted at running or yoga, my pride still tries to wiggle its way into both and steal the spotlight from enjoyment. After taking some time off from running, I’ll start back up again on the privacy of my own treadmill until I feel like I’m worthy of public’s eye. And I too have a set of yoga clothes that I’ve deemed the “getting back into it” outfit. The shirt is a little looser and the shorts a little longer to hide the slight holiday pudge I’ve gathered that surely everyone else is staring at as they move into perfect Lotus Headstands while I struggle with Child’s Pose in my beginner deep stretch class.

My transition from hockey player to yogi-runner has taught me a valuable lesson that I continue to learn every time I unroll my mat in the very back row or lace up my shoes for another slow “recovery” run. Every practice should be an exercise that transcends the finite environment we create in our lives and opens us up to the enlightenment that only the pure joy of revelry can foster.  None of us want to practice yoga with our minds filled to the brim with the thoughts of how fit we used to be or go for a run and spend its entirety reflecting on how much faster or in-shape we once were.

We practice these exercises to enjoy the moment, to let go of ourselves and allow the beauty of movement through time and space enthrall us with its ride. To do it for anything else is to sacrifice the gift.


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Assistant Editor: Cami Krueger / Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Todd List Photography

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