‘Use It or Lose It’: The Key to Finding New Passions at Any Age
“Learning yoga was my gateway to a new life.”
For my sixtieth birthday last month, I gave myself the gift of a 200-hour yoga teacher training. My father, a retired nuclear physicist who is still brilliant at 93 years old, often tells me “use it or lose it” — meaning your brain needs to stay as active as your age.
For eight weeks, my seven fellow teacher trainees and I spent five hours each on Saturday and Sunday afternoons on our mats absorbing yoga-related knowledge. Two weekends were devoted to anatomy, one afternoon to Ayurveda (holistic health), another to the chakras, and yet another to mythology. In between, we practiced how to teach, got feedback from our instructor, then taught some more, learning cues, routines and sequencing.
The funniest lesson was where we put balloons under our shirts to mimic pregnancy and took a prenatal class — no twisting or lying on our stomachs allowed — standing with feet shoulder-width apart for greater stability. It was definitely disconcerting to see myself as a pregnant 60-year old.
The most enjoyable lesson was about breath work, including its power both to calm and to energize. I only nodded off a couple of times during meditation training. But most of all, I loved the feeling of community with my classmates, all of them women, ranging in ages from twenty to their late-fifties.
My actual birthday was spent in class and my fellow yogis sang “Happy Birthday” to me in plank pose. They even treated me to pastries from the nearby bakery on our lunch break. All in all, it was a very good day.
Almost everyone cried at least once during class, several women when we shared our fears during a lesson on being vulnerable. One classmate was moved to tears from having had a member of her family take sick. A couple of others shed tears just from the sheer exhaustion and overwhelm we’d undergone through the eight-week training.
I was raised not to show my emotions outside of home, so, for the most part, I’ve managed to avoid crying in front of people other than my family. I didn’t cry in public in 1973 when I lost my mom at ten and had to start fifth grade a few weeks after she died, nor when I was a young lawyer in the nineties and several males judges thought it was cool to yell at me, nor in 2013 when I was 49 and lost my husband George to cancer.
George was the son of family friends, a cute boy with a model train set whom I met when I was seven and he was an older man of eleven. We were thrown together at social events over the years, and started dating when I needed an escort for my senior prom and he was an engineering major at U.C. Berkeley. We were together for 32 years. Both of us were introverts and each other’s best friends; we led a bit of an isolated existence.
We tend to think of the term “use it or lose it” as an intellectual requirement, like we should take an online class or get another degree to keep our synapses firing. But I also think of it as learning to live in ways that bring us joy and santosha, the yogic principle of contentment. When I lost George, “use it or lose it” took on a new meaning. With a heightened awareness of mortality, I wanted to “use” well what life I had left as opposed to “losing” it to intransigence and misery. Plus, I didn’t want my dad worrying about me.
At first, yoga was a way to forget about my loss for the hour of class time it soaked out of the day. Doing the poses while putting breath to movement commanded my full attention. And “savasana,” the rest at the end of class, let me relax in a way I couldn’t in a house that had lost its comfort.
Later, yoga became my vehicle for making new friends as a widow. The studio I joined came with a close group of midlife women who so warmly welcomed me into their tribe. They included me in Thursday evening drinks after class, girls’ nights out, and most importantly, gave me access to feminine energy. As an only child raised by a single scientist dad, I was used to having male scientists over for dinner, but I was never any good at making girlfriends. During my younger years, I spent all of my free time with George.
Yoga helped me to start traveling on my own, going to a few retreats, knowing I’d have people to be with once I got there. It was how I structured my evenings when they seemed too empty, arriving early at the studio for a 5:30 p.m. flow class, maybe doing a restorative class afterwards, staying late to chat with my fellow yogis, trying to fill the gaping hole left by the husband who was my nightly dinner companion.
My teacher training was in “vinyasa” flow yoga. Vinyasa means “to place in a special way” and flow is where k you move between poses without stopping – the transitions becoming as important as the poses themselves. I thought a lot about how I wanted to “place” my life after losing George, which ultimately led to finding different communities and dating again and finding a second bashert and moving to a new place and becoming an author.
“Svadhyaya” refers to the principle of self-study, one of the yogic “Niyamas” – duties to ourselves intended to build character. The great yogic author Patanjali says: “Study the self, discover the divine,” meaning that reflecting on our actions and thoughts brings us in closer contact with our true selves – and therefore closer to God. Svadhyaya also encourages us to further educate ourselves in what inspires us, deepening our own knowledge, i.e., use it or lose it.
Deciding to do yoga teacher training was hard for me since I’ve always identified as nerdy and un-athletic — a gawky kid picked last for teams in P.E. class. A former English major, I wasn't intimidated when I went back to school at 54 to earn an MFA in creative writing when I was writing my book. But teacher training scared me. I was out of my element.
It was physical; there were right and wrong answers. Memorizing yoga sequences seemed beyond me and I relied heavily on discrete little flashcards. But I loved the training, both the content and my fellow classmates who all encouraged each other to succeed.
After I was widowed, I ultimately had to make a choice between trying new things — or living a shadow of my former life. Learning yoga was my gateway to a new life.
I wonder what’s next.
Debbie Weiss is a Former Lawyer, Essayist, and the Author of A Midlife Widow's Search for Love.
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