I always thought that of yoga as something only done by young, lithe ballet enthusiasts. It was definitely not something practiced by uncoordinated, middle-aged guys who can’t touch their toes. Put me in the latter category and add to that that I’m nearly six-and-a-half feet tall and have had two back operations.
But my wife, Jeanne, is nothing if not persistent when it comes to me and exercise. Twenty years ago she convinced me to try step aerobics, eventually persuading me that it was okay to be the only guy in a class of women who seemed to have stepped from a chorus line. I hid in the back row where it didn’t matter that I was often a beat behind everyone else. And, over time, I learned the moves, got a great workout and improved my sense of timing.
Seven years ago, Jeanne decided that I should try yoga. I’ve had lower back issues since I was a teenager (while extreme height is great for seeing over crowds, it does put strain on the lower lumbar vertebrae), and in my mid-thirties, I blew a couple of disks and ended up having two back operations. What little flexibility I once had pretty much vanished. On a good day, I could touch my knees. But my toes? Well, I could see them, but to touch them I’d have to sit down.
I agreed to try a yoga class and came away totally discouraged. I couldn’t do anything! Then Jeanne got me one of the best birthday gifts I’ve ever received: a six-class pass for a workshop called, “Yoga for the Stiff Guy.” It was taught by two women who could double as stand-up comics, and the class was full of guys like me: tight hamstrings and a lot of pride.
The instructors eased our entry into the world of yoga with laughter as we learned down dog, up dog, mountain and tree. We focused on learning how to breathe and listen to our bodies. We learned to put aside the drive to compete with others and shift the focus to our inner selves.
I took the workshop three times before I felt comfortable launching myself into a class with the flexibly-gifted. Now, I continue to practice yoga. I’m still in the back row where I won’t distract others, and I use a bunch of blocks and straps to modify the poses I have difficulty with. But my back has never felt better and remarkably, my toes are getting a little bit closer.
There is increasing research demonstrating the health benefits of yoga. This week in our twitter chat, #abcDrBchat, we explored the science of yoga and meditation. Check it out here! And maybe I’ll see you in the back row of a yoga class.
“Tell Me the Truth, Doctor” is a weekly column written by ABC News’ chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser. Look for Dr. Besser’s book in stores now!