This month I’m arriving at a rather significant milestone in my life- I’m turning the big 3-0! It took a while for it to sink in, but I feel pretty good about it- in fact, once I thought about it, I realized that I feel better now, overall, than I did at age 20. I’m certainly stronger, more flexible, calmer, and better able to deal with stress and anxiety. I also realized that, as much as I enjoy it, I can’t entirely take credit for my own good health.
Rewind to when I was twenty. A few months after my twentieth birthday, I flew off with some of my classmates for my college’s semester in Rome program. As luck or something would have it, that was the spring when Pope John Paul II died, and the entire world scrutinized Rome as the conclave of cardinals met to elect a new pope. News services from around the world flocked into St. Peter’s Square, and built a scaffold for their cameras and microphones at one end of the square which was probably two stories tall. I was irrationally afraid that some kind of natural disaster, terrorist attack, or act of God was going to take place at the conclave. While I was in Rome, I also realized that I could buy alcohol legally there, and spent a good portion of my time viewing ancient monuments in a semi-dazed or semi-hungover state, depending on the time of day. Rome, I had been told, would inspire me, but it merely reminded me of death. It was a city literally built on the dead, as a network of catacombs, some still unexplored and stuffed with the bones of early martyrs, stretched from one end of the city center to the other. On a side trip to Florence, where the air seemed fresher, I sat with a few of my classmates and drank wine on the railing of the bridge upon which Dante had first met Beatrice, according to tradition.
Of course, when I was twenty, I fancied myself wise and cynical, even though I was actually like a deer in the headlights when it came to most things in life. Even though I worried neurotically about everything that could possibly go wrong, I was notably cavalier when it came to my own health, probably because I never had cause to worry about it. It’s true, I did exercise religiously: from my early teens up to around age 23, when I first discovered martial arts, my predominant form of exercise was running. I ran nearly every day, regularly suffered from nasty shin splints, and stressed out if I missed two days in a row. I can’t say I exactly enjoyed it, but it did provide some release for my excess, nervous energy. After I ran, I felt like my head was clearer, and I finally had the focus to get through my tasks for the day.
For years, I hated my perfectly normal, naturally mesomorphic build, and wished that I was lean and lanky like a good long-distance runner. I’ve always been naturally strong and used to beat all the other girls in arm-wrestling contests when I was a teenager. If I lift weights once or twice a week, I quickly develop muscle tone. As I found out later, my body doesn’t love running for miles, but isn’t bad at hitting things and grappling with people. When I was twenty, though, I didn’t see my body type as an advantage.
Running gave me constant weird, twingey feelings in my knees and hips, and carrying my books in a backpack slung to one side during college and grad school left a knot in my back that lasted for years. Other than exercising, in my early twenties I more or less acted like a person who was trying to make herself sick. I broke every dictate of healthy living: I drank almost every night (stuff from the second-to-bottom shelf, no less), smoked cigarettes (I confess, I still enjoy the smell), and had fast food several times a week. My parents had stressed healthy eating habits when I was growing up, but in college I started making fast food runs into town with my friends because the food at my undergraduate institution was so unmitigatedly awful. On Fridays, since it was a Catholic college, they served a harrowing concoction my friends and I dubbed “seafood surprise.” Still, I suppose, circumstances don’t really give me an excuse. After college, I continued to eat like an undergrad, except that when I started grad school I cranked up my caffeine intake to Herculean levels. Grad students and academics, in general, have a fabulous acquired immunity to caffeine which they’ve built up over years of hard training, like Westley in The Princess Bride gradually developing an immunity to iocaine powder. Basically, as long as my body continued to look “in shape” on the outside, didn’t succumb to illness, and let me go to class and do my writing during grad school, I assumed that all was well.
I know, maybe it’s unbecoming for a yoga teacher to admit to all these past transgressions. Maybe I should say that I went around sipping a green smoothie at college parties, while my classmates downed shots of whiskey. In this case, though, I’m more grateful as a repentant sinner than I would have been as one who had never strayed.
I treated my body like an undervalued beast of burden, but, despite it all, it repaid me with good health, clear skin, a resilient immune system, and quick healing from injuries. Even when I pulled all-nighters during grad school, I rarely got sick, and when I did, I recovered faster than friends who had caught the same disease. By all just estimates, I should have gotten badly sick, and had that experience shock me into taking better care of myself. But that’s not the way my narrative goes.
I didn’t make any drastic, sudden changes to my lifestyle: change crept in slowly after I started practicing martial arts. Feeling like I needed a new hobby, I googled krav maga schools in my area, and my academy, The Fighters’ Garage, happened to come up. (Incidentally, I’m constantly grateful that I happened upon it by pure dumb luck, and that I didn’t wind up at another school). I trained krav maga for over a year before I worked up the courage to try Gracie Jiu Jitsu, which I would sometimes catch a glimpse of when I came in early for a krav class. It looked to me, at the time, like people writhing around on the mats, tied up in inexplicable knots with one another, until suddenly someone tapped for some reason I couldn’t discern. At any rate, when I started practicing jiu jitsu, I could feel my lungs burning when I rolled from my years of smoking (usually only one or two cigarettes a day, but plenty to affect one’s breathing capacity nonetheless).
I did not, I regret to admit, stop smoking out of overall concern for my health, but because I wanted to be better at jiu jitsu. Baby steps, I suppose. Gradually, over the course of several years, my unhealthy habits peeled away one by one, I slowly improved my diet, and started doing yoga.
Nowadays, my lifestyle is a far cry from what it was ten years ago, but I’ll readily admit that it’s still far from perfect. Part of me will probably always prefer a burger and fries to a salad and a fillet of salmon. Now that I’m turning thirty, I need to stop relying on my high constitution to pull me through whatever hardships I throw at it. I’d really like to continue the last five years’ trend of gradual improvement. I plan to eat more green foods and less chocolate milkshakes, although they do taste amazing late at night.
In my thirties, I want to finish my dissertation, eat healthfully, train lots of jiu jitsu, teach as much yoga as possible, and remember to be grateful for the amazing opportunities I’ve been given in life. I have some other goals for my thirties, as well- I’m just naming a few here.
Goodbye soon, my twenties. You included some great times, as well as some experiences I could have done without (although they were educational). Hopefully, if I treat myself right, I won’t feel “thirty” (in terms of physical health) for a long time.