I watched the television show Mountain Men last night. My favorite mountain man is an old fella named Tom who lives with his wife Nancy – she’s as much a part of his success as him – in Northern Montana. I’ve spent a bit of time nearby and it’s as gorgeous IRL as it is on television.
It’s been a cold winter in Montana, and Tom’s meat stock is low: there is hunting to be done. To use as much of a deer as possible, he hunts with a homemade bow and arrows. Using a rifle, he explains, destroys much of the meat when the bullet impacts the animal. If shot correctly, an arrow kills as quickly without damaging the meat. Never one for hunting, I like his ideas compared to people who hunt trophy elk or antelope from a mile away with high-powered rifles.
On the day of Tom’s hunt, he drives his ancient rig into the forest, loads up his pack, and walks into the woods looking for deer. The snow is fresh, and tracks shine like skylights. After a few miles, he comes up to a group of does and follows them for a mile until he spots a buck. “Just like humans,” he says with a chuckle. “When there are fertile females around, a stag won’t be far behind.” He approaches the buck, takes his shot, then tracks the animal until he finds it dead. He ends the day back at his house, butchering the deer in the dark as the temperature drops to less than zero.
Is this how you were made?
Evolutionary psychologists refer to the EEA or the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. There is controversy about the exact environment humans evolved within, but it certainly includes much of the lifestyle that Tom enjoys. He starts his day by splitting wood for warmth and for cooking. He walked miles in the snow and cold hunting a two hundred pound deer which he hauled out of the woods on his shoulders. Not bad for a seventy-plus-year-old man. His waking time, just like our ancestors, is spent burning calories – it’s easy to see why the body wants to hold on to fat.
I exercise because I don’t do any of this. I spend my working day in an ergonomically adjusted chair at a desk with no sharp edges. I’m old enough to know that face-to-face is the best way to get things done and force myself to walk around and talk to people. The youngsters drape a chain across their cubicle entry, and, once they enter, they never leave but text and message and email all day. Efficient? I…can’t say, but the company loves it. I buy cow meat that’s been doctored for profit at the grocery store where they give me free cookies for simply darkening the front door. The door, incidentally, that slides open automatically. At home, we prefer clean and healthy food, but our schedules often make it easiest to cook something from a box. Nothing in my history or my EEA has prepared my body for this onslaught of luxury.
So work a little
So, add a little physical hardship to your day. Do something that makes you sweat. Push the mower. It’s how you were made to work, and your body will respond with a thank you and achy muscles.
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Yes. I am a man, and I do yoga. And to make sure it’s clear, I was born this way with testes and the whole shebang.
There are few things a man cares about more than having the appearance of manliness. Why else grow a beard? I mean, a foot long wire brush hanging from your chin? I think I would look manly with a beard even if it is as multicolored as our calico cat, but I don’t: my wife won’t let me. So much for my appearance of manliness.
No doubt you’ve pondered the conundrum that yoga isn’t perceived a manly exercise. When a man hears the word yoga, he thinks one of three things: barely clad women in unnatural poses, small and mustachioed Indian men in unnatural poses, and No. Just No.
Here’s a real-life example: I work with a guy who sometimes suffers from debilitating back pain. Like he can barely walk from his car to his desk at work. He’s around fifty, wears football-themed polos, and appears to be in generally good health. But about twice a year, he shows up to work hunched over, shuffling like my Slovak grandmother, and leaning heavily on a cane. He complains for a couple days, then goes home to dope up for half a week until he can walk again. I feel for him. The last time this happened, I went to his office and pulled a chair up close. Leaning toward him, I put on my most empathetic and sagacious face.
“Dude. You’re dying here. Have you ever thought of doing yoga? I guarantee that you’ll feel better.”
He shuffled his feet sideways in little bunny steps until he faced me straight on. He grimaced and put on the same serious face. “No.”
Not even the slightest consideration. I don’t get it. Why live with pain knowing that the next trip to the pharmacy or the surgeon is just around the corner when there is real help available? It’s odd to me, but that is the male animal. Like I warn my girls, we’re all stupid.
I’m not accomplished at yoga. In fact, I’m hardly a beginner. I eschew any putative spiritual aspect, and focus on strength and stretching and breathing. I’ve come to see it as maybe the most important tool for lifelong health. Stretching and groaning, I see several positive results that I sort out for you here. Some benefits are tangible and measurable. Some, not so much.
Lymph doesn’t get the nod it deserves. Gushing through the body, it flows lazily in and around cells and organs, bringing immune agents with it and taking cell waste when it leaves. It’s like blood without the vessels. Unlike blood, though, it has no pump except movement. Any movement helps. It’s one reason that sitting all day is so insidious for your health, and something as easy as walking has serious benefits. Twisting and bending during yoga is especially suited to pushing this fluid.
The difference between yoga and stretching is that yoga builds strength. It’s not like doing bench presses, but really, who needs to lift 300 pounds? But when you bend down to move a flower pot and pull your back when the pot won’t budge, that’s a strength and flexibility issue. Doctors often give an odd answer to your pulled back, based, I think, on Americans’ general dislike of exercise: quit doing stuff. My advice is more useful: how about getting stronger? Larger and more flexible muscles help you enjoy activities, burn more calories, and allow you to do things yourself instead of calling your son-in-law. Don’t expect to look like Arnold: using your own weight in static poses isn’t going to add bulk, but it will tone you and make your body more usable and less frail.
Not many questions here, but I’m convinced that flexibility is the single most important physical quality we lose as we age. Imagine a robot with metal pipes for legs, walking down a set of stairs: that’s you when you lose flexibility. There is no give, no sway, no allowance for error. As long as life moves steadily in a straight line, you’re probably fine, but when you veer off the slightest bit – step on the edge of a sidewalk, say – you’ll be happy for your improved flexibility.
I eat less
For some reason, and I’m not sure why, when I do yoga, I eat differently. I’m not trying to, and it isn’t an effort, but I just want different foods. You might have a different experience.
I’ve been working on this one for about fourteen years and still can’t get my feet off the ground.
Less tangible benefits
I learn about my body
I’ve learned that my left side is tighter than my right and that when I run, my hamstrings tighten up like a rope. I have a heightened sense of how my body feels. I went to the hospital recently for a quick check-up. I sat down with a nurse to collect my vitals, and, after testing me, she said that I need to start watching my blood pressure.
“Yeah. It’s over 180. 180 over 120.”
I laughed and told her she was wrong, and we argued about it. These are the times my wife is glad I do these things alone. I know that my resting heart rate is about 45 bpm and that my blood pressure is 115 over 75. I told the nurse that her instrument wasn’t working. Her response – I’m not making this up – was to say “Oh? So you’re a doctor, too?”
“No,” I said, “And I didn’t sleep at a Holiday Inn, either, but your instrument is either broken or out of calibration.”
I convinced her to try another machine, and I was right. She apologized and worried about the patients she had seen that morning who had wrong numbers on their charts. It’s a good thing to know your own body. It’s the only one you’ve got.
This is odd and something I haven’t quite got hold of. I do a particular pose where I kneel and sit down on my calves and outstretched feet. I know it will hurt for half a minute as the tops of my feet and ankles relax. I let my full weight come onto my heels, and it pushes open the top of my foot. I don’t know why – because I run? – but this just hurts like heck for about half a minute. I’m learning that if I slow down and wait and let the pain happen, it will pass. Not only does it pass, but it starts to feel good. Maybe it’s a good rule for life: sometimes we need a little pain to feel better.
I feel more at ease
I don’t know if this comes from yoga or from stopping to focus for thirty minutes, but I feel more at ease when I’m consistent with yoga. I’m not talking about a life-changing epiphany, or bluebirds flying around me, chipping with glee, but I just feel more comfortable. More settled and grounded. This is really weird, but my center of gravity shifts lower…I can sense it. Weird. I might need to talk to Deepak about that one. Things around me bother me less, too, and that’s a good thing.
I feel lighter
This is the goofiest one of all, and I’m probably making it up. When I am consistent at yoga, I feel lighter. I stand taller, and my spine straightens. I have a sense that my vision expands, and my head rests more lightly on my shoulders. I don’t for a single minute think I look different, but I feel different. Instead of a kind of Clydesdale’s clop when I walk, I feel like I’m walking on an air table. It’s odd and weird, and I can’t explain it. I won’t even try.
The takeaway is to give yoga a try. Do in front of the television watching Mixed Martial Arts if you need to feel manly about it. It’s my bet that those guys on TV beating each other up spent an hour of their day doing stretches and yoga. And they don’t look too wimpy.
You can do yoga with almost any app. I use Peloton mostly because I used to be a manly bicycle racer in Lycra tights. If you don’t have an app, take a look at You Tube. I do Yoga with Adriene and enjoy it lots. And if you’re game and not prone to sweaty see-though yoga pants, almost every gym or workout center has group yoga classes. I haven’t tried hot yoga yet but it’s on my list for 2022.
One caveat: there is a whole culture around yoga that lots of people love. I don’t. I’m just a Christian, bike-racin’, football watchin’, writer kind of guy who makes wooden stuff for fun. To me, yoga is a tool and not the explanation for all of life. You’ll have to choose what yoga path you want to take.
What if yoga’s not for you? Go chop a hundred cords of firewood.
This is a stretch, but if you are a Christian and wonder much about manliness and womanliness, I can’t recommend Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne enough. Like it or not, I guarantee you’ll learn something and earn a few new neurons. Buy it here, though her website.
This one’s not a stretch: I guarantee this will help with your Traumatic Brain Injury, too. Man or woman. Naturally made that way or not. I still have balance issues and have to compensate for that, but the stretching and mind/body connection is one of the best things you can do for recovery.
Finally? Ignore that guy in the top image. He’s just showing off.
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