I recently completed the 12 week Wim Hof Method (WHM) training course. The WHM consists of three main components: cold training, breathwork, and yoga. The course was fantastic and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in anti-aging strategies, performance, and/or overall health and fitness. That being said, I have learned all I can from Wim without training with him in person. Consequently, I am taking the strong fundamentals Wim taught me and moving on to practice each specific component individually.Yoga is one such component. Studies have shown that yoga improves balance, increases power and endurance, makes one resistant to injury, eases pain, aids weight loss, eliminates stress, and enhances recovery. What a long list of amazing benefits? How could I not be enticed to begin taking yoga more seriously? Students perform a considerable amount of stretching in the Wim Hof Method and as a result, my flexibility has improved remarkably. But taking Yoga classes several times a week brings it to a whole new level. I will continue to practice cold therapy and do breathwork, but I will stretch the WHM way only on days in which I do not take a yoga class. I will stretch daily for at least 15 to 20 minutes. I will also be tweaking the breathwork in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for a blog post concerning the changes I make to that component.
So, I splurged and joined Base, the fanciest fitness center and spa in downtown Jersey City. It is nice; really nice. I never would have spent the money on a place like this, but when I began looking for places to take yoga lessons, I discovered joining this luxurious gym with a boatload of amenities, is significantly cheaper than signing up for a membership at a yoga studio or paying for each individual class. I intend to take a lot of classes; no less than three a week, but ideally four or more. So, in a sense, this gym membership is a bargain.I work in heavy construction. It is an industry that does not attract the nicest, friendliest, most patient people. In fact, a big jobsite is a lot like a prison yard. One’s trade determines his gang affiliation. That’s who you eat and associate with. That’s also who protects you. Show any hesitation and you will get steamrolled. So, it surprised me that I was actually nervous as I waited outside the tinted glass studio walls before my very first yoga class. I guess facing a new experience with no friends to back me up intimidated me on some level.The people waiting with me all seemed rather fit, thin, and lean. I found myself trying to gauge how flexible someone might be based upon their physique. I also found myself wondering who were the accomplished yogis and who were the amateurs like myself. My guesses soon proved accurate with respect to who established themselves as the most skilled yoga practitioners. There’s just something about the way yogis move and carry themselves that seems very fluid and graceful.The first thing I noticed when I entered the dimly lit yoga studio was the overwhelming stench of rotten feet. To my sensitive senses, it was horrific. I mean, it was so bad, I almost gagged. Now, I have an aversion to all things related to feet, so my reaction is not exactly shocking. Perhaps my aversion to feet is rooted in the fact that my own feet are so ugly; flat, swollen looking, and beat up from years of construction abuse. Nevertheless, my offended olfactory senses quickly adjusted and the smell stopped revolting me after a few minutes.I made the mistake of not rushing to take off my shoes. That cost me dearly because by the time I got a yoga mat and blocks, there was nowhere left for me to set up but in the very front row. That was definitely not happening, especially considering the instructor specifically said, “As always, I want the experienced people up front and the less experienced people in the back.” So, I basically create a tiny spot way in the back corner that was halfway behind a partition wall. I encroached upon the space of the person to my right and in front of me. They did not seem happy about it. Lesson learned: arrive early and claim my spot quickly. This may be a key factor in having a positive yoga experience.
Ok, I know some of you are thinking, “John!? Yoga? Noooo! Come on? Yoga is so girly and isn’t it pretty much exclusively for bored housewives?” Yes, I admit it. I too shared some of these very same stereotypical views at one time. I guess I continue to harbor traces of these views as is evidenced by the fact that I ran out of my condo to my pickup truck praying nobody would see me carrying a yoga mat. I now permanently leave it in my truck; under a blanket, so nobody at work will see it.Yoga first came on my radar when I mentioned to a guy with whom I was working that I suffered from chronic lower back pain. This mountain of a man who happened to be covered in tattoos said, “Oh man, you’ve gotta start doing yoga. It saved my life. I used to have back pain so bad, I was half crippled and couldn’t work.” For a few weeks, I strongly considered taking up yoga until I forgot all about it. Then yoga resurfaced in my life as I began studying the Wim Hoff Method.By the time I got around to looking for scientific proof that yoga had the potential to lengthen my telomeres, I was already a devout disciple of the practice. It didn’t surprise me or take long to find a trove of science proving my suspicions on yoga. A study completed in January of 2017 concluded,“YMLI (Yoga Meditation Lifestyle Intervention) significantly reduced the rate of cellular aging in apparently healthy population after 12 weeks. Though we cannot change our biology or chronological age we can definitely reverse/slow down the pace at which we age by adopting YMLI. This is the first study to demonstrate improvement in both cardinal and metabotrophic biomarkers of cellular aging and longevity in apparently healthy population after Yoga and Meditation based lifestyle intervention. So our health and the rate at which we age entirely depends on our choices. Making Yoga and Meditation an integral part of our lifestyle may hold the key to delay aging or aging gracefully, prevent onset of multifactorial complex lifestyle diseases, promote mental, physical, and reproductive health, and prolong youthful healthy life.”1The conclusions of this study are nothing short of stunning. This is essentially what ReversingMyAge.com and my mission are all about. It seems yoga can have as profound an effect, if not even more, upon one’s health as diet and exercise. Yoga has another characteristic that is a recurring theme in my blog posts. If something has been practiced for hundreds of years, there’s a good chance it works, at least to some extent, even if I can’t understand why. Yoga may well be the easiest way to get healthy because it affects not only one’s physique, but also one’s mind. What and how one thinks is absolutely critical, which is yet another recurring theme of ReversingMyAge.com.
In an eight week 2015 study, 90 minutes of weekly yoga and meditation were also shown to maintain telomere length in breast cancer survivors, while the control group’s telomeres shrank.2 My adoption of yoga as one of several strategies to lengthen my telomeres is no fool’s errand. It is settled science.
Yoga and meditation are inextricably linked. I have heard all about the positive effects of meditation for a long time. I even tried an app a few years ago. That lasted about three minutes until I said to myself, “This is such a bunch of new age, hippie, BS!” I was angry at myself for even trying to meditate.I felt similarly a few months ago as I began practicing the WHM. I was committed to lengthening my telomeres, so I refused to give up trying meditation, no matter how ridiculous it seemed to me. Initially, it really felt like an absurd waste of time. I thought to myself, “How do I know if I am doing it right? I don’t see any bright lights inside my brain. Is there something wrong with me?” You will likely have similar thoughts. Don’t worry about it. Just keep doing it. Eventually, like riding a bike, you’ll figure it out.Meditation is an extremely important part of the entire yoga process because it teaches one to detach from one’s incessantly chattering monkey brain. Most of what your monkey brain is whispering in your mind is not true. It’s all in your head. Remember, psychological stress, and the debilitating hormones that accompany it, is entirely a matter of perception. Change your perception and you will not suffer accelerated aging caused by elevated cortisol levels. In a study completed in 2004, Dr. Epel observed, “Women with the highest levels of perceived stress in the study had telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of one decade of additional aging compared to low-stress women. These results strongly suggest that both chronic environmental stress as well as perceived stress may induce premature aging.”3 If you or a loved one aren’t dying, there’s really not much you should stress over. It will all work out just fine. I promise.There’s yet another reason why meditation is such an important component of my efforts to reverse my age at the cellular level. That reason is Flow. Fantastic books have been written on the subject including The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler and Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. A flow state is a state in which one loses sense of time and performs at optimal capacity. Whether it be in a physical or mental endeavor makes no difference. A surgeon or concert pianist can enter a flow state as easily and often as a professional hockey player or olympic powerlifter. In this flow state, amazing things can happen. It also enables one to essentially leave the body and let that special force inside each of us take over. I believe flow states have enabled me to get through extremely long (5 hours plus), painful training sessions. The meditation component of yoga, which puts me in a flow state, has trained me to control my emotions while I’m suffering on a bike or running ultra long distances.
Loving-Kindness Meditation is a form of Buddhist meditation focusing on health, happiness, and well being towards all. A study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that practitioners of loving kindness meditation had longer telomeres than non meditators and that female practitioners of meditation had significantly longer telomeres.4
Flexibility is one of my biomarkers of aging. My guiding principle of “improve as many of one’s biomarkers of aging by as much as possible and one’s telomeres will follow” applies. You may have noticed elderly people often get very stiff and cannot move around as well as they did when they were younger. That’s the beginning of the end because they move and exercise progressively less until they aren’t moving much at all. This is entirely preventable with yoga. Flexible joints also translates into reduced joint pain. Keep those joints, loose, lubricated, and limber!
Aside from its potential to help lengthen my telomeres, yoga will also make me perform better. My increased flexibility will make me far less likely to suffer a minor sprain or even a devastating injury like a torn ligament. I also firmly believe my joints recover from long and intense workouts much, much faster than if I did not practice yoga or stretching.
Now that I’ve taken a few yoga classes at Base, I’m beginning to feel more confident. The Wim Hof Method provided me with a very strong foundation and I am, surprisingly, not among the least flexible people in any class. My balance, especially on my feet, however, is quite weak, but I am making progress. I am also happy to report I have not caught a whiff of stinky feet since that first class. I am extremely excited by the prospect of becoming a proficient yogi and enjoying all the benefits it will bestow, most especially upon my telomeres and my athletic performance.Citations:
1 Tolahunase, M., Sagar, R., & Dada, R. (2017). Impact of yoga and meditation on cellular aging in apparently healthy individuals: a prospective, open-label single-arm exploratory study. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2017.
2 Carlson, L. E., Beattie, T. L., Giese‐Davis, J., Faris, P., Tamagawa, R., Fick, L. J., … & Speca, M. (2015). Mindfulness‐based cancer recovery and supportive‐expressive therapy maintain telomere length relative to controls in distressed breast cancer survivors. Cancer, 121(3), 476-484.
3 Epel, E. S., Blackburn, E. H., Lin, J., Dhabhar, F. S., Adler, N. E., Morrow, J. D., & Cawthon, R. M. (2004). Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(49), 17312-17315.
4 Hoge, E. A., Chen, M. M., Orr, E., Metcalf, C. A., Fischer, L. E., Pollack, M. H., … & Simon, N. M. (2013). Loving-Kindness Meditation practice associated with longer telomeres in women. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 32, 159-163.