It is critical, that as we grow past our adolescence to break up the monotony and course correct ourselves as we begin to feel stagnant. In the life of adults (and emerging adults) it’s easy to lose the connection we have as children to learning new skills and taking on new habits to better ourselves. When children are faced with adverse environments, they are able to dream; cultivate ideas and worlds that are rich in dreamy detail, but still very much grounded in their real world interests. In this way, they are able to transcend the spaces that stifle them. But what of the dreams of those who don’t spend their days in school? What about those of us who have been forced to trade semester grades in exchange for gas bills?
(Photo by David Garry)
Whenever I dream, I dream all five senses. I can see, I can hear, I can touch, I can sometimes smell and even taste what it is I'm dreaming about. When I'm awake, my daydreams are filled with action and excitement: I'm almost always moving. In my mind, a life well lived is a life that is excessively challenging and equally rewarding. Simply put: a life without the pursuit of various skill sets that give me opportunities that people without those skills will never have, my life will be unfulfilled. Things like long-distance running, snowboarding, wilderness survival, hiking, and martial arts training give me the tools I need to feel fulfilled because they're not something that you can just do once or twice and suddenly be good at. These disciplines take YEARS, sometimes decades, to get good at. That's the way I like it and I'm still practically fresh out of the package at 21.
But it wasn't always this way. When I was a kid I was substantially overweight, constantly ferrying between two households that didn't put any particular emphasis on needing to be outside many hours each day, or having a heavy focus on sports, I was left to my own devices. Video games, music and movies were my world, and it was a very enticing world for an adolescent only child. But as I've mentioned, sometimes we wake up one day, look in the mirror and realize we've made a mistake.
I'm thankful every day for that look in the mirror, because it's given me this incredible love of movement and challenges. So when —after years and years of working every week to get stronger and smarter— my body decides to fail me, it was utterly devastating.
Last August I was in the midst of training on what felt like a very normal Wednesday morning in the gym when suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my right knee during box jumps. I immediately stopped, sat down and hurriedly checked for any additional signs of injury. I definitely felt something wasn't right, but what I didn't realize at the time was that I had torn my meniscus (this is a very common injury among athletes because the meniscus tendon is a critical part of the power and elasticity in your knees). Although I stopped working out that day, I had a very busy few months afterwards. So when I finally got myself to a doctor this past January, my MRI came back showing an obvious and serious tear.
While this was devastating for my plans for this spring, I had a bad feeling this was coming. And in the months that followed after my surgery in the beginning of February, I felt my mind and my body deteriorate at a horrifying rate.
I went from being someone who could casually participate in a Spartan race or go on a long run with friends to not being able to walk down the hallway without crippling pain. Even after I got off my crutches, I could feel an overwhelming aching pain each and every time I flexed my leg. In fact, it got so bad that there were days I couldn't move, and nights I couldn't sleep. I didn't want to insulate myself with drugs from a pharmacist, so I self medicated with cold compresses, comfort foods, and as much human contact as I could while living in the suburbs. I couldn't stay on my feet, which meant I couldn't work, I wasn't able to get behind the wheel of a car without having to fight through immense pain, so that was out as well. For those first few months, my options were limited to the extreme: three rooms. I had a luxurious choice of spending my hours in the living room, my office, or my bedroom in my childhood home while my Mom went off to work and support me. As a 21 year old who's pretty proud of being independent, this just added to the weight of the anger and frustration. I felt like a prisoner in my own home; carrying out my sentence in terrible agony without any outlet for my discomfort. But then something incredible happened.
In prisons across the United States, inmates practice yoga to transcend their cells. Their (and your) only confines are your mind. (Photo By Robert Sturman)
One day, sitting sprawled out in my office, trying to read yet another book without feeling distracted by my body's new throbbing state, I looked out the window. What I saw was at once familiar and completely unexpected: The trees outside seemed to be dancing as the sun and wind hit them. Not thrown wildly or buffeted by wind; just swaying comfortably as they stood rooted to the ground. I can see the main road from this window too, and for many weeks I had thought about the people who drove by, either on their way to work, to see friends, or pick up their kids. And I realized, that no matter what happened around them, the trees would keep swaying, keep dancing and growing no matter what. And I can too. "I can't walk around the block" I thought, "but my arms still work just fine." Without thinking, I dropped down to the floor.
“1,2,3…” I could hear myself counting out each push-up, almost angrily. I was sick of doing nothing. In what began as a desperate attempt to emancipate my body from its prison cell of inflammation, became a daily gift. It started with pain in my leg, resistance in my mind, and trouble finding a purposeful pattern of breathing. I was shaky, unsure, but determined to finish what I started. That first day, I did maybe 20 or 30 push-ups. Nothing more. But what I proved to myself in the process was that there is no prison that my mind and body cannot overcome.
Some three months later, the very same day I “graduated” from physical therapy (proved by a complimentary T-shirt with the company’s logo plastered on the back), those 30 push-ups had evolved into 350 in one sitting. With minute bouts of ab-exercises mixed in between sets, and a 1.5 mile run at the end for good measure. Even though these aren’t really compelling numbers for the performance athletes of the world, they were nothing short of my lifeline from being consumed by a negative state. I had spent weeks looking out that window, weeks hobbling around my house, and weeks consuming large amounts of marijuana, food, and television to try and change my state. When these familiar things couldn’t insulate me any longer, my only option left was massive action. If the conditions of life do not match with the vision you have for yourself, the only resolution is to take massive action in the present. Instead of longing for the freedom to move outside my window, I let the view serve as the inspiration for my liberation. Each morning, I stuck by my ritual, gradually improving upon it over those months. Even if all the same aches, pains and distractions remained, embracing my mind’s natural instinct to escape –creating my fitness daydream one small piece at a time.