An Old Boxer Stands on a Yoga Mat

By Peter Weston Wood on October 3, 2013
An Old Boxer Stands on a Yoga Mat
"Peter, you don't belong in a yoga class. You're a boxer. You're making a fool of yourself."

I’m trying to embrace the same discipline, concentration and determination I mastered as that strong, young eighteen-year-old middleweight…

I’m standing in a warm puddle of sweat and it brings me back to when I was someone else—that angry eighteen-year-old middleweight slugging other middleweights at Bufano’s Gym in Jersey City. Back then, boxing was my yoga. I didn’t realize it then, but punching a guy’s face felt good because it purified me of my anger, fear and hate. All of that negativity during every training session was good because it spewed out of my fists and never coagulated in my mind. Unknowingly, I was purging myself. Today, I have a smile in my heart because of boxing.

One big difference in this yoga class is that my old boxing coach, Dom Bufano—Chuck Wepner’s old trainer—isn’t barking, “Dig deep! or “Get tough!” Another big difference is that, thankfully, I don’t see anyone in here who wants to punch the tip of my nose into the back of my brain. Now, it’s only me on my yoga mat beating myself up, gasping for air, pushing myself to stretch and strengthen my old muscles.

I’m new to yoga and I’m enjoying its gentle, meditative philosophy. Om, and its mind-body-spirit thing. At this stage of my life, I enjoy having a supportive teacher who is happy to guide me through various postures, while reminding me to breathe deeply through my crooked nose. I appreciate her encouraging me to release negative thoughts and to avoid all judgments. This gentler, more enlightened coaching is so refreshing. My old anger-fear-hate thing, which worked so well for me as a fighter, has no value here. And, quite frankly, there isn’t much left in me anymore. After all, I am sixty years old.

During this 90-minute Bikram Yoga class, consisting of twenty-six postures, or asanas, I try to focus on my teacher’s words of wisdom, but my mind tends to wander. Usually, I find myself back in the musty boxing gym preparing for a fight. Sweat slides down my face, chest, arms and legs and reinforces old memories of the pools of sweat lying on the wooden floorboards around the heavy bag, or soaked into the bloody ring canvas after a fierce workout. During asanas, memories flash before me of a tough, but unhappy, kid seeking refuge and redemption in boxing gyms. I ask myself: Do I have the same toughness now as I did then?

I slap myself back into the present, and look at my soft belly in the mirror. I’m trying to concentrate on my teacher’s words of encouragement. I enjoy being alone on my yoga mat as much as I enjoy being part of this bigger, more peaceful community—a bunch of mild-mannered men and women who wouldn’t dare think about punching anyone on the nose. At sixty, my childhood war is over.

But one’s childhood is not always over when it’s over.

Too often my brain whispers to me: Peter, you don’t belong in a yoga class. You’re a boxer. You can’t stretch, or come close to locking a knee. You’re making a fool of yourself. You’re too old.

My brain has been playing this insidious trick on me forever. My brain has always been my main opponent. Even as a strong eighteen-year-old middleweight, while punishing the heavy bag, or trying to defeat some opponent, my brain whispered the same thing: Peter, who are you kidding? You’re not a boxer. You don’t have the right stuff it takes to fight. Besides, you have asthma, and you hate fighting. Admit it, you’re really a writer.

So, at nineteen, I hung up the gloves and stopped fighting. Somehow, I got into Fordham University. The classroom became my new arena. I began hitting books instead of people. Just like my gentle, song-writer father, I learned to write—not music, but words. But my words were still in my fists. Writing was like switching to another language. When I sat at a desk composing sentences, my brain whispered: Peter, who are you kidding? You’re not really a writer, you’re not smart enough. Besides, you hate writing. You’re a boxer.

Maybe that’s why, standing on this yoga mat, I’m having such a hard time breathing—because I’m conflicted and divided against myself. It’s like one of my nostrils is breathing in the fresh air of the present, and the other nostril is still breathing the stale air of the past.

In this clean ceiling-to-floor mirror, I look at my love-handles and red sweaty face and realize that I should just stop thinking. Stop thinking! But my brain whispers: Peter, you shouldn’t be here. Your body is not flexible. You should be in a boxing gym, sculpting your muscles, not stretching them.

I slap myself back into the now and try to concentrate. I breathe the fresh air of the present through my two nostrils and listen to the steady staccato of sweat dripping from my nose, fingertips, elbows and shorts onto my mat.

I’m ready for the next posture—the Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Janushirasana, the standing-separate-leg-head-to-knee posture. In synch with the other class members, I step three feet to my right, turn my right foot to the right and my left foot to a 45-degree angle. Keeping both legs straight, I stretch up toward the ceiling, then curl my sweaty body up and out, over and down, bringing my forehead to my right knee. At least, I try to.

How could something as easy as yoga be so hard?

I heard someone after a class once say, “Bikram Yoga is torture, it’s brutal—you’ll love it.” So, why am I subjecting myself to this torture? Perhaps, it’s because, at sixty, I’m trying to embrace the same discipline, concentration and determination I mastered as that strong, young eighteen-year-old middleweight.

And maybe yoga will finally help me turn my worst enemy—my mind—into my best friend.

Yoga is my new boxing. That might be a little bit of a stretch, but I think it’s a stretch I can make.

Peter Wood is the author of three books: Confessions of a Fighter, A Clenched Fist, and To Swallow a Toad. He was a middleweight finalist in the New York City Golden Gloves and was asked to represent America, as first alternate, in the 1976 Maccabian Games, held in Tel Aviv, Israel.

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  1. Cheryl Rosenka 03:07pm, 10/06/2013

    Peter Wood writes with an honesty that is both refreshing and insightful.  His writing truly speaks to the heart.

  2. sandra 07:46am, 10/05/2013

    this is such a great article peter! I enjoyed reading it.

  3. skip weinstock 09:54pm, 10/04/2013

    An enlightening account of Mr. Wood’s growth as an ageless fighter.
    He is a true wordsmith—every sentence is carefully chiseled and crafted.
    I still don’t like yoga, but I still like Pete’s gift for telling a personal story that’s worth thinking about.

  4. Artist 03:52pm, 10/04/2013

    Very well written; I enjoy reading it!

  5. Ted 05:38am, 10/04/2013

    Zumba was very popular in a certain upscale town in Maine

  6. FrankinDallas 06:07pm, 10/03/2013

    As long as you guys aren’t going to Zumba classes…..I’ve
    seen those classes at the gym I go to, and although it’s fun to
    watch women doing it, the music is so god awful that it’s hard
    to listen to it. And loud.

  7. Ted 05:33pm, 10/03/2013

    My pleasure Eric

  8. Eric 05:26pm, 10/03/2013

    Thanks for the advice Ted. Weight training/Weightlifting is wonderful for putting the brakes on the aging system, much, much better than running or other forms of cardio. Of course the heart is very important but far too many people spend hours slogging around a track or sitting on a stationary bike while neglecting resistance training. I’ve looked at older runners versus older weight trainers and it seems the weight trainers always looked younger. Nothing against runners because I do run as well as weight train, but it just seems that those who do nothing but run or bike never have the same youthful look that the weight trainers have. Thanks for the encouragement.

  9. Ted 05:07pm, 10/03/2013

    And yes we are fortunate to have Peter on

  10. Ted 05:06pm, 10/03/2013

    Eric , You are as old as you want to be. I’ll stop driving and striving 5 years after they spread my ashes over Mingus Mountain. I try to inspire others in my age bracket by doing things that are very physically challenging. It has been one of my goals for years. Yoga fits into this mission very nicely as does golf, gardening, hiking, and my true love weight lifting and power lifting.. Its a connection between mind, body , and spirit and it keeps me young in body and spirit.

    Yoga is great stuff.

  11. Jeffrey Sussman 03:16pm, 10/03/2013

    Peter Wood is a marvelous writer, and his piece on yoga is a small gem that everyone should read for its insights into the human spirit.

  12. Eric 03:07pm, 10/03/2013

    I keep hearing 50 is the new 30 or something like that, but I know damn well I don’t look or feel 30. teehee. Getting old isn’t easy. I’m in the middle of the pack when it comes to my peers, I look terrible compared to some and some I don’t what the hell happened to them. But I wouldn’t change growing up in the Seventies for growing up now, no way Jose. I would only accept being younger IF I could go back in time.

  13. Mike Silver 02:52pm, 10/03/2013

    Pete, glad to see your insightful prose back on the site. Wonder what Dom Bufano would say about your new interest?

  14. Ted 02:52pm, 10/03/2013

    Eric old at 52? wtf!

  15. Eric 02:43pm, 10/03/2013

    The odd thing about yoga instructors or yogis (think that is the right name) is they look sickly. It’s like going into a mom & pop health food store and everyone in there looks like death warmed over. I think larger guys will scoff at yoga because for once size becomes a disadvantage like it is with most bodyweight calisthenics. Usually that 200 pounder isn’t going to be as flexible or won’t be able to knock out as many pullups as the lighter guy. Maybe they should implement some sort of “clydesdale style” yoga classes where big guys wouldn’t feel so insecure.

  16. GlennR 02:13pm, 10/03/2013

    Great article Pete.
    I did yoga for 4 years 3-4 times a week in the mid 2000’s and loved it. Its not just about flexibility, but core. posture and over all strength….. and its bloody hard, both physically and mentally.
    Ive seen more than a few people (new to yoga) get up and run out of the middle of the class, some even in tears. They later said that they found it somewhat confronting.
    To be honest, i think ill go back to it next year and perhaps cut back on the boxing, but i have been saying that for 5 years now.

    And on a final note, for those that sneer at yoga let me utter just one word….. girls.
    There is no finer place to meet the fairer sex…...and lets just say my KO percentage was fairly high

  17. The Fight Film Collector 02:09pm, 10/03/2013

    Clarence, I’m so glad you pointed that out.  Whenever I’d get an odd look from a pal regarding coed workouts, I’d remind them that if you want to meet girls, you need go where the girls are.

  18. Eric 01:25pm, 10/03/2013

    Getting old is awful. I wouldn’t want to start yoga at my age of 52. The only time I was flexible enough to put my foot in my mouth was when I was an infant. Even at 18 my flexibililty wouldn’t have allowed me to turn myself into a pretzel. I’ve exercised practically my whole life but the best way to get the flab off is through DIET. IMO and personal experience, nothing beats the Atkins Diet. But on the subject of yoga, I think it gets a bad rep, some of those exercises look quite beneficial for athletes. The hindu pushup which has become quite common thanks to internet guru Matt Furey is yoga-based, as are some other valuable calisthenics.

  19. Clarence George 12:50pm, 10/03/2013

    FFC:  You engage in this…Pontius Pilate exercise to see the lovely ladies in the tight and skimpy outfits they no doubt wear.  That’s right, isn’t it?  Perhaps you’d care to post an addendum and clarification along those lines at your earliest convenience.

    How ‘bout them Mets, huh?

  20. Ted 11:02am, 10/03/2013

    FFC Real men do not do Pilates….

  21. The Fight Film Collector 10:24am, 10/03/2013

    Peter, so good to read you again.  FYI a similar contemporary regiment, Pilates, emphasizes core strength as well as mobility.  I prefer it to Yoga.  When I started Pilades training some years ago, I was happy to learn that the founder of Pilates, the German born Joseph Pilades had been a boxer.

  22. Mike Casey 09:32am, 10/03/2013

    I would live in fear of a sprained wrist and the inability to lift my pint of beer off the bar. Goodness me, where do you go from there?

  23. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:18am, 10/03/2013

    NyIrish-“The couch and the refrigerator will stop you early.”....Thanks….I needed that!

  24. Ted 06:40am, 10/03/2013

    But as for that ” Om” stuff, hmmm—maybe in Sedona with some guy named Deepak

  25. Ted 05:42am, 10/03/2013

    I use yoga as part of my powerlifting training. It’s great for stretching muscles And have you ever seen a fat yoga instructor?

    Good stuff here Peter, as usual.

  26. NYIrish 04:21am, 10/03/2013

    Nice article. An “old boxer” needs to move the body. The body may not accept the violent exercise we used to do regardless of the remnants of a warrior mindset. The end of May I started riding the bike trails about an hour a day and eating defensively. I lost 30 pounds and feel a lot more positive. If you’re in the championship rounds of life you have to keep your shoulders loose and keep moving. The couch and the refrigerator will stop you early.

  27. Clarence George 02:17am, 10/03/2013

    Clear-as-water written, no doubt about that, but I don’t hold with neo-pagan practices myself.  Push-ups, and plenty of ‘em, that’s my motto.  The only old-time boxer who engaged in these sort of Wiccan goings-on was Lou Nova.  You’d never have found Tony Galento on a yoga mat, let me tell ya.

  28. Mohummad Humza Elahi 01:45am, 10/03/2013

    Great stuff, I want to incorporate yoga into my training as well, great for core strength and flexibility.  Also, Darren Barker did yoga as part of his camp and he’s currently world middleweight champ, so it can’t hurt!

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