The Embodiment of Free Expression

Writer’s Note: This story is one of my most powerful recent works, as it challenges the notion of what it means to be alive, as I strive to become the embodiment of free expression. Thank you so much for reading.- Naima.

    The Embodiment of Free Expression

         “You’re not really living. You’re just surviving,” she says. I notice that my breathing becomes constrained, lungs filling with discomfort. It is a skill to awaken the subconscious mind and enable it to coexist with the conscious mind, as I strive to do during meditation. But to deny my efforts to live fully is nothing short of offensive. I turn red. The mind is a philosopher whose tongue is tied. My words are lodged in my throat, eventually diminishing into the back of mind so that they may arise as an afterthought. I don’t really begin to breathe until she leaves. What can I do to rid myself of frustration? How can I prove that I am truly alive, despite that I am destitute of the roots of a healthy mind? Can I build health and happiness in spite of difficult circumstances? To rise above the weight of these desperate matters? I will use my mind as a resource so that I may learn to live fully, learn what it’s like to truly fill a canvas with freedom.

My car zooms down the length of Richmond Highway as I anticipate my workout. The elliptical awaits my presence, the yoga studio growing impatient for my arrival. And finally, I have reached my solace, my euphoria, my gate to freedom. I increase the resistance of the machine with haste. My mind’s eye observes adrenaline climbing to its peak… slowly. The minutes fly, and eventually, time becomes irrelevant. There is no greater extent to which I can be present. My mind, body, and soul is here… and alive. Techno music strikes the match on adrenaline. I speed up. Euphoria grows closer to its peak, and fatigue cannot hinder my pace. I dismount the elliptical and rush to the yoga studio.

During the gym’s final open hour, I turn down the lights, let lyrics flow into the mind. I focus on breathing. Inhale peace, exhale release. My eyes gently close, as I pedal my feet in downward dog. Listening to the sound of my breath, I notice as peace flows through my temples. Open the body as you stretch into three-legged dog. Inhale peace. Ground your heels on the mat, and tip your hips toward the ceiling. Exhale release. Movement begins to flow, as energy surges through my veins. This mode of self-expression leaves no room for shame… or judgment. I am present and aware of my body. My back arches to make space for oxygen, my body performs countless turns as I lose myself in a whirlwind of pure joy. One Republic’s “Apologize” begins to play. I place my hands in prayer and sit at the center of my mat. The eyes close. Oxygen fills my lungs, and serenity grounds itself in my heart. Tears fill my eyes, nearly tipping over the lower eyelid. “Alhamdulillah.” I whisper.

Gratitude floods my heart and spills over the expanse of the yoga studio. Pure joy sits in my throat, waiting for the tears to spill over the edge. Can I whisper the word “alive”? Better yet, can I bottle this feeling and hand it to those who told me I was merely surviving? Can I paint the town in the word “living”… in the word “present”? Place my name right beside them. I am alive. I am present. I am awake. The conscious and subconscious mind have found unity in this very moment, and I have only the shadows as my witnesses… the very reflections in the mirrors. I don’t need to repeat “alive” until I become that which I strive for. We are what we repeatedly do, and I—I have chosen health and exercise as an eternal realm of freedom. Free expression will imprint itself in my very being until I have become the embodiment thereof.

Tell me that I am merely existing. Tell me that I am merely surviving. But it is in the wake of these euphoric peaks, in the exhilaration that forces tears of joy to spill over the eyelids, that I become alive. Alive, and awake, and present. Here. Present.

I prepare to leave the gym, slowly putting my shoes on. Attention is diverted, as I cannot help but to replay the beautiful dances that I performed. The mind’s eye watches my graceful body, my arched back, my pointed toes… as I made space for freedom. Still, I crave to relive these moments that occurred in the very recent past. But without a doubt, I will recreate them. Undeniably, I will become them.

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Ever-burning Fire

The roots of an active lifestyle often begin in childhood. When I was 11-years-old, my sister encouraged me to take part in physical activity by getting me a gym membership. Mental and physical health disorders are no rarity in either my family or the country. Over several years of cardio obsessions, love-hate relationships with the sport of running, and tumbling in my pastime, I decided to try something new. Outdoor track season had ended, and that meant I was off the sidewalks of Alexandria and dragging myself to the gym. I needed a break from cardio; even thinking about running was exhausting. So, why didn’t I stop going to the gym altogether? Sounds like a pretty simple escape, huh? Working out was a bonding activity between me and my sister, and saying, “no,” to exercise was the equivalent of giving up on holding our bond together. Even thinking about making such a choice was dangerous territory.

So I put my love-hate relationship for cardio behind me and tried a Body Flow class, which was a 1-hour workout that combines tai chi, yoga, and pilates. My instructor was a tall, energetic woman in her 50s named Wanda. I didn’t know what to expect from the class, but I liked the idea of not knowing. I needed a break from the predictability of interval training. Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” began to play, as Wanda guided us through various postures, from downward-facing dog and forward fold, to mountain pose and upward-facing dog. I’m going to be real with you. I thought all of these movements were just plain weird. I couldn’t help but be aware that my butt was in the air while I was in downward dog. Well, everyone was doing it, so there was no point in wondering if other people were staring (but who cares, right?). During the last five minutes of class, Wanda guided us through meditation. At the time, I had neither meditated nor thought about completely emptying my mind. My thoughts were always loud. I was always thinking, and if I were doing anything besides that, I was overthinking… reanalyzing, reflecting, replaying… you get the point. I rested on my back in corpse pose, my thoughts gradually becoming quiet. Wanda had turned off the lights. I felt safe and comfortable to be honest with my mind’s activity. Thoughts of attachment to people who served little purpose in my life kept coming to mind. My thoughts shifted from calm to critical… but I eventually found a balance. I let myself accept the state of my well-being… accept my body… accept my circumstances… accept who I was. But above all, I was free from judgement and criticism. It was okay not to be okay. I focused on breathing. My lungs expanded and contracted, my thoughts swimming in a sea of peaceful darkness. Tears began to spill from the edges of my eyes. I was saddened by the thoughts that occasionally interrupted my peace, yet empowered by self-acceptance. I was a step closer to personal freedom. Wanda eventually invited us to sit up. We took our final in-breath of the class, and Wanda said, “Namaste.”

I exhaled. Yoga was transformative. I was powerful not because I was one of the youngest people in the class or because I had the flexibility of a dancer. I was powerful because I knew how to gain control over my mind. I could practice controlling my thoughts, which were ultimately the root of my dying motivation for cardio training. I ran for every cross-country and outdoor track season until the end of my high school career, and my subconscious mind began to actively search for activities that made me feel just as full as I had felt in my first Body Flow class. I craved euphoria. I craved the adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line. And I eventually found another high… one that taught me how to keep the door to free expression wide open and even break the walls down if I needed to. Contemporary dance enabled me to unite my mind, body, and spirit, as I learned what it meant to truly live in the present moment. I began to perceive self-expression as more than just a 1-hour class at the gym on a Sunday morning. Self-expression was a limitless world in which I could move, speak, and dance in any way that brought freedom and dignity to my being. I lit a fire on all of my passions, from cross-country and track, to yoga, dance, and even weight-lifting. The fire still burns, and eventually, I will pass the torch, as I will begin a 200-hour yoga teacher training in February. I hope to inspire my students to become walking examples of creative expression, to make healthy choices that enable them to live more fully. Regardless of the decisions that we make for ourselves, we all truly want to live more fully. The greatest difference is, is our perceptions of what it means to live in such a way. It’s vital that our passions enable us to unite the mind and spirit.

To my generous and caring sister, Areeba, who helped me build the heat that would fuel my fire, I am thankful beyond what words could ever express. At night, I stand in front of the mirror and observe my figure. My long arms, my soft skin, my gorgeous pixie cut… I whisper positive affirmations, let them ground themselves in my mind, for mental health is equally important as physical health. These positive affirmations, this healthy body, are the product of those who supported me for years. To Coach Geraty, my former cross-country coach, whose cheers I can still hear in my mind to this day. To Coach Viviani, my former track coach, whose unwavering support led me to believing in myself more firmly. To Ms. Jessica Scharl, my former English teacher, who guided me in maintaining healthy relationships and often provided academic advice.  To Mr. Nelson, my former Creative Writing teacher, who encouraged me to start a blog where I have experimented with diverse genres of writing. To Wanda, who inspired me to become a yoga instructor. And to so many more. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. My success and well-being is due in part to each and every one of you.

My ever-burning lantern will remain lit. I will find myself on the sidewalks of Northern Virginian cities, running road races with hundreds of unfamiliar faces. I will dance on the floors of my yoga studio, let lyrics climb up every one of my ribs as exhilaration crawls through my lungs. I will continue to share my stories through this wonderful blog where creativity knows no bounds. But above all, I will walk through the doors of free expression and pour gasoline over creativity. Watch it kindle in times of darkness, let it shine in times of ease.

 

 

Freedom Living

Lying on the ground, I acknowledge the rough carpet touching the small of my back. Blood pumps through my temples, my arms, my neck, as I rest calmly. I close my eyes, placing my left hand over my stomach, the other over my heart. Visualizing the dance that invited this restfulness, I relive the burst of creativity that I experienced as I improvised dances to countless songs. My mind’s eye watches as my body stretches into a standing split before gently collapsing into corpse pose.

As I was dancing, I occasionally closed my eyes. I couldn’t see my body but I could feel… feel energy rush into my lungs, fueling a fire in my veins. The music notes have become a part of me, they live through my very being so that they, too, may be present in this moment. I arch my back to open my lungs, briefly resting both hands behind my head. Oxygen is a luxury, neither scare nor too abundant. My heartrate quickens as the dance intensifies. Standing split. Bridge. Warrior two stance. Corpse pose. Stretch every muscle in the body, feel the limbs take up more space. I open my eyes. It appears that the ceiling is growing further and further away from me. Creativity has no bounds, space is limitless, and I— I have found my outlet for free expression.

The Drive to Personal Freedom

I started this blog in 2014 to share my experiences related to running. Thoughts of the sport occupied my mind most of the time; I always had ideas for original content. Running liberated my heart, mind, and body in ways that no other sport could. But as my blog unravels, I realize that I can achieve personal freedom through activities besides cross-country and track.

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My blogposts are like a stereo. I hit the pause button on cross-country and hit ‘play’ on the music that echoed off the walls of my yoga studio. I awoke a wave of liberation as I struck countless asanas. The peace and contentment of meditation cannot be found on any cross-country course. So I stretched my calves in downward dog, pointed my toes as I sat in a split, and encouraged myself to breathe deeply. I wasn’t able to achieve this improvement in wellbeing by running. But I was blessed that my mental health climbed to new heights.

My yoga track now intertwines with the sound of poolside waves, as I learned how to swim today. I floated above water and performed graceful breaststrokes, wishing my oxygen capacity were unlimited so I could stay underwater. The smell of chlorine still lingers on my skin, the image of cool blue water is the wallpaper of my mind. As I swam, I turned my freedom’s volume to ‘max.’ Although I’ve stopped writing about running, I combined every one of my freedoms today as I floated in four feet of cool water.  My body absorbs the impact of strides on merciless pavement. My lungs breathe into mindful asanas. And my legs kick through powerful breaststrokes. I was a swimmer, runner, and yogi all at once. I swam through clear blue water, ran from waterslide to pool, and struck a dancer’s pose underwater. As I write these stories, I gently play the notes on this keyboard. My blogposts record my every song of freedom.

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Movement frees the body and heart, but what’s missing? The mind. I may have stumbled upon liberation as I cartwheeled throughout the yoga studio. But in order to free the mind, I open the gates of my thoughts. I carefully type drafts onto a Word Document, often covering the pages in controversial thoughts. It’s easy to write a personal narrative, but arguing takes serious work. The current Presidential race fuels fire between our two candidates, as the United States of America become a little less… united. Minorities are under attack on a daily basis, as the LBTQ  community fights for their right to love and to feel safe in our (supposedly post-modern) society. The Black Lives Matter Movement strives to eradicate the harsh shortcomings of systematic racism. And the list goes on.

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We associate the American flag with “freedom”, but the actions we take to achieve personal liberation can lead us to live meaningfully. Write, whether your ideas are popular or not. Exercise, whether you are “fit” or not. Dance, tumble, run, swim, or do anything that frees you.  I’m thankful to say that, today, as I finished my last breaststroke before leaving the waterpark, I truly lived up to my meaning of “freedom.”

Euphoria

My socks reduce the friction between my feet and the wood floor, as I perform turns, scorpions, and standing splits. I imagine dancers who discovered this euphoria before I did. When the sticks hit the drums, did they experience the same surge of energy run through their veins? Did their pulse hammer against the walls of their rib cage as the song’s beat quickened? Could they feel their worries fall out of their heads as their bodies tumbled and turned?

My rib cage opens to its greatest extent when I bend into a front-walkover, making room for oxygen, peace, and energy. I pull myself back into a standing position, subsequently throwing myself into a carefree round-off. Hands close into fists, and then open. Legs form parallel lines in a handstand, and then stretch into a split. Heart finds safety within the walls of my lungs, and then expands to invite peace. The beat abruptly picks up, as the musician sings, “Don’t let me down.”

And the final moment of anticipation. Drumsticks hit the bass, igniting a spark of energy that makes the heart weightless. I rush to strike a single-arm handstand. Lyrics dance along each rib, similar to the way vibrations linger upon the strings of a harp. Blood rushes to the temples as I inhale deeply. Stress crashes onto the floor and shatters. Worries wither away beneath the floorboards. I slide into a split and observe my soft, feminine features in the mirror. My rested muscles. My relaxed poise.

The heart has wings. The lungs house the lyrics of talented musicians. The veins reignite euphoria, sparking a chain reaction of energy throughout my body. The mind is free.

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Limitless Liberation

For months, I wondered whether I could look forward to February, March, or April without feeling like every month signified another pitfall. I turned the pages of my calendar recklessly at the end of every thirty-something days. Obstacles were sandwiched between the days I’d scramble to find every single “pick-me-up” I could. I opened my hands to pray. I opened my heart to meditate. I opened my mind to communicate repressed thoughts that will no longer taste the bitterness of confinement. I freed myself. I taught myself never to be afraid to express myself, my fears, my weaknesses, my infinite range of emotions. Express without apology.

As I experimented with countless resolves, I had been opening the door to my yoga studio more often. I opened my hands to pray more frequently. I started to discuss everything that was on my mind, from silly jokes to controversial issues. This new freedom found me as I performed countless front-walkovers, cleared my mind to meditate, cried out to God for help. There wasn’t any shame in any form of expression. I can let a smile come across my face without thinking twice. I can push my arms to open my chest and invite oxygen into my lungs. I can tumble and dance freely, take up as much space as my heart desires. My freedom surpasses the walls of my yoga studio, beyond the length of the prayer rug, beyond the arms of those who have embraced me for support.

I decorate this page in emotional honesty, smoothing its edges with the contagious strength of my friends and family. During my yoga session, my arms gracefully stretched to take up as much space as I could. I let music notes dance up the curves of my body, let lyrics flow into my mind and take over. I let the lyrics build meaning as the singer reached a crescendo. And a sudden surge of happiness rushed into my lungs and ran through my jawline, forcing my cheeks into a grin. Tears of joy collected along my bottom eyelid. My freedom came alive, giving my body the energy to hold another handstand, kick myself into a front-walkover, slide my legs into a graceful split. The unlimited oxygen in the room invites liberation to crawl into my lungs. “Verily, after every hardship comes ease.” (Qur’an 94:5).

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Weightless

As I continue to jump on the trampoline, my Under Armour shirt becomes damp with sweat. I turn my head and see a teenage boy perform a front-tuck. A child runs across a trampoline to meet one of his friends. I enjoy the repetitive nature of jumping on the springy apparatus that catches me every time I land. Gaining height, I prepare myself to perform a front-tuck. Toes push off the trampoline harder and harder before I take off. Knees tuck in to chest. Arms hug legs. Energy carries the body into an upside-down position in the air. My heart is weightless. I have no room for worries in a mind that is overflowing with positive energy. Pause. In the split second that I am suspended in midair, I imagine all of the children and parents who watch me in awe. They are my audience, and I am the performer. Their attention gives me the confidence to continue to run, tumble, and flip.

Whether I was going to land safely was uncertain, but I trusted that my body would meet the stretchy fabric once again. And a smile would come across my lips as my sister gave me a gesture of encouragement. As predicted, we exchanged a glance of mutual happiness. I perform another front-tuck, and another. The stunt allows me to achieve a weightlessness of the mind and body. The routine motion directs the thoughts toward elation. Toes push off the trampoline with strength and grace. Hands reach toward the sky to gain more height. Arms hug legs as knees are pulled in to chest. And then the final take-off. The heart is once again free. Free from worry, anxiety, and stress. As my eyes are shut, I enjoy a glimpse of darkness. Once again, my body hits the springy apparatus, as I land on my bottom. I want to reproduce this feeling of euphoria over and over. I want to laugh with the children who parade in this happiness, as music fills the room. I want to suspend my body in the air. So I can become weightless again. Even if it lasts for a mere second.

I continue to run around the trampoline park, completing one stunt after the other. Round-off. Cartwheel. Front-walkover. Split jump. Front-tuck. Heart pounds inside the chest, as the mind replays lyrics of my favorite songs. The musician sings, “I can feel something inside me say, ‘I really don’t think you’re strong enough.’” But the body disproves discouraging notions. I perform three consecutive split jumps. My legs splay in opposite directions as I am suspended in the air. Youth and energy stretch through my hamstrings and toes. My pulse is a drum-beat against my neck, as the rhythm quickens abruptly. Exhaustion says it’s time to take a break. But not without experiencing that short-lived freedom once more. Elation is the beauty of the front-tuck. Simple and short-lived, yet powerful and healing.

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Express

I recognize that dance is a form of self-expression. Body bends into a front walkover, waist sways from side-to-side, and legs slide into a split. I move to “Never Be Like You,” to every beat of the drum, to every powerful lyric. As my body interprets the emotion of the song, I kick my leg up into a tilt. “I would give anything to change this fickle-minded heart,” the musician sings. One skill after the other, my worries fade from memory; they are no longer the center of attention. This beautiful yoga studio, this wood floor, this is my stage. My leg kicks into a scorpion, head tilting backward, arms opening up to encourage myself to breathe easy. Emotions guide movement. Straddle press handstand. Split. Scorpion. Full turn. “Please just look me in my face, tell me everything’s okay,” the musician continues to sing passionately. Body bends into a bridge, leg kicks over into a standing position. I embrace my femininity, my flexibility, my body’s strengths and flaws. I can move without restraint. Self-expression knows no bounds.

My heart embraces movement, every tilt, every graceful walkover, every gentle sway led by the waist. I can express myself in any way I choose. I briefly settle into warrior one pose, eventually resting my hands on the ground to transition into downward dog. I subconsciously place emphasis on opening my lungs. “What I would to take away… allegiance to the pain,” the musician sings. Her lyrics allow me to heal slowly. I sit still for a moment, head spinning from countless upside-down poses. I breathe. My freedom came alive. And the reflection in the yoga studio’s mirrors was the only one to witness it. But I am healing. I am free. I am unrestrained, unapologetically expressing myself. A front walkover, another over-split, and one more tilt, and I’m ready to head home. Ready to face any challenges that I may encounter later.

Meditation

All alone in my gym’s yoga studio, I wonder how much longer it’ll be until I head home. But there’s something in my heart that tells me I’m not ready to walk away from this gym, from the one place that can be my solace when everything is slowly crumbling. It feels as though I have been running away from myself all day. I let Beyoncé’s song overpower the voice of my own cloudy thoughts, but it fails to appease the storm in my head. I need a moment to slow down, turn off the quick-paced music that only helps me forget about my problems temporarily. So I tell myself to stop running and turn down the lights. I hear the gentle click of the dim lamp as I turn it on, a confirmation that I’m ready sit in the front seat of my well-being. I recline on the yoga mats beneath me, encouraging myself to take deep breaths.

Typically, I meditate in a roomful of gym-goers who are eager to improve their physical and mental health. But today, they are all here with me in spirit, as our hearts gently beat in unison. Relaxing every muscle, I close my eyes. I listen to my pulse, as well as Hozier’s voice as he sings “Like Real People Do.” We can be alone but still sense the accompaniment of those who support us. We can be in a room full of people, yet feel so alone. My lungs expand and contract slowly, as I breathe in to all my areas of tension. My thoughts have become quiet, but I can still hear the calm voices of my yoga instructors. Remember to be patient and persistent with yourself, Wanda’s voice echoes. From my heart to yours, Namaste, Mary says. Their uplifting words intertwine with Hozier’s lyrics as he sings, “I knew that look, dear. Eyes always seeking.”

I acknowledge the blood that gently pulses through my calf muscles, as my legs rest against the yoga mat. Counting my breaths, I find complete solace in this cool, dark room. Inhale 2, 3, 4. Exhale, 2, 3, 4. I listen to Wanda’s voice as she says, Start to bring awareness back to your body by wiggling your toes and your fingertips. I continue to breathe. And when you’re ready, roll onto your side in a fetal position, using your arms as a pillow. I roll onto my right side, tuck my hands under my head, and pull my knees into my chest. And on the count of 3, I’m going to ask you to sit up. 1… 2… 3. I use my arms to push myself into a seated position. I imagine there are yogis behind me whose eyes are closed as they wear rested facial  expressions. We gently stretch the muscles in our neck by tilting our heads to each side and holding it for a few moments. And let’s take our last in-breath and inhale the arms above the head. We do as instructed, eventually lowering our hands into our chests. From my heart to yours, Namaste. The class concludes.

The corners of my mouth form a sweet, tired smile. A smile that expresses that I’m ready to walk home and enjoy the sun. I take a moment to appreciate my peaceful surroundings, as the dim lights beautifully illuminate the clean wood floor. Meditation encourages me to adopt a positive attitude, take control over my thoughts and well-being, and just breathe. Notice what happens when you breathe. Your thoughts become quiet. I listen to Wanda’s voice one last time before I leave.

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Gold’s Gym Mind and Body Studio

The Youth of Old Age

As fresh beads of sweat rolled down my face during my workout, I took a moment to appreciate what a luxury it is to be youthful. My heart beats without a trace of fatigue, my skin radiates a glow of young age, and my quadriceps bulge through my athletic tights. I take full advantage of my freedom to work out whenever I want, but I struggle to understand what a blessing this is. There are thousands of children nationwide who live with fatal illnesses, individuals who unfortunately don’t enjoy the level of health that youth typically guarantees. I make a conscious effort to keep these children in my thoughts, as well as other individuals whose health or safety is threatened by other inevitable factors. Although Western culture associates young age with liveliness and overall wellbeing, I would like to experience the benefits of youth even after I have grown “old.”

What inspired this idea? For one, my yoga instructor who is in her late-50s, a tall, energetic woman whose muscles are far more defined than I could ever imagine mine to be. Wanda passionately informs her students about the importance of staying active throughout a lifetime. She is simply an embodiment of how physical activity can help us feel youthful even as we continue to age. On the flip-side, Americans in their 20s and 30s sometimes let the word “old” define them. But the fear of lacking the qualities that young people enjoy—social activity and high energy—is what causes us to buy into the illusive “‘O’ word.” Simply put, I don’t get it. To every individual who wishes they were younger: wake up! You have so much youth left. The problem isn’t that you got “old.” The problem is that you stopped doing all the things that once made you feel young. So go out with your friends. Get active. Enjoy the weather. Stop sulking and wishing you looked like what you did when you were 21. Sure, it might take a little more work than it did before, but hey! If it were easy, everyone would do it.

Alright. I’m glad I could get that off my chest. I’m going to give you a moment to laugh. Laugh at me. I am 17-years-old, and I’m giving you a huge lesson on why you should stop throwing around the word “old.” But think about this. If our culture glorifies youth, then there have to be some benefits of growing older. A 60-year-old American experiences life differently than someone my age. They get to see, experience, and learn things that I still have yet to come across. It’s a different stage of life that guarantees its own perks that we tend to overlook. Sure, I might not know exactly what’s so great about being 50- or 60-years-old, but I know there has to be something more to life than to wish we could return to the past. Return to days that were in some way more “exciting” than the ones we live now.

Here’s what I want to do as I reach more advanced stages of my life. I’m going to turn 40-years-old into “40-years-young.” Today, as I dove my arms into a forward-fold bend in yoga class, I thought, I want to keep doing this for the rest of my life. I want to be active for decades to come. I want to laugh, and spend time with my friends and family, get outside and enjoy the weather. Take pictures of things that are simply beautiful. Be independent, yet stay in close touch with my loved-ones.  So before you start throwing around the word “old,” ask yourself, Have I made a conscious effort to feel young? If not, then today could be your day. Like my yoga instructor, you, too, can enjoy the youth of old age.