Johnni Southerland, 60
Current weight: 152
Heaviest weight: 182
Lightbulb moment: Realizing my weight was hurting my health
Biggest benefit: Feeling more fully alive now than I did 20 years ago
Even though I ate whatever I wanted growing up and I've never been athletic-I'd take a nap over a walk any day--I was always thin. I didn't even have to worry about baby weight. The most I weighed during both of my pregnancies in my mid-20s was 127 pounds. Still, that felt like a lot because I'm only 5-foot-1, and I was used to weighing around 104. But as soon as I started breast-feeding, I could eat like a pig and the pounds would melt off.
That all changed when I hit my 40s. My metabolism slowed down and the scale started to climb.
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I'd also been a smoker for years and tried to stop a few times, which started me on a yo-yo; I'd go up a few pounds each time I quit and back down when I started smoking again. I did step aerobics for about a year to get back in shape, but I had to stop when I hurt my left knee.
Still, my weight didn't really take off until I hit my 50s. Around that time I met my boyfriend, John. Cooking is the way to a man's heart-at least it was in my generation-and I wanted to impress him and show him that I knew my way around the kitchen. He loves your basic meat-and-potato foods, so I'd whip up dishes like meat loaf or pot roast with buttery mashed potatoes. While John could use the extra pounds he put on his tall frame, I could have done without them.
I rarely weighed myself, but my clothes went from being a little tight to very tight when I finally quit smoking for good at 56. I traded one bad habit for a new one: snacking! Peanuts became my best friend. I was also chewing tons of Nicorette gum--a pack a day--so even though I was helping my lungs, my nicotine addiction was as strong as ever.
I knew I was gaining weight, but I swear, I think I had some sort of reverse anorexia: I felt thin even though I was fat!
Part of the problem was that I rarely saw myself naked. I have only one mirror in my bathroom, and it's on the medicine cabinet, so you see yourself only from the shoulders up when getting in and out of the shower. I also made the mistake of investing in a few pairs of very pretty elastic-waisted pants. You could weigh 500 pounds in them and never even know it!
"I always thought it would be cool to be one of those people who get old and do yoga."
In the summer of 2011, I weighed 162 at my annual checkup. To make matters worse, my blood pressure was still borderline high; it had been for years. While my doctor wasn't too concerned--she told me it would probably go down if I lost weight--my mother had high blood pressure and died of a heart attack, so I decided to be proactive and started taking a low dose of blood pressure medication. I knew I really had to do something about my weight, but you know how it is-summer vacations and then the holiday season made it easy for me to make excuses. Plus, I'd developed plantar fasciitis in my right heel; combine that with my achy left knee and exercise wasn't at the top of my list. In January, I was shocked to find that I weighed 182, the heaviest I'd ever been.
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After that, I felt like my life was in a rut. I was tired a lot-I generally didn't make it through the day without a nap-and I felt like I needed something new in my life. My 60th birthday was coming up in August, and I wanted to make some changes before I hit that milestone. That January I decided it would be my year for transformation, and I made a goal to hit 140 pounds by my birthday. First I decided to get off the Nicorette--it was an expensive habit--so I swapped it for sugarless gum. I also quit drinking diet soda and replaced it with unsweetened iced herbal tea or seltzer water. It was a start, but I needed to do a lot more to get in shape.
About a week later, Bonnie, my friend at work--at that time I was a speech therapist for preschoolers--asked me if I wanted to take a hot yoga class with her. She'd started doing yoga to get in shape for a skiing trip and looked great--her skin was glowing, she'd lost weight, and she seemed to carry herself differently. I'd always thought it would be cool to be one of those people who get old and do yoga, so I decided to give it a try, even though I wasn't sure I'd be able to do it with my achy heel and knee. I've also always been sensitive to heat. I even had heatstroke at a baseball game a few summers ago, so knowing that it would be between 95° and 105°F in the room was a little scary.
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When I walked into the studio, the heat hit me like a wall. It felt like an oven! In case I decided to leave, I picked a spot in the back row and right by the door. I was glad I did, because the first class was really tough. In Bikram yoga, you go through a series of 26 poses twice during a 90-minute class. My balance was so bad and the heat was so stifling that I could only do two or three of the poses. The rest of the time I just lay on my back, dripping with sweat, feeling nauseated from the heat. The instructor told me that my goal was just to stay in the room. Somehow I stuck it out. Even though I knew I was awful, I wanted to try again. The yoga studio was starting a hot yoga challenge, where you try to do 60 classes in 90 days, so I signed up.
I started to attend class four or five times a week. The instructors showed me ways to modify any moves that bothered my left knee, but I still couldn't believe how hard it was. I'd never sweat that much in my life--sweat would drip down my nose and onto the mat, and my shirt would be soaked. Around that same time, my 6-year-old granddaughter, Lily, was starting to learn how to ice-skate. My daughter called me after Lily's first class, laughing, and said, "Mom, she's awful. She's the worst of the bunch, but when she came off the ice today, she said, 'Wow! I am really good at this!'" It became a running joke in our family to say you were really good at something even when you clearly were not, and I started to apply the same train of thought to my yoga practice. I thought, Why shouldn't everyone do at least one thing terribly with enthusiasm? For me, maybe that will be yoga.
Throughout those first few weeks, I told myself that whether I was doing a pose or lying on my back, it was perfection. I was just proud of myself for going. By the 16th class, I was able to stay standing the entire time! Even though I still had trouble with almost all of the poses, I was getting stronger.
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Making Steady Progress
I started to look forward to yoga--my energy levels were up, I was sleeping better, and my skin was softer, probably thanks to all that sweating. But my not being home in the evenings didn't go over well with John. He'd been used to me coming home around 4 PM and making an early dinner. When I started going to class after work, I wouldn't get home until about 6:45. I felt guilty, as though I was abandoning him. But over time, John grew accustomed to making dinner for himself or eating later--it became our new normal.
"Yoga put me in touch with my body first, and then my soul."
Not cooking a big meal for the two of us cut out a lot of my extra calories. If John had already eaten by the time I got home, I'd just make something light for myself, like fish or a salad. Between that and all the yoga, I started to lose weight quickly--about 10 pounds in the first month.
Little by little, I began to feel stronger, and my balance improved.
My left knee was also getting stronger, so it didn't bother me as much, and all that stretching seemed to be helping my heel pain too. I also became a lot more flexible. When I started out, I couldn't reach back to grab the tops of my feet in Bow Pose, but eventually I was able to do it. Small successes like those kept me going. I was also getting used to the heat. I actually started to crave the high temps and all that sweating. I felt like I was purging my body of years' worth of toxins.
When school let out for the summer, I swapped my evening classes for morning ones. I loved to start my day with yoga; even if I did nothing else the rest of the day, I felt like I had accomplished something.
By my 60th birthday, I had dropped 20 pounds and no longer had any pain in my right heel. At that point, I was hooked on yoga and wasn't going to stop.
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Yogini for Life
At the end of summer, I found out that, due to a scheduling change, I wouldn't be able to teach speech therapy to my preferred age group. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn't want to go back to work. Aside from all the physical benefits, yoga had helped me feel more connected to my inner voice, and I started to think about what I wanted out of the next part of my life. I also realized that if I wasn't working, I'd be free to take my morning yoga classes. So I decided to throw in the towel early and do what gives me the most joy-yoga. Just like people who golf, I have found something satisfying to do outside of work.
Now I do 60 to 75 minutes of yoga four or five times a week, have lost 30 pounds, and am happy beyond my wildest dreams. I'm still working on getting off my blood pressure medication and have about 14 pounds to lose, but I just started following the plan in The Belly Melt Diet, by the editors of Prevention, to help break through my plateau. One thing I know for sure is that I'll never stop doing yoga. It makes me feel fully alive and more present in my life. I walk more slowly after class--I notice the sky, the trees, and even the beautiful produce at the grocery store-and I'm more appreciative of those around me. Yoga put me in touch with my body first, and then my soul. (Give these 8 Poses For a Better Workout a try next time.)