You don’t go to sleep in a mud house and wake up in a palace.

It’s an old yoga saying that I repeat all the time to folks new and old who join me when I teach my yoga classes. I’ll be the first to admit it can come off sounding like an insult—“So you’re comparing us to mud houses?” someone once retorted—but the idea is an important one.

You might want to get into shape, or into better shape, but just wanting it isn’t going to make that happen. And striving in foolish ways to achieve your goal can even be counterproductive. Forget the palace—the last thing you want is that mud house crashing down on top of you.

If you force yourself to bend or fold or stretch further than your body is ready to handle, you’ll injure yourself, plain and simple. I’ve done it more than once. And the older I get, the longer those injuries take to heal. And the longer they take to heal, the longer I have to lay off exercising. And the longer I lay off exercise, the harder it is to get going again.

When it comes to physical activity, especially as you pass 50, abide by the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm. And even then, expect a few bumps in the road. Because even with the best of intentions, and the wisest of plans, stuff happens.

Many years ago I came up with a genius routine to jumpstart my running, which has waxed and waned over the years. I decided to set aside half  an hour every day for a month. On Day One I would run for one minute and walk for 29. Day Two: run for two minutes, walk for 28. Day Three: well, you get the picture. By Day 30 I would be running for the full half hour.

I invited my older daughter to join me, and for most of the first two weeks, the plan worked to perfection. We were halfway there: 15 minutes running, 15 walking. We weren’t in the palace yet, but that mud house was getting smaller and smaller in our rearview mirror.

And then, on Day 16, my daughter wore street shoes. She’d left her sneakers at a friend’s house but figured she could tough it out.  She should have taken another day off. Instead, she got nasty blisters on each foot, and that was the end of that. She had to bail while her feet healed up, and then she got busy with other things. I finished the month successfully, but the experiment fizzled after that.

I learned something, though—or relearned something: The best definition of success isn’t just reaching a goal, or crossing a finish line first, though there’s no denying the pleasure in that.

True success, though, be it a 30-minute run-walk or an hour’s yoga, is being able to keep going the next day and the day after that and the day after that.

As I get older, I care less and less about how far or how fast. The best mantra, when we’re smart enough to listen, is “Perseverance and patience.”


Years ago, after a bad accident, multiple surgeries, and months in the hospital, I was faced with the task of putting my broken body back into working order. I’d lost a third of my body weight. My muscles were atrophied. My self-confidence was shot.

Someone suggested tai chi as a gentle activity for beginning my rehabilitation. Tai chi has been described as “moving meditation,” and it was certainly that for me. After a month of regular practice, it gave me back enough strength, and range of motion, that I decided I was ready to try running.

I found a pair of old tennis shoes and headed to the track, making sure to pick a time of day when no one else was there to see how badly I was sure to struggle. And sure enough, I didn’t even make it halfway around once before I collapsed, hurting and gasping. I eventually got up and hobbled the rest of that one lap and called it a day.

The next day I went back. Did some tai chi under a shade tree, and then hit the track again. Another half lap. More gasping and hurting. More walking. One and done.

I kept it up, though. One look in the mirror at the wreck of my body was enough motivation for that. So every day, except for the ones when I was too tired to get out of bed, I did my tai chi and shuffled through my laps.

After three months, with time off for shin splints, I was ready for my first 5K. There were a lot of rabbits on the starting line, and boy did they ever take off. I have no idea who finished first. Those guys were long gone by the time I finished.
But as far as I was concerned, slow and steady had won the race.

I got up the next day and went for another run. Just a couple more of those slow, steady miles, out and back from home.
The place I lived at the time, you might say it was no longer a mud house. And it was palace enough for me.

Steve Watkins is a yoga teacher and award-winning author. His website is