Yoga across a life

‘The full blossoming of maturity is the best fruit that life can offer.’ Vanda Scaravelli, Awakening the Spine.

Our tastes change as we move through life.  The sweeties we enjoy as children become unpalatable for us as adults.  We revisit a favourite book from our teenage years only to wonder what the fuss was about.  And we have all had the cringe-making experience of seeing photographs of ourselves smiling broadly while wearing completely ridiculous clothes, and now asking ourselves what on earth we were thinking.  Some change can also be painful, as we outgrow places or even people. But being stuck in a rut is much worse.  Our progression through life arises out of our ability to change so we should embrace rather than resist it.

The practice of yoga across a life will inevitably and gradually change with time.  When I started practicing yoga I concentrated on a fast flowing Ashtanga based practice which suited me very well at the time. My practice was fuelled by a lot of nervous energy that I could channel into the vinyasas.  I could get my heart rate up very quickly and really enjoyed the satisfaction of getting a good ‘workout’.  However my preferences have changed over time and I am now much more interested in detailed alignment work and developing a sense of what it feels like to really be in my own body.  I still really love a good vinyasa flow class—they’re great fun!—but the work I do on my own is much slower and centres on a more nuanced exploration of what I am made and capable of.  Through daily personal practice over many years, I have moved decisively away from treating yoga as a workout.  I now rely on yoga to give me a certain strength and suppleness that allows me to enjoy living my life.

Having seen how my own practice has changed incrementally over time, I have been interested in learning more about how yoga helps people to age well. I have read two recent books on the subject: Yoga for Healthy Aging (by Baxter Bell MD and Nina Zolotow, 2017) and Lifelong Yoga (by Sage Rountree and Alexandra Desiato, 2017). Each of these excellent books explains how yoga can promote healthy ageing, but they differ in approach as well as in their overall message about the ageing process itself. In the first book, ageing is a negative problem that can be solved or at least slowed; while in the second book, ageing is a process that can be managed both gently and positively to its inevitable end.

Yoga for Healthy Aging: This book is an introduction to yoga as well as a guide to the changes that we can expect as we grow older.  The authors give general advice on starting a yoga practice and provide a general introduction to yoga philosophy, stress management and meditation.  There are specific chapters on strength, balance, flexibility and agility as well as on the cardiovascular and nervous systems.  Each chapter describes how our strength, balance, flexibility, etc is affected by ageing and then provides a detailed explanation for ‘how yoga helps’.  These explanations include suggestions of particular poses as well as specific sequences with photographs of each pose (which are described in detail at the back of the book). The sequences are divided in to easy or challenging, or they focus on strengthening specific areas of the body, eg arms, legs, core, etc. Ample attention has been paid to the functioning of the body and mind and this is no doubt in part because of the medical experience of one of the book’s authors (Baxter Bell used to practice Western medicine). But the book covers much more than how the body ages. The sections on philosophy, stress, meditation and breathing could appear in any book on yoga, either as an introduction or a reminder. This book is useful to any practitioner no matter how young or old.

Lifelong Yoga: This book is also an introduction to yoga and considers how yoga can help develop or preserve strength, flexibility, balance both in abstract terms in also through various poses.  The poses are presented and described individually and then sequenced together at the end of the book.  The sequences here are not simply designed to cover either balance, strength or flexibility. Instead they are presented as practices to incorporate into the rest of one’s day.  Some sequences prepare for another activity (including other sports or ‘before a weekend with grandchildren’ or ‘before a long drive or flight’ or ‘before a day of cooking, baking, and eating’ or ‘before an emotional day (wedding, funeral, or big life event).’ Other sequences are meant to be performed in response to other events or situations during a day, such as ‘after a lot of sitting’, ‘after a vacation’, ‘after over doing it’ or ‘after an emotional day.’  The idea behind all of these sequences is that yoga should be woven into the fabric of our life rather than standing outside of it.  Our practice can help us live well as well as age well.

Lifelong Yoga also cleverly weaves yoga philosophy throughout its text. The text is peppered with  brief references to  certain yogic principles found in the Yoga Sutras, including the yamas and niyamas (the dos and don’ts of how to live) the kleshas (afflictions), samskaras (impressions and habits), etc.  At the very end of the book in a chapter on ‘Easing Toward the End’ is a discussion of the importance of savasana (corpse pose) which is ‘a reminder that we are all moving toward the final letting go. [ . . .] It can become a reminder that growing older and dying is natural, inevitable, and the appropriate end to a good life.’  The book does not shy away from the fact that ageing has an end point. It encourages the reader not to suffer from fear of death (abhinivesha) but instead to accept the inevitable. We are encouraged to ‘move from fear to mindfulness, [ . . .] from disconnection to union.  That is yoga.’

Accepting that change (and ageing and indeed death) is unavoidable is surely the secret to a happy life.  A small part of this, at least for me, is accepting that my yoga practice will change and develop throughout my life. What was good for me 10 years ago will be only a fond memory 10 years from now.  And I can’t even imagine what my practice will look like 10 years after that.

I only know that I will continue to practice yoga for the rest of my life and that this practice, however it continues to evolve, will help me to age as gracefully and healthily as I can until the end.