There are many ways to age, and in my observation, people tend to age in the following ways:
1) They try to ignore their aging, and pretend they are still young even when they aren't.
2) They throw their hands and just "give up" and totally let themselves go.
3) They age gracefully, with acceptance, and take good care of themselves at the same time.
Of course, not everyone is going to fit into those categories. But I've been observing lately that a lot of people tend towards either 1 or 2. They'll either go into a bit of denial and try to Botox their way out of aging, or they'll just quit bothering and let themselves get "old and fat."
Somewhere in between is that happy middle of aging with grace. As I'm only newly aging and in my early 40s, I hope that I can find that middle ground. Still, I find myself wavering between wanting to push my body and taking better care of it...and yes, it's true, you do start feeling more "aches and pains" after 40.
I do want my yoga to be challenging, but a bit more gentle. And I'm less and less interested in doing yoga to "look good" or master the perfect expression of a pose, versus just doing enough to keep my body in good shape and healthy.
Going Into Denial As We Age
I do see other people struggling with this, whether they realize it not. I was in a yoga teacher training class, and I mentioned to the class that I wasn't that much interested in Power Yoga and hardcore Vinyasa Flow like I used to be. (Granted, I was never fully "into" it to the point of worship, and I loved Sivananda Yoga, but I did take a lot of "flow" classes in my 30s.) I mentioned that some of the extreme "workout" styles of yoga might be good for someone who is 22, but not necessarily people who get older.
Another yoga teacher in the class very passionately "corrected" me and stated that "age had nothing to do with it." She seemed almost upset at the idea that people might slow their yoga down as they age. I'll have to admit, I was a bit surprised at her vehemence (I mean, c'mon, none of us really expect the average 65-year-old to jump into Vinyasa class, do we?), but I had to consider the source. Was she fighting her own aging? I wonder. To be honest, I had spent some time earlier in the training wondering if she'd had some fillers put in her cheeks, because they looked "different" from the last time I'd seen her, and the lines next to her mouth were unnaturally smooth.
Whether this was the case or not, she had the look of someone fighting too hard to be younger than she was. And for whatever the reason, unless you are Cher or Demi Moore and have a zillion dollars to spend on the best plastic surgeons, most attempts to look young after a certain age only end up making you look...well, like an old person trying to look young. Do we need to bring this type of energy into yoga?
Unfortunately, there seems to be a desire among many yogis to elevate yoga as this magical cure-all that will suddenly banish aging and keep you young forever. "You're as old as your spine is flexible" is one common yoga saying. But seriously - do we really think that our ability to do difficult yoga is going to get better as we pass 50? Are we just going into denial by clinging onto yoga as the magic anti-aging bullet?
How Many 100-Year-Old Yogis Do You Know?
Perhaps some of this belief comes from the original yoga gurus of India, who promised not just health but sometimes even magic powers as a result of yoga practice. (This has resulted in the unfortunate practice of some gullible disciples hopping around while sitting cross-legged, in an attempt to "fly.")
Yet, it's perhaps telling that many of the original yoga gurus who came to America didn't really live super long lives: for example, Swami Vishnudevananda transformed from a yoga superstar in his youth into a fat, happy old yogi who died just shy of his 66th birthday. We're told as explanation that some of these gurus "chose" to "leave" their bodies and transcend to the next level of existence. While I'm skeptical of that, when you look at any later photo of Vishnudevananda (pictured above), you can't help but notice how he radiates peace and happiness. He clearly wasn't doing yoga so he had rock-hard abs into his old age - he was doing yoga to be happy.
This is not to say that older people can't do some amazing yoga, or that you need to suddenly switch over to elderly chair yoga once you hit 40. And certainly, I've seen pictures of an 80-something woman doing yoga poses and hand balances I can't do! But that woman is the exception, not the rule. She's a trained "athlete." Most of us are not.
I think it's the wise person who realizes that they need to change their yoga as their body changes with age. The teacher of my yoga teacher training class - who is pretty darn proficient at yoga - had told us earlier in the series that he himself had dropped his Ashtanga Yoga practice because it wasn't serving his body as he got older.
But in this American culture, where Baby Boomers are desperately trying to maintain the illusion of youth and my generation (X) has mastered the art of perpetual adolescence, we're told by the "fitness media" that if we just work out hard enough we'll be able to stay super fit and "youthful" until 100! Perhaps we need to throw all that fitness pressure out the window and just find more contentment in being healthy vs. super "fit." Yoga should make you happy. It should be more than just a way to maintain a tight rear end. It should help you be more joyful.
The trick is to find that happy middle ground where you have a yoga practice that challenges you, keeps you flexible, and yet doesn't overtax the body. Your practice should also focus on providing mental health and spiritual benefits. What this will be for you may change as you go through different phases in your life. I'll cover that in my next blog post!