No matter what age we are — we must resist the temptation to assume that we are fixed, static, and unchangeable. We are in fact in a constant state of flux; we are not the same from one moment to the next, let alone one hour, day, month, year, decade. We must not assume that when we hit a certain age, we are “who we are”, and that it’s “all downhill from here” — time to give up, get depressed about life, and stop growing. We grow and learn and thrive and evolve until the moment we die; and for all we know, continue to, afterwards.
We must embrace the different forms that this change takes — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — and welcome the unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable feelings that may accompany this transformation. This is a big part of our yoga practice, as well as hopefully of our lives as a whole. If we can learn on the mat to suspend disbelief, trust our breath, and remain open to the wonders and surprises that unfold, then perhaps we can apply that new-found faith to other aspects of ourselves and our journey.
“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” says Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert. “The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting, and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been.”
Gilbert refers to this mistaken notion of stasis, of an already-formed, unchangeable self, as “the end of history illusion” — the false idea that we’ve already become who we’re going to be, and are not likely to change. The truth is instead that we are in a constant state of flux, growth, and evolution.
Our path within Yoga is no exception. Everything changes, in fits and starts and in slight micro amounts, every day, during your practice. Things that seemed completely off the table before are suddenly within reach. Postures that seemed like a distant dream manifest and happen. Even day to day, things can be dramatically different. While it may seem like many physically demanding yoga poses are the domain of the young and fit, the interesting thing about Yoga is that with consistent, sustained practice, everyone – no matter what age – gains strength and flexibility. The graph of progress in Yoga is upwards with time, even as chronological age marches on.
The benefits – physical, mental, emotional, psychological, spiritual – that come with a steady yoga practice have been well-documented. Numerous studies have shown that yoga aids in balance, digestion and circulation, lowers blood pressure, increases bone density, and creates space between spinal vertebrae, leading to better nerve conduction and overall organ health. For most people, increased aches, pains and stiffness come with age. I often hear beginning students give me the qualifier: “I’m very stiff. Not flexible at all.” Which is the whole point! Yoga creates flexibility.
The other thing about continuing to practice through different phases of life is that you start to understand the deeper “point” of Yoga; and it’s not to put one’s legs behind one’s head or master a new contortion. The equanimity and peace that comes from practicing and breathing through challenges can bring enormous calm and reassurance; even happiness. After 25 years of practicing yoga (18 of those Ashtanga), just as I finally start to catch a glimpse of what it’s all about, I’m faced with a cruel irony of timing: my body is starting to age and break down, with new areas of “challenge” (I use this word rather than “pain”) that I’ve never encountered before. A big part of my current practice is discovering a way to rise above attachment to fancy poses and never-ending flexibility, and to embrace the deeper reason I am practicing. Letting go of the need to achieve asanas for their own sake allows for less stress and more joy, in even the most basic postures. On difficult days, even doing half primary series is a gift beyond measure.
Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, describes the “paradox of aging”: it turns out that older people are happier than their middle aged counterparts – and a great deal happier than the young. They’ve come to understand what is and is not important, have gained perspective on what previously seemed like insurmountable stress, and have let go of the need to prove themselves worthy via their accomplishments and status. With the balance of time ahead now less than that behind, their focus is on making the most of really living in the moment, rather than planning for (and stressing out about) the future. We can learn from this. The sooner we can incorporate this wisdom, the happier we will be.
It is never too late to start yoga, and once you start, you have a lifelong practice. Even as the body changes with age, the breath and movement remain vital to our well-being. Each time you practice yoga, you are given you a chance to re-invent yourself, to grow, and to change. It’s a never-ending journey.