Table of contents
- 1. The Challenges and Joys of Practicing Yoga when Aging
- 2. How do we accept our Mortality?
- The Traditional Approach to Old Age
- 3. My Workshop Theme: How to Sync Yoga Practice with the Aging Process?
This post is written following the Yoga & Aging program in which I was invited to participate along with three other Iyengar yoga teachers. In this post, I share answers I gave to questions I was presented with in the panel, which kicked off the program. This panel’s recording from Dec 4, 2022, and information about the upcoming Yoga & Aging workshops are available at https://yogaandaging.com/).
The program includes 4 workshops that will take place throughout 2023 (Starting from January, 29. Mine will take place on April, 2) and in this post, I would like to share what I intend to teach in my workshop.
I will also discuss aging in general and briefly review the traditional approach to aging.
1. The Challenges and Joys of Practicing Yoga when Aging
The two questions I was asked were:
1. What are the challenges and joys of aging in yoga?
2. How do we accept our mortality? Do we need to shift from hope to finding contentment? Or a sense of fulfillment in being part of a bigger whole?
Let’s address each question separately.
We are faced with many challenges as we age. We lose capabilities, become weaker and more vulnerable and generally face more limitations. We may experience fear of losing additional capabilities, which may in turn lead to anxiety. We may even feel less relevant in our fast-changing technological society.
However, in my opinion, the two main challenges we need to face in our practice are:
· How to sync yoga practice with the aging process
· How not to lose the freshness of the practice. How to remain curious and continue to explore new territories of our mind-body.
How to Sync Yoga Practice with the Aging Process?
We shouldn’t limit our practice prematurely, nor try to ignore the fact that we are aging, and attempt to maintain the same practice as if nothing has changed. Both attitudes are not in sync with the reality of aging. Some age mentally faster than physically and unnecessarily limit themselves, being too cautious in their practice (and life), overtaken by fear. Others deny the aging process and attempt to keep the same practice regardless of their age.
Some use age as an excuse as to why not practice, as B.K.S. Iyengar wrote in The Tree of Yoga:
“Why is an old man fond of sex? Why does his age not come to his mind at all? If he sees a young woman his mind will be wandering, even though he may have no physical capacity. What is the state of his mind? He would like to possess her, would he not? But ask him to do a little yoga, or something to maintain his health. ‘Oh, I am very old’, he says“.The Tree of Yoga in the chapter Old Age:
Iyengar himself continued to practice, until his last days, when he was over 95! His practice changed a lot over the years and in old age, he used many props and focused on inversions and backbends with support.
If our practice over the years was correct and we have developed sensitivity and wisdom, we would know how to sync our practice with the aging process, neither overdoing nor underdoing.
Aging is not only about decline. We also refine our practice as we age. Iyengar’s practice in his 70s was more precise, mature, and beautiful than in his younger years (there is an inspiring set of photos that demonstrate it by comparing photos from Light on Yoga with photos of his practice when he was seventy years old). He wrote:
“Learning is a delight, and there are many delights to be obtained from the practice of yoga. But I am not doing it for the delight… The sensitivity and intelligence which have been developed should not be lost. That is why the practice has to continue“.ibid.
Aging enables more depth that comes with experience and wisdom, and that has many benefits and joys. We don’t need to prove ourselves; we learn to accept ourselves as we are. We have more time; we are out of the ‘rat race’ so we can devote more time to practice without worrying about worldly issues.
We become like old trees that bear sweet fruits, trees that offer shelter and shade. There is great joy in giving, in teaching from our wisdom and experience. There is also joy in the appreciation we receive from our students. While in the technological professions, one is considered irrelevant after 40, in yoga, the more experience one gains, the better teacher he or she becomes!
Aging also forces us to be more considerate and kinder to our body, to our vulnerability, weakness and limitations – this teaches us consideration and compassion. Our practice becomes more profound and we rip the fruits of our many years of devoted practice. It’s a great joy! Rather than being egocentric and taking from the world, we can now give more to our students and to the world.
How Not to Lose the Freshness of the Practice
Some old people have the attitude of: ‘been there, done that. I have nothing new to learn or experience. This is who I am and I’m not going to change at this age’. However, if the practice has been always explorative and creative, then even as we age, we will be able to maintain a fresh mindset and outlook, treating every day and every practice session as a new learning opportunity.
In an interview Iyengar gave to young students he said (in Aṣṭadaḷa Yogamālā):
“I belong to the old generation and by the grace of yoga I am still steady and stable to fit into this new generation. This credit goes to my yogic Sadhana. As I kept up my practice in that advertant stage I do not see any conflict between me and the new generation… because my practice is afresh each day, the energy that flows in my life… is like a flow of a river with fresh water…”Aṣṭadaḷa Yogamālā, Vol 8, p. 235, 2007
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2. How do we accept our Mortality?
How do we accept our Mortality? Do we need to shift from Hope to finding Contentment, or a sense of Fulfillment in being part of a bigger whole?
The ultimate answer of a yogi would be:
“Death is unimportant to a yogi; he does not mind when he is going to die. What happens after death is immaterial to him. He is only concerned with life – with how he can use life for the betterment of humanity“.The Tree of Yoga, the chapter: Death
Accepting our mortality is definitely a great challenge. Spiritual traditions often see the entire life as a preparation for a peaceful death. Our identification with our body is so very strong. Our entire self-image is strongly dependent on this identification. Patanjali said (in sutra II.17, 25) that this identification is the cause of our Dukkha (sufferings). He continues: “through right knowledge breaks the link binding the seer to seen. This is kaivalya, emancipation“.
Although we know theoretically that everything, including our body, is subject to change, when we lose some of our capacities, experience more difficulties, meet severe limitations, or suffer from injuries, we often find it hard to adapt to the changes and become frustrated and even depressed.
However, as we age, we develop a greater tendency to the spiritual aspects of yoga, we start to connect with the pure, eternal consciousness (Purusha), and this can help us to face death more peacefully. Observing change in nature and in us, we learn to accept and even welcome change. We can look at the cycles of birth and death from a more objective perspective. We learn to lessen the attachment to and identification we have with our changing bodies.
It is a fact that the fuller the life you live – the less you are afraid of death. If you live actively, engaged in self-development, and in giving to others, you will be less prone to fear. If you learn to live peacefully, it will be easier for you to face death. Even though the fear of death may not entirely vanish, you will be able to handle it without being devastated.
Yoga is an endless process of learning and development and it keeps us active and explorative. So, the life of people who continue their Sadhana is full and may even become fuller with aging.
Do we need to shift from hope to finding contentment?
I definitely think so. Hope belongs to the future, it is an attachment to an imagined future, that will probably never fold out to be as we imagine it. Depending on hope is an escape from what is in the present moment. Therefore, the yogi does not center his or her focus on hope, but on living actively and contributing to society.
The Traditional Approach to Old Age
In traditional cultures, there is an inherent, deep respect for old people, so much so that ‘old’ is almost synonymous with ‘wise’. Definitely, the more experience we have the wiser we become. This is especially true for people who are involved in various forms of spiritual practice. With more years of practice, we dive deeper into ourselves and get better clarity, so our understanding of ourselves and of the world is refined.
The Hindu understanding of life phases can shed light on how traditional societies dealt with aging. Of the four stages of life defined by the Hindu tradition, the last two are relevant to our discussion. In an interview rendered as the Foreword section of the book Iyengar Yoga for Menopause, Iyengar discussed these stages:
- · “Vanaprastha (retirement) – In this third phase of life, around the age of 50 to 60, is the time to intensify spiritual practices. One can spend more time walking and meditating in nature, this help to escape the daily stress and get more in touch with Mother Earth.
- · Sannyasa (seclusion from the world) – aging and the search for inner growth are associated with renunciation and giving up worldly things and obligations and also vows of renunciation. It is the last of the four stages of life.
To be at ease in each stage is Sva Dharma: one’s duty, one’s responsibility and also life’s task.
‘Aging is the quest for inner growth!’
From: Iyengar Yoga for Menopause, Geeta Iyengar, Rita Keller, Kerstin Khattab
Discussing aging women, they add:
“For women, post menopause is mostly during the third phase, the Vanaprastha, where one slowly withdraws from the storm of activity. Motivated by joy, and without being less active, the women in this stage are free from self-aggrandizement. A wise consular and rich in life experience…
Menopause is a transition period when you may come out as a mentally and psychologically more mature person, ‘dropping your old skin’. Such processes of maturation and transformation may happen during certain times in your life, like in puberty, marriage, and motherhood. In our society, we have the tendency to associate menopause and loss and aging, or even consider it a kind of disease. This is definitely not the case”. (ibid.)
In his book Light on Life, Iyengar summarizes it as follows:
“Yet unlike retirement in the West, which is just an end to productive work, this is a spiritual stage filled with growth and learning. It is a stage when this detachment allows us to live ever more loosely in relationship to our ego”.Light on Life, p. 245
3. My Workshop Theme: How to Sync Yoga Practice with the Aging Process?
For me, the essence of the practice doesn’t change with aging, only the form in which it is carried out. The essence is expressed by Patanjali as Kriya Yoga (sutra II.1):
I apply myself (Tapas); I study myself (Svādhyāya) and I surrender myself.
These principles do not depend on what you can or can’t do. Therefore, this essence should not change with aging. However, the form should change! We can’t do everything we used to do and we are going to progressively lose more of our capabilities. We need to shift our perspective on practice. Rather than attempting to conquer new, more advanced poses, we should dive deeper into ourselves, stay longer in poses, adopt a meditative approach, and use aids and props.
In my workshop, we will learn how to use props to adapt the practice to our changing capabilities and how to stay longer in supported asanas that open the body and keep the mind fresh and alert.
In the first part, we will study how to use chairs and other props to maintain our backbend practice. This will open the chest and prepare our lungs and mind for the second part in which I’ll be teaching the art of Pranayama.