Teaching yoga, it is not unusual to witness yoga students over age fifty struggling into poses that likely sent them searching for the icepack later. Most recently, it was a man and two women. I’m guessing about their ages; over fifty is erring on the side of youth. The man was straining in an easy-to-categorize way. It was a yin class. To some, this is “the easy class,” and his hamstrings were tight. He resisted the props and continued struggling into the pose despite my cues to support and surrender. The women were also struggling, though with spinal flexibility rather than hamstrings. One of the women was new to my class. Based on the way she scrutinized my posture and gaped with disbelief when she couldn’t do what I was doing, I would put her in the category of people who think they’re failing if the fat lady does something they can’t.
During my decades of yoga practice, that’s become a sturdy category. And hey, mostly I have compassion because I used to think that way too. Our culture has taught us that bodies line up along a hierarchy of worth, fat bodies and old bodies are among the most devalued. If the fat yogi or the old yogi or the disabled yogi can do something considered “advanced,” chances are, you’re pretty impressed.
The yoga world is not immune to the broader cultural obsession with the mystical youth-preserving magic of yoga. But it makes it pretty tough to age honestly – whether the process becomes noticeable at 30 or 80. I’m not arguing against the health benefits of yoga – far from it. I’m arguing in favor of honoring the natural process of aging, of healing from injuries. I’m arguing in favor of caring for and finding value in every body, even as we age.
A lot of people stop exercising when things start to hurt too much. There are good reasons why people don’t modify their activities in acceptance of their bodies as they age. It happens to us at different times in life – some remain active with few aches and little stiffness into their sixties or seventies. Perhaps my body is developing these changes sooner because of genetics, or because I’m heavy or because I did high impact exercise for many years. It doesn’t actually matter. What matters is accepting the body and using yoga to keep the body healthy and the mind calm.
I often tell students that yoga is for the body you have today, not the one you had yesterday or last month or ten years ago. Not the one you might have in three months after you work out every day, or in a year when you’ve lost some weight, or even in ten years when you’re slowing down. Yoga is for the body you have today. You have to pay attention to know how much it can do. Be neither precious nor reckless with the body. This is the only one with which you can practice. Take a breath. There is no other body.
Once, when teaching an intensive inversion practice, I commented on the esoteric benefits of taking a different view by being upside down. I commented on how frightening inversions can be, even if the body is physically ready to support you in a pose like headstand or full arm balance. I jovially remarked at what a slow learner I am. “I was on the ten year plan with headstand! For the poses that challenge me, I add about one per year.”
After class, a student followed up on my remark. He found his own slow progress with certain poses very discouraging. He was pleased by what I’d said but wanted clarification. “You may add one challenging pose per year, but you‘re over forty now right? I mean, once you have them, you never lose them. Right?”
I had never considered my eventual decline in yoga that way before. Indeed, I had not yet lost the ability to do any yoga poses. But logically, I told him, if I live long enough, I will.
Since that conversation, I have lost the ability to do certain poses I could previously do. Maybe I will have the flexibility to do a drop-back backbend again. Maybe it’s not gone forever. But why would that be an interesting goal in my practice?
As I age, it becomes more important to me to maintain daily strength, balance and flexibility, live pain-free as much as possible and develop an enduring partnership with my mind and body that allows me more consistent peace and happiness. Everything in the dominant culture, and media representations of women in particular, is fighting against that goal. And we do well to remember that yoga-media is also largely advertising driven. It preys on our yearning for beauty and privilege.
One of the things I appreciate most about aging is having more practice with loss and dignity, more practice with the folly of seeking privilege rather than authenticity. Yoga can help us remember what it means to live as allies with our bodies. And eventually, our knees may start to remind us as well.
Editors Note: This essay was adopted from it’s original publication, The Aging Yoga Body, first published February 3, 2015 on Decolonizing Yoga.
Read More: For an astonishing read on the benefits of yoga and longevity read the New York Times, 11/26/16 article on Täo Porchon-Lynch, 98 year old yoga instructor.