Yoga and Aging

Twice a week I teach a yoga class at a retirement home in north Austin. I picked up the job from a yoga teacher friend and originally subbed for the class when she was out of town. When she moved I took over twice a week and had to figure out how to teach these students who could do none of what I had been teaching previously.

They walk in with walkers. They can’t get on a floor or mat and get back up again. They have old injuries like broken hips, and their balance is poor. I sat them in a chair, told them to breathe and then we began stretching. I worked to really push them to their edge, whatever that is for them. When they extend a leg in front of them and hold for 10 seconds it’s exercise. We work on focus, awareness and some basic anatomy and physiology. I explain to them that they can control their heart rate, they can lower their blood pressure and they must work hard to continue their ongoing vitality.

Every so often I got a beady little eye. Someone in the back would look at me like, “kid, you’re making my leg tingle and hurt doing this.” I’d often laugh, get the students attention and ask them what they were feeling. Usually the response is that it hurts. Then I have to continue teaching. There is a difference between intense and pain or hurt. Intense is what happens when our focus is drawn to a certain area. Pain is what happens when something is so intense it causes us to contract and protect muscles. The first is good, that’s what hatha yoga is helping do. We maintain intense, dynamic tension to help train our mind to pay attention to a single point. This is the moving meditation that yoga is all about. Purposeful pain has no place in yoga. Pain says it’s too much, back off and breathe. Find intense but hold that pose and maintain focus.

A student from time to time would say, “Oh, you’re young. Just wait until you’re old. Whoever said these were the golden years was full of it.” I honor these students. I honor their perspectives and the time they’ve spent on this planet accruing knowledge and experience. Respectfully I would tell them that they were right. I’m 33, I do not know what it is to be 85 years old. I do however know what it is to be human and to be in pain. Explaining to them that just due to their age, they are limited but I do not consider it noble nor respectful to expect anything less than what they are capable of. I respect them for their wisdom but do not consider it appropriate to allow them to think that they are now old and can forget about health. Life isn’t over until it is.

If they cannot hold a pose, I tell them to back off and do what they can. There is no shame in yoga. Everyone is where they are at, day to day. Some days I’m strong, young, ferocious and attuned. I can take on the world. Other days I’m 33 with what feels like the beginning of arthritis in many joints and the barometric pressure is shifting. I work, I do what I can each day, each practice and when it gets bad, you take some naproxen sodium. There is honor in effort, hard work and honesty with self.

BKS Iyengar is a gentleman who helped bring yoga to the US. His focus on alignment has influenced most styles of yoga due to his extremely nuanced focus on the physical postures and how they should be done. Iyengar was very sick as a young child and his yoga teacher gave up on him. Iyengar was determined to heal himself using yoga and promptly did so. It took him 8 years or more to regain his physical health and now at 92 years of age he still has a regular practice. In an interview I saw with him he said that, “I was gifted with ill health.” At first I did not notice but upon a second viewing I realized he held no emotional attachment to his sickness. He no longer blamed the world, blamed god. He had what he had and he made the absolute most of it. His illness, allowed him to explore nuances of yoga that someone who’s always been extremely healthy would not have noticed. You see, he took some broken eggs and made an omelette.

My students in the retirement home have come to like me. They see the youthful inexperience I have and accept it. I see their ornery stubbornness and honor it. We have become family. Over time they’ve grown stronger, their balance has improved and when asked how class makes them feel almost all of them say, “I just feel so relaxed after class. I feel really calm.” I relish when class is over seeing their bright smiles. There is a more youthful gleam in their eyes and I believe the fact that I’ve never considered them incapable, old and forgotten has made an impression on them. They’ve never been told they’re too old, too feeble to do what we do in class, sitting in a chair, doing yoga. Respect goes both ways.

Years ago at my first yoga class at a retirement home in Louisiana a woman walked into class who I’d never met. She got a mat, put it out on the floor and I came over to introduce myself. She announced her name and that she was 95 years old and that she’s never done yoga. She decided she wanted to try it out. I was taken aback at her advanced age and her willingness to come try something new. I’ve wondered ever since if her willingness to try new things is exactly what’s kept her alive for 95 years. She never stopped wanting new experiences.

Other than Sivasana, the corpse pose, the most important pose in yoga is headstand. Being upside down means that your heart is above your head. Your arterial pulse moves blood into your brain and also into your neck where your thyroid and parathyroid glands are. By doing headstand regularly blood is pooling in your brain and around these glands. Long term this is supposed to support their health and the bodies overall longevity. It’s said that if you can only do one pose a day to do headstand.

I’m not a morning person, I’m notoriously grumpy in the mornings. When I go teach at the nursing home sometimes the students come in to my being upside down in headstand. They always jokingly ask if I’m going to teach them headstand that day. I tell them soon. Headstand helps you wake up. It’s the closest to a cup of coffee in the morning that I’ve found. It flushes my blood one direction then when I come back to my feet it flushes the opposite direction. Finding a National Geographic one day I smiled as the cover story was about the health regimens of centenarians. On the cover was a grey haired gentleman on the beach, in headstand.

I tell my students, and remind myself that everyone ages but not everyone grows old. “It’s never too late, it’s never too bad, and you’re never too old or too sick to start from scratch once again.” – Bikram Choudhury

Yoga students at the nursing home