The fastest growing age-group coming to yoga is mid forties to sixties. Perhaps that is because Iyengar teaches yoga that anyone can do. Maybe you’ve had luck but are now facing the effects of a stiff and aging body and the attendant discomforts.
In any case we hear, over and over, “I used to be able to ________” (fill in the blank).
Indeed. In adolescence and through our 20s and 30s, we are able, strong and active. Yoga poses come with relative ease. But if we draw back from movement and activity, the body takes on a sluggish quality and movement becomes challenging. Yoga helps by introducing appreciation and awareness of the body guiding us to safe movement, stability, strength and balance.
Speaking to yoga students who have some experience with the asanas, Prashant Iyengar, BKS Iyengar’s son, says;
“If you are progressing (in the doing of yoga poses) during your earlier years, eventually – because of various factors like aging, you will go on a downward track. Although you work hard you will never have irreversible progress…. If in your fifties and sixties you are on a plateau, still it is progress. At eighty, if you maintain that, it is incredible progress. So don’t think progress is only an upward trek.”
Prashant advises beginning students to practice in order to both learn as well as maintain the gains made in the pose work. And while we know that yoga is much more than the physical asanas, yoga poses are a guide to the quality of our practice, both inside and out.
With respect to the interior work of yoga, instead of decline and diminution, we grow and the graph leads upward. Dr. Gene Cohen, a pioneer in the field of psychiatric geriatrics states that from our early fifties up to and during our seventies, the build-up and length of dendrites—the branches of brain cells— is particularly robust in the hippocampus, that part of the brain involved with spatial processing, memory formation and processing new memories for long term storage. All of which are needed in yoga.
The yogis of old knew that we have the potential to expand in later life. Here is the evidence in scientific terms.
Studies show that as we age we use both hemispheres of the brain more efficiently, our ability to integrate cognitive and emotional intelligence expands and we can integrate competing issues and solutions. The limbic system (concerned with emotional responses) grows calmer and we pay more attention to positive experiences than negative ones.
Dr. Cohen says, “We have a maturing synergy of cognition, emotional intelligence, judgement, social skills, life experience and consciousness.”
The mark of yoga in its fullest expression is a body which maintains tone and vigour coupled with a brain that draws the threads of the poses together into a coherent shape. The student enjoys the experience of yoga!
The contemplative aspects of the work cannot be experienced with gripping, striving and hardening. When we soften the interior self and observe the body-mind as an object of compassionate curiosity, we are in a yogic state of mind.
Aging today is an improvisational art form calling for imagination and willingness to continue learning. We have support from yoga to complete the meaning of our collective and individual lives so that we contribute to the larger society and the world into which our grandchildren will be born.
No wonder our classes are filled with ageing yogis drawn by their wisdom to a practise built on the inherent gifts of age.
Kelly Murphy is owner of a yoga studio in Nanaimo.