The story we are typically told about aging is that it is a downward slope: we get older, weaker, frailer, and sicker. Upon seeing images of young yogis, an older person might think, I can’t do that. That’s not for me.
Sure, there are flexible young women in my yoga classes, but there’s also Kate, a beautiful white-haired woman with a steady and powerful practice; Don, an older gentleman with a daughter my age; and, of course, my mom, who is also my business partner at my yoga studio. It’s not uncommon to see these older students flowing with ease through the postures I offer while younger, newer students struggle and sweat.
My mom is a great example of someone who is not following the linear story about aging. Since she got more consistent in her yoga five years ago, she is stronger, her balance is better, and, she says, “My knees look younger! I think it’s all those Warrior Twos.”
A New York Times article on yoga after age 50 quotes Dr. Loren Fishman: “I suspect that yoga was at times an old person’s sport, and that it has prolonged the life and liveliness of people over the millennia.” Indeed, B.K.S. Iyengar, whose yoga system is very much focused on health and healing, told Namarupa magazine that he still practices, at age 90: “All the poses you see in Light on Yoga and I do them everyday.”
Ana Forrest is a 55-year-old woman who teaches a very powerful style of yoga. Her circus-level abilities took many years to access. She insists she is more able now than she ever was when she was sick, crippled, and addicted in her teens and 20s (In this amazing video, she’s around 50. Now, she says, "I have chosen to model a different, much more enticing future for our young people rather than allowing myself to be ignored and devalued because I'm over a certain age. I feel like I can embody and model the beauty of a rich spirit rather than just a wrinkle-free face."
There are three magical ingredients in yoga asana that may contribute to this anti-aging effect:
1. Weight bearing: Bone-density tends to go down as we age, and when we put pressure on our bones, we incite osteoblasts to create more bone. We don’t have many opportunities to put weight on our arms, hands, and wrists in our computer-oriented lives, so doing it in yoga counteracts the bone loss in the upper body.
2. Balancing: The combination of delicate bones with decline in balance as we age can spell trouble. In a yoga practice, we balance on one leg, on our hands, and sometimes even on our heads. As we learn about our centre of gravity and connect to the core, we can become more fluid and graceful.
3. Inversions: In a yoga practice, we make gravity work for us. In the many yoga poses that involve having the head lower than the heart, we condition the blood, calm the nervous system, detoxify, balance shifting hormones, and even flush the face with fresh oxygen, perhaps giving our wrinkles a characteristic glow.
Headstand, which Iyengar recommends for many physical and mental issues, has all three magic elements: weight bearing on the upper body, balance, and a complete inversion. It’s not recommended for everyone, so check with your doctor first, but here’s my tutorial on the pose.
Regardless of your age, don’t be discouraged by the young models you see in yoga advertising. Most of us don’t look like that. Go at your own pace, and you may find yoga can turn your story about aging on its head (literally).