Wild Yoga Satsang 4: Aging (Dis)Gracefully

So after a profound Vinyasa session, it was just Jill and myself for the Wild Yoga Satsang last night. We still had a long and wide-ranging discussion that for once went way over time, circling back again and again to the topic at hand.

We talked a little about the sessions as a whole, and how valuable they are. I’m thinking a lot about how the Vinyasa sessions run. Some of the techniques we’re developing are proving very helpful for new ideas about how to undertake my upcoming research. I’m not sharing much on that yet, because it’s early days, and I’m very excited about the possibility of finding a whole new way of working. But it’s enough here to say that Jill and I talked about the links between mimesis and empathy – how moving in imitation of others increases our empathy with them. This is a technique for building communication and trust that I use with the children I work with: to sit like them, move like them, even sing like them, and encourage them to do the same with me.

Turning to age, then: a topic that feels increasingly relevant. I age, students age, the yoga community ages, and we’re all finding ways to grow older that are respectful of our changes whilst staying as vibrant and healthy as we can. We talked about how differently people age: how you can be old or young at 60, 70 or even 80. How different bodies change as they age: how major life changes such as the menopause or retirement create major changes in how we move and live in the world. How our bodies change in ways we couldn’t comprehend in advance; and the limits of our practice – that yoga manages our changes and conditions, but cannot heal or ultimately repair the gentle decline of aging.

We discussed how some people settle into ruts and patterns of behaviour over a long life, and other people still reach for challenge and change until their last breath. About how strange this is when one sees a couple aging very differently – and the classic stereotypes of widows who explore whole new lives; and widowers who quietly follow their wives into death.

The settling into routines of all kinds is the simplest, least moralising explanation of ‘karma’ that I was ever taught. What we do creates routines, and those routines create energetic, behavioural, even physical grooves in our existence and our world. Some of those can be useful – a daily habit to walk for 30 minutes for example – or less useful, such as an addiction. The usefulness or harm of a pattern can change with time and circumstance. Running regularly is a positive pattern that changes to a negative one if you develop a serious enough injury. Smoking can be a more positive pattern than other addictions. The question, as ever in yoga, is always: how is this serving you?

We left unexplored the bigger questions about how such karmic patterns might become strong enough to leave an echo in the world that carries from lifetime to lifetime. The scope of our discussion was confined to the one life we know we are living. And I find this is common: that the supposedly big metaphysical questions of life-after-death and deity seem so much less relevant in modern yoga communities than the immediacy of living well, and in this case, aging well. We discussed our own grieving experiences – of losing friends and loved ones to cancer, dementia and more – and how quality of life can be so degraded in the search to prolong life almost at any cost. And yet, although we ourselves would rather die with dignity if a little early; we acknowledged how hard it is to let go of those who are dear to us, even when there is so much pain and so little of them left to recognise. We talked also, briefly, about the guilt of losing those members of family that we feel we should miss, but in fact have little connection to. Grief can neither be contained, not faked, I think.

But not everything about aging is a struggle to find grace in decline. There is also the radical aspect alluded to in our topic – the hope of aging disgracefully. I wondered if there is a feeling for some of us that at some mystical pre-appointed time we’ll stop worrying so much about what other people think of us and start behaving accordingly. Jill is a little older than I, and she, like others, has definitely found that there is a change that comes with age: something about not being afraid to speak your mind. Maybe it’s a function of knowing that one’s time, although not short, is nonetheless finite. If there is an unknown but fixed amount of life left to us, we become less tolerant of wasting that time on activities to please others. We both do worry less than when young about other people’s opinions of us. There seems to be a security that comes with age. I know that as my years of experience as a teacher increase, so to does my willingness to happily admit to a student that I don’t have all the answers.

I wonder how much this is influenced by privilege – we are both, like most of my students, most often perceived as middle aged, middle class white women, and we use that projected image, no matter how true or false. As a result we are taken more seriously in discussion or debate; and yet also benefit from being perceived as law-abiding and non-threatening. Current events in the US are much on my mind at the moment – how some people will be perceived as so much more of a threat than others to police forces. I have been stopped whilst in a car by police three times in my life. As a clearly sober, bright, well-spoken and a middle-aged white woman, I have been given friendly warnings for ticketable offences twice. As the passenger in a car driven by my young, androgynous, black girlfriend in France, however, we meekly handed over our IDs and were lucky they could find no reason to arrest us. Jill freely admitted that driving a purple Fiesta was an advert to the world that she was a harmless, middle-aged, female driver.

And yet, of course, in a long life, we are all (hopefully) so much more than the simple, worn grooves of a provincial life. I carry, of course, the history of those adventures in France, and more. Local police here cannot see a past of protest, demonstration and civil disobedience written in my skin and appearance. And we talked again about the grooves of a life, and how some people can live lifetimes of change and transformation; and others surround themselves with only the things and people they understand. This, of course, is how prejudice builds walls around communities: so much evil is said and done in ignorance of the understanding that people different from ourselves yet live, and breathe, and strive, and deserve our compassion. We are so very diverse, and yet so very alike as a species.

And common to both Jill and I is the desire to tell those stories: to bring different life experiences into the lives of those we connect with, in the hope of increasing understanding. As I wrote last week, not everyone can share their own story safely, but sometimes we can share for others, with their blessing. We live in a world of information abundance – and I talked a little about how different that is from the early days of yoga and other oral traditions. Back then, to take your place within a tradition meant learning by rote a small amount of precious information and becoming a sort of living library book. Your worth as a spiritual scholar would be based on how faithfully you could hold to what you had received. Now we all swim in a sea of information – much of it partial and biased and even deliberately false. Our worth as holders of the yoga tradition now has much more to do with our ability to sift and analyse and compare – to be able to give a sense of the main themes of debate as the tradition evolves. I am no Sanskrit scholar, and yet on my bookshelves you will find four radically different translations of the Patanjali Sutras; three of the Baghavad Gita.

Jill talked about how different it is to practise with a teacher who contextualises the physical practice not only within a single philosophical tradition, but in an ever wider range of them. There is an undeniable gulf between a yoga teacher who has done a short, month long training and can lead a class through a simple sequence, and the depth of anatomical, philosophical, ethical, and esoteric understanding most good teachers can demonstrate. Yet for a student, there is no reliable way to know that in advance of taking a class.

And we, as yoga teachers, are increasingly squeezed. On one side are those who wish to simplify, brand and package ‘yoga’ as a basic movement practice to schedule in a gym or sell via an app; where fitness instructors are trained to deliver a set ‘yoga’ routine in a day or so. And on the other hand, professional yoga organisations encourage us into more and more training and yet offer little or no support to teachers. We are expecting people to commit to many years of study and ongoing professional development; maintain awareness of research trends and medical developments; create and run themselves as a professional brand and company; spend thousands of pounds – and yet we’re still not honest about how little yoga teachers actually earn. The vast majority of teachers earn part time ‘pin money’ for a professional career with all that involves. I worry, increasingly, that teaching yoga will become a privilege only the independently wealthy can afford.

And this, too, is a function of aging: watching the world change, and choosing where to fight and where to support those changes. Looking back to Embracing the Warrior by choosing our battles carefully. And learning to rest, and take our pleasure in the world, too: looking forward to our next theme – ‘Finding Joy’. Our Vinyasa theme for that will be on 20th May. Do join us – we have only one more Vinyasa planned after that before the summer is upon us.

Scroll to Top