I am half Swiss and each year, the valley where I come from holds a world famous 31 km race. This race, called the Sierre-Zinal race, begins in the Rhone valley with a 2000 metre climb up through the forest followed by a 16 km run at over 2000 metres and then an incredibly tricky descent through another forest. The chap who won it this year did it in 2 hours 27 minutes. Impressive of course, but not as impressive as the 85-year-old who also completed it. This lady goes into a league of her own – or does she? Colin Thackery won Britain’s Got Talent at age 89 after all and Professor Krishnamacharya as we know, was still doing many inversions into his late 80s. But above all, and in light of recent events I cannot help but think of our Queen who literally worked up to her last days. How many other people can say they were working at 96?
So who am I to be able to comment on an ‘older person’s day’, or older people full stop? Which of course begs the question as to how old is old, and does how we think about our age have any impact on us?
The Expectation Effect
As the Sierre-Zinal race shows, we all age differently. But does how we perceive our age affect how we behave and what we are able to do? What we believe and visualise (which are of course the yoga tool of bhāvana) can have a powerful effect, as the following example demonstrates.
David Robson in his book ‘The Expectation Effect’ relates the outcome of an age-related research project run by Ellen Langer from Harvard University in 1979¹. The cohort of men and women aged in their 70s and 80s were taken to a venue (in America) for a one week ‘retreat’ that had been set as if it was the year 1959. They were given the food they would have eaten at that time, the newspapers of that date, and music from the 50s. They were also asked to write about themselves as if they were in 1959, but in the present tense. Before they entered they were given a battery of tests to determine their physical and mental condition. The same tests were repeated at the end of the retreat with surprising results: 63% of the participants made significant gains in their cognitive tests, as well as demonstrating clear improvement in vision, flexibility and posture. This ties in with reent research² which demonstrates that if you consider or ‘think’ yourself younger than your chronological age (which is called a subjective age) you are more likely to be healthier and psychologically resilient than those who feel older.
As yogi-s and yogini-s we know that yoga has a positive impact on our lives but this is also objectively corroborated by multiple studies which show that yoga practices have a positive effect on a myriad of functions including: cellular ageing, mobility, balance, mental health, and prevention of cognitive decline³.
Youth and Old Age
Our western culture appears obsessed by youth and most advertisements seem to want us to look younger and be younger whatever our chronological age. But given the research above, is this such a bad thing?
On 14 December 1990, the United Nations General Assembly designated October 1 as the International Day of Older Persons. The following gives us some idea of our changing world.
‘The composition of the world population has changed dramatically in recent decades. Between 1950 and 2010, life expectancy worldwide rose from 46 to 68 years. Globally, there were 703 million persons aged 65 or over in 2019. Over the next three decades, the number of older persons worldwide is projected to more than double, reaching more than 1.5 billion persons in 2050⁴’.
I have thought about this changing demographic a great deal while writing this piece. This so called ‘ageing population’ sits uncomfortably next to the 21st century’s obsession with youth. This bothers me because it appears to deny the importance and richness of ageing. As a dear friend said to me recently, to become 60,70, 80 or even 90 or 100 is a privilege. It seems to me that when we constantly focus on being and looking younger, we forget the value which age affords us. Of course, we need to keep our bodies in shape but that is not the whole picture.
Yoga is about living with reality. For most people there is a certain wisdom which comes with getting older and having had to navigate this life. There is even something special about ageing. This is not to deny that getting older has moments when loneliness and illness loom large, but we cannot underestimate the importance of having older role models and elders in all that we do.
Fe holding Dad’s hand. Copyright L Sealy
I recently had the opportunity to care for a much older family member when she came out of hospital. I have looked after my mother too, who had severe dementia, and both experiences taught me a great deal. For a start, having to take life at a much slower pace and adapting my hectic lifestyle to their rhythm made me stay in the moment. Each act, be it making breakfast, eating with them or helping them bathe or dress, was a moment of attention and care, one to which we rarely give either attention or time. I learned that what they wanted was not necessarily something to ‘do’ but rather someone to ‘be’ with. Something as apparently small as sitting holding someone’s hand could convey more than any number of stimulating activities. I also introduced them to some yoga. Yoga really is for everyone. Watching them do a gentle bridge (dvi pada piṭham) or apanāsana, aged 90 or 95, and seeing the change in their movement as they did the practice, was a testament, if ever one was needed, to the power of relationship and care, i.e. yoga by any other name. This was of course yoga therapy but as this story demonstrates, and as many already know, the teachings of Professor Krishnamacharya and TKV Desikachar focus on the individual. This ensures that each person, whatever their age, can practise yoga. As Desikachar famously said, “If you can breathe, you can practise yoga”.
Stages of Life
I believe there is something special about becoming older especially if we accept this time of our life for what it is – not a continuum of being young but a stage in its own right. Both yoga and Ayurveda recognise this.
Chapter 2 of the Yoga Rahasya sets out the different stages of life according to Indian tradition, respecting the age of the individual and thus the direction of practice for each stage of life. The brahmacāri (7-25 years old) should have a practice which supports the body in growing and learning and the mind focussing. This is called sṛṣṭi krama (meaning creation). As we come into the gṛhastha (householder) time of life, our focus moves from learning to earning. We support the young and old within both our family and society
(time, taxes and charitable giving). These people are time poor and the practice for them is sthiti or rakṣana krama, a practice that focusses mainly on prāṇāyāma and is for the maintenance of health and relief of stress.
Image by Amit N from Pixaby
By the time we get to retire we move to the vanaprastha stage (vana = forest, prastha = well established). We have (traditionally!) paid our dues to society and can begin to focus on our own path. Thus, we are less involved in the hurly burly of life and our practice will focus more on prāṇāyāma and meditation. Saṁhāra krama⁵ is the practice when we come to a Sannyāsa (saṁ = total, nyāsa = placement / putting down). We move away from the earthly world (Krishnamacharya moved out of the family house) and we surrender to a Higher Force.
These stages are echoed in Ayurveda, whereby each stage in life is ‘overseen’ by the influence of one of the three dośa. As a child and young adult, kapha (earth and water) dominates. This is the stage when the person is growing and developing. Children heal fast and are robust. Pitta (fire and water) follows with its direction on being sharp and focussed. This stage is about developing our identity and achievement. This is what we do when go out into the world to forge our careers and create a family. Lastly, as we age (from about 50), vata (space and air) is the ruler of our stage of life. We are ‘airier’, our bones become more brittle, our sleep more disrupted.
Diana with photo of herself. Copyright B Teuten
Many have claimed that the invisibility of older people and their apparent lack of purpose contributes to their feeling of worthlessness. Our need for a purpose and meaning does not diminish with age but it does change. Our ‘older’ years are about wisdom and maturity, about sharing and teaching what we have learned in our life. As our body declines (even if you can run the Sierre–Zinal race, it won’t be as fast as you might have done it at 20) we realise that it does not mend as quickly as it once did. It is at this point that we are helped or hindered by how we have cared for ourselves in the past.
Not only that, but as we age and watch those close to us age, we are reminded of a fundamental tenet of Yoga and Saṁkhya philosophy: we are made up of both prakṛti (‘matter’ which includes both our mind and body), which is subject to constant change and thus decay, and puruṣa (our true Self) which never changes and is eternal. Yoga Sūtra 2.5 tells us that to confuse the ephemeral with the eternal is to live in ignorance (avidyā). Saṁyoga, the intense link between the two (prakṛti and puruṣa), is where our suffering comes from. At some level of course, we know that we cannot escape old age, illness and death, however the reality is that until we have a brush with death or illness, impermanence is just an intellectual truth.
Thus our ageing can also become a vehicle for spiritual growth. Our yoga does not need to be yet another strong physical practice but rather one that is focussed on taking us towards something greater where we can recognise the difference between prakṛti and puruṣa. The increase in vata as we age tends to make us more conscious of noise and thus needing more peace and quiet is an opportunity for quiet reflection leading us inward away from the pull outwards of our senses.
Ahiṁsā and the duality of life
I would like to leave you with two thoughts:
The first is from the Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki, who when asked “Why do we
meditate?” replied, “So you can enjoy your old age.” How we live our lives will inevitably have an impact on how we face older age. By practising yoga, which of course includes and is meditation, we not only learn to act with greater clarity throughout our life but also to focus our attention inwardly, towards that part of ourselves which is always stable and eternal.
Secondly, based on the yama of ahiṁsā, we understand that even if prakṛti is in constant change and flux, the older, increasingly fragile body and mind (which also makes us who we are are) is no less sacred and worthy of exceptional kindness and care.
Our society is, at the end of the day, judged on how it treats its most vulnerable.
Bea Teuten October 2022
1 Langer E.J, (2009) Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility
5 This is also known as ādhyātmika krama – of or concerning the Self. The purpose of cikitsa krama, yoga therapy, is to bring someone back to health and thus the practices appropriate for their stage of life.