It’s one of the things that have fascinated yogis for centuries. The ancient yogis developed many practices to help combat its effects. Many yoga postures and practices were developed for this very purpose – there’s even a pose, called viparita karani (half shoulderstand), which literally means “the reversing process.” The yogi Svatmarama said that if you practice this pose every day for six months “grey hairs and wrinkles (will) become inconspicuous.” I don’t think he included a money back guarantee however.
Yoga postures in general help to keep your joints stay healthy and lubricated. I remember an Indian teacher once remarking while we were holding pigeon pose, “Just wait and you will melt like butter.” And her joints were testimonially ghee-like!
But as we get older we may feel a bit more like lard – hard with a tendency towards crustiness. And there is certainly a well-loved fallacy in our culture that we must submit to a painful, unpleasant aging process – there’s not much we can do about it, it’s inevitable. So you might as well jump on the complaining bandwagon and get your multiple prescriptions re-filled.
But Dr. Steven Ustad at the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Aging and Longevity Studies at UTHSC – San Antonio disagrees. He studies how humans age. Austad says humans are quite successful at aging, noting that 25 percent of human longevity is genetic and 75 percent is environmental. But with animals, aging is 100 percent genetic.
I think it’s really inspiring to know that we can influence the process. If you start establishing healthy habits when you are younger, aging can be a deep, meaningful (and possible even pleasant!) experience, rather than a depressing limp towards the grave. And even if you start when you’re older, you can find a lot more freedom of movement and peace of mind.
We don’t have to acquiesce to pain and increasingly limited mobility as we age. Yoga is here to guide us along the way and make every stage of life interesting and enjoyable. It is a practice of longevity that you can love and do your whole life. You may find that you are stiffer than you used to be, but there is always a yoga posture or practice to help you enjoy your body however it is on any particular moment, in any particular day.
While some scientists like Ustad envision a time when drugs will increase our lifespan, yogis understood that their practices would do the same – and without harmful side effects.
In yoga philosophy, the last stage of life was traditionally called the “forest dwelling” stage. People often chose to live simply in ashrams away from the hustle of the towns, and enjoy listening to spiritual discourses, studying sacred texts and spending time in meditation and contemplation. It was a time to experience and deepen one’s connection to the Divine and to prepare for leaving their body behind on their journey beyond this life.
Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from yoga is graceful aging. We use that term for someone whom we understand to be growing older with dignity. But it is also useful to think about it in terms of its literal meaning – aging in a way that is showered in grace. As we open to the Divine, aging can become a time of wisdom, beauty and devotion – and our fears can be assuaged as we begin to understand the end of our physical body as a new beginning.