by Kimberly Dark
Three times this week, I witnessed yoga students, over age fifty, struggling into poses that likely sent them searching for the ice-pack later. One man and two women. I’m guessing about their ages; over fifty is erring on the side of youth. The first student was new to my class and based on the way she scrutinized my posture and gaped with disbelief when she couldn’t do what I was doing, I would put her in the category of “people who think they’re failing if the fat lady does something they can’t.” During my decades of yoga practice, that’s become a sturdy category. And hey, mostly I have compassion because I used to think that way too. Our culture has taught us that bodies line up along a hierarchy of worth, and fat bodies are among the most devalued. If the fat yogi or the old yogi or the disabled yogi can do something you consider “advanced,” chances are, you’re pretty impressed.
The man I witnessed was also straining in an easy-to-categorize way. It was a yin class. To some, this is “the easy class,” and his hamstrings were tight. He resisted the props and continued struggling into the pose despite my cues to support and surrender. The two women were also struggling, though with spinal flexibility rather than hamstrings.
Of all the things I miss about youth, spinal flexibility tops the list. Honestly, it’s not a huge list. I don’t mind aging as much as most, but then, I already have more body acceptance than most and I’m comfortable with various counter-cultural views. But wow, the spine. I can feel it when I sit too long at the computer. And then there’s this osteoarthritis I’m learning to live with these past few years. First I had a tendon injury that was slow to heal and remains susceptible to irritation. Then the foot pain that wouldn’t heal and seemed irritated by vinyasa yoga. That turned out to be the arthritis. I’m not quite fifty. I’m not saying I feel “old.” I’m just being honest here, in a useful way, about life in this body, while practicing yoga.
I often tell students that yoga is for the body you have today, not the one you had yesterday or last month or ten years ago.
A lot of people stop exercising when things start to hurt too much. There are good reasons why people don’t modify their activities and accept their bodies. A lot of them have to do with social privilege, avoiding humiliation, or being given the title “old” sooner than they’d like. So, people keep trying to do the same things they’ve always done. They try to look the same, hide the limp. Sit up straight and soldier on. And then add on the misguided idea that yoga is supposed to keep you young forever. So, what? If I’m showing signs of aging does that mean I’ve been doing the yoga wrong all of these years? Does it mean I’m not doing enough and I just need to push harder? What does it mean to live in the body and the mind? The real body and mind – not the ones we wish we had.
It happens to us at different times in life – some remain active with few aches and little stiffness into their sixties or seventies. Perhaps my body is developing these changes sooner because of genetics, or because I’m fat or because I did high impact exercise for many years. It doesn’t actually matter. What matters is accepting the body and using yoga to keep the body healthy and the mind calm.
I often tell students that yoga is for the body you have today, not the one you had yesterday or last month or ten years ago. Not the one you might have in three months after you work out every day, or in a year when you’ve lost some weight, or even in ten years when you’re slowing down. Yoga is for the body you have today. You have to pay attention to know how much it can do. Be neither precious nor reckless with the body. This is the only one with which you can practice. Take a breath. There is no other body.
There is also no other mind than the one you work with today. We live in a youth obsessed culture. And the yoga culture we’ve developed as a microcosm of the broader culture is also obsessed with the mystical youth-preserving magic of yoga. Add those together and it’s pretty tough to age honestly – whether the process becomes noticeable at 30 or 80.
I’m not arguing against the health benefits of yoga – far from it. I’m arguing in favor of honoring the natural process of aging, of healing from injuries. I’m arguing in favor of changing cultural privileges for young, lean, muscular bodies over all others.
Once, when teaching an intensive inversion practice, I commented on the esoteric benefits of “taking a different view” by being upside down. I commented on how frightening inversions can be, even if the body is physically ready to support you in a pose like headstand or full arm balance. I jovially remarked at what a slow learner I am. “I was on the ten year plan with headstand! For the poses that challenge me, I add about one per year.”
After class, a student followed up on my remark. He found his own slow progress with certain poses very discouraging. He was pleased by what I’d said but wanted clarification. “You may add one challenging pose per year, but you ‘re over forty now right? I mean, once you have them, you never lose them. Right?”
I had never considered my eventual decline in yoga that way before. Indeed, I had not yet lost the ability to do any yoga poses. But logically, I told him, if I live long enough, I will.
I have now lost the ability to do certain poses I could previously do. And maybe I will again have the flexibility to do a drop-back backbend. Maybe it’s not gone forever. But why would that be an interesting goal in my practice? As I age, it becomes more important to me to maintain daily strength, balance and flexibility, live pain-free as much as possible and develop an enduring partnership with my mind and body that allows me more consistent peace and happiness. Everything in the dominant culture, and media representations of women in particular, is fighting against that goal. And we do well to remember that yoga-media is also largely advertising driven. It preys on our yearning for beauty and privilege.
One of the things I appreciate most about aging is having more practice with loss and dignity, more practice with the folly of seeking privilege rather than authenticity. We can help each other remember what it means to live as allies with our bodies. And eventually, our knees may start to remind us as well.
Read about Kimberly Dark at www.kimberlydark.com
She is leading two retreats in Hawaii in 2015. Info at: https://kalani.com/workshops/2015/yoga-and-story-retreat
Kimberly Dark is a writer, storyteller and speaker who helps audiences discover that we are creating the world, even as it creates us. She’s the author of five award-winning performance scripts and a number of educational programs regarding the body in culture – how appearances and identities influence our experiences in the world related to gender, race, body type/size, beauty, ability, etc. She uses humor and intimacy to prompt audiences to discover their influences and reclaim their power as social creators. She’s been teaching yoga for fifteen years.