growing up: youth, age and hatha yoga

A few years ago,in my early twenties, I didn't really believe I would ever age. So far life had only been a ripening, a growing into coordination. I never woke up stiff or sore, I healed quickly whenever hurt, I could even fold in half like a jack-knife and cup my knees in my eye sockets. In the back of my mind was the thought that one day the flexibility of youth would evaporate and decline would set in. The stiffening of joints, the lack of endurance, the body breaking down. Looking around North America, I see most people over the age of thirty engaged in a rapid backpedaling, trying to reverse the process of aging with exercise, creams, surgery, yoga, therapy, retreats, you name it. The goal, it seems, is to reclaim the ease, flexibility and immortality of youth.

For myself I simply hoped it wouldn't be that way. I would be one of those rare people who stay fit in mind and body until one day I just stopped. It would be almost effortless.

Recently I sat with three women many years older than me and we talked about Hatha Yoga: Swami Durgananda, who is seventy-five; Kate Anderson, who is sixty-eight; and Alanda Greene, who is fifty-two. They are all vibrant examples of people undoing the assumptions that aging equals deterioration and youth is beauty. These assumptions become reality when we don't put in the effort to rethink them. It is not luck which keeps us healthy but care and awareness.

I'm learning not to limit myself and not to make assumptions.

At seventy-five, Swami Durgananda is the oldest one among us. When I first met her four years ago I was surprised to discover her age. Here was a woman who in no way resembled my grandmothers (virtually the only people over the age of sixty with whom I had contact). By seventy-five they were slow and set in their ways. But Swami Durgananda started to shake up my myth of aging, a term she isn't all too ready to identify with: "I've noticed as a supposedly 'aging' person that I'll come up against a limitation in a pose and start to make assumptions. 'Oh, I guess I won't be able to do this any longer because I'm getting older and my body's changing.' This kind of ridiculous assumption is a trap. If I keep coming back to the pose, keep trying it, all of a sudden I will be able to do the pose again fine. So what was the problem? I'm learning not to limit myself and not to make assumptions."

When Swami Durgananda says this I immediately think of the assumptions I have brought into this conversation. One is that, as a younger person talking to older people, I am the only one in a position to learn. Another assumption of mine is that I have all the time in the world to make changes, there is no need to rush. These assumptions reflect an inflexibility of the mind, which then plays out in my body unless I challenge myself to think differently. Since I've grown up more or less accepting the basic cultural assumptions I was presented with as a child, something powerful must come along to make me want to live differently. What was it that each of these women came in contact with that made them want to change? It wasn't always a big bang. For some it started as quietly as picking up a book and being attracted to the pictures.

When Alanda was a teenager in the sixties she picked up a book called Yoga, Youth and Reincarnation, which had in the back a collection of Hatha exercises. She started with those and for a couple of years followed a very disciplined practice, sitting in the middle of the living room floor doing asanas and now and again trying to teach her mother yoga. "At an early age I had a sense of wanting to not get tightened up and inflexible," she says. "I remember very clearly when I was first learning reading a comment about 'you're as old as your spine is flexible.' It struck me and gave me a real sense of being something I want to maintain."

I have much more a sense of embracing the body as part of the whole,
rather than it being something I have to rise above.

Then Alanda took up a meditation practice which required her to give up all other practices, so she stopped her Hatha exercises. Something stayed with her; perhaps that initial attraction kept simmering below the surface, maturing to a point when she could come back to Hatha Yoga. "It's been such a re-entry, but quite different from in the beginning when I didn't know what the attraction was. Now it is so conscious. I have much more a sense of embracing the body as part of the whole, rather than it being something I have to rise above."

It was when she came back to Hatha in her thirties that she met a woman who embodied the comment "you're as old as your spine is flexible," which had originally drawn her to Hatha. The woman was a Hatha instructor, and to Alanda she represented an "older' woman. "She was completely grey, but she was so flexible. I remember having this real strong sense that this was a model of aging that I really wanted, rather than being progressively more limited and incapacitated.'

Most of us look to people older than ourselves for examples of behavior and responsibility. I can remember being in elementary school and thinking the kids a few years older than me were worlds more mature; they were impossibly big and powerful simply by virtue of their age. As a seven-year-old it made sense to me to emulate a nine-year-old, because that was an age and stage I would soon be arriving at. As I grew through my teenage years and into my twenties, I began to consciously choose my role models, understanding why I was inspired by one person and averse to the choices of another.

Now, from my vantage point of twenty-six years, each of these women I am talking to is a model of how to live with quality and awareness, in body and mind. Even so, they represent various stages along the path. I see Swami Durgananda as a woman who has fully integrated the principles and benefits of yoga into her life. Kate came to Hatha in her late fifties, undoing the assumption that it's ever too late to start. Alanda has built a solid foundation on Hatha on which she is learning to live with quality and awareness.

I'm learning not to limit myself and not to make assumptions.

When I first approached these women to talk about Hatha Yoga in their lives, I lumped them more or less together as "older women" (which, for the sake of this article, I defined as over fifty). Then as we were talking I realized that Alanda is twenty-three years younger than Swami Durgananda, and someone twenty-three years younger than me is three years old. I'm not exactly sure what this means except that there will always be someone older than me and always someone older than them. Though we come to the path of yoga in our own way and in our own time, there will always be living examples of people who are succeeding at the very thing we are attempting to do.

Through her commitment to yoga, Alanda is learning that by taking care of her body and mind in the present, the future is also being cared for. "I'm laying down the tracks that I'm going to follow in. I have a choice in where I'm laying them, but once I've lain them then I'm going to move along those tracks. I have a sense now that I am living out the direction I have set, and that I've got to continue to set my direction."

Yoga promises a transformation that is much deeper than physical beauty. It comes with recognizing the mind-body-spirit connection, a self-knowing that resonates outwards to become the vitality that I see in Swami Durgananda, and that Alanda met in her teacher. Through care, attention and regular practice they have aged into increasing health and awareness, on all levels. This is the promise of yoga. "I find there are two aspects to Hatha," says Swami Durgananda. "One is that it will take me to a deeper, quiet place within myself, and the other is that it helps me lead my outer life with more awareness."

In 1995 Kate took a three-month yoga course in which they did two hours of Hatha every morning. It was a chance for her to see how subtly change happens. "We would do the Plough,' she says, "and in the beginning I couldn't touch the floor over my head. Then at some point during the third month I went over and my toes touched the floor. We hadn't been doing the Plough every day, but I had this concept that I would have to keep doing the Plough over and over in order to get any movement. Then I realized the subtle changes that took place mentally and physically eventually brought about the change and allowed me to do the pose.'

Kate teaches yoga in community centres in Vancouver to people who are often coming to yoga for the first time. "I see a lot of people come in who have never ever done yoga, and a lot of people who are really out of touch with their bodies. At the beginning I talked about it as a process of bringing mind and body together, but I don't talk about that very much any more. Over a period of time—if they come back and do two or three ten-week sessions—I see them become more comfortable with their bodies.

I've seen people come and in the beginning with the Mountain they are wiggling and looking around and absolutely not able to stand still. Then at the end of ten weeks there is a sense of them being solidly there. You can see the changes. I always acknowledge it to them, because I think that part of the process is to name for them something that's happened. What I really appreciate about yoga, especially for women, is that it's so process-oriented, so permissive. It gives us the opportunity to be okay about our bodies and not to have to achieve a certain level of performance. The process becomes our own."

At twenty-six I have been inspired to try Hatha, and have been "trying" it for five years. At thirty-six will I really know what it feels like to be transformed? To persist with this practice I have to believe in both my mortality and the control I have over my own body. As my own aging makes itself apparent I realize change is always happening, and I can only choose to direct it or ignore it. I do not want to live in ignorance. At fifty-six will I be as knowing of myself as these women around me? This is not intellectual knowledge I am seeking, it is body knowledge.

Yesterday I went swimming for longer than usual and today the muscles are tender. My body is speaking to me, and I am learning to listen. I know I can do some stretches and work the soreness out of my lower back. I know I don't have to accept this stiffness as inevitable.

I see these women, myself included, as a lineage of people practicing body-mind awareness. We are a lineage because there is something being passed along the line: knowledge and inspiration. If I didn't see the health and strength of Swami Durgananda, or hear her stories, what would I think was possible in the progression of my own life? Swami Durgananda, Kate and Alanda each represent a step along the way, bringing to life the journey of a life of health. Each of these women carries her intelligence intact and honours the body that is housing her spirit. They know the secret to being one of those rare people who stay fit in body and mind. It's a secret I am learning.

Lesley Marian Neilson is a contributing editor with ascent

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