The process of aging
As we age the amount of light that reaches the optic nerve decreases, lung capacity diminishes, muscle mass, the brain’s fontal lobe and hippocampus all shrink.
In my early thirties, I was hit by a car on my way to a yoga class. It had recently snowed in Chicago and there was a bit of slush and ice on the streets as I biked south down Damen from my apartment. I rolled over the hood of the car as it made a left turn directly into me. When I landed on the ground on the other side of the car time stopped and looking down at my hands, I realized I was still alive. Hands still intact, I did an inventory check, hands slightly body and trembling, unable to close right hand, shaking but understandable. I checked the helmet, scratched, bike handle bars and fork were misaligned but easily fixed. The car faired worse. My body placed a dent in the hood and side panel of a black 4 wheel coffin (sedan).
After collecting my courage that was shaken to the core and getting the guys information I continued to that yoga class. 3 days later I was in Miami practicing with Patrick at MLC and telling him about the accident when he asked about the bruins that took over the entire left thigh.
At 30 all of my primary systems were functioning at the top of their game. I was lucky, really lucky, that I didn’t get hurt worse. I had a few friends not escape as easily, some not escaping at all.
With this dumb luck and a physical body that could take on a night of drinking before showing up to work the next day I didn’t understand what this 2 day hangover was that the the nurses and doctors would talk about during our break. By 30 I understood a hangover, something that I didn’t quite understand in my 20’s, but was completely perplexed at the possibility of one lasting 2 days! I thought, ‘they must have been partying harder than I was,’ but that was improbable, they had families, and were doctors and nurse practitioners. That made them 80 time more responsible than me. Maybe even 110 time more responsible than my single, fixie riding, whiskey drinking, pissing into the wind, defiant thirty year old self.
The difference, I was later to find out, was about 8-12 years.
All complex systems begin to break down randomly and gradually at different times. It’s why in our genius we have built in back up systems to nuclear power plants, and back up systems for the back up systems. It’s why there are back up systems in the human body; an extra kidney, a second lung, liver cells that regenerate, etc. Systems in place that if the primary one fails a back-up can take over while making repairs or replacing the primary system. The secondary system isn’t as efficient or effective as the primary, but keeps the entire operation moving forward another day.
For most of our species existence on this planet the average lifespan of humans was around 30 years. It’s only in the last century that the average lifespan of humans has increased to about 80. (How many days does a hangover last in your 80’s?) The modern human is, in a sense, a freak. A mutant. An unnatural pheromone.
When we talk about aging with respects to our yoga practice we are entering uncharted territory. Medical research can explain why our hair turns grey, how a build up in lipofuscin in our sweat glands causes ‘age-spots’ and is partly responsible for the elderly being susceptible to heat stroke and exhaustion.
With the advancements in conventional medicine we have overcome many of the cause of ‘early death’ like, childbirth, infection, and traumatic injury. Conventional medicine has made improvements in how we treat cardiac, and respiratory illnesses, which has increased the average life expectancy.
But . . .
Increasing the amount of time spent on this planet is not the same as living longer?
Yoga has a great many health benefits to the human body. I wrote a book about them. But how do we practice yoga as we get older? Can yoga prevent aging?
Eventually one too many joints will be damaged, one too many arteries will calcify, we will run out of back-up systems and we will stop being alive and accumulating more years.
I’ve never seen a claim or provable research that states, “Yoga CURES cancer” or AIDS, schizophrenia, MS, etc. and I wouldn’t believe it if I did see it. (Fact check me on PubMed, please)
What research HAS found is ‘that yoga improved the physical and psychological symptoms, quality of life, and markers of immunity of the patients, providing a strong support for yoga's integration into conventional cancer care.’*
Yoga can remind us to live.
Practicing yoga as we age can remind us that there is pain and suffering in the world, as there is pain and suffering within our bodies. It can give us a greater sense of empathy, the highest form of connection with the Devine. We can practice asana, conditioning the body to be in harmony with itself. We can learn the structure and the alignments of each position but the real work begins when we learn to ‘relax’ into the posture deepening our breath. Yoga can help us pay attention to the body and its alterations and make adjustments to how our bodies decline. We can remain aware of our nutrition, medications, and living situations. Allow the yoga to slow your respiratory rate, improve your balance, and regulate and lower you cortisol levels.
Rushing into a positions and forced alignments will invite injury and illness to find their way into the tendons, joints, and muscles. When we spend time with the asana and the breath we take in life and the purpose for living, instead of running to the next thing. It’s only a matter of time before our backup systems stop working.
When we are aware and paying attention to the body, we can address the systems as they begin to break down sooner and address changes that we can make. The sooner we address the issues and make changes we give ourselves more time to enjoy the things that really matter.