Recently, I turned 68, which got me thinking, yet again, about what yoga has to offer us as we get older. Certainly, many of yoga's benefits for the elderly have been widely documented: a greater sense of wellbeing, greater flexibility, a heightened sense of balance as well as others. New advantages of yoga for the elderly are constantly being demonstrated.
Yet for me, yoga provides something beyond the crucial benefits mentioned above. Here, we might note a difference between contemporary American and traditional Indian society. In America, older people are all too often considered expendable and, indeed, are often invisible.
America is a youth-oriented society and one of the greatest compliments to an older person seems to be, “Wow, I never would have guessed that you’re seventy, you look twenty years younger.” And the market is filled with “anti-aging” products from supplements to lotions and even surgeries designed to make the face or body look younger.
In addition, you may be struggling with watching technology gallop at a breakneck pace, with teenagers seamlessly whizzing though Internet or cellphone functions that you are still mastering. If you have retired, you may wonder about your purpose in life now that it is no longer structured by a job. And if you are like me, you may be watching some of your friends develop chronic or acute illnesses, or passing away, bringing not only sadness but also larger questions about mortality. Who are we? What happens when we die?
Does this really have to be a senior’s experience of aging?
As mentioned, in traditional Indian circles, aging is seen as a great opportunity: specifically, an opportunity to single-mindedly pursue spiritual goals and move towards union with the Ultimate Reality, whatever that means to each of us. In India, this is framed as being finished with the "householder" stage of life and now being free to devote ourselves to our spirituality, if we choose to. At this stage of life, yoga can provide spiritual meaning and a way to age gracefully and to expand our world.
Of course, there are other benefits to yoga as well. Yoga postures (asanas) can strengthen our bodies and mitigate many of the conditions associated with aging, such as osteoporosis, arthritis, and heart disease. Yogic breathing (pranayama) and meditation calm the nervous system, improve mood, and can also contribute to greater physical and emotional strength and vitality. In addition, breathing and meditation allow us to access higher states of consciousness, which can offer a new window into larger questions of mortality and meaning in life and afterward.
One of the most inspiring people in my life is my teacher, the yoga master Sri Dharma Mittra who, at age 79, still teaches and performs mind-boggling asanas, as well as other techniques of yoga designed to bring us to Self-Realization. There are many accounts of yogis who continue into a vigorous old age, strong in body and peaceful in emotion and spirit.
Yoga offers us an uplifting set of practices that allow us to both maintain our physical health and move into more expansive realms of consciousness and spirit, whatever our age or state of health.