Here’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. I’m in my mid-70s. Am I old yet?
Answer: When people find out my age, they say I look younger than that. I can’t take the credit for that. It’s my genes. I’ve always looked younger than I actually was. I continued riding on public transportation in Buffalo, NY at the child’s fare well into my early teens because I was small. Or, when I tell people how old I am, they say: well, as long as you have a “young” attitude. This is ageism. Doesn’t accumulated knowledge and wisdom count for something? “Young” is the standard of mental and physical fitness in our culture largely because commercial advertising promotes it. Ads promote youthful slim figures which few of us can approximate. But we try to compete with the models anyway. We’ve become a body-obsessed culture, and not always in ways that are healthy for our bodies.
Certainly we can’t ignore our bodies, because we are our bodies. Our bodies are how we interact with the world around us through sensory perception and movement, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty taught in his Phenomenology of Perception. Our mind is not separate from the body; it is part of our body, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson emphasized in their Philosophy in the Flesh. Human beings have always been aware of their bodies and concerned to maintain healthy ones. But in modern culture health is not enough; we must be fit. Men and women have always paid attention to their appearance as a way to improve their chances of mating and procreation, as other species do. Today people want to be attractive because that opens up more social opportunities. Commercialism understands and promotes this and we literally “buy” into it.
But, just so, entering old age is an escape from this commercial captivity. The body begins its slow decline somewhere in late middle age (late 50s?, early 60s?) and that physical decline increases more rapidly after 65 or 70. There’s no magic number for these age differentiations we make. But the body doesn’t lie. The hair turns from shades of grey to white. The skin thins, dries, and loses elasticity. With decreasing muscle tone the skin forms wrinkles and sagging occurs. Hearing may diminish and sight may lose its sharpness. We begin to sleep fewer hours at night and compensate by taking a nap (or two) during the day (especially once we’re retired). Maybe the mind isn’t as agile as it once was. The gait may be slower. Our aging is embodied. We no longer look or act like the commercial images of fit and attractive young adults. Maybe with the population aging as baby boomers come into (shudder!) old age, commercial images of fit, attractive senior citizens will give the generations following something to aspire to.
In spite of our embodied aging, we do need to remain healthy because we are living longer and we want to enjoy our remaining years. The study of human senescence continues and firm conclusions cannot yet be drawn. But the fact is that our biological nature gives us the ability to live past the Bible’s three score years and ten (70), “or if due to strength, eighty years” (Psalm 90:10). We probably won’t make the ages reported for the biblical patriarchs, and Genesis’ record of decreasing age spans may be a way of indicating the consequences of the fall into sin (human alienation from God, the source of life). The natural average age humans can attain is different from the actual average age because the average is cut short by deaths in child birth, war, famine, disease and other factors. Health authorities claim that medical progress has extended human life spans by 20-30 years during the course of the 20th century.
As our average life span increases we need to exercise to keep the body functioning at an optimal level. Seniors find a congenial physical activity. Some go to the gym. Others play golf. The major physical activity of my senior years is yoga. In fact, I didn’t even begin practicing yoga until I was sixty-five. I got into it almost accidentally when I joined an active older adults exercise group at the local YMCA as I was rehabbing my body after nearly a year of chemotherapy for colon cancer. Of course, yoga is not just an exercise regimen. It has a spiritual aspect and a philosophic foundation that I have been interested in studying. Nor is yoga the only exercise I do.
We need aerobic exercise that comes from walking, running, biking, swimming, etc. I enjoy walking and biking. But as we age the challenges associated with high impact forms of exercise make things a little more difficult. Yoga provides a safe way to get moving and stay active.
We need strength work because our muscles are atrophying. I used to do moderate work with weights. I still keep hand weights available. But holding up the body against the force of gravity is also a form of weight lifting. Yoga won’t give you six-pack abs, but it will strengthen the core of the body (which is within). That chair pose we dread is actually one of the best poses for seniors because it strengthens the core. I’m proud of the fact that I can sit down and stand up from sitting without having to hold on to something while grunting like I remember my grandfather doing.
The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit for “yoke.” Yoga stresses the union of body and mind. In fact, it turns out to be good for the mind. A study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health on “The Acute Effects of Yoga on Executive Function” demonstrated that after yoga sessions the mind shows increased memory and processing power. Maybe that’s because one has to keep in mind all the separate things the body is required to do in any pose.
Yoga works on balance. Of course, we don’t always have a focal point when walking like we do if standing in tree pose. But we can be mindful of maintaining our balance on uneven surfaces. That’s an important benefit for seniors. It lowers the risk of falls and fractures that commonly injure older people.
Yoga increases our flexibility. Many people (especially men) say they don’t want to do yoga because they’re not very flexible. That’s like saying I won’t lift weights because I’m not very strong. One becomes flexible by getting into those bends and twists as best as one can. Yoga is not a competitive sport.
Related to holding yourself upright (or downward) is bone strength. Bone density decreases with age, but yoga can keep bones more supple. My yoga teacher has lately been stressing that the bones in our body are not the white brittle things we see in display skeletons. Those are dead bones, he says. Living bones are more fluid.
In that connection, I’ve been practicing with my teachers a more fluid form of movement than yoga conventionally emphasized with its angular poses. In fact, integrating qigong with yoga practice can be a good activity for seniors. In a park in Singapore I saw a whole group of Asian senior citizens practicing qigong. I enjoyed joining others in doing qigong on the expansive lawn of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Ayurvedia Health.
Street qigong in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
One of the most important benefits of yoga is what it teaches about breathing. The deep breathing performed in yoga sends more oxygen to the blood, which keeps the body’s organs happy, healthy, and functioning at an optimal state. Moreover, one can experience in the breath work (pranayama) an energetic force that does enable us to move in and out of poses (asanas) and to relax under stress of muscle or mind.
Yoga often leads into practices of meditation. In fact, that was its original purpose. Meditation helps to reduce hypertension and can reduce the diastolic blood pressure number. This is exactly what people with high blood pressure need.
There are many different yoga styles out there. I’ve tried different brands just to see what they offer. But basically I stay with hatha yoga classes that will include breath work (pranayama), a round of poses (ananas), and some time for meditation.
Healthy people, seniors in particular, need to pay attention to what they eat. Yoga is allied with ayurveda, the ancient health system of India. One of the emphases of ayurveda is diet. In fact, ayurveda is one of the world’s original “food as medicine” systems. I’m no authority on this complex system that makes adjustments to diet for seasons and body types. Ayurvedic practitioners can give guidance on this. But I know that people of my generation have had to radically change the dietary habits we grew up with. We grew up with foods of convenience, such as canned foods dumped in a kettle and overcooked. It’s no wonder we didn’t like vegetables. Now we can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, sometimes directly from the farmers at community farmers’ markets, and we know we should eat more of them. We should buy organic produce that hasn’t been treated with chemical fertilizers. And we should eliminate from our diet refined sugars, reduce starches, and avoid overcooking meat. And that’s just the beginning.
There are two other benefits I receive from yoga practice that I’m sure could be received from other physical activities as well. Practicing yoga boosts my mood. It lowers cortisol levels in the brain and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. These biochemical changes make us feel less anxious and create a healthier state of mind. I just feel good after yoga class.
The final benefit for me is making the acquaintance of a wider group of people than I’ve known before. As a pastor for more than forty years I knew mostly church people, sometimes augmented by being involved in community organizations. Certainly there are church people in yoga classes. But there are also people with other religious backgrounds or none at all. And while there are many other seniors in my regular yoga classes, there are also younger people. I enjoy the mixture of ages in classes. I especially enjoy having young yoga teachers who challenge me both intellectually and physically.
I hope these tips have been helpful to other seniors. I don’t practice yoga to “keep young” but to “age well.” Your comments are welcome.
Not-Quite-Old Yogi Frank