Acceptance. A fresh start.
The springtime might seem an odd time of year to think about ageing and death. Lambs are frolicking, buds bursting: new life is everywhere. Still, perhaps because April is my own birthday month, the springtime seems to cast a long shadow. Its joys are sharpened by the knowledge that lambs don’t stay lambs forever; that those same buds will fall as petals long before autumn comes.
At its most mystical, yoga is a cult of immortality. The ancient texts promise that strict observance of the rites of hatha yoga will slow or even stop the ageing process, conferring superhuman qualities of youthfulness and vigour on the practitioner. Today, we may not believe it will keep us alive forever, but we still use yoga as a defence against ageing. We pursue a middle-aged body that retains the flexibility of a toddler’s.
The trouble with such defences is that they are bound to fail. Dedicated practice may help delay the loss of our physical and mental capacity; may indeed make us look and feel younger than other people our age. But all of us grow progressively older, stiffer, weaker.
All of us die in the end, however perfect our headstands and however long we sit in padmasana.
Better, perhaps, to think of yoga as a way of making friends with the ageing process. A practice for your whole life, one that can grow and change – and, yes, age – along with your body.
There are four proverbial ages of yoga: the Child, the Scholar, the Householder and the Sage. Children simply play and explore; Scholars (teens to 30s) push themselves to acquire fresh knowledge and practical skills; Householders (30s to 50s) juggle their practice with their worldly responsibilities, learning new ways to integrate yoga into parenting, work and community concerns; Sages (50s onward) draw their focus inwards again, taking advantage of the happy combination of a life’s wisdom, and the time to practise once more.
The fulfilled yogi is one whose practice suits her/his life stage, providing just enough challenge and novelty, and enhancing rather than depleting mental and physical energies. It’s a moving target, of course. A bit like the elusive notion of “work/life balance”, the perfect yoga practice requires constant re-tuning. We may experience long periods of falling out of love with yoga, or simply being unable to find the time or inclination to practise. The good news is, it’s always there.
If you’ve been doing yoga for a long time, the chances are you’ve been through a curve of disillusionment. When you started, it seemed like you could just keep on getting better at it forever. But over the years you’ve noticed there are things you used to be able to do that you can’t any more, because your body has changed or your appetite for risk has declined.
Allow yourself to feel sad about this. The loss of youth is a painful experience, and you are entitled to grieve for it. Then, let it go. Getting stuck in the past, hung up on the old you, is the best way to miss what’s fresh and exciting about right now.
My guided relaxation for this month is centred around a simple mantra and breathing practice that I learned from Martha Beck. On the in breath, say to yourself, “Let it happen.” On the out breath, “Let it go.” You don’t need to do a formal meditation to use this technique. It works in the moment, whenever you are assailed by grief, fear or anger.
So next time you feel angry or disappointed with your body during a yoga class, give it a try. Let it happen, let it go. Wipe the slate clean so that you can wake up again in the springtime of this very moment, this movement, this stillness.