Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Since seeing my 94 year-old grandmother struggle to get out of her wheelchair at a holiday party, I’ve been contemplating new goals for the time I spend on my yoga mat. My grandma is famously hearty, spunky, and self-sufficient, and up until a year ago she lived on her own and walked up and down a long flight of stairs multiple times every day. Last year at the holidays, I recall her bending down to pick up a tiny piece of lint on the floor. I should have known she’d slow down eventually, but she’s been healthy, active, and self-sufficient for so long, I was starting to think she’d always be that way. How could so much change in less than a year? 

Aging is invisible, made even more so by the fact that we want to deny it’s happening. As I’m approaching 40 I’m both grateful for my relative youth and irritated that I now have to think about my form when loading the dishwasher if I want to avoid a backache. 

Inspired by my amazingly tough grandma and my desire to continue loading the dishwasher pain-free, I’m rethinking my yoga goals. Yes, it’s awesome that each and every time I practice I come off the mat feeling like a million bucks (or as I sighed after class the other day, “I feel like a human being again!”). But that’s just not enough for me anymore.   

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I’ve been all over the map in my 20 year yoga career. Having come from an athletic background, I started yoga with an overly vigorous, push-push-push mentality. Then after a few years (and a few too many injuries) I swung in the opposite direction and pretty much refused to do anything that risked me breaking a sweat or didn’t involve a bolster. 

From what I’ve observed in my years of teaching, many practitioners tend toward the same black-or-white approach, sticking with classes that match their natural inclinations on the mat. If you’re a vigorous yogi, you’re probably a regular in challenging vinyasa-style classes that build heat, throw in a few arm balances, and just generally kick your butt. If you’re a gentler yogi, you’re likely a pro at modifying poses, your bolster is your best friend, and in your eyes there’s no such thing as too many restorative poses. 

If you’re looking to yoga to support your aging process, which approach is better: vigorous or gentle?  

The answer (at least for me) is both. 

There’s plenty of conflicting scientific evidence and absolutely no guarantees as to the secret formula for aging well. But my money’s on a balanced approach that combines the vigorous and the gentle. In this approach, yoga is not about trying to improve or impress, but more importantly, to maintain. Whatever I can do today, I want to be able to do tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade. 

It takes a delicate balance to figure out when to push yourself and when to take it easy on the mat. Too strict an approach and you’re likely to injure yourself or burn out; too lax and you’ll gradually lose ground.  

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Think of the last time you practiced a long hold in chair pose. In order to build muscle strength you need to hold the pose until you begin to feel some sensation in your legs, but if you go too deep or hold too long, you’ll probably hold your breath, create unnecessary tension, or even strain yourself.  

Chair is a love-it or hate-it pose for most yoga students. I used to be a chair hater, mostly because the pose was hard for me, but eventually I realized that if I wanted to stay strong and mobile as I age, any pose that’s hard should become my best friend. Now, even in my gentle yoga classes, I sequence in gentle strengthening poses and incorporate a little bit of challenge into every practice (interspersed with plenty of delicious restorative moments).  

Here’s a cool scientific tidbit: Strength, especially leg strength, has recently been proven to be an important factor in improving brain health and slowing age-related decline. And there’s plenty of evidence touting the benefits of triggering the body’s relaxation response to reduce the chronic impact of stress on the body and mind. 

Scientific studies (and awesome grandmas) are giving us the formula. We just need to implement it: work a little, relax a little, aaahhh a little. 

So how can you bring your own practice more into balance?  

You don’t have to ditch your favorite class or completely overhaul your approach. But you may want to take an honest look at whether your yoga practice is just improving upon your strengths and ignoring your weaknesses? 

Maybe you crave the muscle burn from a long hold in warrior I, but when it’s time to lie still in savasana you want to crawl out of your skin. Or on the other hand, perhaps you’re the person who just “comes for the savasana” and barely tolerates anything more vigorous than that.  

Observe the yogi that you are today and consider adding either a new class that focuses on the opposite approach, or simply challenge yourself to fully embrace the parts of your favorite class that are particularly hard for you. There are no guarantees, of course, but my hunch is that rounding your yoga out will serve you well as you age. 

May we all live to be spunky 90+ year-olds who bend down to pick up lint off the floor; may we learn when to challenge ourselves and when to soften; and may we use our yoga practice for the good of our aging selves, so we can unload the dishwasher without pain rather than waking up one day and wondering how our bodies have suddenly, over the course of so many years, betrayed us.

 

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