It’s the Holy Grail of Modern Life, the never-ending quest for the elusive fountain of youth. That potion or procedure or diet that will keep one looking and feeling young forever.
Pity the poor celebrity, faced with growing older in the glaring light of public scrutiny, forever surrounded by images of themselves as a younger, brighter star.
But it’s not just celebrities that fight the ever-advanced march of time. Regular citizens like you and I pour millions of dollars into highly-touted solutions to the aging process. Creams and lotions, potions and pills… there’s always a scientific breakthrough around the corner complete with new technical terms and spiffy diagrams that show exactly how the nano-whatzits are attacking the aging process and making you young again.
But does it all work?
A quick glance around at the folk you stand next to in the pharmacy queue, or sit next to in the beauty salon, or work-out beside in the gym will give you a ready answer.
Because if it worked, none of us would have wrinkles. We’d look young forever. And as the glossy women’s mags are keen to show us week after week, even celebrities age (Brad Pitt – how could you!), wrinkle and sag. Time halts for no woman, nor man.
Yet it is possible to stay young forever. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois did it – still teaching yoga as he approached his 90s. Krishnamacharya succeeded. So too did Iyengar. In fact, spend any time in yogic circles and you will notice that while yogis still have wrinkles, they still sag… there is a youthfulness and vigour about them that belies their age.
Yoga keeps you young.
And it keeps you young in the only way that really counts – on the inside. Yet when you’re young on the inside – young organs, young joints, young nervous system, young outlook – you also look young on the outside. You glow, from the inside out.
Because what does it mean to be young?
Does it mean that you have a smooth, wrinkle-free, expressionless face that hasn’t changed in twenty years?
Or does it mean that you leap out of bed in the mornings excited about what adventures you might encounter today?
Does it mean that people mistake you for your daughter?
Or does it mean that you can get up on the mountain with your daughter and spend the week snowboarding?
Does finding the fountain of youth mean you never have to grow up and face the reality of life?
Or does finding the fountain of youth mean that you face the reality of life with childlike wonder?
This is what it really means to be young – it’s the way you look at the world, it’s the way your body moves, it’s your willingness to embrace the new and step outside the comfort zone.
Yoga works on all these aspects of youthfulness – and more. Watch yogis (like David Swenson down below) practice and you can see that our bodies age not because the years roll on by, but because they become accustomed to the range of movement that we put them through.
As Suza Francina says in – Our Changing View of Aging: With Yoga, the Body Remains Open and Flexible
The accepted view of the aging process has been one of stiffening, rigidity and closing down. Without proper exercise, the body contracts and we lose height, strength and flexibility. As a result, our natural free range of motion is restricted so daily activities become difficult and in some cases impossible.
Yoga exercises reverse the aging process by moving each joint in the body through its full range of motion-stretching, strengthening and balancing each part. Most popular forms of weight bearing exercise contract muscles and tighten the musculoskeletal system, adding to the stiffness that normally settles into the body with the passage of time. In our youth-oriented culture, obsessed with thinness, we tighten the muscles to make the body look firmer.
What is much more important, however, especially as we grow older, is opening and expanding the body so that the aging process is tempered.
If you really want to know how “old” you are – don’t look at your birthdate, nor even the number of grey hairs or wrinkles you have. Instead, see how bendy your spine is – in yoga, age is measured not in chronological years but with the saying:
“You’re only as young as your spine.”
This means when I started yoga back in my mid-twenties, due to the rigidity to my spine (couldn’t touch my toes – could barely touch my knees!) I was actually closer to 70 years old. Thank goodness I started yoga then! Now with my spine opening up, I figure I’ve reversed the aging process so much I’m in my late teens again – at least, that’s how old I feel!
Remember, our spine contains more movable parts than any other part of our body. It’s connected to our pelvis, our legs, our arms and our head. When the spine gives way, it’s often at one of those connection points, and the agony and stiffness carries through to the rest of our body. But when you can still bend forward with ease to put your shoes and socks on, bend sideways to retrieve a magazine off the ground or bend backwards to stare up at the stars – you’re still youthful.
And no matter how old you are today, you are never too old to start yoga. The day you start yoga is the day you stop the hands of time ticking by. Betty Eiler began yoga late in life, but it didn’t stop her from completely changing and opening up her body:
At age 52, for the first time in my life, I did the Splits (Hanumasana), and at age 55 I did a mid-room, Full Arm Balance (Adho Mukha Vrksasana), dropping back to the Upward Bow (Urdhva Dhanurasana). I am also comfortable doing the Lotus in Headstand (Pindasana).
Or as Beryl Bender Birch, one of the founders of Power Yoga in the United States says:
“I’m still getting better at my asana practice, and I just turned 60. I don’t know when I’ll begin to go backward or get less proficient at asana. Maybe when I die?”
One of the best yoga asana for reversing the aging process is headstand (Shirshasana). Amongst other things, it is claimed the regular practice of headstand can even turn gray hair back to its natural colour because of the increase blood flow to the hair folicles. In fact, mastering headstand and being able to hold it for hours per day is said to halt aging altogether, and induce enlightenment. But, as with all yoga, headstand is a powerful posture that needs to be worked into slowly, and with proper guidance. Unless you did extensive gymnastics when you were younger, and are used to being upside down, it’s not a posture to try at home by yourself.
Closer to home, an example of the way that yoga keeps you young is owner and teacher at Wellington’s Hot Yoga NZ, Lou Cassella. At the age of 65, he is an inspiration and proof of yoga’s ability to keep you young.
So if the advancing years are making you reach for the potions and pills, and you’re don’t look too closely at yourself in the mirror anymore, and it feels like your body is beginning to betray you… now is the time to start yoga.
It’s not a miracle worker. You will still have wrinkles. You’ll probably still have grey hair. But with yoga, you can keep your body in the best possible health. You can keep expanding your comfort zones, and the range of movement possible for you. Like Betty, you may find yourself able to do a headstand or handstand even though you long ago passed forty, or fifty (or even sixty!)
Finally, one last piece of inspiration – David Swenson. He did start practicing yoga when he was 13, so he’s got a head start on most of us. But for those of us who still think that creaky knees and dodgy ankles and bad backs are just about the passing years, David shows us that it’s not the years passing but what we do with them that really matters.
Me, I’m looking forward to growing older, because with every passing year, my body gets more fluid, more open, and even stronger.
It’s your life, your body, your choice. Stay young forever, by making yoga a part of your day.
David Swenson (born mid-1950s) practicing astanga yoga:
Further reading on how yoga keeps you young: