Part of what motivates me to practice yoga is that it keeps me looking and feeling young and strong,
And passages like the one below never fail to light up my imagination and cause me to want to run to my mat and strike a pose:
“Like this becomes the body when Kundalini drinks the moon: then, old age turns back, the knot of youth is untied, the lost state of childhood reappears. The yogi’s age then is up to this much: that he gives to the word ‘strength’ [bala] the meaning of the word ‘child’ [baala], and the greatness of his fortitude is incomparable.” ~ Jnanesvari 6.24
But lately, I have been experiencing the effects of aging more acutely than ever, and I distinctly feel the mortality of my body. I even started wondering what kinds of things aging dancers do to prolong their careers and sustain their physical abilities.
I came across these words of one dancer: “The bravest thing a dancer can do is to get old.” The same is true of a Hatha yogi who dares to get old and keep practicing.
It’s not hard to think of why bravery is part of the equation. Like a dancer, these physical tools—my hands, feet, arms, legs, pelvis, spine, and head are everything to me. I use my body to the hilt every day to win my health, to express myself artistically and spiritually, and to go from the ordinary and mundane to the extraordinary, sublime, and sacred.
And yet to want or attempt to eternally prolong youth is unnatural and unhealthy and can lead you away from yoga knowledge. Becoming old and leaving youth behind is an entirely natural part of the cyclical process of living and dying. Part of why practicing through getting old requires bravery is because you have to face the ways that you use your practice to immaturely cling to youth, to physical strength or flexibility, and to superficial ideas about who you are.
I am choosing to approach my studies as though there is particular value in allowing my practice to be a mirror that reflects the process of going from youth to elder.
There are many days when it is hard to face my stiffness, tightness, slowness, and other increasing limits. Especially when I fall into thinking that what I do now is much more limited than what I used to do. At these times, it would be easy to stop taking my Hatha yoga seriously, but if I did give up, I would merely be avoiding doing things that cause me to face the feeling of losing my youth and getting older.
Many students who were serious when they were younger leave yoga behind altogether or branch off into less physical yogic pursuits such as meditation, strictly pranayama or Bhakti yoga. While adding these other aspects of yoga is important, fitting, and beneficial, it is also important not to move away from your Hatha yoga practice to avoid facing your declining abilities and encroaching limits.
Continuing to practice in the face of doubt, frustration, and the shattering of illusions will help you find courage, fortitude, creativity, and soul. Practice as you age and the right, noble, profound, and sacred reasons to practice will emerge—deep, profound, and soulful insights into your past, your fears of death, your sense of self, and your relationships to others and the world.
I am 57 and there is still a long way to go, but already, I am softer now and enjoy my practice in new, different, more complete ways. My practice makes me more tolerant and empathetic, more appreciative of small things, and more given to stillness, silence, receptivity, emptiness, and inner peace. Through practice I have come to increasingly value solitude and have learned to better tolerate and even love my own company.