Body-Positive Yoga: The Aging Yoga Body

This entry was posted on Oct 1, 2014 by Charlotte Bell.
Body-Positive Yoga: The Aging Yoga Body

I found my first grey hair when I was 22. It wasn’t completely shocking. My mother’s hair was “brindled” grey-black for as long as I could remember before it transitioned to luminous white.

I never thought seriously about dyeing it. I knew it was an option, of course. Many of my friends were coloring their hair by their mid-30s. I just didn’t want to put chemicals on my head and couldn’t think of reasons to do it that outweighed the reasons not to.

Then when I was newly single in my early 30s, well-meaning friends tried gentle persuasion to encourage me to dye my hair. “There are guys that won’t give you a second glance if your hair is turning grey,” they said. I considered their advice for a moment before reaching the conclusion that I probably wouldn’t be all that compatible with a guy who would automatically shun me because of my hair color. I decided my greying hair was a good editing tool.

That led to my questioning the pervasive cultural denial of and aversion to aging. It shows up everywhere, probably even more so now because we Boomers are taking over senior territory. For most of our lives, we’ve dominated popular culture, and we don’t seem to be giving that up easily. In large part, we’re not quite ready to use the “s” word (senior) to describe ourselves. Most of us remember The Who’s famous declaration: “Hope I die before I get old.”

We’re not the first aging-averse generation though. In my lifetime it has always been rude to ask adults their age. I know a spry 96-year-old that swears to people that she’s in her early 70s. Every decade we pass—40, 50, 60, 70 and beyond—is marked by greater shame.

Yes, shame. We’re conditioned to feel bad for … well … not having died yet.

What is a Yoga Body?

Yoga culture is not beyond this. Despite declarations that, “we are not our bodies,” what our bodies look like seems to be of paramount importance in yoga culture. Selfies of fancy poses, performed to perfection by mostly young, svelte, mostly scantily and fashionably clad, white women dominate social media. While these photos may be pleasing and even impressive to look at, their demographic does not represent the population at large or even the majority of people practicing yoga. They may draw some people to practice who aspire to look like these models. They may also scare people away, when they misinterpret yoga as being available only to those who are young, thin, fashionable and impossibly bendy.

The good news is that conversation around body positivity is growing. It’s been bubbling under the surface for a long time, but influential bloggers such as YogaDork and it’s all yoga, baby have taken up the cause, along with Curvy Yoga founder Anna Guest-Jelley, who’s been advocating for body positivity for years. Even Yoga Journal, long criticized for their young, thin, white female cover models and plethora of diet ads, has dipped a toe into the conversation.

I’m very encouraged by this development. I think it’s a huge step in the right direction.

What Happened to the Boomers?

But this is one area where the voices of the Boomer generation have been largely silent—or perhaps silenced. With the exception of Cora Wen and Linda Sama-Karl, and Yoga for Healthy Aging’s blog, few over-50 yoga teachers speak to the blogosphere about the relationship between Yoga and aging. When did the system of Yoga begin to espouse the philosophy of youth over experience? When did Yoga adopt the idea that once your body begins to age that your mind, heart and accumulated experience become irrelevant? And why are we made to feel ashamed of the inevitable, even beautiful, process of growing deeper, wiser and more equanimous just because our bodies no longer fit into a shallow, limited and completely arbitrary cultural idea of beauty?

My theory is this: We are a body-oriented culture. We are our bodies. Our bodies are our Selves. We judge ourselves by our appearance and our body’s ability to perform. When our bodies change—as they inevitably do—our self-worth goes with them, for better or for worse.

When the prince, Siddhartha, ventured out of his palace for the first time, he was shaken by his first glimpses of a person bent with age, a person wracked with illness and the body of a person who had died. Seeing the inevitable path of all our bodies to our final demise caused him to inquire into how he might transcend the suffering he had witnessed. This led him to realize that in order to transcend suffering, he had to transcend his attachment to and identification with the body. He had to look deeper, beyond the pleasures and suffering of the body, for lasting happiness.

This is what our yoga practice is about. The squabbling about what is or is not the perfect yoga body has absolutely nothing to do with Yoga. Any person in a body who is practicing Yoga is living in a yoga body, regardless of age, build, gender or flexibility. And the deeper practices at the heart of Yoga—meditation—require a body simply as an anchor for awareness.

This is not to say that our bodies are not worth appreciating. They are infinitely worthy of our appreciation. My takeaway from three semesters of anatomy training is pure amazement at the elegant design of these vehicles in which we travel. That design is not a mistake. Nor is our genetically determined build, height, skin color, hair color and joint flexibility. And aging is not a mistake. We can take good care of our bodies so that we live more comfortably in them, but we can’t stop the aging process. It happens to all of us if we are lucky enough to live into old age.

Practicing asana is an intelligent and inspiring way to keep our bodies balanced and happy. Tending to our bodies mindfully, and with love and appreciation, cultivates a sense of grace that permeates not only our meditation, but the whole of our lives.

So please, give this body, the one you’re living in right now, a little appreciation for having gotten you this far into your life. Know that it will change, and that you can grow with those changes. Know that aging brings riches you can’t fathom when you are young. Yes, there are tradeoffs. While I might wish I had the hip joints of my 30s, I’m very happy to living in the mind and heart of my 50s.

Love your body. Love your mind. Love your heart. Ride their evolution with curiosity and delight.

 

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7 responses to “Body-Positive Yoga: The Aging Yoga Body”

  1. Wonderful column, Charlotte, and I like what you say especially about riding the curiosity.

  2. I was just having this similar conversation yesterday with some students. Yes, the popular trend right now is to see the marketed agile, slim white 20-something young woman in a very challenging pose, skimpily dressed. The good news, however, is that all these 20-somethings will age. And, as they age, their bodies will hopefully lead them to many of the same conclusions that we, as aging yoga teachers (I am 64) have already come to accept and embrace. This makes me smile and be more patient with the present trend.

    • Thanks, as always, for your insightful comment. When I hear about 30-something yoginis having hip replacements, I wonder how long the current trend can last. I’ve never agreed with the idea that we should be ashamed of aging. Like you, I’ve come to embrace all of it–the pleasant and the not so pleasant. I’m not happy about my own cranky hip joints and SI joint, but I appreciate the fact that I have skills to relate to my body in a much healthier way than I did 20 years ago.

  3. Rogelio Nunez says:

    Thanks Charlotte, as always wise words coming from you….As a aging male yoga body, I too have gone thru these observations of the transitioning from young to mid age to mid 60s, yikes…most days i am ok with it….i accept that i have lost muscle mass, my skin isn’t as tight, more wrinkles, harder to keep the belly from expanding more…On other days when i see such a focus on body beautiful in the yog community i think about going back to the wt. room and pumping wts…then i say well that does more harm than good…My daily practice supports your view, i can do the basics, foundational poses and once in a while i go for something more challenging…test my limits and see…then i go back to the basics because it keeps me healthy and easier to go towards the other limbs of yog…Pranayama, is a god send…it becomes more and more important in my sadhana…

    • Thanks for your comment, Rogelio. I don’t think there’s a reason that people can’t practice standing poses, inversions, backbends and arm balances well into seniordom. I have students in their 70s and 80s who practice these. But pranayama and meditation seem to naturally come to the forefront as we age. My asana practice is very simple these days. My intention is much more focused on my sitting practice, and my asana practice is all about making sitting easier and quieter. I truly feel the transition is beautiful. Yes, there are pains in my body that weren’t there 10 years ago, but I wouldn’t trade my mind and heart for the body I had in my 30s for anything!

  4. Rogelio Nunez says:

    Hi Charlotte,
    same same here, although i do try and get in all the different types of asana, in one week or two…they each have different effects on my body and mind…inversions are a god send for me…Yogasana/pranayama are as important to me as eating sleeping and other things necessary to keep a good life achievable..
    be well

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About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.