Early this year the Office of National Statistics published a report which estimates that by 2050 one in four people in the UK will be aged 65 years and over, rising from approx. one in five in 2019. The report also says that by 2069 the UK population could include 19.8 million people aged 65 plus, accounting for 26.2% of the projected population.
As the ageing population increases, it seems sensible to ask ourselves the following questions:
· What quality of life awaits us as we age?
· How can we keep ourselves fit and healthy in body and mind as we reach retirement age and beyond?
As a teacher and life-long fan of yoga, I’m pretty certain that my passion for this ancient art will be my key to staying well and happy into the latter part of my life. Scientific studies continue to confirm the benefits of yoga, showing it can reduce inflammation in the body, have positive effects on depression, anxiety and cognitive function, as well as senior-specific benefits. According to wellbeing expert Deepak Chopra these include:
· Improving balance and stability
· Improving flexibility and joint health
· Improving respiration
· Reducing high blood pressure
· Reducing anxiety
· Encouraging mindfulness
We only have to look at the examples of yogis past and present to see that ageing healthily, gracefully and gratefully is a likely outcome for those who are willing continue their sadhana (spiritual practice) into their golden years.
One such yoga legend was BKS Iyengar. Iyengar used yoga to rise from a childhood dogged by ill health and poverty, becoming a revered master of yoga. Guruji, as he was affectionally called by thousands worldwide, was still practising several hours a day at age 92, and holding half hour headstands in the year before he died at age 95. Through his years of practice, Iyengar recognised that combatting the ageing process was principally a matter of resolve. Whilst accepting that the body ages, he was determined not to give in to its deterioration, saying:
“If I surrender to the will of the body, then I am no more a yogic practitioner. When I practice, I watch how to stop this deteriorating process. That is the will over matter.”
Growing older, Iyengar refused to avoid the “difficult” poses, such as Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (two leg inverted staff pose) and Kapotasana (pidgeon pose), both of which are advanced back bends. He advocated practicing fewer poses but holding them for longer. The older he became, he said, the more clearly he understood Sutra 2:46 from Patanali’s seminal yoga text The Yoga Sutras, which says: “postures should be steady and comfortable”. Iyengar asked himself whether he could remain steady and comfortable even in challenging poses, by using his mind as well as his body. Ultimately, he advised that having built up a yoga practice in our younger years, we should refuse to give in to old age and
When it comes to staying on our mats in our 60’s, 70’s and beyond, there are plenty more trail blazers in the world of yoga we can look to for inspiration.
For example, Sharon Gannon and David Life, co-founders of the Jivamukti Yoga method, which includes strong physical practice amongst other traditional elements of yoga. Both have recently celebrated their 70thbirthdays and continue to practice what they teach to new generations of Jivamukti students and teachers.
I personally had the privilege in 2010 of learning to teach Ashtanga Yoga with yoga veteran David Swenson. He was then flipping upside down and demonstrating postures most 20 year olds would pale at, and I’m sure he is still doing so now in his mid-60’s.
The world’s oldest recorded yoga teacher, Tao Porchon-Lynch, born in India, died last year at the age of 101. She put her longevity down to staying active and keeping a positive mindset.
These are just a few of the great yogis who have continued to remain dedicated to their personal practice for life, and who’ve inspired me to take my practice forward into my wisdom years.
As yoga’s popularity continues to grow, it seems safe to bet that adopting it as a lifelong commitment could stand future generations in very good stead. Gone are the days when we hit fifty and use it as an excuse to stop caring about the condition of our body - and our mind!
Now in my 50’s my own practice continues to anchor me through all that life brings. I intend to follow Iyengar and other luminaries of the yoga world by head-standing into at least my 90’s. I hope you’ll be inspired to join me, if not in headstand, then by starting your own yoga practice. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“The best tunes are played on the oldest Fiddles!”