By Ed Staskus
“Yoga gives people of all ages the ability to grow old gracefully and stay in shape with lowered stress,” says Cosmo Wayne of Bikram Yoga in Austin, Texas. “My students share all kinds of success stories of reduced blood pressure, assistance with diabetes, faster healing, stronger digestion, and better sleep.”
Yoga does not treat age at whatever age it is like a disease to be cured. Getting old is not the problem since growing older can be accomplished by anyone who lives long enough. Yoga assumes asanas are good for everyone because the practice produces a stronger, healthier body with increased resistance to disease.
“Health is the chief idea, the one goal of hatha yoga,” says Swami Nikhilananda in Vivekananda: The Yogas and Other Works. In recent years the Harvard University neuroscientist Sat Bir Khalsa, who believes it can and should be the low-tech solution to many of the world’s health care problems, has gathered substantial evidence for the therapeutic value of the practice.
But, as essential to yoga as hatha practice is, it is still only one spoke in the wheel. Practicing asanas alone is like going to see Gone in 60 Seconds instead of Gone with the Wind. The Nicholas Cage movie looks like a movie, just like the Clark Gable one does, as long as you assume the elements of color, action, and sound are what movies are about, or that the plot device of stealing 50 cars is worth caring about.
Asanas are empowering, boosting energy and decreasing aches and pains, and even defending against major killers like heart disease and diabetes. But, hot vinyasa classes are not an elixir, no matter how hot they are or how real the myth of the loss of Eden remains even in our modern age. When asanas are added or yoked to the matrix of pranayama and meditation they become more than just the active ingredients in the Fountain of Youth recipe. Practicing yoga for it’s admitted anti-aging benefits is good for everyone’s body, but leaving it at that is empowering the tail to wag the dog.
“Yoga is ultimately more than a tool,” says Michael Caldwell of Yoga One in San Diego, California. “Sure, some people do yoga to get a firm butt and lose weight, but those who continue to practice tend to get much more out of it than an attractive outward appearance, because it is a philosophy, and ultimately when fully expanded, a lifestyle, a state of mind, and a state of being.”
Transforming asanas into a wrestling match with age can add years to your life, but it doesn’t necessarily make those years worthwhile. “Life is a pilgrimage,” says Swami Sivanada. It is a journey to a sacred place, or at least a search for significance. Reducing it to year after year of roadside attractions is to waste the years asanas may grant. The superstar Madonna is not the new Nero because she practices Ashtanga Yoga, but because she believes the internal heat and sweat of the practice are its most noble parts, or as noble as her egoism allows.
“Yoga is widely perceived as being a toolbox of youth, but it is far from being only that,” says Gyandev McCord of Ananda Yoga in Ananda Village, California. “Practicing only for its physical benefits is like seeing the Mona Lisa only in terms of its picture frame. Nice frame, but there’s something much greater happening there! Yoga is, above all, a technology for inner transformation, a means to experience directly the very essence of who you are.”
The Vedic culture, from which the Hindu path of yoga evolved, concentrated on diet, exercise, and meditation for its anti-aging therapies. Back in the day Rig Vedic verses were chanted to gain long life. As it is practiced today, yoga is not like it was in the past, but its aims are the same. Hatha yoga is meant to keep the body healthy and the mind alert through asanas, pranayama, and meditation, so that one can lead a dynamic and alert life, acting appropriately in changing circumstances.
There is suggestive evidence that yoga delays or prevents the onset of many age-related diseases, evidence garnered from studies conducted by the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and even some done under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. A study in the February 2000 issue of ‘Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America’ found that therapeutic yoga helps with the pain associated with osteoarthritis. “Medically, yoga maintains the body parameters to a ripe old age,“ says Dr. Krishna Raman in his book Yoga and Medical Science.
Yogis like Krisnamacharya, Indra Devi, and K. Pattabhi Jois have proven that asana practice can be maintained throughout life, well into one’s 80’s and 90’s. “I’m proof that if you keep at it, you’ll get there. I can do more now than I could 50 years ago. Forget age,” says the 84-year-old Bette Calman, an Australian teacher and author of Yoga for Arthritis, who still practices peacock pose and tripod headstand.
A good plastic surgeon can lift a face and make it last for ten years. Botox, the trademark of botulinum toxin, an otherwise lethal poison, can paralyze wrinkles for up to four months. Preparation H, in a pinch, tautens under-eye puffiness. Being a good Australian and not a Belgian endive all her life, Bette Calman is wrinkled from the sun, but her real beauty shines from the inside out. “Yoga keeps you young,” she says, meaning it in more ways than the anti-aging business does.
Yoga is not about worshiping youth, but rather about honoring all ages. That is why there is always a practice for everyone and it is always the right time to start a practice. “Never too late, never too old, never too bad,” says Bishnu Ghosh, who was Bikram Choudbury’s teacher.
If yoga were the Holy Grail of anti-aging no yogis would have wrinkles or arthritis. But, they do. When Diane Anderson asked David Life how his body had changed over the years, he said: “Do you really want the old list that we all know: less hair, more gray, fewer teeth, thinner skin, and so on? I’ve got all that.” Yoga has often innocently been called the art of staying young. There is no potion or pill or procedure that will keep anyone ageless, but yoga might be the next best consolation prize for the plant that got away.
“We’re not about growing old gracefully. We’re about never growing old,” says Robert Klatz, president of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.
The science of yoga posits the opposite view, not opposing nature with the chemical and surgical arsenal of Western science, but rather melding breath and asanas to flow with grace through time. In its various manifestations it offers many kinds of practice to the different stages of our life times, from hot vinyasa to earthy yin. “Yoga might give you a youthful posture and more peaceful face, but the reason people stick to it is the peace and awareness it brings,” says Debra Murphy of Shanti Yoga in McCall, Idaho, who also has a doctorate in Exercise Science.
For all of its admitted physical benefits, yoga is about being ageless on the inside rather than on the outside. The Buddha said every human being is the author of his own health or disease, but yoga is about more than health or disease. Yoga is not just a body practice, nor is it a body-mind practice. It is a body-mind-spirit practice.
The odds of aging are one hundred percent, but how old would we be if we didn’t know how old we were? “All life is yoga,” says Sri Aurobindo, progenitor of Integral Yoga. The purpose of yoga is not just to buff the body, nor master the mind. Its long-term project is to still the body and mind in order to apprehend the spirit. “The spirit shall look out through matter’s gaze. And matter shall reveal the spirit’s face,” explains Sri Aurobindo.
Asanas are always worthwhile in their own right, as is meditation and breathwork. Yoga exercise helps develop a strong posture so that the body can be kept steady and comfortable in order to meditate. Pranayama helps still the motion of the mind. But, to limit one’s yoga practice to these steps is to lose sight of what the pilgrimage of the practice is really getting at, which is the illimitable spirit that lives in everyone, mirroring timelessness. Yoga is a meditation on the here and now, not a better-looking past or airbrushed future. Wonder and awareness are found in the present moment, where there is no need for nips and tucks.
When the body is still the mind can be still. When the mind is still the spirit can be still. When the spirit is still, fear and desire, the ageless twins that drive the anti-aging market, are obviated. In the Yoga Sutra Patanjali’s guideline for life is the eightfold path, or ashtanga, which literally means eight limbs. Asanas are the path of health, the yamas and niyamas the paths of moral and ethical conduct, and pranayama is at the crossroads of the body and mind. The final four limbs of the circle of ashtanga – withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and connecting with the Universe – are the practices by which time slows down to a single point of stillness.
The effects of anti-aging products like Botox and HGH are ephemeral at best and dangerous at worse. Pursuing enlightenment on the eightfold path is to connect to the best of the whole of creation, not just hold hands with a corporate chemist’s lab.
At the end of the Epic of Gilgamesh, having lost the Plant of Life, the hero Gilgamesh returns home and looks up at the city walls he built, believing they will endure in his place. It is a false epiphany. Unable to step out of the flow of time he remains seduced by the dream of the snake. Five thousand years later his city’s ruins lie on the banks of an abandoned channel of the Euphrates River. But, what Gilgamesh yearned for then is in our modern age still a preoccupation.
“To this very day, the possibility of physical immortality charms the heart of man,” says Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Buying into the 21st century’s anti-aging technologies is to be beguiled by the snake, as though sloughing off one’s skin has something to do with revealing one’s true self. The authentic self is the spirit made visible, not a new, replacement face or head of hair. The real prize is not the skin you slough off, but the skin you live in, and how you live in the skin you are in. That is the gift gotten from yoga practice in all its aspects, never looking back and never looking forward.
Only here and now.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”