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The Art of Staying Young

Lifelong yogis share their secrets on how to age gracefully.

By Diane Anderson

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Western yoga's master teachers can make the practice seem so effortless: performing challenging asanas in youthful-looking bodies while offering up profound wisdom and playful camaraderie. But the inevitable changes that come with getting older aren't always easy to handle. We talked with six inspiring yogis—all of whom happen to have had at least 58 birthdays—to gather their insights about what decades of yoga practice can do for your body and mind.

Patricia Walden (age 62)

Patricia Walden has studied yoga with B.K.S. Iyengar for more than 33 years. As the star of the ever-popular Yoga for Beginners DVD, she's been teaching in people's living rooms for years, as well as at her Boston studio and around the world.

Sometimes I'll wake up stiff and wonder what my body will feel like if I start doing backbends. Then I begin practicing, and I forget that I'm 62. Twenty minutes into my practice, I feel younger. Inevitably, the power of yoga takes over and you feel ageless! About 10 months ago, I went to my mat with the intention of doing a series of dropbacks from Tadasana (Mountain Pose). I thought, "Gosh, I'm over 60. I don't know if I'm up to it." Then I remembered Iyengar's 80th birthday. He did 108 dropbacks. His feet were planted; they didn't move. I realized it was my mind, and not my body, saying I couldn't do it. As we get older, we have to be careful of the tricks our minds can play on us. Sometimes your mind tells you to be careful for good reason, but sometimes it's telling you that your body can't do something that it can do.

I look at films of the demos I made when I was in my 30s and 40s. I did a demo for my 50th and 60th birthdays. My poses are better, more integrated, than when I was younger. My flexibility and strength are more balanced, as are my effort and relaxation. I try to never take my body for granted. One of the things that comes with the aging process is that we feel such gratitude that yoga came into our lives and that our bodies still enjoy bending forward and backward.

I also enjoy more mental freedom now. My mind is much more expansive than it was in my 20s. I was judgmental and critical and narrow-minded. Things roll off my back now in ways they didn't when I was younger. I experience more contentment, and I don't have that obsessive thinking or cling to things like I used to. Asana, meditation, and pPranayama are great, but the philosophy really pays off, and you start looking at things from a yogic point of view.

The yamas and niyamas (restraints and observances, the first and second of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga) are really in your cells. I don't think about whether I should tell the truth; there's no choice. And I allow other people in my life the freedom to be exactly as they want to be. Even though we know it isn't effective, we often try to talk people into what we think they should be doing. That's a prison. It takes time to plant new samskaras [patterns]. There is such freedom in letting people do what they want to do. You and they will be happier if they're doing what they want to do. Practicing yoga is a way to free yourself from suffering.

When I was younger, I would think, "When X happens, I'll be happy." When, when, when. At a certain stage in practice, you see that you can't base your life on contingencies. Things can change at any moment. Why not be happy now? Yoga has helped me go through really challenging times with grace and ease. You can say, "OK, things are hard right now, but everything changes." When everything is great and integrated, that will change, too. You savor good times and don't get as thrown with the changes. You just ride the wave. It's so much less stressful.

Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa (age 67)

Kundalini teacher Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa and her husband of 27 years, Gurushabd, started Golden Bridge Yoga in Los Angeles and New York. Her passion is to help raise money for various orphanages around the world.

I get up at 3:30 a.m. I have a 2-hour meditation and chanting practice. My guru told me to rise in the ambrosial hours in the morning: "Clean your mind, get empty. Work hard and share what you have. Go serve for the rest of the day." The greatest energy is when night turns to day. No other animal sleeps through sunrise. The cows and chickens are up and about. But humans sleep in! Getting up early will keep you young.

And service is another great way to stay young. If you have no idea why you are here, if you are confused, you won't feel fulfilled. We all have a purpose. Ask what it is that you are supposed to do. If you serve, you don't have to worry and you'll always be taken care of. You can do yourself in worrying about yourself. Because you are worrying about death. But look outside yourself! There's so much work to be done. I want to teach and stay young and vital. Serving others is one of the best ways to stay young.

Try new things out. I read lots of books. I swim, run, do weights, dance. I try a lot of things. And I am quite attentive to what I eat. So many people are depressed and suffering. When you ask about their diets, you find there's a lot of sugar or fast food and not enough greens. Eating whole foods—organic veggies and fruits—is best. Having a garden and growing things keeps you connected to life. We have four dogs, so I think having pets is great. And stay social. It's important to celebrate and connect. We like to have people over all the time.

The yoga is just part of the practice. Yoga is like cake without the frosting: Something's missing. You need meditation. It's the frosting.

Gratitude is another really important practice—seeing how even challenges are part of your path. Everyone has had tragedies and traumas. I've gone through hard stuff. But I'm grateful that all of that happened. Instead of saying, "Why me, God?" I can now say, "Thank you." Learning forgiveness is key. If you hold grudges and resentments, then you get bitter. It shows on your face and in your organs. And you get old in your mind. So be grateful and forgiving. That's the only way to truly stay young and happy.

There are upsides to getting older. Now that I'm 67, I get a 10 percent discount on Wednesdays at Whole Foods. That's great. And I really like getting a discount at the movie theaters, too.

Sharon Gannon (age 58)

David Life and Sharon Gannon were performers and artists in New York City who discovered yoga and became deeply committed to practice. They created the Jivamukti Yoga method in 1984.

My teacher, Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati, said, "Yoga is that state where you are missing nothing." I like the sound of that. Yoga practices should help you to get over otherness and become more connected to life. I have come to realize that I am more than my physical body and mind. I have come to realize my eternalness, and that, I suppose, is related to youth or agelessness. This has occurred for me, more or less, because the yoga practices have helped me to realize what my body and mind are actually made of. They are made of unresolved issues that I have had with others.

When you get an understanding of how karmas have shaped your body, you begin to act in a new way toward others and yourself. Your daily life becomes exciting, and like a child, you can hardly wait for the next opportunity to encounter an aspect of your past that needs to be resolved back into the emptiness of your own heart. I feel like this. The nature of a body is to change. All bodies start out young and then get older as the years pass.

I am committed to the practices that Patanjali outlines as the ashtanga system, which includes the five yamas. The fourth yama is brahmacharya, and it is the most important aspect of my daily yoga practice in regards to health and aging. The practice of brahmacharya means to respect the creative power of sex and not abuse it by manipulating others sexually.

I have been a vegan for 26 years now, and so have not been involved with the sexual abuse of animals as practiced in the breeding of animals by the industrial livestock industry. That seems to have accelerated the benefits of being established in the practice of brahmacharya for me.

According to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, when you practice brahmacharya, you obtain enduring vitality, resulting in good health. I am in pretty good health, and I am blessed with lots of energy and vitality, so something is working.

David Life (age 59)

What is yoga, according to you?

According to me? But "Who am I?" is the question! That's the question that usually gets you, and in pursuit of the answer, a few of us blessed souls find yoga. Yoga is both my vocation and my avocation. Practicing yoga and teaching yoga are different packages, and both provide vital input into my life. Yoga has provided most of the "aha!" moments of my life. It has been my refuge in many difficult times and has provided me with community, empowerment, and sustenance.

How has your body changed?

You're kidding, right? Monday: tight. Tuesday: limber. Wednesday: strong. Thursday: weak. Friday: injured. Saturday: injury free. Sunday: uninspired. And that's just an example of a single week!

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. Duh.

How about your mind?

Sometimes I wonder. I have this image of my mind as a meeting room with a long table. Seated at the table are me at each age: child, teen, and so on. The board considers each topic of the day and registers their point of view. When the vote is taken, the mind turns different ways. Sometimes mature, sometimes immature, sometimes wise, other times impetuous.

I guess the main advantage of the yoga practice is that (sometimes) I know that I am the one observing the board of directors, whereas before yoga I was the board of directors.

Angela Farmer (Age 71)

Angela Farmer and Victor van Kooten have been teaching yoga together for 25 years. They teach internationally and have their own studio, Eftalou Yoga Hall, on the Greek island of Lesbos. Angela has created two DVDs—Inner Body Flow and The Feminine Unfolding—and Victor has published four yoga-related books.

It has been through my yoga practice that I've come to listen internally to myself. It used to be that I was out to prove something, to improve and challenge, and do better asana—and battle with myself and beat myself up to get somewhere. I used to have a strict-training type of yoga, but it isn't about that anymore. A shift happened for me 30-some years ago, and I started to listen to my inner energy. It was an unknown path. But I learned that each part of the body has a voice. And trauma is hidden, especially in places that have been hiding, like little creatures that don't want to be seen. If I can be gentle with those places and communicate with them, they slowly shift and change and open up. So now I'm exploring and unfolding rather than going out and trying to achieve something.

Now, rather than do the same old donkey-work yoga—"right foot in, left foot out"—I go into a class and feel the atmosphere. I see if a student has a question or problem. In no time at all, it becomes like a playground. Everyone feels safe enough to listen to their own bodies and their own needs. It's great when you learn to trust yourself and play.

I think yoga can be a fountain of youth. People think yoga is standing on your head. Of course, that keeps you fit, but the fountain of youth has to do with the spirit. As you peel away the debris, you peel parts of you that have been scared, and you trust what's coming from inside by just listening. If you have a practice, instead of doing a routine, just sit and slowly go forward. It could be in any stretch, but notice the parts of the body that are not connecting with the ground. Feel the ground supporting you. When your body resists, watch the tiny places where you have a fraction of resistance. Wait, listen, and be with it. See how long it takes to release and go further. Never mind if everyone else in class has moved on. That is the beginning of self-trust.

My practice has slowed down to the outer eye. There's less happening to the outside eye but more happening deeper inside. I'm more tolerant and mentally flexible. I have more focus and more patience. I respect my body a lot more. I let myself sleep more when I need to. I eat, play, and have more inner joy. I follow the young kid of eight who lives inside me. She gets to swim in the wintertime. She gets to play plenty. That keeps you young. 

Victor van Kooten (age 69)

As I've gotten older, I go beyond the body and connect with the sky and the ground. I'm more patient with myself. I used to be tough on myself in my practice, but I've learned to be receptive to the feminine side. Rather than doing, I try to open up. I find myself doing things but don't make myself do things. Once you are more receptive, you realize that even little things are as important as big things.

We humans take for granted that life is this way or that way. Parents, teachers, voices, tell us we are supposed to live life a certain way. But I learned that I need to listen to myself and rethink everything I was trained to do. It's undoing. Let it go. Doubt as much as possible. See what is true and what is not true for you. You come to your own path and your own personal yoga practice, basically. Come in contact with what you are. Change from what you were into what you become.

My advice is to be curious and objective. Why do we restrict ourselves and each other? The creative process is doing things that you aren't supposed to do. We are all free. Experiment. Be as free as possible. Get interested in the space inside you. Do quiet listening. Our classes aren't about telling people what to do, but rather letting students speak up and accept the difficulties they have.

And you can learn by observing many different things. Angela has the particular habit of feeding all the cats that come by our place in Lesbos; there are 17. It's such fun to see the characters. We feed the cats, and the cats feed us. We have too little time left to do nothing or to be bored.

And Angela and I like each other a lot. You can have a lot of love, and a relationship doesn't have to become stuck. Yoga helps. Look at yourself, listen to yourself. And really look at each other, too.

October 2009

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Reader Comments

Ashtangi Yogini

Beautiful and inspiring article, thank you so much for sharing! I started practicing yoga only 4 years ago, at 37, but I totally relate to what the people featured in the article are saying. I feel so many changes in my body and mind and am much more flexible physically and mentally than I was before I started yoga!

Aviva Weiss

I remember reading articles about travel to wonderful Yoga Retreats and then I remembered how much better I felt sleeping in my closet and channeling energies into a room with stillness of the mind, body and spirit.

Thanking you in advance for the release and acceptance I gathered from the articles, achievements and yogic pranayama I received through this publication

Lee

Inspiring!

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