Yoga, Wellness and Aging Gracefully

Yoga Aging Gracefully

When I taught Yoga I and Exercise and Stress Management at HACC, we talked about the concept of “wellness” rather than “health.” “Health” is often viewed as the absence of disease – chronic or otherwise. “Wellness,” a concept adopted by the World Health Organization, is a holistic view of human beings. The concept of wellness refers not only to physical wellness, but also to intellectual, emotional, social, environmental, and spiritual wellness and recognizes their interdependence in the well-being of a person. Moreover, our wellness depends not on our genetic inheritance, which is a given, but rather on the choices we make in our life.

The yoga classes I taught at HACC met twice a week for fifteen weeks. In that time students grew in their awareness of their behavior and reported seeing areas of their lives where their choices were not supporting their wellness. Many students started to make changes as a result – stopping smoking, choosing healthier foods, letting go of depleting relationships, and making changes in how they responded to others.

Once they came to realize that wellness was attainable, not because of their genetic luck, but rather because of their choices, many felt empowered to make change.

In the January, 2014 issue of the Mayo Clinic Health Letter, the writer looked at a concept – salutogenesis – which means “the origin of health.” He goes on to suggest that this idea is critical when we look at “healthy aging.” “It shifts attention to what supports health and well-being – what creates “health” – rather than what causes disease. This concept of “health” is very much like that of “wellness.”

Our perception of our own health is very subjective. This article mentions studies in which older adults are asked to assess whether they have “aged successfully.” “One study of 205 older adults with physical illnesses or disabilities found that most considered themselves to be aging successfully.” In another study of 1,900 women over 60, most rated themselves as aging successfully even though physically they would not meet “objective standards for having good physical health.”

Many of us see members of our family or our friends experiencing serious illnesses, and many of us have lost people close to us. Some of us are dealing with a chronic condition or illness right now in our own lives. This can lead us to have negative expectations as to what we will experience as we grow older, perhaps even leading to a sense of helplessness.

But I believe most of us hope to age gracefully. Embracing the concept of “wellness” and an appropriate practice of yoga can help us live with grace. As a holistic practice, yoga can support physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual wellness. The awareness it brings to our behaviors and relationships with other beings and the earth can support social and environmental wellness. Yoga teaches us awareness so we can live the only life we have, which is in this present moment. Focusing on the concept of wellness, despite what ailments or chronic conditions we may face, can help us to have a more balanced perspective on our lives. It helps us to see we can make choices that support us, whether we are 18 or 80, and that is empowering.


Accentuate the Positive

Accentuate the PositiveAutumn marks the transition to longer hours of darkness. While many of us welcome the beauty and cooling temperatures of the season, many start to anticipate, with some anxiety and dread, cold, snow, and barren landscapes.

Yoga teachings tell us that “everything changes” – everything that is part of the material world – seasons, weather, the phases of the moon, the habits of animals, friends, our bodies. Even though we recognize this, we often greet change with resistance, especially if we like things the way they are. Let’s face it. If cold weather means our joints ache or the increased hours of darkness leave us depressed, embracing the seasonal changes marking winter’s approach is difficult. Yet, hanging on to the way things are in the face of change inevitably causes anxiety and pain, as we no longer live in the moment but in anticipation of what suffering may come.

Yoga also teaches that while change comes, a place within each one us exists that is unchanging, eternal, and it is called purusa. We can think of purusa as our inner light. When we are able to recognize and identify with purusa as that which is truly who we are, our perception clears and our decisions tend to have positive results. We can experience peace and joy in the face of our ever-changing life and circumstances.

For most of us, however, life fills with tasks, 24/7 news, on-line social connections and activities, advertising telling us what we need and how to live. All of this can fill our minds and engage our emotions in not so pleasant or helpful ways. The concept vrttis in the Yoga Sutra refers to the activity and fluctuations of our mind and our emotions. When the mind fluctuates from the ever-growing “to do” list, to worries about our children, life situation or what is happening on the other side of the world, vrttis with negative effects dominate. We feel overwhelmed, confused, or out of balance. Decisions we make when in that state may be based on faulty understanding and lead to painful consequences.

When the activity of the vrttis so mires the mind, our identity is not with purusa, but rather with what constantly changes around us. A veil covers our inner light.

So how can we deal these negative vrttis in our lives as the realities of our lives involve taking care of ourselves, caring for others, working, being informed, suffering losses, participating in the society in which we live?

“Accentuate the positive” is a simplistic yet realistic and yogic answer. Yoga is not just stretching our limbs. Yoga seeks to move the activity of mind/emotions – the vrttis – in a positive direction. Suppose, for example, we decide to consciously practice the recommended ethical practices of the yamas – compassion, truthfulness, moderation, not stealing, non-hoarding. Living in an ethical and conscious way connects us to positive thoughts and values and causes the negative vrttis to diminish as the positive grows.

The Yoga Sutra offers wisdom to help us better understand ourselves and live with greater awareness, harmony, and joy. I invite you to return to the Yoga 4 Healthful Living Blog as we continue to explore these teachings and relate them to our lives.