Labor Day signals a fresh start every year for me. Although I no longer teach at a school or have school-aged children, I still find September invigorating. I hope you’ll join me as I resume writing and sharing all things yoga, broadly defined. I invite you to read, practice, and reflect with me. Blogs, class series, videos, book reviews are coming. The school year begins!
I’ve been a voracious learner over the last two years with Yoga Medicine. Yoga Medicine blends modern science with traditional practices to optimize both approaches. I’m close to crossing the finish line to be certified as a Yoga Medicine therapeutic yoga specialist and I’m absolutely the better teacher for it.
I’ve studied the anatomy of hips, shoulders, and the spine recognizing the body’s biomechanics and how things can go off track. I’ve spent hours mentally dissecting the nervous system, the fascia, the female reproductive cycle and how yoga can help. I’ve learned research-based methods for fostering relaxation, improving circulation, and tailoring yoga to nourish and support my students’ goals. It has been quite an education. The human body is amazing.
This August I was honored to speak at the annual Canterbury-Beeson Forum on Aging. I followed excellent talks on genetics and dementia, positive caregiving approaches, and what age-friendly care looks like in a hospital. Listening closely to these presenters, I began to see the parallels with what I do. Speaking slowly with a low tone of voice. Asking questions about what’s important. Encouraging self-care. I hope I do all these things as a yoga teacher.
The ancient practice of yoga has never been only exercise. Yoga means yoking with our inner goodness and wholeness. Yoga conveys union with life circumstances – good or bad. Yoga offers tools for living fruitfully with less suffering – moving, breathing, meditating, and observing self in relationship with others.
What did the ancient yogis from India know and how? They understood the mind-body connection by simple observation and practice. Movement prepares the body for stillness. When still, the mind is full of chatter, sensations, and passions like a bucking horse. Paying attention to the breath tames this unbridled mind and brings it back to the present moment. Watching the breath leaves no room for rumination. But wait, attention drifts, the mind wanders. Start again. It’s a practice.
Fast forward to now and neuroscientists are investigating the brain's capacity for change. How do scientists observe these changing neural circuits? Sophisticated measurements using MRI and EEG readings. Scientist can observe how parts of the brain boost or reduce activation with input from different stimuli.
Repeated experience can alter the brain, a process called neuroplasticity coined by Dr. Richard Davidson in 1992. Back then he was among the few scientists investigating this hypothesis that neural circuits keep changing over a lifetime, not becoming fixed after the first five years of brain development. Many more scientists have joined him to confirm the ancient wisdom, that the mind’s capacity is limitless. The brain continues to be a mystery – there’s much we do not understand and perhaps never will.
So why is yoga a marvelous tool for healthy aging?
Move to live. Our bodies adapt to the demands of moving in space in relationship to gravity. If we move less, we become stiffer, weaker, and less efficient in functional ability like reaching behind us to lift a shopping bag. Gentle movement improves circulation of the vascular system, hydration of tissues, range of motion in our joints, and strength of our bones and muscles.
Improves balance and stability. As we pay attention to how the body moves in space, we increase our proprioception or body awareness. This leads to better coordination and standing stability, which decreases the risk of falling and injuries leading to a loss of independence.
Reduces inflammation. Some of the changes we think of as aging can be linked to chronic inflammation. The calming yoga practices of linking breath and movement can down regulate our nervous system and reduce inflammation. Meditation can tip the nervous system into parasympathetic, “rest and digest”, dominance, which means we feel more relaxed and centered.
Maintains mental fitness. Yoga invigorates mental and physical energy. The brain craves novelty and benefits from a diversity of experiences. The research is incontrovertible: exercise is good for our brains.
Creates community. Consistent attendance at a yoga class can be a wonderful way to make new friends exploring yoga together.
Fosters acceptance. Non-attachment is a central tenet of yogic philosophy, simply allowing things to shift. We don’t want to give up when control is possible but avoid struggles when we can. Acceptance to things as they are can positively effect mood, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.
Maybe yoga is not a magic elixir for all that ails you, but it is an extraordinarily accessible way to live in your body respecting its changes, noticing its strengths, and adapting with gratitude. If that's not healthy aging, I'm not sure what is.