Yoga and the Wisdom of Aging
If you say the word "Yoga" to most people nowadays you will almost certainly get a nod of recognition and familiarity. After all, "everybody" knows about Yoga, right? We have all seen those amazing postures, at times combined with fragrant incense and peaceful music, but by and large, in the West at least, "Yoga" is perceived as just another "wellness" exercise, often promoted as a healthy way to keep fit, calm and de-stress our busy lives.
What is generally missed, unfortunately, is the lesser-known fact that the heart of Yoga has little to do with physical exercise and working out and everything to do with spiritual work and personal transformation. Yoga is about what is relevant for living a purposeful life. It is an inner journey and it offers wisdom and guidance for aging consciously in this day and age.
With this in mind, I was honored to recently facilitate a workshop with an inspiring and leading teacher from India, Raghu Ananthaynarrayanan, who is an expert in how to use the path of Yoga for inner transformation. What strikes one immediately when interacting with Raghu is that he eschews the dress, behavior and "branding" of many of the "Yoga Gurus" that have commercialize themselves to modern- especially Western-spiritual seekers of all kinds.
Born in Tamil Nadu, India, Raghu, today at 70, first began to delve deep into Yoga in his twenties, when he was already an established and sought-after engineer. During a particularly difficult phase in his life, he began seeking a deeper, more meaningful type of inspiration in life, and had the good fortune to discover Yoga and become a direct disciple of one of the giants of Yoga in India of all times, Krishnamacharya, and his son Desikachar. Guided by them and interacting regularly with the word renowned teacher, J Krishnamurti, for over 10 years, Raghu became an authentic Yoga teacher in this tradition which became the foundation of all of his wide-ranging and diverse work in behavioral sciences, group process work, leadership mentoring and the creative arts throughout the decades.
I met Raghu at a key turning point in my life, during a self-designed "rite of passage" to India that I had designed to mark my 60th year in this world. My path brought me to a transformative retreat program led by Raghu at his Ashram in India around the traditional Indian epic story of the "Mahabarata". It was there that I immediately felt that what was beginning was not just my 60th year but the realization that Yoga has so much to teach us precisely about this very process: how to grow older and wiser with our years. I am so happy that after introducing Raghu to Sage-ing International, we were able to create and give this workshop -"Antaranga Yoga: the Yoga of the Mind”-Wisdom for Aging Consciously" – to invite others to reflect on, create and impart this touch of Yoga knowledge and experience. And it is just the beginning…
Changing meets Aging
Yoga literally means “union”. This union can be understood on different levels: philosophically, physically, religiously, and psychologically, as the integration of the personality – a state wherein a person no longer lives at cross-purposes with himself, permitting emotional "wholeness" in all circumstances. As an ancient tradition, the practice of Yoga in India has touched and merged with many kinds of philosophical approaches, but for our purpose of cultivating the wisdom of aging, Raghu explained, we should consult the approach of "Ayruveda", which is "life knowledge" in Sanskrit; Yoga and Ayurveda are mutually supportive systems of health, spirituality, and well-being, mentioned in Indian spiritual texts called the "Vedas," which date back to around 3,000 BCE.
It is this wisdom of traditional India that proposes a meaningful model and framework through which we can look at our lives. It proposes the perspective of Four Basic Dimensions in what constitutes a good life:
1. Dharma- which in this context of Hindu philosophy of everyday living is manifested by the enquiry into the question: “Am I living in a way that ensures sustainable wellbeing for me, my context and to the world around me simultaneously?” This is the simplest way to understand this profound concept. It essentially involves an understanding of the laws of nature and living in harmony with these laws so that life in every form will flourish.
2. Artha- "wealth" in a broad sense, not limited only to money but the material resources and means to sustain life: “Do I have enough resources to live a comfortable life?”
3. Kama- joyousness, emotion and contentment: “Am I enjoying life, and the beauty of the world I live in?”
4. Moksha- freedom and emancipation. “Am I living in a way that "flows", without obstruction and entanglement? Do I have a sense of psychological freedom to grow inwardly in a way that is meaningful to me?”
The key to aging well is also the key to changing well. Change happens over time, developing consciousness over time is understood in traditional Yoga-Ayurveda in terms of an often-cited "Ashrama Model" of transition in life. It is a process that does not denote a "solid time-line" but one with "goalposts" to help us ease ourselves into life changes, letting go of that which needs to be let go off, attaining that which awaits us. Age is not our nemesis, but milestones for optimizing our consciousness to live in harmony as we move on with life.
Thus, by taking the wisdom of these "Four Basic Dimensions", yogic thought teaches the following:
1. The stage of the "learner"- traditionally the child would enter an Ashram at the age of 7/8 and study a range of things till the age of 25. The learning was comprised of many fields of knowledge and very importantly, a deep internalization of "dharma" (as defined above). Many practices that we now know as "Yoga" formed the foundation of this learning. In a sense the body, the mind and the spirit were nourished- there was no division between them- these practices were ingrained so as to continue to inform the rest of the person’s life.
2. The stage of the "house holder"- the young person gets married and enters society at the age of 25. He is equipped with the skills necessary during his time as a learner in the Ashram. He now pursues wealth, creating and living a joyful life within the framework of "dharmic conduct" (see above). The house holder is seen as the real hero in Indian tradition since he/she has to manage the incessant pulls and pushes of life and it the householder who provides the security and resources necessary for society to flourish.
3. The stage of "Vanaprashata"= the householder evolves into a mentor. At the age of 60, the householder relinquishes all his responsibilities, but is available as the wise elder to coach and guide others. This is perhaps conceptually equivalent to what may be akin to the stage of "Eldering", in the "Sage-ing" context.
4. The stage where the mentor evolves as a Sage. As he/she approaches 80, the individual dedicates his/her life entirely to spiritual endeavor. They involve themselves with others only in spiritual matters.
Age 60: The Turning Point
Traditional Hindu culture views the age of sixty with great significance, it is considered as a turning point in a man’s life for at this age one has usually fulfilled his commitments to family and home so that he can turn his mind to spirituality. As Raghu explained, it is believed that astrologically the position of the planets at the time of birth get realigned in the same way again at age 60!
Age 60 is not only a time for ceremonial ritual but a time to engage with one's life partner as well as another "partner" who has watched us our whole lives: the "deity" of "Time". Known as "The Threshold Ceremony", Raghu explained, the following takes place:
· The husband and wife prepare for this ceremony by performing a type of "life review", as individuals and as a couple. They review their lives thus far and let go of all the "knots" that have developed. They revisit together their life experiences that have led to yearning, regret, guilt , thereby setting forth a process of seeking a release from the ‘bondage’ to these past events, enabling the person to come to terms with "Time". They retain the learning they have lived through in the first cycle of life.
· The key ‘act’ of the ceremony is a dialogue with Time. The dialogue is focused on the following essential message: “Time I have been battling with you in the first cycle of my life. Now that I am wiser I understand that I have to learn to flow with you.” The husband and the wife then renew their commitments to one another based on the new idea of time and they receive the following guidance in the ceremony:
Your bodies will not regenerate the way it used to so take care of what you eat, and how much you exert yourself.
Your psyche is not as powerful as before, so do not get caught up in rigid thoughts, antagonisms and regrets.
Your spiritual years are to be nourished, spend time in deep contemplation.
Guided Meditation: Scanning the body with gratitude
In the second half of the workshop on Yoga and wise aging, Raghu took us through a profound journey to "greet and appreciate our bodies with gratitude". Known as part of the "Yoga Nidra" meditation, Raghu guided the online group to experience 30 minutes of complete relaxation with a powerful visualization of inner body "travel". Not only were we being guided to scan our various body parts but to "dialogue" with them in a deep sense of gratitude and love: the knees, elbows, thighs chest, thumb, eyes, etc.,- every one of them received our love and appreciation in words, not just thoughts!
I can think of no better way to create wisdom with age than "speaking directly" to our many aging body parts and "telling them" just how grateful we are for having them in our lives…
A Personal Reflection
A voice cries out within me to be heard. There is an insight that has arisen from within, it too wants to be acknowledged and thanked.
For a full year prior to my becoming 60 I did my best to gather knowledge, tools, plans, mental and emotional fortitude. I was off on a journey to "fill up my tank" for the journey over the "age 60 pass". It has been a fascinating trip, only I now feel that what has been most significant has not been what I have gained but what I have actually "let go off".
In my own dialogue with time I had internalized a set of principles that have needed to be adopted to reality. In one year, I have lost my father, and then lost my mother, I have begun to walk the path of the "elder", knowing full well that it was not a beaten track. We all know that if we want to walk far we need to travel light. And to thank those knees which pick us up, those eyes that bring light into our soul, those ears through which the music of life is sung.
The union of life. How beautiful is the Yoga of aging wisely…