As I make my own transition from midlife into old age I have been drawn to research and contemplate what it really means to be an elder in our society, not just an ‘old person’. If you were asked to make two lists, one on what you are looking forward to in your old age and the other on what you fear most about it, how easy is it for you and which is the longer? How often do you joke about a ‘senior moment’, berate yourself for forgetting a name or get irritated and impatient with some ‘old’ person in front of you at the checkout? Sadly, our culture is full of ageism – just look at birthday greetings cards for older people, the scare stories in the media about the lack of resources for the elderly and the vast array of products offered to reduce physical signs of age. It is not just the young who are ageist, however; it is those of us who are getting older with all our fears of suffering, ill health and loss.
How do you reinforce this prejudice in your life? What are your internalised stereotypes about age? What fears do you have about your own ageing and the ageing of those you love?
Most of us, I am sure, do not want to feel we are in some sort of holding pattern waiting for our turn to die. So how can our later years be fruitful and inspiring for ourselves and those around us if we don’t have the energy, centredness, resilience, flexibility and other qualities needed to achieve that? The reality is that, if we are spared to live into old age, we will experience at some time a level of physical and/or mental decline before we die; so this transition from mid-life into old age seems to be an opportunity to review, complete, let go and make choices in preparation for our later life.
The traditional yoga life-cycle model defines the three stages of life. First, childhood and youth – the time of expansion (srsti); second, midlife (the householder) – a time of activity, of work and parenting, when we need practices that sustain and stabilise us (stithi); and finally we move into a period of life when our world contracts (antaya) and the focus is on our inner life as preparation for the end of our physical life. In ancient times (and in some old cultures that still exist) elders retreat to a hermitage or wander the wilderness seeking spiritual enlightenment as part of their completion of this lifetime. In our Western culture, however, the old age we are facing is very different from the society and world in which these texts were written, and often we are ill-prepared for old age when it arrives. We are living longer, with better healthcare and more material comforts, and for many, a better quality of life, with longer lasting vitality than in previous generations. We have different challenges, too: the culture we live in is fast moving, one of constant activity and change, with a demand for choice and instant satisfaction, and an expectation that we learn and keep up to date with a bewildering array of ever-evolving technology.
This transition from mid-life into old age is a time when we are no longer in our prime but we are not yet truly old. We may become aware of profound changes occurring on any or all levels of the five koshas – annamaya (the physical body), pranamaya (the energy body), manamaya (the mental and emotional body), vijnanamaya (the wisdom body) and anandamaya (a super-conscious sense of reality). It is a time when we realise that we are standing on the threshold of old age and all that this demands of us. This awareness is often heralded by a crisis or ‘wake up call’ of some kind such as a major health issue, bereavement, retirement or loss of some aspect of life we cherish and the thought of being old with a deteriorating body and loss of purpose can drive us into denial with either a deep depression or frantic activity.
How do you enter your later years with grace? What do you need to do to live FULLY and consciously in the next part of your life? How can you transform fear of ageing into anticipation of the rich possibilities of the elder part of your life?
As with all life transitions, this is a very personal and individual journey, both in its timing and how we experience it and we have few guidelines or role models. It also seems that despite whatever personal development and spiritual work we have already done, this period will still call us to question our habitual patterns of behaviour and beliefs, to find ways to heal our past so we can empower our future and to make many adjustments to the way we live so we can be truly who we were born to be. Yoga teachings about the kleshas (YS2:1–9) can give us a structure for thinking about these transitional challenges.
- Avidya: Are we seeing things about our life and our true nature with honesty and clarity? For example:
- What changes are occurring in our physical body and health?
- How are our abilities and values changing?
- What adjustments are necessary to maintain long-term and valued relationships with partners, children (who are no longer children) and friends?
- Are we awakening to our deeply entrenched patterns and habits – samskaras.
- Asmita: Having spent much of life building a strong container that we call the ego, our sense of identity undergoes a radical change during this transition as we discover who we really are. This can make us feel so unmoored and adrift that we may be tempted to cling to our past roles and labels, or compare ourselves inappropriately to others.
- Raga: We live in a society addicted to pleasure and happiness without which we can become bored and lonely, yet we still find it hard to leave our comfort zone of the known. What is this showing us about ourself?
- Dvesha: Our aversion to pain and suffering can make us prefer the safety of what is familiar, stopping us from weeding out what no longer serves us or is out of date. How can we let go and deal with the subsequent grief that can be part of this?
- Abhinivesha: Why does our insecurity and fear of an unknown future make us cling to an outdated way of living or life itself? Do we fear death or is it the inevitable challenges of living life fully in the present as we age that we are trying to avoid?
Facing the challenge
What inner strengths are you developing or wish to work towards developing in facing age, sickness and death with greater peace and equanimity? How do you intend to direct your attention and energy in the years remaining to you? What sustains you in life right now? What inner work do you have to do to age consciously and prepare to fully claim and embody elder hood?
Physical well-being: Krishnamurti said once, ‘Your physical body may not be who you really are but just try living without caring for it’. As we age, it seems there is a need to work harder and with greater discipline to maintain a healthy body and vitality. Our yoga practices can give us much that supports us. Our asana practice may need to be adjusted to suit our fluctuating energy levels and changing bodies and, combined with a simple, nutritious and balanced diet, we can set the base for a healthy lifestyle. For me, the natural world and outdoor exercise is equally important, so nature can work its restorative and grounding magic on me while I walk or work in the garden. Finding ways to counteract increased vata induced anxiety through relaxation is also important.
Vata increases at this time of life and can lead to disturbed sleep, forgetfulness, anxiety, restlessness and erratic patterns of living and needs to be managed. (Paul Harvey said that women are twice as likely as men to suffer from vata disturbances.) There can be a conflict between the need to contract our lives and the chaos and random mental activity of increasing vata energies which can also be seductive and accumulative. We may find that while we can have many creative ideas, our ability to execute them changes and we need to ensure more discipline and structure in order to complete (or even start) them.
Structure and rhythm means finding an appropriate vinyasa krama for our life, a way of living that gives us strong roots and grounding through the right food, right routines and right practices that help manage our prana, agni and ojas. Combined, these will help us maintain vitality for life. Short yoga practices with a mix of hatha and raja yoga done two or three times a day will also help us.
Also, the role of abhyasa is important to realise a mental practice so we learn to reflect on and understand the difference in ourselves between cit and citta and remain close to cit through repeated practices, sustained over time through correct effort, commitment and a positive attitude in order to move towards a desired goal (YS1.12).
Letting go: In learning to be truly present and centred, we need to practise letting go of all those things that cause us suffering (dhuka), that no longer serve us or are out of date. First, create a list of what we want or need to let go of (this will come with intention and time). The list can include status, skills, values and roles, regrets about things not done, guilt about those things we have done and wish we had not, and all those unfinished relationships or relationships that drain us. Counselling or therapy can be helpful for unresolved emotional issues and there are exercises such as ‘Cutting the Ties’, ‘The Emotional Freedom Technique’ and various cleansing ceremonies for processing and letting go. In yoga we have the use of regular mantra.
Developing our inner life: What is your commitment to your spiritual maturity? C.G. Jung said in his book Memories and Reflections that ‘one doesn’t become enlightened by imagining light but by making the darkness conscious’. How we approach this work is a matter of personal preference and I suspect it will continue for the rest of our physical life. Most people I have talked to about ageing say they have a greater need for solitude and quiet time to embrace and process the internal and external changes. This can be supported with:
- Our yoga practice when we return to our inner life to find mental stability (YS1:36–39), through regular practices of pranayama, dhyana, japam, bhavanam and the use of mantra, nayasa and chant.
- Journal or writing practice to process inner thoughts and dreams. If you are not a wordsmith you could try mind mapping, soul collage (a multi-level intuitive, creative process for self-discovery) or artwork to help develop this connection with your ‘higher self’.
- Sangha and support groups to share with soul companions.
- Creative activities such as music, painting, dance or gardening.
- Daily prayer, contemplation and, as Deepak Chopra suggests, acknowledging each day what we give thanks for in our life.
- Quiet time in the natural world.
Paul Harvey reminds us of the importance of bhavana for developing an attitude of mind and conscious effort for our inner journey work (see his personal commentary on YS1:33 at www.yogastudies.org). He refers to the four pillars and the role they have in cultivating a relationship with the unhelpful aspects of inner feelings that block us. They are cultivating a feeling of friendliness to our own attempts to distract ourselves – Maitri; developing compassion towards our bodies and minds, whatever state we find them in – Karuna; looking for the positive good-will and joy in ourselves rather than just finding fault – Mudita; and patience and keeping distance from the self-deprecation that can often accompany our attempts to develop the quality of our inner life – Upeksa.
How are you engaging with your practices at this time? How do you sabotage yourself? How do you cultivate your inner practice?
Being in old age is as much a part of life as youth and mid-life, and this transition into elderhood seems to me about recalibrating ourselves in some way, opening to our deepest, most authentic guiding inner compass and finding a purposeful, creative and fulfilling life in our old age. In preparation for this we need to review and complete our past by relinquishing anything that holds us back, be rigorous about our routines and practices, and engage with life as fully as we can; then maybe we will be able to deal with the inevitable challenges that life in our later years will bring us, so that the final part of life can be the pinnacle of our growth into wholeness and wisdom.
On a final note, comparing notes with my friend recently she reminded me of the importance of laughter and humour, not only as a way releasing tension but a support in keeping the light touch of joy in our life!
‘When you go into the garden,’ Rumi asks, ‘do you look at thorns or flowers? Spend more time with roses and jasmine.’
With my thanks to Paul Harvey, Hilary Norman and Rosie Foster