When I was young and naïve I used to say “the good thing about practicing yoga is that as you get older you only get stronger and more flexible!” This is true up to a point and that point is different for every body. The fact is that as we age our body slows down. All of our bodily functions are affected as our cells multiply more slowly and we end up with less new cells. This means the process of rejuvenation is slower than that of degeneration. This sounds terribly bleak and some do attempt to deny the aging process but even animals, who have no concept of aging, do not escape the natural atrophy of our physical bodies. One problem with the aging process is our inability to accept and adapt to it.
Our society is infatuated with and addicted to the superficial beauty and exuberant energy of youth. Insisting that your body can and should do what you did when you were much younger is setting yourself up for disappointment and/or injury. When I observe children I marvel at the energy levels they have. I remember I was like this too as a child but now in my mid-fifties I have neither the desire nor the energy to keep up with them! We reach our biological and physical peak between the ages of 20-35. In order to maintain a good level of physical strength and flexibility as we age we need to continue to challenge our body with adequate exercise and stretching. Herein lies the thin edge of the sword. Sadly, many yoga practitioners injury themselves in an attempt to maintain or progress in their asana practice as they age, before they find the wisdom to modify their practice to suit their changing body.
Understanding a little about the different tissue types involved may help us to afford our bodies the respect they need and deserve. There’s good news and not so good news. The good news is that as we age we can maintain very good levels of flexibility. Flexibility is a quality of muscles and their fascial or connective tissue sheaths. Both of these tissues have the ability to lengthen and although connective tissue is usually less compliant with age, fascia will deform over time making it easier to maintain its length. Less compliant tissues also means that as we age our body is less adaptable and forgiving to new forms of movement and thereby more prone to muscle strain and injury. However, staying flexible as we age maintains our mobility and agility into old age.
Muscle and fascia also contain the proteins elastin and collagen. As we age elastin is generally less abundant in our body. This is easy to witness in skin where wrinkles, in part, represent a loss of elastin as well as a degeneration of collagen. Elastin enables our tissues to regain their original shape after shortening or lengthening. With less elastin our connective tissue is less forgiving with extreme ranges of motion and injury becomes more likely.
Additionally, as we age our muscle mass will slowly decline and along with it a loss of strength. Muscles are made of different types of contractile cells and with age there is a decline particularly in the proportion of fast- to slow-twitch muscle fibre cells. These fast-twitch cells are responsible for speed and power production. From the age of 20 to 80 we lose as much as 30% of our fast-twitch fibres as the nerves that control them die. Despite maintaining the same degree of muscular exertion, muscle strength decreases progressively and rapidly with age. However, for this reason is it beneficial to physically challenge ourselves to an appropriate degree.
While our muscles are responsible for our flexibility, our joints are responsible for our mobility. The joints in our body that move the most are called synovial joints. Each end of a bone where it meets the other to form a joint is lined with cartilage, the bones are enclosed in a capsule and this capsule is filled with fluid. As we age the cartilage degenerates, the joint capsule stiffens and the joint space narrows as it dehydrates. With joint misalignments and/or excess wear and tear calcium deposits may begin to form and this is the process of osteoarthritis or OA, also know as ‘wear and tear arthritis’.
Each vertebra in the spine has four synovial joints that it shares with its neighbouring vertebrae as well as two fibrous joints at the discs above and below. It is for this reason that the spine tends to be one of the first places to lose its mobility. The spine’s apparent flexibility is very much dependent on the mobility of its multitude of joints. Try sitting upright and begin to draw small to larger circles with your nose. You may hear some creaking noises in the joints of your neck. This crepitus is a sign of joint degeneration. The neck is the most common place in the spine for OA to occur and the knee and hip the most common joints in the rest of the body. Again the fine line of balance… As cartilage is avascular, i.e. it has no blood circulation, it requires movement to gain its nourishment from the fluid within the joint capsule. Adequate movement imbibes the joint whilst excessive movement over a long period of time destroys joints.
Our bones like all the other living tissues in our body, respond to the stresses they incur. The cells in our bones perceive the weight-bearing force exerted onto them. This sets up a piezo-electric current causing bone-building cells to align along this current, reinforcing and strengthening our bones. For this reason weight-bearing as we age is important in the maintenance of our bone density and the prevention of osteoporosis.
Even master athletes will suffer the typical physical decline of age (albeit far less). You cannot reverse the arrow of time but you can help offset age-related disability and physical decline. If you have not yet developed the sensitivity to sense and respect your body’s limits you will inevitably suffer pain and injury. These will then become your stern, uncompromising teacher.
The confusion and conflict for many is the belief that one needs to be able to practice Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga in its entire form for their entire life span. This mentality is only a reflection of our own limited belief system. Some prescribe different types of asana practices for specific age groups. I see this as an over-simplification of the complexity of individuals. Some people have more physical energy and are able to practice strenuous asana without force or strain into their fifties while for others a gentle physical asana practice is preferred in their youth. What is important is our motivation and intent. Are we practicing asana from a fear of ‘losing’ something or do we practice knowing that by caring for ourselves we can better care for and give to others. Krishnamacharya adjusted his teaching style to the age and probably other factors of his students. It is important for young people to burn off their excess energy and it is relevant for older practitioners to adjust their practice to suit their energy levels and physical abilities.
As everything will come to pass so too shall our physical prowess and agility. Age does not necessarily confer wisdom, however, practicing yoga consciously means the odds will be stacked in your favour. Perhaps not surprisingly, as with growth and life, the biological process of ageing is unknown. Just as we receive this gift of life, it slowly seeps from us to expire at some unknown point in time. To age gracefully means to live life generously, appreciating our bodies and our lives for what we can do, and to do that with gratitude in our heart. Practice to nourish and nurture your body, rewarding it for all it does to serve you.
I hope you enjoy this quote from Mark Twain as much as I do;
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter’.