What’s the perfect tool for practicing self acceptance as you get older? Yep, yoga.
This is the year when most women’s magazines advise me to apply anti-wrinkle creams on my face, consider botox or dermal fillers to keep my skin dewy, and amp up my fitness routine to include weight training to combat the slowing down of my metabolism and to hide my age. This is the year I turn 40.
As I contemplate my age, I am hit with ambivalence. I am uncertain whether I should celebrate this new decade or fear it. I also realise how much I have imprinted the widespread beliefs that decry ageing in our culture. Is this surprising? After all, who does not want to look and feel youthful? Aren’t we conditioned to venerate the beauty of youth? In 2015, the global ‘anti-ageing’ market (i.e. goods and services that help to ‘combat’ aging) was valued at $175 billion (US$140.3 billion) and is expected to reach $271 billion (US$216.5 billion) in 2021. That’s a lot of people all around our planet buying and hawking something to help us feel younger.
Yoga is not immune to this drive. Many of us first try a yoga class because we are attracted to the physical benefits of yoga — we want to feel more toned, fit, flexible and young. And, as a yoga teacher, I am bombarded every day with images of the ideal yoga body — generally represented by a younger woman.
Yet, with age comes insight. While getting leaner and stronger was an essential reason for my practice in my 20s, today yoga offers me something deeper than the beautification of the physical body. These benefits can be felt by all of us, no matter what our age.
I return to my yoga mat for the spaciousness and freedom to relax, to release blockages, negative thoughts, feelings or emotions such as anxiety, anger or frustration. I know that when I do this, I create the space to fill my well up with the good stuff: the focus, peace and joy that a yoga practice can offer up. And intuitively, I have tuned into an aspect of yoga that modern medicine now views as powerful anti-ageing medicine.
Consider that moment after the first few sun salutations of a yoga class, when your attention begins to focus on the rhythmic movements, you slow down your inhales and exhales and find yourself letting go of your attachment to your to-do list, or the emotion around a conflict with someone at work. Time slows down and each moment feels rich, full and alive.
In Ayurvedic terms, this is when we shift from the space of rajas, the frenetic and reactive state that informs much of our day, towards more sattva or calm. Modern science concurs, describing this as a change in the nervous system’s state of fight or flight, to that of rest and digest.
When we learn how to react to challenging situations without getting stressed (something we practice on our mats through physical asana) we begin to re-pattern our body’s stress response. Less stress allows our body to focus on rebuilding and regenerating itself at the cellular level, vs. working to block stressors from impacting us. This catalyses our body’s innate anti-ageing mechanisms at the hormonal level — when we are less stressed we produce less cortisol (aka the stress hormone), which ups the ratio of DHEA or the anti-ageing hormone.
We also receive anti-ageing benefits at the level of our genes. Each of our cells includes structures called telomeres, bits of DNA at the end of chromosomes that get shorter each time cells divide. As we age, telomeres get shorter and shorter. When telomeres get too short, the cells can no longer divide and they die. Yoga, say recent studies, may help to preserve their length, helping us to slow down the ageing process as we slow down our breath.
I saw an old college friend last week after 18 years. We looked at one another and both exclaimed, “You look the same.” Perhaps we do. Yet what was more important to me, was that though our 40-year-old lives may be different from those of our 21-year-old selves, when we said goodbye, I was left with the same feeling of optimism, possibility and connection that I had experienced years ago. And that to me is what age is about. It is how we choose to feel in this particular moment in this lifetime. If my yoga practice can offer me the pause to be present and choose, without being restrained by societal constructs, I know that I can enjoy whatever age I happen to be, fully, without reservation.
10 RITUALS TO EMBRACE YOUR AGE
1. Live in rhythm with nature, not against her
This is Ayurveda’s most profound teaching. Very simply put — awake early when it is light and sleep when it is dark. This allows your anti-ageing hormones to follow their natural diurnal cycles and offers your body the benefits of deep sleep, which is the most regenerative tool in our arsenal of living well.
2. Invite abundance through gratitude
Start your days and end you days recounting three things you are grateful for. Do this consistently. When we live life through the lens of abundance, not lack, we bring more joy and less stress into our lives.
3. Eat lightly at night
As we grow older, our metabolism does slow down. Eating a lighter meal in the evenings offers our body the time to digest food more fully, thereby offering us the full benefits of its nutrition. This also helps our body to repair itself at the cellular level when we sleep (as our bodies can focus on their rejuvenation tasks vs. digesting heavy food).
4. Learn from the ages
Embrace friends who are both younger and older than you. We grow as a species through sharing human insights and experiences and we stay young when we learn something new from those who have life experiences that are vastly different than us.
5. Meditate or do yoga for even 10 minutes a day
Ten to 20 minutes is what your body needs to drop into the rest and digest state and consistent practice will allow you to get there even sooner.
6. Move every day
Movement fills our bodies with joy. We are not meant to sit for hours as we do today. So honour your body’s natural ability to embrace joy and fill up that cup.
7. Find freedom in constraints
Each life stage offers us new challenges and it us up to us to discover their benefits.
8. Laugh a lot
Laughter is a natural de-stressor and fills our bodies with endorphins. Wear your laugh lines proudly.
9. Don’t mask yourself
Instead, allow yourself to reveal yourself more fully to those you love. Women tend to cover up their imagined flaws through make-up. What if you approached using make-up simply as a way to enhance your natural beauty and not mask it?
10. Eat more plants and good fats
A diet high in whole plant foods supports telomere preservation. Good fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, flax and primrose oil also help us to maintain moisture in our bodies, something we lose as we age.