By Ed Staskus
“When I get older losing my hair, many years from now, will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?” The Beatles
Every so often a yoga magazine website feature article speaker at a seminar blog FB Instagram Huffington Post will trot out the oldest yoga teachers in the world as examples of what can be accomplished when the body mind and spirit are all set firmly on the practice. They extol their example. They direct our attention to them, pillars of light.
The old-timers are shopworn though not the worse for wear, faded, but still lit up, the sparkle of the light of yoga still in their eyes.
There are the Big Three, gone but not forgotten. K. Pattabhi Jois kept at it to the age of 93, B. K. S. Iyengar, 95, and Indra Devi, an astonishing 102. There are many people in their 50s who say they just hope to make it to retirement age. Indra Devi not only never retired, she died still in the saddle.
The yoga teacher and scholar Krishnamacharya, known as the “father of modern yoga,” started in the mid-1920s and inspired a new interest in the practice. He taught and worked at it until the day he fell into a coma and died in 1989. He was 100 years old. It’s too bad he never knew he made the century mark.
Only .01% of anybody lives to be one hundred or beyond. Those that do often credit diet, exercise, and environment. Not always, however. Edith Atkinson Wylie, a 106-year-old living in Montana, who has never done a minute of yoga in her life, credits her longevity to “bourbon and Cheetos while watching the 5 o’clock news. And good genes, too.”
Edith played the gene card. She had to, otherwise forget shouting “Bingo!” The pay-off was another glass of bourbon and somebody else’s bad news on the TV.
“Do be do be do,” Frank Sinatra sang. He didn’t make it. Not that he didn’t try, wig and all.
There’s one in every crowd, especially the 100-year crowd, who have earned whatever eccentricity they want to play up to. Edith probably wears white gloves out in public, but the liver spots still show through. Don’t argue with the 100-year crowd though. They’ll see you in the grave first.
Besides the Big Three, there are the second stringers who accomplished the same longevity.
Nanammal, born in 1919, was the oldest yoga teacher in India. Her father taught it to her when she was 8 years old. She went on to teach more than a million students over 45 years. She died late last year. Tao Porchon-Lynch, born on a ship in the English Channel in 1918, also discovered yoga when she was 8 years old. She studied with Jois and Iyengar. She was a model and actress in the 40s and 50s but in the 1960s went into yoga full-time, teaching right up to her death early this year. She was 102.
Ida Herbert, born in 1916, hit it big as the oldest yoga teacher in the world in the Guinness Book of World Records. She was 96 years old at the time. When she turned the corner on the century mark, she was still teaching a group of older women she called “Ida’s Girls.” She didn’t get into yoga until she was in her 50s, taking private lessons, reading books, and practicing on her own. She started teaching yoga at the local YMCA. Everyone was drawn to her feisty energy and repeated message to “keep moving.”
When she died in April of this year, she was 103 years old. Her ashes were scattered at “Ida’s Rock” on the lakeshore where she lived. The wind blew them into the water.
The reason the 100-year crowd gets demonstrated is because there are more old older oldest people in the world now than ever before. The planet’s population is ageing faster than in the past. The number of people 60 years and older today outnumbers children younger than 5 years. Between now and 30 years from now, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years will nearly double from 12% to 22%.
125 million people are aged 80 years or older today. By 2050, there will be almost this many in China alone, and 434 million people in this age group worldwide. It is why yoga has significantly expanded in the past ten years. 30 to 49-year-olds are still the group doing it the most, but the numbers show that it is growing exponentially in popularity with those over 50 60 70 and 80. Adults over 50 practicing yoga tripled from 2014 to 2018.
“Let go of excuses that you’re too old,” says Carol Krucoff, a yoga therapist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C., and co-author of “Relax into Yoga for Seniors.”
“You don’t have to be young or fit or flexible to try yoga. If you can breathe, you can practice it,” she said.
About a million-and-a-half people live in nursing homes in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 10 million more, mostly 65-or-older, need long-term support to help them with daily activities, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. They are all breathing, but it’s a moot point whether they can totter forward to a yoga mat and get going into one asana and another.
“Age is an issue of mind over matter,” said Mark Twain. “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
Mind over matter is a great concept, but sometimes, no matter how much you don’t mind, it does matter. When you can barely shuffle forward in a walker, and barely breathe doing it, it is more likely a matter of matter over mind. It matters getting started, but sometimes the starter motor has gone bad.
Yoga studios are a business, and most yoga teachers are free agents, and everybody has got to make a living, so it is being touted as the new remedy for whatever ails golden agers. We age as the result of the accumulation of molecular and cellular damage over time. What happens is a downgrade in physical and mental capacity, a growing risk of disease, and ultimately, death.
Why it’s called golden is anybody’s guess.
Mental capacity and physical fitness are the bedrocks of yoga. It is what yoga teachers are best at doing, getting people fit and thinking straight. That’s why if senior citizens can get there, the mat is good for them.
Yoga has a lot to do with death, but nobody wants to hear about that, no matter what the Dalai Lama says, which is, “Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are useless.”
That’s all well and good for him, given his beliefs. He is thought by Buddhists to be able to choose the body into which he is reincarnated. That person then becomes the next Dalai Lama. Most people in the United States either never give a thought to the afterlife, are on the fence about it, or don’t believe in it.
It’s now or never.
Yoga in the main is recommended for seniors, a tonic that reduces stress, improves sleep, lessens depression, takes the edge off aches and pains, and enhances balance, flexibility, and strength. It is also said to help prevent the onset of osteoporosis, which causes bones to become weak and brittle. Most oldsters practice one or more of several popular versions, Restorative, Yin, Hatha, and Iyengar. If they can’t get up and go, they do Chair Yoga.
The AARP is on board with yoga for seniors. They say it protects your joints, which by your 60s aren’t as fluid as they used to be. “It’s important to start caring for your joints, to help maintain your independence and preserve your ability to perform daily activities as you get older, things like brushing your teeth, combing your hair, getting dressed,” says Amy Wheeler, yoga professor at California State University at San Bernardino.
It builds strength and better balance, helping prevent falls, which are the leading cause of injuries among oldsters. “About 80 percent of proprioception is in your ankles, so standing poses are important, particularly for people in their 70s,” says Larry Payne, yoga director at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “As you get more sedentary, your sense of balance atrophies. ‘Use it or lose it’ really does apply.”
It sharpens the mind. As we get older, our thought processes aren’t as keen anymore as they used to be. We get addled, disoriented, at sea. The Babadook in the closet is Alzheimer’s. Almost 6 million Americans age 65-and-older are living with it in 2020. Eighty percent are age 75-or-older. One in 10 people age 65-and-older has dementia.
A 2016 International Review of Psychiatry study reported that practicing yoga relaxation techniques for 30 minutes a day had immediate beneficial effects on brain function. “Focusing on the breath and synchronizing it with movement helps keep the mind clear and engaged,” says Melinda Atkins, a yoga teacher in Miami.
If worse comes to worse, there’s always Corpse Pose, which is good for any age. Lie on your back, eyes closed, splay your feet to the sides, arms alongside your body, palms facing up, surrender to the floor, and breathe deeply evenly consciously.
Seniors being old-timers, they’ve got to be careful, even doing something as bathed in the virtuous glow of yoga. “In general, older adults have less joint range of motion, less strength and poorer balance than younger men and women,” says Gale Greendale, a professor of medicine and gerontology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “They also have more limiting musculoskeletal conditions, such as osteoarthritis and low back conditions, that may put them at higher risk of musculoskeletal side effects from yoga.”
In other words, they can get hurt.
“There were 29,590 yoga-related injuries seen in hospital emergency departments from 2001 to 2014,” according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. “The trunk was the most frequent region injured. The injury rate increased overall from 2001 to 2014, and it was greatest for those aged 65 years-and-older compared with those aged 18 to 44 years and 45 to 64 years in 2014.”
In the six years since, injuries among seniors have shot up as their participation in yoga has shot up.
As good as yoga is for everybody, including everybody war-horse age and up, it isn’t the whole pie, but rather a slice of the pie. Investing in it to the exclusion of other kinds of activity and movement is pie in the sky. There is more to move mind spirit than plank down dog and half-moon pose.
“Yoga goes a long way for the mind and spirit, but a little bit of it goes a long way for the body, especially as we get older,” said Frank Glass, a former sportswriter who covers the yoga scene in the metropolitan Cleveland, Ohio area. “I get on my mat at home most days and sometimes I take a class at Quiet Mind, but I’ve adapted as I’ve gotten older.”
Quiet Mind on the east side of Lakewood, one of Cleveland’s inner ring western suburbs on the Lake Erie shoreline, is owned and operated by Barron Cannon, a yoga idealist and sometime anarchist who still manages to turn a profit at his studio.
“I don’t stand on my head anymore, and I’ve put wheel pose away in the garage,” said Frank. “What I do now is a blend of yoga, Pilates, and band work. I walk in the park, walk on my treadmill in the winter months, and work out on a Concept 2 rower.”
Like many people, Frank Glass started taking yoga classes in his early-50s. “I played too much racquetball and squash in my 30s and 40s,” he said. It took a toll. Playing got painful. Playing got impossible.
“The problem with relying on yoga was that the better I got at it the worse I got at real life. Not mentally or spiritually. I got better there. It was the physical part I got a little disenchanted with. Less is more, as far as I’m concerned. Walking, biking, rowing, lifting weights, or band work, is just as bottom-line as sun salutations”
There is wide agreement that along with yoga, activities like walking and cycling, aerobic classes, bodyweight training, and resistance band workouts are especially well-suited for mossbacks. Swimming is encouraged because it is often called the world’s perfect exercise.
“Getting in the pool is a great way to increase your cardiovascular fitness while also strengthening your muscles,” says Victoria Shin, a cardiologist at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California. Exercising in water puts minimal stress on your bones and joints, which is a plus for anyone who has arthritis or osteoporosis. It hydrates the moss. The Journal of Aging Research suggests that swimming keeps minds as sharp as it does bodies fit. It’s like doing yoga with your yellow rubber ducky.
Many studies of healthy older people indicate that strength, stamina, and flexibility drop significantly after age 55. These declines were once considered an inevitable consequence of aging. Not necessarily anymore.
But a study by Harvard and Tufts researchers showed that many functional losses could be reversed. “In the study, 100 nursing-home residents, ages 72 to 98, performed resistance exercises three times a week for 10 weeks. At the end of that time, the exercise group could lift significantly more weight, climb more stairs, and walk faster and farther than their sedentary counterparts, who continued to lose strength and muscle mass.”
“I may not live to be a hundred, although my father was in his late 80s when he died, and my mother is still kicking around in her 90s, so I think my genes are on the better side, which gives me a chance,” said Frank Glass. “So, I’ll just keep doing what Mr. Natural does.”
Fred Natural, known as Mr. Natural, is a slightly overweight bald man with a long white beard wearing a sack making him look like a prophet. He is a comic book character created by the 1960s underground cartoon artist Robert Crumb. Fred was once kicked out of heaven for telling God it all “looks a little corny up here.”
His goal in life is to “Keep on Truckin’.”
Although he has much in common with the Big Three, there is no recorded instance of Mr. Natural ever doing yoga, even though he is approaching 150 years of age. Knowing him, he probably kept it a secret. Wherever he is today, on a remote island or mountaintop, he would certainly recommend doing some yoga and would absolutely recommend staying on the move. He has a nimble way of saying, “Use it or lose it, baby.”
It’s the only way to get in with the 100-year in-crowd. And since an apple a day keeps the doctor away, when you’re done with whatever you’ve done, on the mat or off, have a big slice of apple pie. And a glob of ice cream. It goes great with a slice of pie.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get the monthly feature in your in-box.