Backbends VS Old Age
My 86 year old grandmother said “I’m feeling OLD”. “But Gamgam”, I said, “you’re entitled to feel old”. I didn’t understand that she meant tired and confused. “Old” was a feeling I hadn’t had yet, but “Old” came to me earlier than I expected, in my 50’s.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, I was a paradox. I was a yoga teacher with a strong yoga practice, 10 months of low back pain, and other aches that made me feel old. A saner person might have chosen to back off the yoga until the pain somehow cleared, but I decided to go on a week-long yoga retreat in Costa Rica with John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga, which was the yoga system I studied.
On the flight from Houston to San Jose, Costa Rica, I had a wonderful conversation another yoga teacher from Taiwan, and beautiful young woman about 30 years old. She told me about her therapeutic yoga training, and I asked questions to learn more about how yoga can help backs. I had more physical pain than I care to remember. At age 55, I felt my age in so many ways, particularly in arthritis and weight gain. What I didn’t realize was the pain my thought patterns were causing. In the same way that yoga will uncover misalignments in the body, it was soon to reveal painful misalignments in my mind.
When we landed in San Jose, things started to go downhill. My young seatmate moved quickly to join friends she’d made in yoga therapy. I was a slow walker, with the arthritis in my toes, and honestly, I started feeling bad about being so old, especially compared to the 20 and 30-somethings with their yoga mats. My mind stared offering up comparisons as I watched the sea of people moving through the airport. These comparisons were painful and unwelcome, but they kept coming. I noticed age and youth, good health and poor, thinness and fatness, sloppy and neat. I noticed all the ways I didn’t measure up to my ideal. Even my mind wouldn’t do what I wanted!
The days began with a 7 am talk and mediation, and breakfast was at 8. The yoga sessions were 9:30 to noon and 3 to 5:30. There were 100 students in the class, many of them skilled yoga teachers, and most of them strong and fit and thin.
The yoga training was great, my back improved rapidly, but mentally, emotionally I was struggling. I was surrounded by young, strong, bendy yoga teachers and students. Between classes, I asked other teachers and students how they had healed back pain. I collected a wealth of techniques and practices for working with back pain, but I still suffered from internal judgments. I wrote in my journal, I coached myself to think generous thoughts, and I made gratitude lists. I put on a smile, but I felt like I was over the hill, uninteresting, and tired.
But I am persistent. I work hard. On about day 5, we were working on full backbends, again. I had never pushed myself up into a full backbend, altho’ I’d tried. John taught backbends every day, and this day, something clicked, in a good way. We lay down on our backs with knees bent. I pulled my arm bones back into my shoulder sockets, hugged my shoulder blades onto my back like the hands of a friend, placed my hands and pushed the floor, and up I went. It felt natural, and it felt amazing. It felt so amazing I shouted some kind of victorious sound. Yee-HA !!
When I came back down, I was different. This was something that had never happened before. It was not just getting into a backbend and being free of back pain. Something had changed, as if an electrical pulse had gone from my feet to the top of my head. I’m not much for metaphysics, but I could have sworn my chakras had been cleaned by a blast of energy up the central channel. I was beyond happy.
Very suddenly, it didn’t matter that my toes were painful. My age didn’t matter. All the judgments that plagued me earlier in the week simply dissolved. I didn’t have to talk myself out of or into anything. It wasn’t that problems went away, just that I accepted everything exactly as it is, as a beautiful work in progress. I kept working just the same, but I was quietly ecstatic. I’ve never felt anything like it.
I thought to speak with the young woman from Taiwan. After she had walked away at the airport, I imagined she found me old and boring, and I avoided her. Now I told her how I had avoided her because she was so accomplished, and that I appreciated the beauty of her yoga. And wonder of wonders, she explained that in Taiwan, it’s disrespectful for a young person to be too familiar with an elder, and she was concerned that she’d been over friendly on the airplane.
When the retreat was over, the state of ecstasy was still strong, and soon to be tested. The long flight from Costa Rica to Houston and back to Seattle was delayed and I missed the last shuttle home. It was almost midnight. After 5 phone calls at the airport pay phone, I realized a basketball tournament had filled all the hotels. The ecstasy would not be erased, and now I was on an adventure. I could sleep in the airport and save 100 bucks! I surveyed ticketing and baggage claim and found an area with benches, mostly occupied with blanket covered lumps. I settled in to an empty bench with happy anticipation. I dozed until 6 am when the blanket covered lumps came to life. The others were all young men in their 20’s! We stretched and smiled the smiles of a secret society. I bought tea and a muffin and caught the morning shuttle.
The ecstasy tapered off in the next few days, back to a regular optimistic frame of mind. The painful judgments haven’t returned. My back is as healthy as ever, and I feel younger now. Backbends are still a struggle. Thanks to my fellow yoga teachers, I have a wealth of yoga techniques and practices that I teach to help people with back pain. The biggest thing is, for a little while I was at one with everything. I totally understood that the world is evolving as it should be, that everything is connected in a way that is loving and beneficial and good. Judgment was washed away. Time didn’t matter all that much and I was totally at peace.
My friend, Jim Patterson, says that old age is a spirit that comes and goes. Old age visited me for a few years, and vanished in an instant. Next time it comes to visit, I think I’ll be more accepting and more curious.
“But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”. Bob Dylan