The process of aging can oftentimes be unpleasant but more so if we follow the societal mantra of getting older means getting sicker -- slowing down mentally & physically, becoming a net for illness, and withdrawing from pleasures. The yoga tradition encourages an opposite view and reminds us that we are not to fixate or neglect either our body or our mind but work to support both in discovery of our “Immortal self”1 This tradition does not deny death but instead focuses on creating a life of health. We are all on the road to death and some of us are going to get there sooner and sadly some of us will be sicker when we get there. Putting your focus on health, starting at any age, may not be an easy task for you but pushing your health to the bottom of your To Do list, or ignoring the path to health completely will ensure you make it to the finish line quicker than you’d like. Now, yes, we all know an outlier, someone who led an unhealthy life and managed to live into their 90s, and you are an autonomous human being who can choose to live the way you like; however, science isn’t on your side. There are some of us who are living with a disease and for most of us no pea sprout or magic potion will eliminate the disease, but I know from you directly that exercise improves your mental and physical health.
I have finally completed my obsessive read of Daniel E. Lieberman’s book “Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding”, and I am encouraged by his exploration of the positive effects of exercise on mental health. I see this investigation as a handshake with the yoga tradition to join mind and body for optimal wellness and youth. Not a hope for immortality but a plan for a long healthy life. “The Fountain of Youth flows with sweat.”2 it does not flow from a jar of pharmaceuticals or creams, it does not flow from a special fountain or spa water. It flows from an awareness that we must move to survive and we must sweat to thrive.
Over the last year I have heard from coworkers and friends the impacts COVID-19 had and is still having on their mental health, and one common thread in their stories is exercise. Those who engaged in physical activity were mentally stronger and better able to handle the stressors in their life than those who didn’t exercise. Those who didn’t exercise often were more ill, and succumbed to behaviors that had negative impacts on their life. These shared stories are a reminder to be present in our internal body so we can recognize fluctuations and adjust. It’s the practice of asking; Am I focusing on unhealthy attitudes? Am I engaging in unhealthy behaviors? Do I feel better after I exercise? Pausing and listening gives you the opportunity to acknowledge your present and make a change for health.
Challenges and temptations are part of the human experience and exercise is not the unicorn of health but it’s the closest thing to a unicorn we’ll ever get so practice, practice, practice. We may not always want to swim in the cool morning, or run in the heat, or practice yoga without our studios or communities but if you do practice your body and mind will become strong, supple, and aging will be something you do not something you are. As breath is our life force, sweat is our Fountain of Youth so I encourage you to move, breathe and let age be a marker of time not a marker of health.
1 Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom, by B. K. S. Iyengar
2 Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding, by Daniel E. Lieberman