Yoga for Aging Well
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Prana is life force. Un focused attention is leaking energy. Yoga teaches us how to age well by playing with fire. Exponential action means in living things, effects don’t merely add up, they multiply.
I would never be young again. You don’t know enough about yourself to live life properly. -Shirley MacLaine
The root meaning of entropy comes from trope, the Greek word for transformation, and en, which means “to put into.” In physics, the concept of entropy is key to explaining how heat is converted to work, and it’s the basis of the way we talk about calories being burned by physical exercise. More fundamentally, converting heat to work refers to what each of us does with our lives.
What do we transform our breath and our days, our intelligence and imagination, our values and beliefs into? Where does the energy for this transformation come from? We eat food and convert it to body tissues, we listen to encouragement and convert it to confidence. We inhale oxygen and use it to power cellular respiration. We are, as human beings, evolved to transform.
Over time our sources of energy may change. Entropy describes the fact that, also over time, our ability to convert energy winds down.
Part of what’s compelling about being human is that effects and outcomes of choices, and even health and aging themselves, are never a simple matter of trajectory. Artificial intelligence scientist Rodney Brooks points out that something so human as walking is an emergent behavior, an interaction between our bodies and our environment that results from other actions, like doing whatever it takes to not fall down.
Our environment isn’t static, we have to respond to the unknown and unexpected at the same time as we become specialized for what we encounter the most often. In this way each of us is really more like an event than we are like a thing. We are dynamic rather than determined. We are not foregone conclusions, we’re happening. And over the long run what makes us happen the way we do depends less on what’s sequential, one at a time and in order of cause and effect, than on what’s exponential.
Gravity is a familiar example of change that’s exponential. Objects don’t just fall at speed toward the earth, they gain velocity -
32 feet per second per second
That’s no typo – per second per second is the gain, the exponential that means in living things, effects don’t merely add up, they multiply.
Which is to say (among other things), the longer we live becoming who we are, the more, and the more rapidly, we become the source of ourselves. As we develop, we are more totally the source of our impressions; consciously or not, we transform what we’re taking in to create viewpoints and plans; we inhabit preferences about where we get the energy to transform, and what we choose to transform. From the food we eat, to where we live, who we know, our sources of news, and how we make a living.
If there is something we hope to accomplish, as we experience entropy we wise up and recognize we don’t have forever. We have to get savvier about how to make it happen.
The way we do things can either leak away our lives or build into our lives a capacity for purpose. Yoga is choosing to do things in a way that builds our vitality rather than breaking us down.
Our bodies are powerful, self-building organisms. Though we can self-repair, at the same time we’re intrinsically vulnerable, and do naturally age. Injury is a gain in entropy, wearing you down faster than a lifetime of use would. If you use your back like a winch to pick up heavy things, you may get the job done in the moment, but you pay the price. On the other hand, if you learn how to pick up heavy things appropriately, every time you pick something up you get stronger. This nets out as a loss of entropy.
Getting stronger means you are converting more
Converting more of the work you have to do anyway into the capacity to direct your effort, capacity you can use however you wish to use it.
In posture practice we learn to find and feel muscles rather than succumbing to unconscious habit. We build the flexibility and strength of the muscles we use, and we increase our coordination. Roughly speaking we try to do the posture based on pictures or the way other people look doing it, at the same time we try to make the posture feel consistent throughout our bodies. The yoga in posture practice is finding the sense of yourself where those two things have a life-giving, keeping-each-other honest tension, where they let you breathe and increase your energy, breaking open the brittle varnish of how you’ve always done things without breaking down your vitality or growth.
The more awake we are, the more choices we become aware of. “Be here, do this” is the biggest lesson of entropy. The time and energy it takes to be distracted are time and energy that could be devoted to increasing your power for what you want. You’re not just getting through the thing you meant to do in the moment, but increasing your capacity for making an effort, honing the coordination to try new things, making the connection between how things are in the world and your relationship to them more vibrant.
Living beings transform time into experience. It’s a conversion that’s exponential. Asana is the practice of forms that conserve energy rather than allowing energy to dissipate. It makes exponential change work for you instead of against you.
When we imagine the of effect of any of our choices, we tend to tell ourselves short, sequential stories about cause and effect when really we should be thinking exponential.
Yoga is the experiment of deliberately tapping into that exponential dynamic of reality.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.