II.16. heyaim dukham anagatam
The pains which are yet to come can be and are to be avoided.
—Yoga Sutras, translation by B.K.S. Iyengar
Last night a friend was telling me what she loved about our blog was that it was positive and optimistic. We write about good things, she said, and have positive solutions. Well, we do believe that yoga has many answers for helping us age gracefully, and we regularly recommend various poses and practices for preventing and/or reducing many of the “pains” that accompany aging. But, I have to say, we are also realists, both about the “aging” and “yoga” parts of our mission. In the last five years, Brad and I have seen all four of parents die. All were in their eighties or nineties, and they died of diseases typical of the elderly (cancer, Alzheimer’s, stroke). Without going into details, I’ll say none of these deaths were particularly pretty, and certainly no amount of yoga poses or practices could have helped prevent the decline and pain that came at the end. In fact, with two of the deaths, from cancer and from kidney failure, we’re grateful for modern medicine’s painkillers.
As I’m sure many of you must know, experiencing the death of your own parents is sure to make you contemplate your own. We wonder for ourselves, if it is possible, how can we avoid the pains which are to come? For me, this is where yoga philosophy comes in. (Studying the scriptures is svadhyaya, one of niyamas that comprise the second branch of yoga, so this is as much a part of yoga as anything else we do and is obviously available to anyone, regardless of age or physical condition.)
|Oak Tree in Late Summer Light by Brad Gibson|
11.3. The five afflictions (klesas) which disturb the equilibrium of consciousness are: ignorance or lack of wisdom, ego, pride of the ego or the sense of ‘I,’ attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, fear of death and clinging to life. —Yoga Sutras, translation by Edwin Bryant
Aversion to pain, fear of death, and clinging to life, all of which seem to come along with aging, do indeed disturb our sense of equanimity. But the very fact that these feelings are identified as “afflictions” suggests to me that while there is always difficulty, including pain and death, we don’t necessarily have to experience it as suffering. It’s the aversion to pain that causes suffering, not the pain. And it’s the fear of death and clinging to life that causes suffering, not death—or dying—itself.
I actually find this explanation alone to be very helpful. For rather than just feeling that suffering is inevitable, knowing there is a difference between a difficult situation and my reaction to it helps me from getting so caught up in it (well, it’s a work in progress). So that’s a little “wisdom” to counteract the “ignorance” that is another one of the klesas. You can find a lot more wisdom in the Yoga Sutras, and I recommend reading this if you haven’t already. But what does Patanjali recommend for overcoming the klesas? After introducing the klesas and describing each one in detail, Patanjali simply says the following:
II.11. The states of mind produced by these klesas are eliminated by meditation. —Yoga Sutras, translation by Edwin Bryant
My friends will all tell you that I take very good care of myself. I practice yoga asana regularly, in way that supports my particular body and needs, I include stress management practices for my emotional well-being as well as my physical health, and I eat a healthy diet. But I believe that, in the end, cultivating equanimity through wisdom and practice will be the most important aspect of my healthy aging.