Yoga is touted as providing all sorts of health and wellness benefits. Lately, I’ve noticed yoga being included as part of the ever popular “anti-aging” movement, with people making all sorts of amazing claims about yoga’s ability to slow or even reverse the process of aging. The funny thing, though, is that the underlying premise of “anti-aging” is fundamentally at odds with yoga philosophy. The desire to ward off aging and even death is to deny the impermanence of things. Or, at the very least, it involves a desire to cling, for as long as possible, to one way of being over another.
As I understand yoga philosophy (and I’m no scholar, admittedly), the practice of yoga — including asana, pranayama, meditation, etc. — is aimed at assisting us in the journey towards freeing ourselves of our attachments to and fixation on the material world. This includes our own bodies. As my yoga teacher in L.A. used to say in class, “I am not my house. I am not my car. I am not my job. I am not my body.” This mantra was really helpful for people who may be inclined to identify strongly with some or all of these things. That pretty much includes all of us.
My teacher also frequently made use of this simple but instructive analogy: In yoga we peel back the layers of the “false self,” like layers of an onion, in order to discover our true being. All of the material things we use to build up our sense of self are, in fact, serving to achieve the exact opposite. The fancy clothes, the online profiles touting our various accomplishments, our degrees, etc., are just layers we add in an attempt to build ourselves up. The practice of yoga, on the other hand, cuts all this away. One day, through dedicated practice, we might actually find our true selves by looking inwards and not by endlessly seeking outwards. As my current teacher often says, “everything you need is already in you, and everything you want you already have.”
So where does anti-aging fit into all this? Well, to my mind, it doesn’t. Of course, a lot of people practice yoga in order to feel and look good. And I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, if I’m honest with myself, the desire to feel and look good is probably one of the main reason why I do yoga. But I hope that it’s not the only reason, or even the primary reason.
It’s easy to get too serious about yoga sometimes, and it can certainly be a problem if that seriousness leads to constant criticism of oneself and others. Doing headstand to “reverse the sagging skin of your face,” as one ad puts it, is pretty harmless and sort of amusing too. Of course, fighting the effects of gravity is probably not the reason why these poses were created. But if a desire to look younger motivates some people to get on the mat, all the better, right? And maybe by doing more yoga, they will discover that yoga can provide something more profound than youthful-looking skin; it can teach you to accept the fact of aging, and to embrace it as a part of your being and your journey as a human being.