Learning to Live in my New BodyFebruary 6, 2016
The following is a guest post by Gwen Soffer for the Yoga and Body Image Coalition.
Approaching fifty-years old is a strange place to be. In many ways I feel like I am in my thirties. As a matter of fact, I sometimes hear myself thinking, in response to a question of my age, that I am thirty-nine when I am really forty-nine. A few times, I have even said this out loud only to have to sheepishly account for the missing ten years a moment later. I don’t think of myself as having an issue with aging, but I suppose on a subconscious level I may be experiencing some avoidance.
I like the age I am and the freedoms that it allows me, but often I forget that such a huge chunk of my life has passed. I feel this most keenly in regards to my children who are twenty-two, twenty and eighteen years old. When we are together, three adults surround me. I feel like I got stuck in some sort of strange time machine. It was just a moment ago that I was toting the three of them around, and they were part of most moments of my daily life, and here I am sitting at my kitchen table in a silent house, two children off at college and the other at her full time job. How could it be that I feel so young, and I am smack dab in the middle of middle age?
Just this week, after months of managing chronic pain, I found out that I have arthritis in my back and in both hips. If I didn’t feel my age before, suddenly I felt like I was eighty years old. Arthritis? Really? Finding out that I have substantial arthritis was a shock to me. Honestly, up until now I thought I would be “good” at aging, and I would reap the benefits of all of my years of healthy living. I thought my youthful spirit would carry me through unscathed.
With this diagnosis, I experienced a fear of aging that I had not felt before. I think the difference was that in this situation there was nothing that I could change. It was a sign of heredity and aging whose effects could not be turned back. Prior to this diagnosis, I thought that I was managing an injury, and this some how gave me solace because I believed I could change my practice or change how I was sitting in order to regain my youthful flexibility. Up until now, I have had the very good fortune of a healthy body, and I never thought about losing my free use of it, at least not at forty-nine. All I could think was, “WTF”!!!!!!
Am I going through the five stages of loss? I realized what I was facing for the first time was loss of youth. This did not mean anything to me before now because I had not experienced a change in my body that I could not will my way through with determination, focus, and dedication. This was different though. There is no way to turn back the clock, so for the first time, I am experiencing loss in regards to my own aging body.
Denial: I don’t have arthritis. I am sure the
multiple x-rays, MRI scans, and specialists must be mistaken.
Anger: I can’t believe with all the wellness and yoga I have practiced for so long that THIS is what I get? Did it mean anything???
Bargaining: Okay, I’ll be super gentle, sit properly in chairs, only eat certain foods, be more mindful, and it will go away. I can do it if I try hard enough.
Depression: This is it. The beginning of the end. What does this mean? Will I one day face not being able to walk or hip replacements?
Acceptance: Still working on this one but getting there.
So in this moment, I am reminded that this is what my yoga practice has been preparing me for all along. I don’t mean the physical poses, but rather the mental and emotional wellbeing based in acceptance where I have made so much progress over the years. The patience, self-acceptance, and coping techniques that I developed in my practice are the tools I need to call upon now. I am faced with a choice of staying stuck in denial, anger, bargaining, and depression or I can utilize the years and years of practice I have had on the mat to be in acceptance.
This is where I am today, taking the first steps into acceptance. Understanding there are transitions and moments for transformation before there is acceptance is important to keep in mind. When time moves at a pace that you are not ready for, it can be very jarring and with it comes some sadness of letting go. What I found, however, is when I come back to the practice that I have been doing all these years, living in the present moment, there is a great deal of peace there.
I can ‘t say any more that I have no fear of growing old, especially as I see my body change rapidly, which includes a decrease in flexibility and mobility, but I am working at being at ease where I am right now. We just started our teacher training at our studio this week, and when I look at all the eager faces of my students, I remember being there. I also remember pushing myself to prove that I could do certain poses so that I would be identified as a “good” teacher. What I know now in my thirty-nine, I mean forty-nine year old body is that there is so much more to teaching than striking a pose or mastering a difficult posture. The best teachers go beyond the pretense of who they think they are supposed to be to presenting the whole of who they are.
The advice that I give new teachers is to be present with who you are now and show that person to your students with an open heart—imperfections and all. Remember that your practice will change, your body will change, and your priorities will change, so create space for the new you all of the time. Your students will experience the freedom to be who they are by witnessing your willingness to be who you are. With my aging body, I have had to face that I can’t will my way out of this one. It is not about pushing hard, but quite the opposite; it is about giving myself space to learn to live in the new body I have today.
Gwen Soffer is a yoga teacher, women's/teen self-defense instructor, empowerment workshop leader and community mentor. Her personal journey toward better physical and internal health and healing led her to these arts, and her passion for them led her to teaching. Her yoga classes are based in personal evolution and discovery, combining flow sequencing, powerful eclectic music and self-inquiry to inspire her students to be open to the lessons they learn on the mat and to be motivated to expand themselves off of the mat. Gwen has a specialty in trauma-informed/sensitive yoga and is currently in a Master of Social Work program with a focus on trauma. She lives in the Philadelphia area and is the co-founder of Enso studio in Media, Pa. (www.experienceenso.com) and is a jewelry designer (www.gwensofferjewelry.etsy.com)