hale (ˈhāl), adj. [northern ME, hal, same as Midland hool (see WHOLE); AS. hal, sound, healthy) sound in body; vigorous and healthy, especially as used of an older person: also spelled hail. –SYN. see healthy.
By the time I was ten, I had lost both my grandfathers. By the time I was twenty, I had lost my grandmothers too. I look on my friends who have their elders still in their life with no small bit of envy because I wish I had gotten the opportunity to get to know these beloved family members as an adult.
Our culture in this country is so youth-centered. We are anti-aging. We deny death. We deny our own impermanence. We buy creams designed to stop fine wrinkles. We do crosswords to keep our minds active. Tummies are tucked. Faces are lifted. But this is just crown molding. Structurally, we are the age we are. Our bones know how long they have belonged to this body. Our sinew stretches, our skin shifts, our faces and our minds begin to lose some of their elasticity.
Something is lost in our inability to recognize our own mortality, in our unwillingness to acknowledge the act of death as inexorable from life as the act of birth.
As we age, several things happen to us physically. Among them: our cells multiply slower. We produce fewer of some cells, like T-cell lympocytes, which help with our immunity. Other cells don’t die when they are meant to and we can be at increased risk for infection. Aging changes our responses when exposed to environmental toxins. We lose height because our discs compress, our posture changes, our hips and knees curve, our joints shift. We lose the arches in our feet. Our bodies can’t regulate temperature as easily as we age. Our weight changes: by the time we are seventy-five, the amount of our body made up of fat has doubled since we were twenty-five.
Other things happen to us mentally. With the normal aging process, not accounting for instances of Alzheimer’s and dementia, we begin to lose our memory. This process actually begins around age thirty and progresses steadily from then. Monika Guttman writes in the article “The Aging Brain” that brain weight and brain volume decrease as we age, with brain weight decreasing five to ten percent from age twenty to ninety. Other physical changes in the brain include the grooves on the brain’s surface widening and the swellings on the surface decreasing. Also, we develop clusters of dying or damaged neurons, called “Senile Plaques.”
Our bodies and minds age largely not only in accordance with our genetics and environment but with how we treat them. If we exercise and eat well, our bodies age better. If we keep active and keep learning, our minds age better.
However, whatever we do to keep healthy, inevitably, we age. We age because that is a natural part of the process of life. And as we lose certain aspects of our body and mind, we gain others. Our bodies bear the marks of our experiences in the form of stretch marks and scars and injuries. Our minds serve as containers for all the stories we have learned, the books we have read, the conversations we have had. Containers for days of celebration and days of mourning. And as these memories pile on each other, we may have less control over which ones appear, but we also have way more to choose from.
I know I am young still, but I have, even over the past five years, seen changes that reflect aging in my face and in my body. For the first time ever last month, I had an experience with tendonitis from overusing the muscles in my shoulder. And while sometimes I bemoan these changes, I also recognize that these changes mean that I have had this time to live, these experiences to live in and through. I look back at pictures of myself in my early twenties and what I notice more than the changes in my physical appearance is the difference in my experience which seems to be evidenced in my carriage, in my eyes. So much has happened since then.
The last pose in all forms of hatha yoga is shavasana or corpse pose. Some yoga teachers say this is the most challenging pose, to lay on the ground, completely still, feet and hands facing up. In taking care of our bodies but not trying to stop their natural process of aging, we honor all that is contained within them. In doing the shavasana pose in yoga, we prepare ourselves for our final shavasana. In this position, our entire being is vulnerable. And this is how we are in death, when our lives are over and we have no more left to do. We rest.