Emotional Health · Health

Jessica Caplan: The Yoga of Turning 40

Jessica Caplan-0006Photo Credit: John Monroe


“Age has no reality except in the physical world. The essence of a human being is resistant to the passage of time. Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom.”
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera


As a child and even into my teenage years, I believed life inevitably followed a particular timeline: at this age, we marry; at this age, we have children; at this age (roughly my mom’s age at the time), we get short hairdos and drink coffee first thing every morning. Fast forward to today: here I am at age 40, unmarried, living with my partner without children, with a wild mane of long hair, to boot, and very, very happy.

I remember shopping as a young girl at the neighborhood mall with my mother and occasionally bumping into old childhood friends of hers. My mom would turn to me afterwards, her eyes wide with memories, and say, “I was in first grade with that lady.” Sometimes, she’d forget the name of the person, and I’d watch her struggle to remember it. This baffled me. How could anyone forget the name of someone they went to school with? And how could this grown-up person, my mother, have ever been a little girl like me?

The passage of time is one of the most paradoxical of human experiences. On the surface, time is objective; the day-to-day living of it, however, can be incomprehensible. A day can feel like many excruciating weeks, a month can pass in a seeming blink of an eye. Age is equally amorphous. I’ve spent time with 70-year-olds whose child-like curiosity and sense of adventure resonated like that of a seven-year-old’s. And I’ve looked into the eyes of babies and intuited a world of knowing far older than their years.

Perhaps the biggest paradox of aging is that if fortunate enough, we all do it eventually, but our culture collectively resists it like the plague. It’s tougher, of course, for women. A little salt-and-pepper on a man’s crown is distinguished; a woman who unabashedly flaunts her silvers is, to some, “letting herself go.”

But underneath what might seem like a sadly superficial preoccupation with appearances is actually the root of much of our discontent: the fear of death, and resistance to the impermanent nature of existence. The Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, one of my favorites for life-applicable wisdom, lays it out in her book The Places That Scare You:

“We know that all is impermanent; we know that everything wears out. Although we can buy this truth intellectually, emotionally we have a deep-rooted aversion to it. We want permanence; we expect permanence. Our natural tendency is to seek security; we believe we can find it.”

A few years ago, I was at a yoga class of an instructor who has since become a valued teacher of mine. A feisty, compact and agile woman in her 60s, her intelligent adjustments often involve hopping right on top of students’ backs, while a deluge of information pours out of her mouth like an open faucet. I never forgot this insight she shared. “We’re going to get older, and we may not be able to do any of these poses anymore,” she said, (I’m paraphrasing) as we hung in a deep forward fold. “We may be stuck in a bed or a chair. And then we’ll be left with our minds. And we want to be able to live with our minds.”

Yoga is a microcosm for life. The paradox of the physical practice of yoga — the asana — naturally mirrors the paradox of human-ness. While we strain and sweat to hold our bodies in challenging poses, we are also reminded, as my teacher expressed that day, that we are not, in fact, these bodies. Yoga isn’t about making our bodies stronger; it’s a practice for learning to deal with our minds and the inconstancy of life. We are born into these bodies, and at some point — we know not when or how — these bodies will degenerate, until we will no longer inhabit them.

My spiritual exploration, whether through yoga, meditation, sound or shamanic journeying, always brings me to the same simple message: “Let go.” Let go of attachments, expectations, beliefs that demand I look a certain way, or that events unfold a certain way or in a certain order. The list of Let-Goables is endless. To be born into human form is to struggle with the vicissitudes of body, mind and the external world; to walk the spiritual path is to practice transcending, or making peace, with the constant change that is life.

Yes, just this summer, I turned ‘The Big 4-0.’ Truth: I feel younger than I did when I turned 30, burdened as I was back then by the woulda, coulda, shouldas I’d imposed on myself. Over the past ten years, I’ve shed layers of limiting beliefs, releasing them in sweat, tears, prayers and song. I’ve become vastly more comfortable in my skin, and through the sometimes painful process of letting go, I’ve made — and continue to make — space for acceptance of what is. The more I do that, the more I touch the place inside that is ageless, undying, and that reverberates as Love, with a capital L.

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