Aging Well with Yoga
Silvia San Miguel (Surya) is an example of how to age beautifully. At 71, she has a straight back, a calm demeanor, a slender figure. All of this, she says, is the result of a lifestyle that focuses on health and is deeply rooted in the culture of yoga.
A schoolteacher in Montreal, Canada, for many years, she began her yoga practice 25 years ago, through a chance encounter with one of the world’s great sages, Swami Vishnudevananda. They met when she brought her eight-year-old to the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Camp in Val Morin, Quebec, founded by the Swami in the 1960s. “We had been looking all over for a vegetarian children’s camp,” says San Miguel, who had been studying for 15 years with a Zen teacher in Montreal but had never experienced hatha yoga.
“I stayed as a guest and started yoga classes and for the next 10 years we went every summer. Swami Vishnu was there as a teacher,” she says. “He initiated me and gave me my spiritual name and mantra.”
Her love of the practice only deepened, and after teacher training she began to teach yoga at the Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas in the winter and at Yoga Camp in the summer, also offering workshops on stress and emotional management, mindful practice, and Swami Vishnu’s Five Points of Yoga.
These five points — proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet, positive thinking and meditation — are the basis for her life, and San Miguel is sharing them in her workshop at the ashram, How to Age Beautifully. “We’re an aging population,” she says. “I want to show that yoga can be used as therapy for aging.”
There is some strong science behind this idea. For instance, Nobel prizewinning molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn has been investigating the response to stress shown by practitioners of mindfulness meditation. A recent study co-authored with Dr. Dean Ornish and reported in Lancet Oncology on patients with prostate cancer shows that a healthy lifestyle program can actually have positive impact at the cellular genetic level. Ornish’s research has already shown that a vegan diet, exercise, and stress management through yoga and mindful meditation can reverse heart disease and diabetes.
“This is the new anti-aging weapon,” San Miguel says. “When stress is controlled through diet, exercise, and meditation, this improves the immune system.” There are dietary weapons as well. Turmeric, she says, is a tremendous antioxidant. Eating plant foods and high fiber foods, eschewing tobacco or alcohol are all proven ways to improve health through diet. “Also, as you age, you have to watch that you don't go low on certain things such as B12 and Omega 3, which you can get through walnuts, chia, and flax seeds.”
San Miguel attributes her obvious physical vitality to her own vegetarian diet, begun in her 30s. “I also believe the asanas have kept me free from health issues,” she says. “It’s so important to have a healthy spine. I've built my abdominals and my back and knees were strengthened by yogic sitting.”
Even if it’s moderate, daily exercise such as a brisk walk, a swim, or a yoga class is important, she says. “It’s important not to remain seated; our bodies, our muscles and bones need movement. Get a good night’s sleep and avoid stimulants, including late-night computer, coffee, or TV.”
When you’re older, it’s normal to wake up a couple of times a night, she says, so help yourself by making a cup of chamomile tea. “Don't have naps,” she says. “Get into a good, constant cycle.”
A yoga session is an ideal form of relaxation, San Miguel says, but it’s also important to know when to have a break.
“Stand up, take deep breaths,” she recommends. This can be done with much more effect if you’re aware of yogic breathing, using the diaphragm to inhale and exhale deeply. “We rarely breathe with full inhalations, and breathing deeply not only gets rid of toxins lodged in the bottom of the lungs, it gives the internal organs a massage,” she says. “It's the key to vitality.”
Research shows meditation and positive thinking have an effect on aging, she says. “It doesn’t have to be complicated: sit still, inhale, expand the belly, follow the breath.”
Focusing the mind on one point stops a lot of mental activity and dispersed thoughts. “The Swami says thinking requires energy,” she says. “If you're scatterbrained, you will feel tired. Meditation lets you let go.”
Swami Vishnudevananda, she says, was a great believer in positive thinking. “It’s a different way of using the mind to counteract certain bad thoughts, to be more compassionate and kind,” San Miguel says.
Positive thinkers are optimists and, according to research on optimism by the Mayo Clinic Department of Psychology, an optimist benefits from increased life span, lower rates of distress and depression, better coping skills, and better psychological and physical well being.
Aging, San Miguel believes, is just one aspect of the four stages of life, according to the Vedic tradition: Bramcharya, Grihasta, Vanaprasta, and Sannyasa — the equivalent of youth, adult, senior, and elder. “In each stage, there are different responsibilities,” she says. “When you get to the final stages, you have more time and become more involved in spiritual pursuits. These four stages are guidelines for our lives.”
In addition to spiritual pursuits, when we reach the final stages of life we need to find meaningful activities and remain connected to society, she says. “You don’t have to be religious. It could be nature, serving the community. It doesn’t have to be a godhead.”
In her own case, San Miguel has a strong spiritual inner life. “It's my foundation. It’s not a blind faith, but it has always helped in moments of distress,” she says.
She believes there are several other aspects that matter and can be cultivated even in the senior years. “It’s important to have a curiosity for life, to have interests, and to have friends and family ties. You can replace them if you don’t have them; find groups where you’re cared for and appreciated. We function as groups. If we're isolated, we suffer.”
Adjust: You don’t necessarily need to adjust your diet, but because your metabolism has slowed down, it would be a good idea to reduce portions.
Adapt: Because you’re less flexible as you age, try variations and adaptations in your yoga practice — attend gentle classes focusing on areas that are stiff. Look for classes in regenerative yoga, chair yoga.
Accommodate: Any kind of exercise you do needs to be more appropriate. For instance, don’t go running if you have problems with your knees — walk fast, or go swimming.
Surya (Silvia San Miguel) is an educator and a certified Sivananda Yoga teacher who studied with Swami Vishnudevananda. She integrates her studies of other wisdom traditions with yoga while teaching at Sivananda ashrams in Canada, India, and the Bahamas and in private venues in Montreal and Spain.