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  • Tiffany Baker

Cross That Bridge When You Come to It: Lifespan vs. Health Span

Good news: The average American lifespan is now 79 years.

Bad news: The average American health span is only 63 years. That’s a sixteen-year gap of potential illness, decreased mobility, disease complications, and/or declining cognitive function.

Good news: Yoga can help close that gap.

I’m at the beginning of my journey into elderhood, and I’ll be honest, a lot about aging scares the pants right off me. Aging is not always a comfortable or honored process in our culture, especially for women. So much of the phenomenon of growing older is framed as loss—of looks, of fertility, of usefulness, of cognition, parenthood, of our working selves.

There isn’t as much written or portrayed to show you what you can possibly gain as you age: wisdom, experience, peace, perspective, time, understanding, a more selfless experience of the world. Those kicky stock photos of lively “seniors” playing guitar or square dancing at their new active living facilities don’t feel like me, but neither do the old-fashioned images of grandmothers with gray buns and walkers. But I also know I’m well past my bombshell days—if I ever even had any.

I’m currently lost somewhere in between: creaky-kneed, half-gray, in bed by nine, but still wearing combat boots and listening to hip hop.

Enter yoga. More than just keeping my joints supple and my core strong, it’s helping me navigate my life and my identity as I turn the corner into early elderhood. My practice enables me the time and space to examine and experience myself first non-judgmentally, then objectively, and, finally, with the greatest of compassion and kindness.

Every single breath I take is new, but the lungs that receive it are not. Yoga is this interplay, this meeting. Fresh air and lived-in skin. Ancient movements adapted to my twenty-first century self. The struggle to focus on my mat while my mind wants to wander forward and back in time, thinking of things I could have or should have done or worrying about what’s to come.

Yoga’s best secret power (and it has so many) is this—eventually you learn that’s what to come is all in your mind. It's up to you. Yes, my body is changing and will eventually wind down its executive functions while I have no say about it. And yes, I will no longer look or feel the same as I used to, but so long as I have a lifespan, I can choose to make it a health span, even if I’m only breathing. Especially if I’m breathing.

New air into old lungs. The body fills, the body empties. Growing older is a great blessing with a side order of mortal curses. It’s is something to pay attention to, celebrate, honor, and embrace, not deny or wish away. I’m not taking off my combat boots and I’m sure as hell not turning down the radio.

But maybe I’ll switch the station.


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