Don’t die on the toilet! Five simple yogic practices to address aging fears
By Michelle Andrie
“I don’t want to die on the toilet,” said a new yoga therapy client, a vibrant 90-year-old we’ll call Karen. My mind flashed to Elvis Presley—overweight, weak, and depressed, the King had fallen from his throne in just this way.
Why is it that some people age with grace and keep their youth into their 90s, while others seem to be old by 30? Or like Elvis, dead on the toilet at 42?
As a yoga therapist for the past 30 years, I’ve had the privilege to support all kinds of people through the aging process. Taking the journey to health and healing with so many, I have realized that those who age gracefully often share one particular quality: the desire to move.
Yes, to age with grace you must move your body—within your capacity. In yogic terms, when your body moves it can release stagnant energy, which we might experience as bloating, weakness, pain, tension, or dis-ease.
As the comedian George Burns said, “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” According to yogic philosophy, we can cultivate freedom in the mind and the spirit by moving the body to create physical ease. Some of the youngest people I know are in their 70s and 80s. One of them is “Tina.”
Change at any age
I’ve had the privilege of being Tina’s yoga therapist for 25 years. She’s now about to celebrate her 80th birthday, and you’d never know it. The first thing you notice about Tina is her bright red, super-short hair, quickly followed by her groovy glasses and stylish outfit. She’s always hunting for treasures as she walks beaches, hikes trails, or shops thrift stores.
Tina wasn’t always so youthful. When I met her, in her 50s, she dressed conservatively, suffered from chronic back pain, and kept a watchful eye on her husband.
As Tina began yoga therapy and moved her body, her back pain eventually disappeared. Her clothes slowly became funkier, and about 10 years ago she dyed her white hair bright red to please herself. The cool glasses topped off her look. Her husband hated her style and begged her to go back to her white hair.
Tina instead kept her look and opened a store with her artistic son to sell her found treasures. Their shop is now nationally known as the place to go for unique pieces you can’t find anywhere else.
More inspiration from my client list
- I recently received a phone call from a 75-year-old client, “Richard,” who was excited to tell me that he was off all his medications. His practice, begun 6 months before, had changed his life. He no longer lived in chronic pain, and his blood pressure had returned to normal. What a miracle to do a few mindful movements every day and restore your body to health. Of course, yoga therapy can’t promise we’ll all be prescription-free like Richard, but you, too, can shift your health!
- “Dan’s” chronic foot pain had stopped him from taking daily walks. He was miserable, as he had received so much pleasure from walking his dog. When I met Dan he had been told by several podiatrists that nothing could be done to ease his pain. Dan had heard about yoga therapy and decided to try it before completely giving up hope. I’m happy to report that now, at 81, he’s walking his new puppy every day, sometimes even breaking into a run. Although I don’t believe that the yoga therapy exercises we did resolved the physical problem that had precipitated Dan’s pain, I do believe that he was able to change his relationship to his pain—and to his whole physical being—which enabled him to find an easier way of navigating the world.
- When “Sara” came to see me at 82 years old, I noticed her remarkably smooth musculature—no knots of tension for her! When I asked her about it, Sara responded, “Oh, it’s because I’m a walking couch potato.” “What is a walking couch potato?!” I asked. “I move and rest and move and rest all day long,” Sara explained. I got it—it’s what I’d been teaching for years. The rest is as important as the movement. I just hadn’t taken it into my life. I love it when students teach me.
Here are five simple practices, combined with the yogic ideas of intention and mantra, that in my experience have powerfully transformed a fear of aging into an ability to face the process with strength and courage.
- Don’t-die-on-the-toilet squats. When Karen told me she didn’t want to die on the toilet, I taught her malasana, or simple squats. She stood before a table for balance, brought her feet hip-width apart, pressed evenly into her heels, and dropped her tail toward the floor. She bent her knees as much as she could on her exhale and inhaled back up to standing. Karen said to herself I love you on each exhale and thank you on each inhale. She started with 10 squats a day and worked her way up to 30. (By the way, Karen died at 92—in her bed.)
- Be-who-you-are fear releasers. This exercise, which releases the iliopsoas muscle, helped Tina in moving toward expressing the fullness of who she really is while offering back-pain relief. She lies on her back with her left knee into her chest and right foot flat on the floor, knee comfortably bent. Tina releases her right knee out toward the floor, drawing her left knee further in toward her chest. She inhales I love you and exhales with a sighing haaaaaa to convert her fears of others to love. Tina switches sides and repeats the mantra directed toward releasing fear of herself.
- Off-meds heart opener. Cut a swimming pool noodle to the length of your upper back and lie over it lengthwise with the noodle beginning just above the bottom tips of your shoulder blades. Richard swears this is the movement that opened his heart and brought his blood pressure back to normal. As he lies over his noodle releasing the muscles in his chest, he says I love you to all the painful places in his body. According to Richard, he’s now almost completely pain-free!
- Happy walking. Start by lying with a softball or similarly sized ball under a soft spot in your seat on the right side. Roll around and find your knots of tension. Breathe in I love you and breathe out control of the outer world. As your gluteal tension eases, sit up and shift the ball lower down the back of your right leg. Move the leg side to side as you move the ball all the way down to your calf (you might want to avoid the back of the knee). As you flow down your right leg, say I love you to your dad. Switch sides and release control of yourself and say I love you to your mother. Come to stand with a golf ball (or other smaller, harder ball) under yourright foot. Dan loves this one. He rolls on his tight spots and honors his dad’s ancestors. When he switches to his left foot, he really goes to work around the area of his pain and says thank you to his maternal grandmother for all her love and kindness.
- Be a walking couch potato. Follow any movements you make—gardening, going to work, walking, an exercise practice—with rest, or savasana (corpse pose). Simply lie down on the floor (or, as Sara prefers, the couch) and let go. Soften your muscles and allow them to rest. Notice your breath. Breathe love into your body and release everything that isn’t of love out of your body. Do this for 10 to 15 minutes and I bet you’ll feel totally refreshed and ready to move again.
Instead of ending your days on the toilet like Elvis, become more and more who you really are like Tina. Enjoy daily walks like Dan, and become a walking couch potato like Sara. Practice movements like these to support your own goals, and connect with a yoga therapist, who can offer in-depth guidance and a personalized plan.
Michelle Andrie, C-IAYT, is a yoga therapist, movement expert, and Ho’o ponopono guide who helps people age with grace and ease.