Of all the things in life that are out of my control, one of the hardest to accept is that I’m getting older.
With age comes all sorts of challenges—health challenges and limitations, cultural expectations, negative stereotypes, and a shift in status from working youth to, ultimately (I hope), senior citizen.
I feel lucky to have found through yoga a way of becoming more mindful in my practice, and lately I’ve wondered how to take that mindfulness off my mat so I might live life more fully aware in each moment.
How might I embrace aging gracefully, and can I learn to embrace aging the same way I learned how to embrace a challenging pose on my mat?
So, as a way of challenging myself, I decided to grow a beard.
In the past I’d grown a beard but it lasted only a week or two before it started to itch, the gray hair started to make me feel old, and I eagerly shaved it off.
I guess I’m not the only one who feels older when seeing gray. A good friend admitted a while ago that she dyed her hair black because seeing the gray depressed her. I understood why. But I didn’t want to dye my beard.
What I wanted was to feel this moment in my life, whatever age I might be, as fully and completely as possible. I wanted to live this pose, this age, right now, with the same energy and enthusiasm that I muster when I step into a challenging pose on my mat.
But would I be able to accept my own gray hair without judgment, and with the same equanimity and grace as my teacher, who had recently grown his own gray, bushy beard?
After a week without shaving, I examined the gray stubble reflected in the mirror.
My yoga practice helped me see the gray hairs as neither good nor bad, young nor old. Gray was simply another color of life, a part of living in this moment.
Soon friends began offering opinions. Some suggested the beard made me look distinguished, others thought it made me look like a beach bum. A friend told me that I looked like a professor, another like a hippie radical. One of my neighbors told me I reminded him of a Russian immigrant from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Another laughed and told me–this was in late December–that I looked like a skinny Santa.
Much to my surprise, many people told me the beard looked becoming, even flattering. One of my fellow yoga students said it made me look rakish. Rakish! No one mentioned it made me look older. That was my issue. When I saw my reflection in a dark window, I thought I saw a 90 year old man.
Part of growing the beard meant learning to accept these opinions as theirs, not mine. The beard was like a Rorschach test in that way.
And then one morning, a few weeks after starting to grow the beard, I happened to notice a painting hanging on my office wall.
It was a portrait that my mother painted from a photograph of her grandfather, my great-grandfather, who had lived in a small village in Poland. The painting shows him wearing a dark brown cap, brown jacket, and a long, thick beard.
I had looked at that same portrait on my office wall every day for years but never really saw it. Now that I had a beard, I noticed my great-grandfather’s beard. What would our portraits look like, I wondered, if I placed them side by side?
So I took a picture, and the comparison stunned me. How similar we looked—similar noses, lips, and eyes!
Unexpectedly, my beard brought me closer to my great-grandfather. Each time I looked in the mirror, or at his portrait, I saw him looking back at me, expanding my vision and connections–to family, to who I think I am, to who I might be and who I might still become.
Since then I’ve shaved off the beard. It’s April in Florida, after all, and the daytime temperature is inching up into the 80s.
With or without the beard, though, I’m still aware of myself as aging, but more willing to accept where I am and how I feel and how much I might be able to do.
That’s because every time I step on my mat, yoga inspires me to accept each moment as it is and to accept myself as I am–with or without a beard, young or old–and to live each moment, fully alive.
Practice Journal: What about you? How do you feel about aging? And how does yoga help you accept getting older as part of life? How does it inspire you to live fully in each moment? Write: 10 min.