Many years ago I read a Taoist quote by the old sage Lao Tzu:
“A man is born gentle and weak. At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap. At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the way of death. The gentle and yielding is the way of life.”
I was reminded of it recently when I was sent the following short film of 1948 Olympic Gymnast George Weedon, aged 91.
The video is just wonderful and in it, George extols the virtues of having good posture and fitness in order to get the best out of one’s body. As blunt as he can be with the creator of the video a couple of times (which did make me chuckle – he’s so old school), there’s something so incredibly inspiring about our George, his outlook on life and ageing, his take on the modern world and how sitting at a computer for 8 hours a day just isn’t right goddamn it.
It saddens me to see so many people succumb to the impact of the modern age and old age – rounded shoulders, humped upper backs, sagging lower (sway) backs, tight hips, tight hamstrings… it’s not even just working at desks and using a computer all day that leads to all these, but the images we are bombarded with day after day that increase insecurities about body image and result in people feeling uncomfortable and awkward in their own skin. Women (and men) with large breasts quite often round their upper spines to bring their chests in in an effort to make them lest prominent; the same with bellies. People who feel self conscious and awkward and vulnerable often hunch forwards in an effort to make themselves less visible and less exposed, curling into a primitive foetal position for protection and some sense of safety. Your psychology becomes your physiology. And I haven’t even mentioned the impact of stress…
The more the patterns persist, particularly as we get older, the tighter the muscles and fascia become, leading to the hard and stiff bodies Lao Tzu refers to. Tight hamstrings pull the pelvis backwards, leading to an even more pronounced sway back, in turn rolling the shoulders increasingly forward, impacting the ability to breathe. I mentioned in an earlier post the impact of yoga on the breath – something picked up on by George in the video. The taller you’re able to stand (which requires supporting muscles to become long enough to be able to move into a different position and strong enough to hold the position), the more breath or prana you allow into the body, leading to increased oxygenation and higher levels of energy.
There is the wonderful feedback loop that happens where chicken and egg and which came first becomes unclear and unimportant. Just the very act of standing tall – and to stay standing tall – can lead to feeling poised and confident, and feeling so helps you to maintain the posture. Standing tall means you are visible, you are prepared to be seen and in turn see the world in a different way.
I believe it is not only important to stay strong and flexible within the physical body as we get older, so too should we stay flexible in our minds and avoid becoming prisoners of our own belief systems, be they about ourselves or others. There is a parallel between working on understanding the self, its patterns and its origins and trying to create or cultivate more positive ones, and understanding the body’s patterns, identifying the tight and weak spots and working to release them. Just as engaging in personal development allows you to gain awareness of the psychological and emotional shackles that weigh us down as we make our way from birth to death, so too does engaging in physical development – both permitting us to move forward in lighter, less hindered ways. As George says in the video, you don’t even need expensive equipment, just a more creative way of utilizing the environment around you. Or a yoga mat.