When we were teenagers, just beginning on the path of life, so many things mattered. A pimple was the end of the world and gaining a few pounds was like losing a pet. It was a hormonal, emotional rollercoaster ride that most of us wanted to get off. To grow up, to be able to eat and drink what you wanted and to be able to stay out as long as you liked sounded like the ultimate dream. I personally couldn’t wait to join the ranks of the adults where all those awkward physical problems were in the rearview mirror as I drove towards complete control of my physical self. No more growing pains, no more sudden changes… just your body finally reaching where it was meant to be.
However, on a one-month course for yoga teacher training on a small island in Thailand, a strange new growing pain came to light. I was feeling quite unwell two weeks in, so I went to a nearby clinic get a check-up. The course had been like boot camp, filled with physical and mental demands. Up at 6 in the morning, a 25-minute walk to the training center in the summer heat and then classes (both physical and theory) till 6:30 pm each day of the week. As they checked the normal vitals I have never paid attention to on check-ups, the doctor looked up with a lot of concern in his eyes. It turned out that I had extremely high blood pressure for my age group. This was something I had never contended with before. Some of the more fortunate younger readers here are probably too young to relate to the results but it was in hypertension stage two. For someone who had been on a yogic diet and practicing yoga for three hours each morning and one and a half every evening as a mandatory part of the program this didn’t seem to make sense. I went back the next day and the results remained the same.
That night I read as much as I could about what hypertension was exactly. Discussing the results with the head yoga teacher I saw an interesting clash of ideologies. The doctor’s orders were two days rest and some medication to bring it down. The teacher was having none of it. Taking a couple of days off on an extensive 29-day course with mandatory attendance was out of the question. Her solution was a big hug and the advice that “age is just a number and so are blood pressure readings. Just digits.” As she talked I continued to feel faint from what felt like a hummingbird level heartbeat. She then confided that she had previously cured herself of breast cancer simply by wholesome food, breathing exercises and meditation. Critical, though, in her recovery program was being open to talking about what she was feeling with other people. “You need to share in the group. You are looking at your physical body as separate from your soul. Just let it out darling and heal all sides of you.” She was referring to group-sharing where the whole class was able to take turns talking about how they were feeling, sharing any and everything that might be affecting them. Coming from a Pathan family, I was uncomfortable both with having to talk about personal stuff in what essentially seemed like a group of strangers as well as with other people’s public sharing of past traumas.
And I was skeptical that a predominantly American, Australian and European class (including the teachers) would view my lived experience as quite unrelated and out of context anyway. So I didn’t take her advice and continued to study how to avoid the medication and handle this completely unprecedented situation so far from home. When the only option left was taking public transportation to the only hospital on the tiny island to see why this was happening, I finally gave in.
Was sitting quietly in the sessions and not emotionally opening up making me physically ill? It was something to think about.
So I finally let go and talked about my life a little, about how the pressure of the course was a lot to take and about future worries. In return I received love and sympathy from these beautiful souls. The next day, my blood pressure was back down to my usual number.
Before that, weight, temperature and blood pressure really were just meaningless digits that the nurse recorded before any kind of check-up. I suppose if you really believe in something then maybe it does happen. But, contrary to what my lovely teacher believes, I don’t consider these to be just digits anymore. Our bodies are talking to us as we grow older and each one needs something different. Maybe some need medication, some require mediation and some just bizarrely need to trust strangers and share raw emotion on a very demanding training course. Accordingly, researching our personal cures is more crucial than any term paper or thesis we ever wrote.
Indeed aging brings you so many completely unprecedented new problems that one misses the awkward teenage years with an aching longing – the pimples, the peer pressure and braces. At least you were not paranoid all the time about things you actually have to research, Google and talk to experienced people about in order to understand and heal. And then, of course, they will all disagree on the best course of action. Some swear by conventional medicine, Ayurveda experts urge you to comprehend physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health as the same; and homeopaths want you to look at small doses of the substance causing the ailment as the cure for it. There are naturopaths, faith-healers, Reiki practitioners, and acupuncturists – each with their own beliefs. The never-ending list of possible relief is quite daunting.
As per a 2012 report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “with one in nine persons in the world aged 60 years or over, projected to increase to one in five by 2050, population aging is a phenomenon that can no longer be ignored”. On an individual level aging also refuses to be ignored and when it finally becomes relevant one has to ask: what in the name of God is all this stuff? Of course, our younger selves often heard elder relatives discuss blood sugar, hypertension, heart problems, arthritis – the list is endless. But it was like hearing about a robbery or an accident that happened to someone else. It couldn’t possibly happen to us in the future. There used to be a sense of detachment when you listened.
But the sad fact is that we are all aging every day and more and more of us are beginning to relate to our elders. So I suppose it all comes full circle. The comedic tragedy is that the only thing that has remained constant from my teenage years to growing up is homework. I suppose we will just have to buckle down and educate ourselves on what our individual bodies need – the upcoming challenges and how to fight them when they arrive, in our own individual ways.