The Yoga of Midlife
“Exhale completely, release all the air from your body. Now, notice the pause at the end of the exhale.”
My yoga teacher’s words invited me into a new place, a place of connection and understanding beyond the rational mind and into the mystery of the body. As I gently allowed the air to leave my lungs, I felt a deepening. My body became weighted, and I felt at peace. I thought to myself, this must be what it’s like. A tiny death. A movement away from the severing that had occurred over a lifetime into a wholeness that would, eventually, bring me to my last breath. A moment of fearless surrender.
Try this. Inhale deeply, then exhale completely. Let ALL the air leave your body, no forcing. Let the air release slowly like air seeping from a tire. Pause. Observe the emptiness. Trust that the inhale will happen on its own. Inhale again. Exhale. Release, release, release. Pause. Wait. Observe. This breath practice of pausing at the end of an exhale is called Suspension.
Another name for it might be Midlife.
Oh, midlife! People make fun of the “crisis,” but folks, it’s no joke. When my own transition began, something inside me started to crack. I realized my son would be graduating high school, launching into his own life, and wouldn’t need me anymore. My husband and I hardly knew each other after spending years only focusing on the day-to-day.
My parents’ aging bodies revealed to me my declining future. My job was not satisfying my creative needs anymore. I felt trapped. What is the point in going on? I thought. Yes, it was high-drama time, akin to the teenage years without the firm skin.
My midlife yoga practice saved me. It taught me what suspension felt like, so that I could endure The Waiting. That’s the only way I can describe it. Some call it a cocoon, but even cocoons have edges. I was formless yet frantic, floating above deep, dark waters, surrounded by the fog of the unknown, suspended between the here and the mysterious there. The uncertainty was nearly unbearable. Like so many others, I had never made plans for this time in my life. I did not recognize the not old/ not young person who now inhabited my body.
So, I decided I needed to learn to inhabit her.
It started with a supplication, a kneeling plea, forehead on floor. I cried in Child’s Pose. But just as quickly as the release happened, so did the putting myself back together. My teacher once said, “Yoga isn’t about feeling good. It’s about feeling.” She was right. Of course, she was right. Still, l resisted. It was such a slow process. I had brief glimmers of emotional freedom in class (like that time in Child’s Pose), but mostly I stuffed unwanted feelings back into my body, thinking I was being strong, a “good” student, well-behaved and contained. This is what most of us are taught, right? Suck it up. What are you crying about? So, we stop expressing. We stuff. And our bodies become stiff.
The trick in midlife is to keep moving, to breathe through it, allowing the muscles to soften, the mind to begin to rest, and the heart to begin to open. Keep practicing. As I dedicated more and more time to my own practice, sadness began to move through my body and into consciousness with each hip opening. Fear fluttered in my belly as I kicked my legs up the wall in my first handstand since I was 12. And joy! So many moments of joy as my body had another “aha moment” of recognition. Asanas, the funny shapes we make in yoga, were a secret portal. Yoga had invited me to feel all my feelings, and here they were. I didn’t have to talk for hours; I didn’t have to “share.” I owned my experience, embodied my feelings, maybe for the first time in my life.
I remember the first time we were instructed to place one yoga block under our heads and one under our upper backs, pressing the shoulder blades into the ribs and “opening the heart.” This was the first time I had heard the phrase “heart opening” even though I had taken yoga classes in other studios and from other teachers since I was in my mid-twenties. When the student is ready, the teacher (and the teaching) arrives. This and other heart opening poses were an invitation to unarmor myself. I needed the gift of draping my body over hard, rectangular squares, and not resisting. This was part of The Waiting. I needed to learn to melt. To trust. To rest.
This is one of the most important lessons I learned in my midlife exploration of yoga: Rest, true rest, is allowed. I had been a master napper all my life, but I never truly relaxed. I woke up from the nap just as tired as I was when I laid my body down. I always had a To Do list running in my head (even in my sleep). In my forties, after being introduced to Restorative Yoga and practicing daily meditation, I finally learned to calm the heck down. Restorative yoga in combination with an Iyengar-influenced gentle yet purposeful style of yoga (and, of course, meditation) gave me permission to slow down, to stop multitasking, and to stop trying so hard to do it “right.”
More wise words from my teacher: “Don’t anticipate the next pose. Let yourself be here. Feel THIS shape in your body without rushing to the next one, even if you think you know what it is. Slow down.” Slowing down in class helped me see that I had spent the “best years of my life” either hurrying frantically (to where?) or collapsing into a twitching, nervous heap for the sad reward of meeting all the Expectations.
Expectations had been the biggest roadblock to happiness in the first half of life. I did not question them, either. I HAD to do what was expected of me, didn’t I? After spending years trying to second-guess where the next expectation might come from, I ended up resentful, physically ill much of the time, and so, so tired.
So, I stopped. I rested in a Restorative posture or sat in meditation. This is when The Waiting started to transform into something else. This is when The Waiting began to reveal the gift of anger and, finally, rage. I saw that my life had never been my own – ever. I had given up my essence for the collective: for my family, for my job, for some kind of cultural ideal. And I was mad. I became determined to explode the expectations – those others imposed on me and the ridiculous ones I used to jail myself. It was a Shattering of the Shoulds.
Whenever I heard the message that I “should” do something, I took note. And did the opposite. I quit my job even though I could have comfortably stayed until retirement. I got trained as a yoga teacher because my heart and body led me there, not because it was realistic or practical. I started writing again, not dry procedural documents, but pages and pages of feelings, stories from childhood, and dreams of a future self. I said “no” to family parties and trips to the shopping mall. I danced wildly in my living room. This practice of opposites was new, and boy was it fun! The wonderful thing about being a woman in her forties is that even though I was making all this change, I was, for all intents and purposes, invisible. So, I could rebel without much fuss. Most of the rebellion was internal anyway where the fire was burning away the old me to invite in the wise woman.
One of the scariest instructions my inner wise woman gave me was “tell the truth.” Ugh. Not what I wanted to hear! But then I remembered the Yamas & Niyamas, the ethical principles of yoga. The second principle on the list is Satya or Truthfulness. The first is Ahimsa or Non-Harming. I combined the two and did my truth-telling with as much integrity and kindness as I could. I wrote my truth. I moved through my truth in yoga class. I danced my truth in a new movement class called Qoya. And, finally, I learned to be compassionately truthful with those I loved. I told old friends that I needed an overhaul of the relationship. I told my husband how I really felt. I told my mom I was a grown-up now and could make my own choices, but I still needed her love.
I forgot to be nice and learned to be kind. I declared that I was changing with every word, with every step. I was learning how to be myself in a new way, and this did not always go over well. Some people preferred the person I used to be, not this in-between person who raised her voice from time to time and even said the dreaded “no.” Not everyone is ready for change when we are. I had to surrender to that truth as well. People might not like the new/old me, but I felt her rising in my body. It was a complete shattering. She was coming through the cracks whether or not they (or I) liked it. I could not explain it with a PowerPoint presentation complete with graphs and charts, but I was coming home to myself.
And it all started with the breath. Something so simple. The practice of moving air in and out of the body helped me release old patterns and expectations. The practice of opening my body from the inside out created a newly stable foundation. From here, I have a place to step. From this place of balance and integrity, I can move forward with grace.
Holly Holt is a writer/ storyteller with a deep devotion to practices that heal the body and wake up the mind. For most of the early 2000s, she was a performing singer/songwriter who recorded a well received CD of original music. Currently, she is working on a novel, teaches yoga, blogs, and leads Word Gathering Writing Circles in Sacramento, CA.