Aging gracefully is a phrase we often hear but what does it mean? And can yoga help us accomplish it? The word grace means elegance, a pleasing quality of movement, a sense of what is right and proper, or thoughtfulness toward others. It comes from the Greek charis, the singular form of the word charities, which is translated as grace but also carries the meaning of ‘favor’ or ‘gift.’ For my purposes, I think of grace as physical, social, or spiritual—three variations, or shades, of the same thing.
“Grace doesn’t make a fuss about itself, but it subtly warms and transforms the atmosphere.” — Sarah, L. Kaufman, author of The Art of Grace
Physical grace can be defined as self-possession in the midst of physical expression that conveys a sense of comfort, joy and well-being. Recently, while driving to a friend’s house for dinner, I coasted to a stop behind a long line of cars at a traffic light. Off to my left, I saw a woman dancing along the sidewalk to music only she could hear through her ear buds. She stepped off the curb and dance/walked across the street, never missing a beat. Her graceful movements brought a smile to my face. My head nodded to the music I felt but couldn’t hear. My energy shifted as I watched her and the moment was transformed.
Physical grace is a skill that can be learned and experienced in the way we move, dress, walk, dance, or practice yoga. For example, I like to practice the Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar)—a sequence of postures done as one continuous exercise and synchronized with the breath—as a way to cultivate physical grace. To keep this practice fresh and challenging, you can change the number, choice, and sequence of postures. For example you can add in a Warrior series, or Triangle or Plank pose. I often add in a Standing Twist (Rishi’s Posture) before the last Upward Salute.
We can flow the asanas together like a dance or hold each one in meditative stillness before intentionally moving to the next. I do both depending on the day, my mood, and my body’s needs. If we practice with awareness, we will be using skillful means to develop our own personal style of physical grace, which can carry over into how we move, dress, walk, or dance. The benefits? Flexibility, strength, efficiency in motion, balance, and agility, along with comfort and pleasure being in our own skin.
“In the middle of this crazy world, I’m just hoping to show up and be heard.” —Wah!
Humans are wired to be social. Research tells us that having friends and participating in groups actually benefits our health and extends our life spans. A major part of socializing is talking. We may talk a lot but how often do we listen or get listened to? Think of the last person who actively listened to what you had to say and involved you in true give and take conversation. How did that make you feel? Subtly warm and transformed, I’m betting. People who can do that with authenticity are exhibiting social grace, the ability to make others feel seen, heard and more connected.
Grace under pressure, a phrase coined by Ernest Hemmingway, is something we may need to practice when dealing with a difficult or uncomfortable social situation. We can change the situation, change our response to the situation, or leave. Any of those choices can be the right one depending upon how we implement it. A breath technique that can be helpful in calming the mind while considering the graceful path to take is Relaxation Breath. When I find myself in uncomfortable social situations, I use this breath to calm my mind while I decide how to manage my energy and my actions.
- Sit comfortably.
- Inhale through your nose.
- Exhale through your nose.
- Pause after your exhalation and silently count “one thousand one, one thousand two.”
- Repeat and continue for 2-3 minutes.
This practice brings awareness to your breath, slows your rate of breathing, and lengthens your exhalation. The technique is invisible to others, is calming to your nervous system, and can help create the psychic space within which you can practice grace under pressure in difficult situations.
Spiritual grace (Samadhi) is similar to and yet different than physical or social grace. It’s similar in the sense that when we intentionally practice meditation through movement, mantra, or mudra, we can sometimes experience transformation. But it’s different in the sense that spiritual grace can be bestowed with absolutely no effort, or practice, on our part. Here is what one of my students told me about her experience with spiritual grace:
“It’s a state of emptiness and unity I have reached enough times to know it truly exists, but it is elusive and does not materialize on command. My experiences have been fleeting moments. One in particular that I remember very clearly was when my three kids were little. The two girls were giggling outside in the snow on a cloudy day in their brightly colored snowsuits, the baby was asleep for a nap and I was sitting next to the patio door with a hot cup of chocolate. There was a very brief moment where I sensed that everything in the world was in divine, right order and it was an amazing feeling that ended seconds later when the oldest poked the middle child with an icicle and it was over. But I never forgot that moment. Everything was very clear and it was as if the world stopped revolving for a millisecond and I was filled with bliss and peace.”
My most intense experience occurred while transferring one of my needlepoint designs to canvas mesh. The transfer process is time consuming and requires concentration. One evening, while working on a new design, I lost all sense of time, space and self about halfway through the process. When that period of grace ended, I was amazed at the deep level of peace I felt.
It’s lovely when spiritual grace happens without effort but consistent practice tills the ground and plants the seeds to prepare us to receive and recognize it when it occurs. I practice mudras (hand gestures) as one way to help me plant those seeds. Currently I’m working with Trishula Mudra, the gesture of non-duality and clear seeing. There are no contraindications for this mudra, but do release it if you feel uncomfortable.
- Sit comfortably.
- Curl your little fingers inward to touch the base of your thumbs.
- Place your thumbs on top of your little fingers to secure them.
- Extend your three other fingers straight out.
- Rest your backs of the hands on your thighs or knees with the palms facing up.
- Hold the mudra for 5 to 10 breaths, or longer if you’re comfortable
In The Secret Power of Yoga, Nischala Joy Devi writes that we are all in a constant state of grace but often do not remember it. I believe that a regular practice of yoga will help us remember grace in all of its shades as we move through the process of aging gracefully.
Beth Gibbs, MA, E-RYT 500, is a certified yoga therapist through Integrative Yoga Therapy. She is a senior member of the IYT teaching faculty and directs the school’s Professional Yoga Therapist Internship Program. Beth has a masters degree in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She implemented a yoga program for Camp Courant, a summer day camp for inner-city children. She is the author of “Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi,” a therapeutic yoga book for children with a companion manual for adults who work with children. She served on the Educational Standards Committee for the International Association of Yoga Therapists. For more information about her work, visit her website: www.proyogatherapeutics.com