My feet had had enough. After a challenging handstands class (If you’re not sure why handstands would bother my feet, try getting into a down dog pike position, then jump up and down for an hour. That’s basically what a handstands class is.) and wandering around Capitol Hill for PrideFest, my feet felt broken. We had to change our plans for the rest of the weekend and I spent lots of time babying my feet to get them into recovery.

I was pretty grumpy about it and I had plenty of time sitting around to think about the aging process.

I get grumpy with two camps around aging.

One camp says, “Well, what do you expect when you get old? Stuff just stops working. What are you going to do about it?” and they throw up their hands and give up.

The other camp says, “Aging is all in your mind. You’re only as old as you feel!” and they practically foam at the mouth guilt tripping themselves and everyone around them into denying any sort of real life changes.

Real things happen to aging bodies. Real life circumstances can change on a dime. It’s not all in your mind.

Sometimes we can do things to mitigate or even reverse some of those changes, but those things might take time and effort. Or the changes require a change in our actions and it feels like too much work or an assault on our identity to make the change.

Here’s a list of physical things I notice in my own aging body that are different from when I was younger:

  • I’m stronger than I was 20 years ago.
  • I eat better than I did 20 years ago.
  • I’m more flexible than I was 20 years ago.
  • Most of my joints work better with more mobility and range than they did 20 years ago.
  • I have better control and body awareness than I did 20 years ago.
  • Twenty years ago, I could hop up off a chair or couch without thinking about it. If I sit in a chair or on a couch for any length of time now, I have to get up slowly because my joints aren’t prepared for movement. (However, if I sit on the floor, I can still hop up and down with ease so there’s that.)
  • Over the past 40 years, I’ve healed and almost forgotten about injuries to my ribs, my shoulders, my elbows, and my back. However, my right wrist and my feet, ankles, and calves are like canaries in the coal mine now: they are more vulnerable than they used to be and need more care to be ready to act. They fatigue and act up more quickly and are slower to recover.
  • My movement memory isn’t as quick as it was when I was a 20-something-year-old dancer. I can no longer count on being able to see something once and duplicate it with ease.

You might look at this list and think, okay, she’s separated these into positive changes and negative changes. And you’re right that they mostly manifest in my everyday life as positive vs negative.

But if I think of this as simply noticing differences around a baseline, rather than as things that are better or worse than they were in the past, I can respond to them as simple facts.

I mean, my younger self didn’t spend any time sitting around moaning about how she wasn’t as strong as she would be years in the future because she didn’t have the reference point for that. She certainly saw and admired strong, older women but she didn’t compare herself poorly to who she might become in the future.

So why does older Autumn compare herself poorly to who she was back then? And why is it easier to only look at the ways in which older Autumn has a harder time than younger Autumn, instead of seeing a constellation of various changes?

Because human psychology tends to focus primarily on the negative, and because change (even good change) is perceived as difficult by our psyches because we don’t like to be forced out of the status quo.

But what if change is just…change?

So younger Autumn had to get someone to open jars for her. Not a problem for present Autumn. Present Autumn has to roll out her feet and ankles before her handstand class or she gets disabling cramps. Younger Autumn would have been surprised to hear that!

Younger Autumn was really struggling as a dancer to figure out how to get her hamstrings flexible enough for what she wanted to do. Present Autumn doesn’t give flexibility a second thought. Present Autumn knows that if she takes a dance class, she might take a little longer to learn the combination. Younger Autumn might be a little grumpy to know that in the future she’s going to lose this skill she’s kind of known for, but luckily she has no idea.

I’m currently re-reading one of my favorite books on learning: The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. Josh was a child prodigy in chess who became a chess master, then left chess to practice martial arts and become a world champion in that realm as well. (If you have any interest in either of those areas, or in pedagogy, or in improving yourself in any particular area, I recommend his book.)

One concept he revisits over and over is the idea of staying present with current circumstances. He gives the example of being the stronger player in control of a chess match for 3 hours, then making a small mistake that evens the playing field. He says the problem isn’t the now even playing field because there are strategies for that. The problem is playing as if you are still the stronger player in control of the game. Acting as if the situation is the same as it was, and being emotionally invested in that, will tend to compound your errors and create a loss.

On the other hand, when learning he suggests having an investment in loss (he credits his teacher William Chen for the term.) The idea behind this is allowing yourself to be pushed by the new situation without reverting to old habits, and allowing your body to be receptive rather than fighting back, because that’s how you’ll learn from the new situation.

I tend to think of this as bringing a sense of curiosity to the process. When I need a mental model for this, I remember a client from years ago who suffered a stroke immediately following shoulder surgery. She came back to Pilates without any of her past strength and ability, and with a shoulder to rehab and half her body resisting her control from the stroke. In our lessons, when she struggled with something she’d often laugh and say, “Aren’t bodies funny?”

Frankly I wish I had even half her equanimity, but when I can remember it, I feel a lot more ease around things that feel like losses to me. I do better if I can just think of them as interesting and different. (Just a side note: We’re allowed to feel loss and to grieve. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having honest emotions around changes in our lives and our circumstances and to give ourselves space for that. It’s just that when it’s time to start working with those circumstances, we can get more emotional space for the work by becoming curious about our new facts, plus we often give ourselves room for more choices.)

Finally, remember that working with a new set of facts in your body also means developing new skills. Some things to remember about the act of learning new skills:

  • You probably won’t be good at it right away.
  • You do have to put in the time and work to figure out the new situation and it’s probably going to be tedious and frustrating at times. It may take a lot more time than you think and you probably won’t have a continuous upward momentum.
  • You have to be a detective to figure out what works and what doesn’t work now. Take the time to analyze what’s happening as you try things out.
  • You may need help from outside sources, including the medical profession, various types of therapists or practitioners, talking to friends and family, or doing research.
  • If your identity is strongly attached to how you were before, it’s going to be harder.

A final quote from the book:

“The only thing we can really count on is getting surprised. No matter how much preparation we do, in the real tests of our lives, we’ll be in unfamiliar terrain…I believe the key is to have prepared in a manner that allows for inspiration, to have laid the foundation for us to create under the wildest pressures we ever imagined.” 

Aging is for sure one of the wildest pressures we ever imagined and a big surprising unknown even with our observations of others going through it. We all have to take that ride if we’re lucky; how are we going to approach the changes it brings?

I’m going to read this post to my feet and see what they have to say about it. :)

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