Aging is both real and relative. Linear time passes, and we mark it with our watches and our calendars. But our internal experience of time is something else. Sometimes we feel like time is flying by, and other times it slows to a crawl. Some of us feel much older than our numerical age, and others are eternally young at heart.
Biological time is a concept in Ayurvedic medicine, the holistic health system that is a sister science to yoga. According to this ancient science, we are all born with a certain number of breaths in our lifetime, and when we breathe our last one, we expire. We can’t control our allotted number of breaths, but we can control, to a degree, how quickly we use them up.
There is something intuitive about this idea. Have you ever had an experience that you felt made you age ten years in a day? Or joked that your grey hairs came from a certain stressful experience? I’m sure I got most of mine in the first couple of years of running my business. When we are stressed out, we tend to breathe shorter, faster breaths. We can feel stress aging us on the inside.
When we do practices to slow down the breath, we tend to also slow down the nervous system. Spending more of our time in the parasympathetic nervous system state, also called the “rest and digest” state, allows our bodies to work behind the scenes doing things like digesting our food, repairing our muscles and skin, supporting our immune system, and balancing our hormones. Our internal healing capacity is much higher when we spend time in relaxation and rest. We often associate aging with aches, pains, and illness, but many of these things are actually caused by stress, not by age itself.
In our culture, it’s common to spend most of our time in the stressed-out sympathetic “fight or flight” state. We’re racing against deadlines, worrying about getting kids to school on time, and expending energy worrying about things that haven’t even happened yet. Our biological time speeds up and our ability to repair and protect our bodies goes down: we are aging faster.
I’ve recently started implementing a daily restorative yoga practice. I’ll lie down in savasana or put my legs up the wall and relax for at least ten minutes in the afternoon. One of the most fascinating effects of this practice for me has been my perception of time. I’m running around trying to get a million things done, I feel like the day is getting away from me, and then I stop what I’m doing and relax for ten minutes. When I come out of the resting pose, I feel slower. I feel less stressed. I feel as if I have more time in my day, even though of course linear time is passing in exactly the same way as it was before. As someone who tends toward busyness and anxiety, this has been a revelation for me.
Slowing down also allows me to be more present with the time I do have. Rather than rushing on to the next thing, I’m there with the small moments of my life, enjoying simple moments of reading on the couch with my dog, spending time with loved ones, or walking (slowly) on a beautiful spring day. I remember these moments more clearly because I am present, which makes time feel richer as it marches by.
Stress is inevitable and it’s not always a bad thing—we need to challenge ourselves to grow, and our nervous systems need exercise just like everything else in our bodies. There are plenty of things in life that we don’t have control over. But we can find little ways every day to slow down, even if it’s just for ten minutes a day. And who knows? Maybe we really will slow down our aging.
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