Arrggghh! Growing Older!
I severely strained my lower back muscles almost 4 weeks ago and am still dealing with the recovery and pain. As a former professional dancer and lifelong athlete, I’m not a stranger to injuries or muscle pulls. But this time, it’s been a resounding message to me about how to adjust to growing older.
What precipitated the back spasm was an impossible move that no one in their right mind should attempt. I folded forward and down from my hips with straight legs, then twisted my upended torso to the right, and reached out to grab my 3-year-old grandson, trying to pull him towards me. Yes, a stupid move. Especially since I preach while I’m teaching movement classes about the vulnerability of the lower back. Just because I was able to get away with doing something like this in my dancer’s prime doesn’t mean that I should have ever done it – let alone now. Yet sometimes I forget that I’m not 25, 35, 45, or 55+ years old anymore because I generally feel so at ease in my body. I was instantly humbled!
I want to stay feeling at ease in my body as I continue the inevitable aging process. The challenge is how to learn to adjust to the ever-increasing need to recalibrate what will be beneficial and what will not, in terms of physical effort?
Awareness clearly seems to be the first step. What is it I am attempting to do? Is it reasonable to ask my body to do that? Perhaps I need to think about the logistics before I act. If I had thought about what I was trying to achieve before I reached for my 40-pound grandson in an exaggerated position, I would have understood that it was quite an inefficient and risky way to bring him closer. Of course, standing upright and bending down with my knees on the floor towards him would have given me the proper leverage and support to pull him to me. What had I been thinking? That is the bottom-line question – I hadn’t been thinking. I was just reacting without processing what I was asking my body to do. Awareness is key.
Understanding my body more deeply would also be helpful. What is my normal posture? Am I standing correctly on my feet and allowing the bones to balance in a way that enables the muscles and soft tissues to function in the best way? Have I been crouched over my laptop for too many hours so that the act of straightening up is painful? How can I expect to immediately jump from the crouched position to reaching high over my head to the shelf where the item I want is placed without injuring myself? The more time we spend out of alignment curved over, the more our muscles and soft tissues cannot react quickly to perform a completely opposite movement. Thus, the probabilities of wrenching ourselves increases. So, regaining correct anatomical alignment is critical for correct physical functioning.
Listening to what our body is saying is also critical. If we are exercising and we feel some warning sign that all is not right, we need to pay attention! My dance training was often diametrically opposed to that common sense idea. We were encouraged to push through the pain, constantly go above our last accomplishment, and most importantly, that the show must go on! In the past, I continued to perform on stage no matter what—once even after having a toenail painfully pulled out by the root backstage just before my entrance. I continued to perform through foot injuries, a broken bone in my hand, and major emotional life events simply because not to do so was unthinkable. And although we can get away with pushing through when we are younger, it is not a healthy way to proceed as we get older. Unfortunately, that “true grit” attitude is hard to break when it is no longer appropriate or useful.
If “true grit” and pushing through the pain and available physical stamina is no longer a reliable method as we age, then how can we do the things we want and need to do? One clear way is to be honest with ourselves about what our real capabilities are in our older years. What is the true amount of energy we have today? Did we sleep poorly the night before or stay up too late so that we have less vitality this morning? If so, what are the priorities for the available energy we do have today? Perhaps we can put a particular task on hold and aim for a better night’s sleep tonight so we can achieve the task tomorrow. Or maybe we could break the task down into smaller pieces and finish it albeit using a longer period of time. During this time with my current back injury, I’ve taken to bringing up clean, folded laundry by handfuls as opposed to lugging the whole laundry basket up and down the stairs. I can walk up and down stairs but not carrying a heavy load if I want to continue to heal from the back spasms.
This all takes patience. Being patient as our body heals and listening to the inner voice when it says stop and take a rest are crucial. We need to adjust the timelines we assumed in the past to match the timelines our changed physical bodies can actually meet in the present. Frustrating, yes! But only because we haven’t yet adjusted to the new version of ourselves as we are now. This is not easy – adjusting to the pace and ability of the older body. It feels like slowing down, giving in to the aging process. But, in truth, adapting is the best way to prolong our lives in these bodies.
We can also learn to ask for help—something that is so very difficult for many of us. It can make us feel diminished and less valuable to ourselves and those around us, and affect our perspective of how others view us. Could we ask for help? Fraught with myriad self-worth and self-esteem issues, it can be a hard question to ask. If we show vulnerability by asking for assistance, will we be thought less of? We might also be thinking, “I don’t want to be a bother to anyone” or “I want to do this now, not wait for or rely on someone else!”
It comes down to a self-respect. Do we respect our aging body’s wisdom to know what is right for us, even if it feels limiting? Can we view this innate wisdom as valuing ourselves instead of limiting ourselves and prioritizing the importance of keeping healthy and balanced for where we are now in our lives? If so, when we ask for assistance, if we remain grounded in our lifelong self-respect, the response from the person we are requesting to help us will be more respectful than if we had asked irritably because we didn’t want to admit that we needed help. We can also remember how eagerly we ourselves respond to requests for aid when the requester has come from a stance of self-respect.
Another perspective that might help us to accept the changes we go through as we get older is to realize that as our physical prowess decreases, our inner wisdom increases. Our experiences are varied and wide because we have lived a long time. Precisely because we have more experience, our ability to draw on past events, relationships, and know-how provides us with a wealth of tools to deal with the quirks and u-turns of life.
While our outer physicality has become restricted, what’s underneath the skin has become amplified. We may have more patience and be able to more fully and actively listen to others. Perhaps we can exist more in the moment and not sweat the small annoyances. Maybe we heed the call of our heartstrings and are more willing to see the good in others and, therefore, judge less harshly.
Each decade brings changes. When we were five years old, we wanted to ride our bicycles without training wheels. When we were sixteen, we couldn’t wait to graduate from high school and move toward adulthood. We may have had endless physical vitality and stamina during those decades but we still had many lessons to come in compassion, patience, and understanding. In a sense, there is a tradeoff that seems to flow throughout our lifetimes. Physical strength and prowess versus inner wisdom and empathy appear to have an inverse relationship. The longer we live, the more opportunities we gain to develop a bigger, loving heart.
It’s not easy – this process of getting older. It obliges us to recalibrate our priorities, recognize the reality of what is physically viable (and reasonable), and respect the enhanced wisdom that we’ve gained. It’s a lot to manage and balance. Fortunately, we have also had the time to acquire the grace needed to do just that.
© 2022 by Sheila Peters. All rights reserved.
Sheila Peters helps clients and students regain their natural flow of energy and increase wellness through techniques from Traditional Chinese Medicine, Eden Energy Method, shamanic practices, reiki, Jin Shin Jyutsu, intuition/channeling and movement. For more information, email Sheila at: firstname.lastname@example.org, call 781-354-0725, or visit Sheila’s website at: www.energymedicineanddance.com.