|Leaves Starting to Turn by Brad Gibson|
“people on Ikaria were, in fact, reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do. (Ikarian men in particular are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health.) But more than that, they were also living about 8 to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and cardiovascular disease, and they suffered less depression and about a quarter the rate of dementia. Almost half of Americans 85 and older show signs of Alzheimer’s. (The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that dementia cost Americans some $200 billion in 2012.) On Ikaria, however, people have been managing to stay sharp to the end.”
As usual with studies of long-lived communities, it was impossible to identify a single factor that was responsible for the long and healthy lives of the individuals within it. As the New York Times article says:
"If you pay careful attention to the way Ikarians have lived their lives, it appears that a dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work. It’s easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon naptime. It helps that the cheapest, most accessible foods are also the most healthful — and that your ancestors have spent centuries developing ways to make them taste good. It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills. You’re not likely to ever feel the existential pain of not belonging or even the simple stress of arriving late. Your community makes sure you’ll always have something to eat, but peer pressure will get you to contribute something too. You’re going to grow a garden, because that’s what your parents did, and that’s what your neighbors are doing. You’re less likely to be a victim of crime because everyone at once is a busybody and feels as if he’s being watched. At day’s end, you’ll share a cup of the seasonal herbal tea with your neighbor because that’s what he’s serving. Several glasses of wine may follow the tea, but you’ll drink them in the company of good friends. On Sunday, you’ll attend church, and you’ll fast before Orthodox feast days. Even if you’re antisocial, you’ll never be entirely alone. Your neighbors will cajole you out of your house for the village festival to eat your portion of goat meat."
In fact, if you leave out the rather sensationalist aspects of the story (the man who was cured of cancer just by returning to the island, a tale which may or may not be true), the main conclusion of the author had to do with community.
"The big aha for me, having studied populations of the long-lived for nearly a decade, is how the factors that encourage longevity reinforce one another over the long term. For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle, I have become convinced, they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible. As soon as you take culture, belonging, purpose or religion out of the picture, the foundation for long healthy lives collapses. The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices. There’s no silver bullet to keep death and the diseases of old age at bay. If there’s anything close to a secret, it’s silver buckshot."
So, what, if anything, does this have to do with yoga? Well, did you know that all of us here at Yoga for Healthy Aging, even those of us who teach, take regular yoga classes? And we certainly do not attend these classes because we don’t know enough to practice on our own home. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we do it for two other main reasons. The first reason is for the wisdom we continue to receive from our teachers, which helps keep our home practice inspired. But the second reason has more to do with the other people in the class than with the teacher: we want to stay connected to the yoga community. Being part of the yoga community is like belonging to a small “ecosystem” within our larger culture. Practicing with other people helps us stay steadfast in the healthy choices we have made, whether that is a having regular asana or meditation practice or even making career, family or other life decisions that we believe will be better for us.
So, thank you, thank you, thank you to all my fellow students in my regular class (you know who you are!). And, dear readers, I hope you, too, find the same sense of community in your yoga class. And if you don’t feel supported and encouraged in your current class, I urge you to get out there and look for one where you do.