Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks & Swimming Side Saddle

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks & Swimming Side Saddle

Most of us always make our scrambled eggs with milk and butter, we probably couldn’t put our legs behind our heads even if we wanted to, we have never even considered running an ultra marathon and, when it comes to that meditation lark people talk about, how can we be expected to sit still for even 5 minutes without our collective minds racing off to plan the next ‘to do’ list or what to make for dinner?

I don’t mind sharing with you that I have a particular fear of old age. Not of actually growing older, but that being ‘old’ comes with unavoidable pain, discomfort, illness and suffering; growing older and gradually collapsing into gravity’s arms. But that doesn’t have to be the case, right? If we buck the trends, find new ways, keep ‘learning new tricks’ and actively do all in our power to feed our bodies the most nutritionally dense foods, undertake the most therapeutic & positive bodily movement, are kind to ourselves, allow rest when we need it and ‘feed’ our minds nutritionally too, can’t we break that societal samskara? I am certain we all have a chance to, at the very least, minimise the pain in favour of pleasure.

So can an old dog learn new tricks?

My Dad has inspired me recently. He just turned 65 but if you asked him he’d probably tell you he’s 24 with a big grin on his face! And he’s always wanted to learn how to play the piano. Dad is, figuratively and comparatively speaking, an ‘old(er) dog’ but he is most certainly open to new tricks. He has taken the musical bull by the horns and enlisted a piano teacher, he studies theory, is learning to properly read music and is practising diligently. He has found that after practising a few times he can even play pieces without the music and, most importantly, he is inspired by the journey and the journey is inspiring his life.

I think Dad’s influence in my life is one reason why I resonate with the quotation “doubt everything – find your own light” (the last words of Buddha in the Theravada tradition). Whatever your religious beliefs, this quote resonates with me as an approach to life, in not following the path ahead blindly and obediently. And the further down this ‘rabbit hole’ of self-discovery I willingly tumble, the more doubtful I become of what society tells us in favour of carving out a whole new pathway. I’m actively ‘fitting out’.

On coining the phrase ‘swimming side saddle’.

I am a terrible swimmer. Yes I can make it from one side of the pool to the other but there is nothing graceful about it and I’ll be huffing and puffing after one length (“ahem”…width) as if I’ve never done a day’s exercise in my life. I probably wouldn’t drown if I fell off a boat into calm water but more down to my ability to float than any kind of smooth, nymph-like swim stroke. My brother has always been the swimmer in our family which, as families tend to do, was put down to the fact that he inherited the ability from my fish-like-father who is from the south coast of the UK and used to work with boats, whereas I ‘followed’ my land-loving mother who was raised on a farm among green pastures in the centre of the UK – figures! My favoured stroke has always been breaststroke, but the kind where your face doesn’t get wet and your hair looks as dry as a dehydrated kale-chip. So yes, not particularly streamlined and very, veeeerrryyyy sloooooow!

My breaststroke doesn’t feel like real, invested swimming, rather more like an imposter in the pool, resembling a lady in her unsuitable finery ‘swimming sidesaddle’.

I was determined my daughter would not ‘follow’ in my anti-nymph footsteps, right from her amphibian start being birthed into water. She now squeals with delight at the prospect of a day’s sailing on ‘Uncle Simon’s boat’ and absolutely adores jumping off it into the deep, dark sea beneath. On one such sailing trip recently, I got caught in a particularly unforgiving current and right then decided that I needed to face yet another fear and learn a new trick, to switch my rather inferior side saddle style for the more invested ‘swimming astride’. I’ve already learned a lot from my passionate swimming coach, the locally famous ‘Coach Rob’; not least that everything I thought I knew about swimming was about as useful as a lead-weighted bikini. And in studying this entirely new discipline I’ve learned so much about myself, drawn so many parallels with the passion that is my yoga practice, and benefitted a great deal through being a true beginner & thereby learning how I learn.

Even my venerable and widely respected yoga teacher Chuck Miller (who, incidentally, is not too far removed from my father in age) often says, “don’t believe me, go find out for yourself and study with other teachers”, as he has always done himself. He encourages his students to study other things, not just other disciplines of yoga, to read about unrelated subjects and basically never to stop learning ‘new tricks’ because in doing so you remind yourself to always be a beginner. In welcoming the blessing of ‘beginnerdom’ every single day you leave yourself truly open to learn, to truly experience. In yoga, maybe in life, the day you stop being a beginner and decide you’ve really cracked it is invariably the day you face an immovable obstacle, the day you injure yourself.

When was the last time you learned something new? A new recipe? A new route to get to work?

With the recent protests in Hong Kong, our usual route has been barricaded off for weeks so we had to find a new way to drive on our morning commute, and doing so felt a little liberating. Finding new paths in life, new routes, really feels good once you get past the fear.They say the best way to stay young and avoid horrid degenerative diseases in old age is to keep the mind active, to learn new things. I can actually feel why and how as my brain opens up to new possibilities of places I could drive to now, synapses firing, using my newly tried and tested route as a base from which to start. I’ve been forced to break my mould, avert from my usual route and allow new synaptic connections to form. It’s like learning a new language; the brain actually creates new synaptic links, physically changing, growing, and finding new ways. The metaphorical concept is corroborated by science. We need to use, stretch and challenge these magnificent tools, our mind and body, to avoid the otherwise inevitable collapse into gravity’s clutches.

It’s the fear that stops us, that makes us cling on to the grass at the top of the ‘rabbit hole’ and not allow ourselves to tumble in with gay abandon, that tells us the only way to make scrambled eggs taste good is with milk and butter, that this is the best way to drive to work.

And for goodness sake, if I tried to put my leg behind my head I’d snap!

I can’t put my leg behind my head, not yet at least, and it is not my goal. By in practicing Ashtanga yoga diligently each day I now know that I probably will put my leg behind my head one day without even thinking twice, perhaps 10 years from now, but it could very well happen. I’m not attached to it happening, but I’m open to it. Interestingly I was never one of those super-bendy kids who could do such things, so I couldn’t ‘perform’ that trick as a young dog. I’ll most definitely be old(er!) and I’m so happy with that. My beloved friend Kate Howe’s two sons are blessed to be studying yoga while still young and are learning their ‘new tricks’ with relative ease and grace; they’ll get ‘there’ quicker physically and I’m so delighted for them that their Mum is giving them this beautiful gift.  But in being the old dog, taking longer to learn our new trick, don’t we have a completely different set of benefits, of lessons, and aren’t we on a completely different journey to the young dogs anyway?

I make scrambled eggs nowadays with no milk or butter, just with coconut milk. They are delicious! “But it’ll taste like coconuts”, I hear you protest in chorus. Will it? Are you game enough to try? Let go of the grass and take a tumble down that rabbit hole. Join me in galloping towards your next birthday fully astride your horse, willingly learning something new at every single jump, every single day!

What have you always wanted to learn? Can you choose a different route today?

Sack society and her norms. Let’s find a better way, a new path, defying the grip of gravity.

With love, Rowena x

p.s. I’m sitting in my hairdresser’s chair as I type, having a long overdue chop. The radio literally just played a song as I typed my name above.  It was distinctive in that it’s not a modern song or one that is played often nowadays so I commented that it was, “funny – I heard this song last time I was sitting in this chair, 3 months ago!” “Maybe the DJ likes this one”, I concluded. Hairdresser Mike countered, “Maybe he’s being lazy, just doing the same old thing”. Synchronicity – you’ve gotta love it! 🙂

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