When people are born they are soft and supple when they perish they are hard and rigid
In this venerable verse, rigidity and stiffness are attributed to death while weakness and suppleness are given to life. This comparison can be interpreted literally or metaphorically, as can virtually all of Tao Te Ching. The obvious literal interpretation is that toward the end of his span, man is often physically rigid. Muscles, joints, and tendons are stiff from disuse. Bones have waxed brittle, more likely to shatter than bend at a fall. Certainly after death this is the case.
We could likewise discuss spiritual death. We could say that people are mentally or behaviorally inflexible towards life's end. Their experiences have often closed them off from the ultimate variety to be found in life, and they dwell in the pain of the past errors or in the staid comfort of habit. Near unto death, many humans generally will have ceased learning and growing. Opinions have become fixed, attitudes and habits likewise ingrained.
One might be inclined to infer a cause-effect relationship here. Old age brings hardness, brittleness, and stiffness, and eventually death. In our country, it's fairly common to observe middle-aged citizens who can scarcely walk unassisted, and even with it, move at a turtle's pace. Contrast this with a common depiction of elderly Chinese citizens, who are often vital and active well into their twilight years, having practiced Tai Chi and Chi Gong for many years.
One of my worst fears was once the long decline into old age, and the suffering resulting from overall loss of health. Since discovering yoga, I know that this (as are most) is a foolish fear. Stiffness and brittleness need not herald death's approach. In fact, flexibility training will likely will do much to forestall death and the chronic suffering that often signals it. Understanding this, is there any surprise that women tend to outlive men on average?
I've already written an essay about the great benefits I derived from adopting yoga into my fitness practice. For most of my adolescent and adult years, fitness was predominantly geared towards strength training. While I acknowledged decline in my ability to flex and bend limbs over time, I ignored the symptoms until they became too painful to ignore. Yoga's benefit is that it requires limbs to act in concert with each other in equilibrium. Some of the postures can be navigated for a time with strength alone, but this is rather exhausting. Moreover, difficulty in yoga indicates regions of the body where stiffness has taken hold. When one experiences fatigue in yoga, the cause is often not weakness, but stiffness and unbalanced muscle groups. This is a common affliction in the western culture, where one's ability to lift and push is prized, but one's ability to reach, stretch, and bend is generally not. As a result bodily abductors are exercised more than the adductors; consequently, yoga is difficult and wearisome.
Yoga taught me that I bear stress in the hips, back, and upper legs. Through sustained practice, I've located several pockets of muscular rigidity in those regions, so I'm now in an ongoing campaign to banish such rigidity wherever I encounter it. My practice has also made me more aware of any difficulty experienced in movement so that I am more likely to notice it whenever bodily movement betrays it. In theory, the body should be balanced across its central axis, the spinal column. I should have the same range of motion on one side as on the other. Granted, the left and right halves of the body are not identical; practices and habits will have modified the natural balance between left and right hemispheres for better or worse. I am developing a practice intended to bring the left and right halves of my body into closer balance and harmony.
The deeper connection is that evolution generally flows from within to without, and here is the reasoning:
1) Our bodily condition is largely the sum of decisions, attitudes, actions, habits, and practices over a lifetime. I've seen it written that the only true exercise of so-called "free will" is the object of one's attention. At any moment, we are free to choose which objects to attend with our mental faculties, again for better or worse. We are conscious of those objects to we we apply our attention, and we tend to develop and evolve "in the direction" dictated by our consciousness. Our power of will is exerted exclusively on those objects in our sphere of attention. We co-create our existence around those objects in our sphere of attention, and this is how we exercise our vaunted free will. Consequently, it becomes very important to exercise some judiciousness over the objects we allow access to our power of will and sphere of attention. Maintaining improper focus can have negative effects over a lifespan, as we might imagine.
2) Any inflexibility or stiffness in the body therefore has its likely cause not in the body (barring congenital or acquired defect), but in in our non-material essence. Therapy is a long, drawn-out process aimed at locating the source of such internal causes and curing them through some sort of cathartive process/method. What should be apparent, is that non-material causes cannot be remedied through material means.
3) In quantum mechanics, there is a principle known as time-reversal symmetry (TRS). TRS essentially posits that processes can be undone by reversing in space-time their stages of creation. I don't know how to reverse the flow of time, but I do know how to undo stiffness through the practice of yoga. The logical consequence, is that by undoing the material effect, you can confront and dispel the cause of stiffness, which is ultimately non-material (mental/spiritual) in nature.
This is still a work in process, so I can't sell you a DVD yet, but let's determine if it makes sense from a logical perspective. Let's suppose that somewhere in our consciousness, there is a bastion of rigidity, based in belief, attitude, habit, or practice. It acts in such a way to diminish our physical capacity to act/move (i.e. pain). We do not need to know the precise mechanism by which the illness acts. What we do know are the features of our experience which attempt to inform us that we are suffering. In response, we engage in activity to counteract the effect of the purported illness. The question we need answered is whether the activity performed is sufficient to remedy the effect of the illness -- not simply to negate the effect, but to eradicate the cause. The root cause was clearly sufficient to create a physical manifestation of pain. Can our response defeat the cause? Not directly. Our response in this case is physical, corresponding to the effect.
Pain is a signal of an unhealthy condition, it can be understood as a cry for help or attention, which as you recall, is the source of consciousness. By stimulating the pain response, a phenomenon attempts to enter your consciousness and receive attention. By engaging in measures to alleviate the pain, you answer the call for help. By performing behaviors to address the pain-effect you now demonstrate self-compassion or self-love. By sustaining those measures, you move toward wholeness and health. The decision to change behavior is a non-material response to address the non-material cause of the pain. So long as the behavior persists, reason for the pain has no longer cause to persist.
In the film, "The Matrix" is a scene where a young adept is bending spoons with the power of his mind. He admonishes Neo, "You cannot bend the spoon, it is impossible. Instead try to understand the truth that there is no spoon, then you'll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself." Reflecting on this and the opening quote I now suspect that "bending the self" is no mere metaphysical advice but real practical counsel. We all enter this world soft and tender, pliable and supple. It is only through our experience that we acquire the attributes of death. Perhaps all we require is sustained training to return to the primal state of suppleness and softness in order to cultivate life and greater power as suggested in the film.