This post is a much abridged version of a remarkable journey described by Ageless Expert Cecelia Hurwich in “The Road to Hunza Valley.” Read every last transformative, vivid, ageless detail in the full article here.
I had been fascinated by the health and longevity of the Hunzakuts—the people of the Hunza Valley in Pakistan— ever since reading a 1965 National Geographic article about the region. The Hunzakuts are Ismaili Muslims—a small, moderate sect of Islam—and while the men had been investigated in depth by male researchers, the women had never been interviewed or studied because they typically do not show themselves to men other than those in their family. It was my dream to one day meet and interview these women and to explore the secrets of their purported long lives.
The pulls of fantasy and desire from that National Geographic article remained with me for almost thirty years. In September 1992, at the age of seventy-three, I was invited to address the International Federation of Aging Conference in Mumbai, “New Roles for Older People.” Traveling to India would bring me geographically very close to Hunza, so it seemed a propitious time to fly to neighboring Pakistan following the conference and to interview the older Hunzakut women to find out if they lived as long as National Geographic had reported the men did. . . .
From my interviews, I came away with the feeling that Hunza women were confident, respected members of society, skilled in growing crops, and expert in crafts and homemaking. They valued their domestic skills—cooking, raising their children, caring for their family and husbands, and doing their creative handiwork. Women worked together within the family harmoniously. Though most of the older women I interviewed had neither attended school nor learned to read or write, their outside interests, their work in the fields, their friendships with other women, and Tanzin, the important women’s organization they belonged to, all gave them a sense of identity outside the home.
I heard so much about Tanzin from the women, who bubbled with excitement as they described it to me. Each woman I interviewed proudly told me that it was a social space for women to be with each other as friends and to work together, whether on handicrafts, combining crops from the fields for sale, or collecting money to put in a bank for collective savings used to help one another. Each village Tanzin group is run cooperatively, giving these women a zone of empowerment, much like the women’s movement in the United States. . . .
Researchers have postulated that the Hunzakuts may live so long in part because only the hardy survive childhood. Additionally, because the high mountains are not conducive to raising animals, the people consume very little fat except from chicken, goat, or yak on festive occasions. My own conclusion is that their longevity has to do mostly with their lifestyle— healthy food, constant exercise (and time to rest during the six-month winter), as well as incredible social support. . . .
Engaged with the land and the seasons, women continued to be physically active as they grew older. In the summers they worked in the fields. In winter, during the six months of the year when the country is isolated by heavy snowfall, the women remain indoors, working on handicrafts and making the family’s clothing. They shear the sheep, spin the yarn, and weave the cloth into garments. They valued the gifts I had brought, including sewing aids (needles, pins, and thread), special scissors, and Velcro.
It was with dismay that I discovered the older women were having problems seeing their handiwork. I handed my bifocals to one woman, who was astonished to be able to see the small stitches of her embroidery. Through the interpreter, I found out that the only facility for glasses was in Gilgit, many miles away and a difficult trip for the villagers without transportation. Buses to Gilgit were rare and expensive, and private vehicles were a luxury, owned only by those whose business warranted it. I promised upon my return home to send reading glasses to the village doctor to distribute.
Shortly after returning home, I bought dozens of pairs of reading glasses in various strengths, packed them, and sent them off to Hunza. Later I got word that the women were thrilled that they could again see their needlework. I also called the director of the University of California’s optometry department and suggested that they have doctors and nurses do pro bono work in Hunza and perhaps set up a clinic. . . .
Inspired by the women of Hunza, who continued to walk and to work their terraced fields late into life, I returned to Berkeley with the recognition that walking is a key to health and longevity. As I looked around at my women friends in their sixties and seventies who were leading sedentary lives, I noticed they were heavier and complained that they lacked the physical energy they had in the past, tiring more easily. In their fifties, these sedentary friends still looked quite good and seemed to have the energy and ability to participate in everyday activities, but by their sixties and seventies their bodies had changed drastically. In contrast, the new friends I had made at the health club, who exercised and walked regularly, were trim and energetic.
Exercise became my renewed priority. I scheduled work, appointments, and social life around my workouts. Exercise classes went on the calendar first; other commitments were worked around them. Three days a week I walked to my health club to take classes in Pilates, dance, and weight lifting. In earlier years I had been able to take dynamic, heart-pounding aerobics classes, but with the knee problems that had started in my sixties, movements that required jumping or heavy impact were not possible.
Soon after my return from Hunza I discovered Nia (neuromuscular integrative action) at Rancho la Puerta, a health and fitness resort in Tecate, northern Baja California, Mexico, where I regularly presented workshops on vitality in aging. Nia is a dance technique combining movement of body, mind, and spirit without the pounding and stress on joints. I urged the director of our health club in Berkeley to offer this invigorating class. There were few qualified Nia instructors in the Bay Area at that time, but checking around, we found a certified instructor for Nia classes at our club.
What is it about movement and music that continues to evoke joy for me? I luxuriate in sensuality when my body moves freely in space to music. Dancing buoyantly and barefoot with others about me, I feel ecstasy envelop me. Though I was thirty to forty years older than the others in my class, with worn-out knees that did not bend well and unable to wave my arms with abandon because of a torn rotator cuff, I was one of the few dancers in our Nia classes who felt the freedom to voice grunts and joyous sounds.
In my younger years I loved to dance barefoot to my favorite records on the smooth, velvety floors of the living room late at night—jumping, twirling, falling to the floor, rolling, singing. Movement has always been a natural high for me, and a great source of energy and release.
After Nia sessions I returned home energetic and rejuvenated. Following a healthy lunch of salad or homemade soup, like those of the Hunzakuts, I returned to my bright red office to write and edit my book on vitality and aging. Often I spent an hour or more working on behalf of the numerous environmental, political, and other nonprofit groups that give meaning to my life.
Several times a month I joined colleagues or friends for lunch or a walk. Remembering the Hunzakuts, at least two afternoons a week I walked for an hour or longer in my beloved Berkeley hills, often with Don joining me. Walking in nature, immersed in its beauty and accompanied by birdsong, invariably infuses me with peace and tranquility.
I also enjoyed the evenings spent with my friends Sara, Ailish, and Christie, whom I had met at Antioch University. After graduation we formed a women’s group that met regularly for dinner and conversation. This group meant so very much to me. I loved how after these many years I could talk to these women in a way that I was unable to with my older women friends. We shared the language of the Human Potential Movement. We not only had a history of three years in school together but had become close friends outside of academia. Our relationships were so deep that they extended to interest in each other’s families. On a visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I had lunch with Christie’s mother, where we shared some of our life stories with each other. Meeting her conservative mother at her private club, I better understood Christie’s rejection of that lifestyle and her motivation for studying holistic psychology.
By this time Christie was in graduate school for her Ph.D. in psychology. Sara was living and practicing as a therapist in San Francisco and had bought her first house. Both women did further study, and each now has a private therapy practice. What a gift to have these younger women in my life as friends. As busy as we were, we made special efforts to set aside these meaningful dates. We supported each other through our lows and highs and discussed our thoughts, careers, relationships, and any other topics that came up. This was our little Tanzin; another lesson from the Hunzakuts.