I started Ashtanga Yoga when I was 43 years old. I had just had my third baby and was 3 weeks postpartum. I hadn’t received the memo that Ashtanga was too hard for people over a certain age, and I was fortunate because I had no expectations. The Ashtanga class was a lot harder than the handful of hatha yoga classes I had taken in my 20’s. I was exhausted as I lay in savasana. But something about how I felt during class kept me coming back every week.
The other people in the class were parents like me. We did primary series. I didn’t know there were other series. I didn’t know about floating through as we moved forward and back between poses. I didn’t know about hovering in chaturanga and instead lowered immediately onto my belly every time. Some people in the class were able to catch their hands behind their backs, but binding the arms wasn’t something I aspired to. Some people lifted up into backbend but most, including myself, were happy lifting only the hips in bridge. And headstand! What foolishness was that!! I did dolphin.
Maybe I was fortunate not to have done a lot of yoga while I was in my 20’s because doing yoga in my 40’s was not a case of noticing that I was losing my ability to do certain things. Instead, practicing yoga became an exercise in discovering what I could do--with practice. After taking a week long training in Ashtanga yoga with David Swenson which met every day, I noticed that daily yoga made me feel really good. I started a daily home practice. My children were young, but I was able to find a way to practice once or twice a week with Ashtanga yoga teacher Kate O’Donnell. Daily practice seemed the ticket to improving the postures. I was able to bind. I was pushing up into backbend. I was kicking up into headstand against the wall.
Another senior teacher, Dominic Corigliano, who taught for Kate during one of her trips to India, seemed to expect more from me. He pulled me up from backbend and lowered me down, then had me practice that on my own. He showed me how to rise up to head stand by shifting my weight forward so that my legs became light. He started me on the second series of Ashtanga yoga.
Kate continued where Dominic left off. She has been guiding me with care through the second and third series of Ashtanga. And I keep practicing. I feel better when I practice. My body feels good. My mind is calmer. Even as I age, I find I am growing ever so slowly stronger and more flexible in body and in mind. I follow the sequence of postures, noticing how my body feels and where my mind goes. It is a practice--a daily mindfulness practice that leads to awareness. I put my body into certain shapes and I notice how this feels. I learn to quiet my mind to help the poses work better. The challenge of a new or difficult posture quiets the mind immediately as I have to focus all my energy on performing the pose.
Kate O’Donnell’s other students agree. Jim Rubenstein, long time Ashtanga practitioner, now 72, says, “I think [some] people miss the point. Stiffness limits me in some poses, but since you repeat the same poses every day you can be more in tune with your body and your progress. Since the practice is repetitive, you have a chance to let go and not think about each new pose. Most important, you can practice at home or traveling. When you can't do it anymore, you'll know. I'd say age is only a state of mind.”
Holly Happe, another long time student of Kate’s, finds the practice works for her schedule and offers stability during times of transition. As an anesthesiologist, she has to be at work very early and she can practice Ashtanga before work. The practice is steadfast, always there for her in its steadiness. While certain more advanced postures don’t come easily, she continues the practice. She has found that with age, small injuries seem to take longer to heal. But she knows the practice keeps her centered.
Steve Amari, who was in his early fifties when started Ashtanga at Down Under Yoga a couple of years ago, has found that there seems to be a deeper connection between the body, mind and spirit with the Ashtanga practice, drawing one closer to the true self and to something that is greater than one’s self. “It’s just difficult not to be open to receive its awakening grace.”
The ultimate goal of yoga is not to be able to do the hardest poses. Pattabhi Jois believed that primary series leads to good health, detoxifying the body and building strength, flexibility, and stamina. The intermediate or second series is designed to strengthen the nervous system and the subtle energy channels throughout the body. Long-time practitioner and author of Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual, David Swenson sees Ashtanga yoga as a tool to grow personally. Ashtanga yoga practitioners deal with asanas that are challenging through breath, focus, and patience. When confronted with the challenges of daily existence, they can draw upon the strengths gained from the practice on the mat.
I met Karen Cairns on a trip to India. In her 70’s, she started practicing Ashtanga when she was 56. Discussing age and Ashtanga, she wrote, “What I most want other people to know about Ashtanga yoga is that I believe it is a yoga that is actually extra-protective for older people and especially beneficial for them. Ashtanga yoga is the one yoga that can stay with me as I age and help me prevent injury and illness. And when I do get ill, because we all age, get ill, and die, my yoga practice will sustain me with this too. Ashtanga yoga is a set sequence of asanas or poses that are based on both breath and focus. Once you learn the sequence, you are doing the same asanas every practice, 6 days a week. Because I know the sequence and how my body does within the practice, my awareness of my body and its strengths and limitations is actually protective for me. I know when I can push myself more and when I should not do so. As I age, I feel especially safe with my practice.” (Read the whole blog at http://ashtangayogaproject.com/teacher-started-ashtanga-fifties-now-authorized)
Mary Taylor, long time Ashtanga practitioner with her husband Richard Freeman, comments on why it is important to practice daily as we get older. “As you age you may find it harder to do certain poses like you’ve always done them, to move so swiftly through the forms as you did 10 years ago, or that you are actually feeling lazier than you used to. All that’s good to see and to work with, with a sense of kindness and curiosity within the context of breathing, and an integrated practice. A fundamental reason we practice is to bring deeper and subtler levels of awareness to the body, mind and emotions on a daily basis. A foundation of the practice—beyond the particular poses we might be practicing—is watching changes within these fields of experience, and catching oneself sooner when the mind is ‘being lazy,’ when we’re believing our presuppositions rather than observing what’s actually arising, when we’re trapped by samskaras or overrun by the obstacles that are constantly tossed in our path.” (http://ashtangayogaproject.com/check-this-out-is-aging-slowing-down-your-practice)
As I talk to Ashtangis about the practice--people who are growing older (all of us), people who have had injuries, people who have had to stop certain postures--I find that Ashtangis still find a way to practice. They may have changed the way they practice, they may modify or work around certain postures, but they haven’t lost their love of the sound of their breath as they move from pose to pose.
It is important, then, to find a teacher that can guide you. One who knows the practice from personal experience as well as from intense study. And it is important to avoid attachment to certain poses or to the practice. Injury can be made worse if you don’t listen to your body and try to force postures that cause pain. David Williams, who learned Ashtanga yoga in the early 1970’s from Pattabhi Jois and has been practicing daily ever since, believes your practice should be enjoyable and bring energy to your life. If it hurts, don’t do it. Be aware of the pitfalls of the ego. But also be open to the possibility that lies within the practice. The practice is full of unexpected gifts. Just show up. And practice.