Is Your Yoga Right for You?
Jared A. Hirsch

The Age Model

The idea that all people should do the same poses, the same way, all of the time is a popular belief in yoga. A common misconception, this homogenized clustering of individuals without regard to what a person brings to their practice—beyond physical capability—is deeply problematic. Yoga is a personalized process and considers the individual as a whole. Traditionally many aspects of an individual are considered before a practice is given. It is a living principle that has flourished in yoga teachings for millennia. Evidence dating back to the time of Nathamuni, a 9th century yogi linked to modern day predecessor T. Krishnamacharya, suggests yoga be carefully adapted to the various stages of our life cycle. This model for understanding how to appropriate practice, based on age, is classically illustrated by the three phases of the sun. Like human beings, the sun exhibits different levels of energy depending on its stage in a complete cycle. The ancients gave us the wisdom to fortify practice based on this inherent knowledge.

As we age...the teachings suggest yoga change with us. Now the postures become less about form and more about function.

The Sunrise Stage:

The first stage of development is called Sṛṣṭi Krama. The word sṛṣṭi means “growth” and krama, in this context, means “stage.” It is applied roughly to the first 25 years of life. The Sunrise Stage considers all aspects of an individual’s development and suggests unique ways of approaching practice to meet this formative aspect of life. Sṛṣṭi Krama is designed to support balanced growth of the physical structure and strengthening of the immune system and vital organs. This stage also focuses on the development of a young person’s mind, using practice to support memory and attention. Beyond developing the physical body, physiology, and intellect, Sṛṣṭi Krama focuses on controlling the senses, instilling core values, and developing character. Like the rising sun, we are moving into greater vitality at this stage of life, and ultimately preparing for another stage in the sequence of time.

In Sṛṣṭi Krama the focus is strong āsana, or “posture.” Keeping in mind this stage is primarily focused on the development of young people, the practice methods are matched to facilitate the natural tendencies in this cycle of life. That said, you might be surprised to learn you have done a practice to support the growth stage, regardless of how old you are. It is a popular notion to use yoga exclusively as exercise, however this neglects to acknowledge its greater value. When we are young this application is more useful. Generally, children are very active, restless, and impatient with following the breath. They would rather be more attentive on their body movements. In light of this, they need to be taught in a special way. The tradition uses a method known as vinyāsa to meet these needs. Perhaps you have heard this term to mean “flow.” Frankly, vinyāsa is much more than “flow.” To fully understand the meaning of the word, it can be dissected into two parts. The prefix “vi” means “appropriate” or “intelligent,” and “nyasa” means “placement.” It is more accurately understood as “intelligent placement.” Here it refers to a specialized method in organizing postures and sequencing. Vinyāsa can involve proprioceptive skills such as jumping, focal techniques such as external gazing, or numerically based movement learning. While the utilization of the term vinyāsa opens itself to a much broader understanding, for our purposes it is used to capture the structure of how postures are executed.

Much of the public’s association to yoga today is influenced by modern fitness culture. If you have been to any yoga class in the past 20 years, it is likely you have experienced this orientation to practice. Understanding where this comes from gives insightful context to the roots of this physically demanding method of practice. What has been appropriated by westerners in the 21st century, once maintained a more purposeful role in an evolution of a human life. It was not merely a fitness based endeavor, but a step on a path to higher self-knowledge. While Krishnamachrya did not invent vinyāsa, he is responsible for popularizing it through one of his main disciples, a young Brahmin boy named Pattabhi Jois. It is interesting to see that Pattabhi took what he learned from his teacher, a practice that was in fact given to him as a young boy, and began teaching it to all types of people, regardless of body type, age, or constitution. What may be beneficial for an active, healthy 20 something may not be so for an anxious middle-aged person recovering from a low back injury, just because a charismatic teacher is telling you it is. The standardization in the popular brands of yoga today are primarily designed for Sṛṣṭi Krama. Classically this type of practice is suggested in the sunrise stage, but today it is common to find it being taught to a vast range of individuals and capabilities.

The Midday Stage:

The next stage of life is called Sthiti Krama. This correlates to the midday sun. The word sthiti means “balance” or “stabilize.” This stage covers roughly the years between 25 and 70. As we enter the midday stage of life we take on many new roles. We are busy with the responsibilities and challenges of family life: raising children, working, managing a household and finances, and caring for aging parents. Yoga acknowledges this and offers us tools to adapt our practice to the changing needs of our lifestyle. This is also described as “householder” yoga or grḥasta in Sanskrit. The classic method of practice in the midday stage is called rakṣana. The word rakṣana means “protection” or “sustenance.” Our previous life stage focused on developing. We used postures to strengthen our bodies, become acquainted with our breath, and developed attention. Now we are invested in creating a baseline function, so we are able to fulfill our responsibilities. In Sthiti Krama the emphasis is to create stability on all levels.

When we are young and supple, it is suggested we continue to develop those aspects of ourselves, by utilizing vinyāsa and strong āsana. This is a time when our bodies are more resilient and able to recover from illness and injury with less concern. As we age, this naturally changes, and the teachings suggest yoga change with us. Now the postures become less about form and more about function. The primary tool in Sthiti Krama is prāṇāyāma or specialized breathing techniques. Postures are still important but used with a different intention than in the sunrise stage. In Sthiti Krama the postures are used to facilitate the deeper work of the breath. For many of us in the midday stage, the fixation on bodily perfection continues to overshadow the real power of the work, which is actualized through functional movement patterns fused with conscious breathwork.

The Sunset Stage:

The word Laya means “to merge,” as in to merge back to our original source. Laya Krama covers around 70 to the end of life. It considers the elderly and is focused on turning away from the external world. The depth of this stage offers a great devotion to interiorizing our attention and becoming less involved with attachment. When we are young we do strong postures, we are focused on developing ourselves in preparation of what is to come. As we enter the midday stage our responsibilities with life become more complex. It requires a lot of energy to be a parent, manage a career, and take care of aging parents, etc. The breath becomes an important tool in this process. Working with the breath in a more isolated attentive fashion harnesses what is called Prāṇa Śakti or “vital energy.”  We need this energy to assist in the maintenance of our bodies and minds. This also begins the process of becoming more internal. In the final stage of a human life cycle, the focus of practice turns to meditation and prayer. Postures and breathing are still utilized, but as we observed in Sthiti Krama, the intention of how you use them shifts. In Laya Krama the tools of āsana and prāṇāyāma are used to facilitate the depth of ritual, meditation, and prayer.

I acknowledge many of these terms are practically unheard of and we are making some generalizations with the presentation of this model, but the architecture of this framework provides a more meaningful context for how individuals can practice at any stage of life and truly thrive. When you consider approaching yoga from this perspective, it becomes purposeful, safer and efficient. The related methodology of practice had always been adapted to map the natural development of the human system and considered varying factors that may influence an individual’s wellbeing. Teaching a yoga designed for a young person may actually be considerably harmful for a householder. And teaching a yoga designed for a householder may be particularly ineffective to a young person. That said, a lot of what people have grown accustomed to today is far outside the poetic illustration of the rising and setting sun. The intention of showing up to a class for a challenging workout is still a predominately favored acquisition. It’s one thing to show up to engage in physical exercise. It is a more difficult process to observe where you are and work in accordance to the reality of your life’s conditions. In doing this we empower ourselves and honor the reality of where we are, not where we think we should be.