Ashtanga Yoga & Getting Older: An Opportunity

Overcoming the common misconception Ashtanga Yoga is for the young!

How to use your practice as an opportunity for growth as you age through examining the six poisons that clothe our spiritual heart.

After a recent blog post a very lovely and dedicated student emailed asking about Yoga over 50.  As an avid runner, trekker and life adventurer he wondered about starting such a dynamic practice over 50. Well I am not over 50, so can’t speak from personal experience. However I have taught students of all ages and as I head close to 40 and through pregnancies, childbearing and family life, I understand some of the restrictions and physical difficulties that can be experienced as we age.

The days of being a 20 something whose body responds very quickly to efforts at asana are certainly history for me, and obviously for this student. If you think about it, all of the habitual holding patterns we are undoing through asana have been in place for quite some time! The way we walk, hold the body and move in our life (or don’t move as may be the case) will impact upon our experience of the asana practice as being challenging. Change will come slowly and will not come without regular effort and dedication.

It is important to here to mention ’talent’ in relation to ‘effort’. It is commonly thought that if we make the same effort as another person (especially at the same age) then we might see the same results. Indeed the praise given to Instagramming the latest posture you have achieved seems to imply that when it comes to yoga, asana is a meritocracy. It isn’t! There is a reason in elite sports there are ‘talent spotters’. Two people could apply the same effort and dedication to yoga asana and the results will be different. The implication and aggrandising of the physical posture on social media can be disheartening for those who struggle, and also for the older student who may not have had much ‘talent’ physically in the first place, and whose body through time has developed patterns that makes postures difficult. Anyhow that desrves a blog post unto itself!
So for those starting practice over 50, yes, in general I would agree that ‘progress’ through a set sequence could be slower and take a great deal of hard work than those who are younger, or even those who are older who have more natural ’talent’. Personally I think if this is you (and it kind of is me post family life) it is awesome! It may not feel awesome when you are working your butt off trying to bind in a posture that you know may take years to work out for you, however the good new is that very early in your practice you may experience some of the ‘poisons’ Guruji (Pattabhi Jois) would speak about.

The Six Poisons

The six poisons are thought to surround our spiritual heart. They are: desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy and sloth. It is thought that our own inner light or spiritual nature is clothed by these poisons. When we are free from them our inner light can shine bright and boundless. Indeed it was always clear to me that Guruji shone bright and beamed a ferocious love that engulfed us students each morning in the Mysore shala as he began the opening chant. For those starting practice  later in life delusion can hit pretty hard and it can be easy to become disenchanted with our practice, or even Ashtanga Yoga in general as we are not progressing physically. I think one of the reasons that this is the case is that there is a common mis conception outside of the Mysore shala in India that physical prowess is meaningful in some way. And yes it is true for many practicing in the west that there is a focus on acheiving or ‘getting’ postures.

An Opportunity

So what we may find when we come to the practice of Ashtanga as an older, sick, injured or post natal person is  an opportunity.  We get an opportunity pretty quickly to work with the six poisons and to actual practice yoga rather than just doing yoga postures. It is normal to feel deluded if what we desire from our practice is not met. It is an opportunity to reflect on WHY we actually practice. The delusion we experience is due to the expectations we have from the effort we put in. Generally we expect a particular outcome when we exert certain efforts, in all realms of our life. The problem with this equasion is that effort does not always equal the results we hope for! Whether that be in our studies, work or relationships. It could be easy to conclude then why bother making the effort? Well, there happens to be a whole yoga text dedicated to this question: the Bhagavad Gita. Essentially one of the tenets of the Gita is that freedom / spirituality / God / wisdom (insert your chosen word here) will only be found when we renounce or are not motivated by the fruits of our effort.
In more simplistic terms we might also be happier. If we live our life expecting other people to behave in set ways because of our efforts, or expecting certain emotional, financial or material rewards we are bound to be disappointed and therefore unhappy. Similarly if we approach our practice in the same way we are likely to experience the poison of delusion. Instead, when we practice we might begin to apply effort in our practice without attachment to the rewards. This can be undertaken through a focus on process and the journey of your practice each day rather than the outcome of our practice. Allow yourself to do this by delving deeply in the breath and drishti or gaze point in your practice. Together with asanas they form the foundations of Ashtanga Yoga. These elements of the practice work in conjunction with each other to cleanse and purify body and mind. Essentially what changes our practice from the physical to the spiritual is the way we work with the mind in our practice. Drishti serves not only as a gaze point for the eyes, but also gives our mind to have a drishti of sorts. In other words we begin to cultivate one pointed awareness and concentration on an object. As the poisons eventuate often in the form of thoughts eg; Delusion: ‘I am so over this I can’t do the postures anyway so why bother’ the practice of drishti means that rather than get carried away with this story and begin to focus on the fruits of our practcie physically we can return to the breath. As Guruji liked to say “Ashtanga Yoga method, mind control method”.

There are many benefits of Ashtanga Yoga at any age at any stage of health. It is a common misconception that you are too old, unfit, flexible or strong to practice Ashtanga Yoga. As Guruji liked to remind us, only lazy people can not learn this method. If you can breathe you can practice Ashtanga Yoga, and you are welcome in our Mysore room, and many, many other Mysore rooms throughout the world.
Her Old Bones Creaked

Her old bones creaked
And her pace was slow,
But her smile was blindingly bright.

Her mind was sharp
And her voice was kind,
Her manner was a true delight.

The world had changed
In the winters she’d known
But she bore their weight with pride.

She shared her wisdom
And passed the goodness on,
Using her love of life as her guide.

She did not bow to time, using life as her stage,
She sought each morning’s joy
And she was never defeated by age.

Jamie Samms


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