Wednesday, 8 January 2014

An email about age - "when and how ashtanga yoga practise needs to be modified?"

Krishnamacharya aged 50

Having a blog I occasionally receive mail asking advice, suggestions, this one I thought deserved a blog post all of it's own if only because I know I have many readers practising in their 40s and 50s (some with strong views on the subject) and perhaps some of you may like to share your own experience in the comments section.

*

I did ask if it was OK to share the email on the blog but and the writer was more than happy but I forgot to ask if they wanted to remain anonymous, so lets just say the email is from T.

"First of all thanks for sharing so much about your practice in your blog. It really inspires me for my practise! 
I have topic, where I could not find answer or advice in any other place.

It is about ashtanga and age. I'm 47 yeas old now, I started regular practice 6 months ago. My progress is steady and I'm happy about it. However I'm aware that at some point I will have to adjust my practise to my physical abilities and limitations coming with the age.  Maybe I worry to early? Maybe, but I can't see in shala in Warsaw (Poland) any older, I mean 50+ practitioners :-) 

I think 50+ is age when ageing effect starts and your body stops liking such a intensive practice like regular ashtanga. I was hoping that 2-3 years of ashtanga will give me solid foundation before I can make conscious choice regarding my future practice. More pranayama? More meditation? Selected routines from Vinyasa Krama?

So the questions coming to my mind are like:
- until which age ashtanga provides best benefits for your body?
- when and how ashtanga yoga practise needs to be modified?
- is Vinyasa Krama more suitable for 50+ yogis?

 I was hoping You can share your experiences about it". 
T


*


My own view on this is that I started Ashtanga at 43, unfit and overweight as many of you know. I worked hard at it, perhaps a little too hard given the condition I was in when I started but was lucky enough to avoid injury. I ended up practicing Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A and Advanced B, although the latter not really regularly enough to lay claim to it. Still most of the postures became possible.

So yes, Ashtanga is doable in your late 40s. I'm 50 now, the same age as Krishnamacharya in the old Black and White movie.

That said while you can practice a hard, fast paced Ashtanga into our 50's and beyond we don't have to practice it that way.

I've tried to show on this blog that there are many ways to approach your Ashtanga, it doesn't have to be as fixed as it often seems. or how it gets mischaracterised in the media or misrepresented in some of the 'look at me' or promotional videos.
  • We can add more preparatory postures, something in line with both Pattabhi Jois' and Krishnamacharya's teaching
  • We don't have to practice it at such a hard, faced pace as we often see it presented. We can slow down the breath, lengthen it, this too is very much in keeping with the 'original' teaching.
  • We don't have to practice the full sequence, just the sury's and the finishing sequence or the last three postures is fine, or up to navasana say, and then on to finishing. Yep, in line with original teaching.
Manju mentioned his practice is part of Primary, part of Intermediate and a couple of changing postures from Advanced series.

Many of the senior teachers who have been practicing for 40 years or so and are now in their 50s/ even 60s do something similar I think,
  • We can cut out some of the transitions in between the postures, we did that anyway with the switch from full to half vinyasa, we can cut out the transitions between sides, or even between groups of postures.
  • We can make more time for a little pranayama and meditation again all in keeping with what appears to be the original presentation of the practice
Practiced like this the line between Vinyasa Krama and Ashtanga seems to blur.
  • And no, we don't have to fully bind Marichiyasana D say or have the full expression of every posture before we move on, we may never bind Mari D - as Manju Jois said, keep working on the posture, on deepening it, opening up in it so as to breathe more... we don't drop it necessarily but don't have to fully bind it with our hands either before moving on to the next posture.
So can we practice Ashtanga into our 50's and beyond, of course although we may wish to bring out other aspects of the practice.

Personally I don't think you need to wait until your 40's to modify your Ashtanga practice, actually I don't really like the word 'modify' here, I prefer 'focus on or bring out other aspects of the practice'.

It would be just as appropriate to take a slower approach ( a long, slow, full breath 'like the pouring of oil' ) to Ashtanga in your 20s as in your 40s or 50s

Like you I was very aware of my age thought I needed to get through the different series while still just about young enough, figured if I could reach Advanced by the time I was 50 I could then slow down a bit....there really was no rush. Primary is just as important as advanced series or Intermediate for that matter, it probably is all we ever need ( with the clarification that we may want to bring in other preparatory postures or do variations of some of those in the series).

My own practice as you have seen is a slower approach to Ashtanga, I really donut tend to see a distinction between my Vinyasa Krama and Ashtanga practice now. After a long time focussing on a Krishnamacharya approach to primary I'm currently working on the same with regards to intermediate series. once I have my 2nd series back I'll probably practice along similar lines as Manju above, in the morning  part primary, part 2nd series and a little of 3rd thrown in for luck followed by pranayama and chanting. In the evening a couple of changing vinyasa krama subroutines but with more focus on pranayama and meditation.

Hope that helps, I hope others have something to add on this.

UPDATE

Adding this comment to the body of the text because of the links.


Anthony, your friend from Poland might be interested to read the accounts of two of my regular students - Kathleen, age 63, and Leon, age 73.

http://www.florenceyoga.com/3/post/2014/01/kathleen-casey.html
http://www.florenceyoga.com/3/post/2013/10/leon-shatkin.html

Both started with me about three years ago as brand new students. Leon tends towards my led classes, Kathleen started there, but now is a Mysore student. Both are very consistent practitioners, at least 3-4 times a week in the shala, and also at home. Both approach the practice with dedication and courage…and they are truly inspiring. I can attest to the fact that they have gotten stronger, more flexible and more vital in the past three years. You can see the physical differences with your eyes! But, more importantly, they both attest to the fact that they just feel better doing Ashtanga yoga. Is their practice intense? No - but Leon does Full Primary with me twice a week, and he rocks it. Kathleen, a cancer survivor, is coming back slowly and mindfully to her previous practice - and because of her increased awareness, I can see that she is a much more integrated, intelligent practitioner. She attests to the practice helping her become healthy once more.

Will either of these students do advanced practice, A or B? No, but it doesn't matter. Primary (and some of the intro postures from second) has helped them so much. Made them younger and more vital in their bodies and minds.

I have had the same experience, as I started at 30 feeling like crap, outta shape from having three babies, and two bad miscarriages. I'm 47, and feeling like I'm in my late 20's. It's been a long road, but I now am starting Advanced A, so, never say never! Just say, "Not yet!" I could add more, but I have to go teach now :)



Update

Nice fb post from Ramaswami this weekend

About 25 years back this young man learnt a few asanas. He has been practising them regularly especially sarvangasana. I meet him almost every time I come to Madras/Chennai. I talked to him a few days back during my present visit. “I am still doing many of the asanas-- especially sarvangasana alone for 10 minutes everyday. I feel good about this sarvangasana. Can I continue to do that” he asked, “I have just turned 90” he said.

17 comments:

  1. I totally subscribe to your thoughts Anthony!!!

    I would add that the changes we bring (or not bring) to the practice we have must come from an internal enquiry, for example
    - what prompts my desire to stick to the generally accepted form of ashtanga vinyasa
    - what is making me think I should move toward something more flexible, krama (which I would also personally define as the real traditional approach)

    The answers may even be found in some of the kleshas... asmita? raga? abhinivesha? dvesha?

    But if the thought and stimulus for change is not moved by avidya then we may as well change, for the better, showing some viveka :-)

    Along the lines of sticking to something which may not be appropriate for us, pushed by a subconscious feeling for ascesis, Matthew Remsky is enquiring on potential motives for yoga injuries.
    ".... I want to know what people are feeling and thinking when they practice something repeatedly that they’ve been told is beneficial, yet may suspect or even directly feel to be injurious, but continue with anyway. Is it a question of faith? Have they been burdened with the vestiges of a paradigm that blends the sensation of pain with the promise of virtue? I want to know how we might be unconsciously encouraged to express love for the body by testing it to the point of hurting it...."

    Thought provoking, interesting perhaps even related to the origins of hatha yoga, may be worth a read if you can get through his trademark long-winded style, http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/tag/yoga-therapy/

    ReplyDelete
  2. I read this with great interest, because I think I am 'old' too. Good question, and a good answer from Mr G.

    I would like to add two things that might help:
    i) You didn't say whether you're working regularly, and closely with a teacher. That helps enormously if it is at all possible for you.
    ii) Tony mentions Vinyasa Krama a lot, and knows a lot about it (I only know bits and pieces). Anyway, if you are practicing at home, and benefit from media and books, another great source is MATTHEW SWEENEY who has two fantastic dvd's, which are widely available ("Chandra Moon Sequence" and more recently "Vinyasa Unlocked"). They are packed with helpful and incredibly well researched advice on many aspects of the physical aging process and it's relationship to asana (and a lot more besides). Most people know that Matthew was a long term student of Guruji before Guruji passed away, and has a blindingly impressive historical profile. Personally, I feel safe taking his advice.

    I hope these help you, or any other readers because they really help me a lot. Oh, and whatever you do, don't go and watch the movie "Benjamin Button" if you want to stay young.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Above, I just realized that I only half answered the question "when and how should the Ashtanga practice be modified?) i.e. pointed at some good sources for "how".

      With respect to when, I reckon it should be modified when it needs to be (only you and, hopefully, your teacher know that. But finally, when I've modified, I've found that I've needed to remember to make a conscious effort not to make a modification become a "bad habit" i.e. keep the correct expression of the posture, in sight as your ultimate goal (or, eventually take out the little sub-routine that you're doing to strengthen or open, if that's how you're working it).

      Hope this helped.

      Delete
    2. Love this add-on to your previous comment Steve. There's something I've never been quite able to put my finger on re Ashtanga. It seems to be the fixed sequence that turns it into a discipline, tapas. It's not that Ashtanga is necessarily 'better' than any other practice but there is something extra that seems to come from this aspect of practice. It's challenging but somehow it needs to be, that's the commitment to practice, the discipline. I can practice Vinyasa Krama and it's a nice gentle practice (mostly), I still have to get on the mat, there are rituals but it's not the same as that commitment to an Ashtanga practice, there's something special there. So when we modify we don't want to lose that aspect. Manju said yes, modify Mari D say, and move on but you still keep working at the posture you don't drop the challenging ones altogether. Same with the extra sub routine, it's temporary. Somewhere I learned along the way not to undermine the structure of the series too much. So modify only in a couple of place or bring in extra postures but not too many and not in too many places and if you drop a posture one day then you drop something different the following day.... and on Friday you always do the series by the book as much as possible. This doesn't really fit into a comment, need another post on this.

      Delete
  3. Anthony, your friend from Poland might be interested to read the accounts of two of my regular students - Kathleen, age 63, and Leon, age 73.

    http://www.florenceyoga.com/3/post/2014/01/kathleen-casey.html
    http://www.florenceyoga.com/3/post/2013/10/leon-shatkin.html

    Both started with me about three years ago as brand new students. Leon tends towards my led classes, Kathleen started there, but now is a Mysore student. Both are very consistent practitioners, at least 3-4 times a week in the shala, and also at home. Both approach the practice with dedication and courage…and they are truly inspiring. I can attest to the fact that they have gotten stronger, more flexible and more vital in the past three years. You can see the physical differences with your eyes! But, more importantly, they both attest to the fact that they just feel better doing Ashtanga yoga. Is their practice intense? No - but Leon does Full Primary with me twice a week, and he rocks it. Kathleen, a cancer survivor, is coming back slowly and mindfully to her previous practice - and because of her increased awareness, I can see that she is a much more integrated, intelligent practitioner. She attests to the practice helping her become healthy once more.

    Will either of these students do advanced practice, A or B? No, but it doesn't matter. Primary (and some of the intro postures from second) has helped them so much. Made them younger and more vital in their bodies and minds.

    I have had the same experience, as I started at 30 feeling like crap, outta shape from having three babies, and two bad miscarriages. I'm 47, and feeling like I'm in my late 20's. It's been a long road, but I now am starting Advanced A, so, never say never! Just say, "Not yet!" I could add more, but I have to go teach now :)


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Loved this michelle, thank you so much for sharing it, I've added it to the main body of the post so I can hyperlink.
      One of the things I've tried to stress in this blog over the last couple of years is that Advanced practice isn't necessarily Advanced series but the approach you take to your Primary and perhaps 2nd or part of 2nd.

      Delete
  4. I started Ashtanga at age 46. I was in fairly good shape but certainly not naturally flexible. Approaching 54 I'm still seeing progress in poses. I'm gaining in strength, control and flexibility.

    Having said that, I've had a number of set-backs. I think when you start later there is more in your body that has to be 'undone'. I commented earlier that whilst Krishnamacharia writes that Pashimottanasana (full forward fold) can be achieved in eight days it took me more or less eight years. Along the way I've had episodes of SI joint instability and piriformis syndrome that have meant that I've had to leave off or significantly modify my practice. Having a mostly home-based practice and a teacher who never believed in the sanctity of the Ashtanga series has been a blessing there.

    Hopefully one of the advantages of age is that you are wise enough to know the difference between leaving out a pose because doing it today is not right for your body and leaving it out because you are being lazy.

    (Tony: I'm attempting to comment from my Wordpress profile today because I've started a new blog over there for my imminent Thailand trip.)

    ReplyDelete
  5. In general, injuries take longer to heal as you get older. Therefore you should be more careful and less aggressive than say people in their 20's can get away with.

    With regards to only needing primary series - I would be interested to know what people consider to be the core yoga poses of most importance. Personally, for someone who has had a weak back in the past from too much sitting, I consider the back bends of the second series to be very useful. Whereas some of the primary series moves are perhaps not essential (especially the one where you roll around in lotus).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't see the rolling around in lotus thing as essential as a pose in itself. I do think it is important in primary series though. Up to that point primary has pretty much been a relentless series of forward bends. You have just done the Kurmasana poses, which place a hell of a strain on the fascia of the lower back. By the time I get to it, the massage that rolling around like that is exactly what my back is crying out for.

      I think we know from Grimmly;s work on this blog which poses Krishnamacharya considered appropriate: and it's interesting to note that most of them come not in any of the series themselves, but in the closing sequence. In fact it might be possible to argue that each of the series is only there to improve your ability to perform the closing sequence.

      Delete
    2. Interesting comment on the finishing sequence - personally it's my favourite bit, as well as some of the standing sequence. The actual series to me is sometimes a bit tedious to be honest - there is a lot of repetition of what is essentially the same posture with small variations, and as above, and as per Sweeney, this involves a lot of forward bends.

      Interesting too that in Mysore, except on Friday, the finishing sequence is not actually supervised - it's done in the changing room. Same situation at Hamish's place in London. So the two asana which the authorities say are most important - shoulder stand and headstand - are not really taught. Bit weird and possibly dangerous given the possibility of injury in these postures.

      Delete
    3. Mike, thanks for replying. I understand that the shoulderstand/headstand are considered as the most important yogic asana (plus padmasana), but I was thinking more about keeping the body strong and flexible (depends what you want I suppose), so for me balancing out the forward bends with backbends and sideways bends/twists is important - I guess I do a hybrid primary-secondary series. The finishing sequence is almost a stand alone practice - I do that separately in the evening sometimes rather than rushing in the morning.

      Delete
  6. I absolutely agree with a modified practice as we get older. I started a Mysore practice at 53 (I'm 54 now). I am a certified Hatha yoga instructor but had been away from yoga for at least 10 years. Although I was already proficient in many of the asanas and am naturally flexible, I found that I could no longer practice in the same way I did when I was in my 20's and 30's. My body is now more prone to little injuries, and my endurance and strength are not what they used to be. I need to modify and leave out some chaturangas and half vinyasas and I also cannot practice for more than two days in a row without aggravating an elbow injury. Also, due to foot surgery a year ago, I can no longer jump back to chaturanga. It's just not gonna happen!
    Although the physical practice may need some modifications, the pranayama and meditative aspects can go deeper and deeper. By practicing with these guidelines I hope to continue into my 80's, 90's, and beyond!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have a daily ashtaga practice - primary thru advanced A ...am 70+ and still feel strong and very able to be consistent with energy and devotion to the yoga love of my life.

      Delete
  7. "Anonymous" ^ It's a shame you chose to post anonymously because what you say here sits so far outside of the average, that it just doesn't seem true, or reachable. (As we all know, people entertain themselves somehow by "trolling" online.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. http://www.ashtanga.com/html/gwendoline.html

      Delete
  8. Guys, am I missing something here?
    Anonymous Number 2/3 blaming Anonymous Number 1/2 for posting anonimously!?
    Seriously????

    ReplyDelete
  9. Oh wow, Grim, that page about Gwendoline is so lovely and wonderful, thanks so much for that!

    ReplyDelete

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A Reminder

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included.

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta
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