Can you be too old to start Ashtanga?

It could be because my birthday is on Monday, but I’m thinking about age lately.

(Warning: Possible downer post coming!)

I noted when going through the second Confluence schedule that once again one of the topics involves “how one’s practice changes over time in relation to the aging process.”

The Guru comes along when the student is ready

Because the “over time” of my practice is about three years, I’m not sure this applies to me especially well. Instead, what I’m wondering about is how beginning the practice in earnest is different or changes depending on how late in life you start.

Guruji included “old people” in his list of those who could practice Ashtanga, so it’s safe to say that there is no official barrier to beginning Ashtanga. But it surely affects the practice.

The most obvious issue, I suspect, is physical: by, let’s say, 40, your body might be tight and resistant to the heat and loosening of the muscles and tissues. (I, ahem, heard this from a friend.) For my “friend,” though, I am unsure that had he begun earlier he could have kept up with the practice. He didn’t have the mental discipline to stick with it given the physical challenge (i.e. a stiff body all along, but one that only got stiffer over time, probably).

For the young and bendy, though, that’s not a challenge. By the time they reach 40, perhaps they’ve been practicing for 15 or 20 years.

There are more “extreme” examples. David Swenson began practicing yoga at 13, and last week he turned 56. That’s 43 years of yoga, conveniently enough how long I’ve been around (this time). David’s been practicing yoga for 43 years (perhaps with some time off, I’m not sure, given his biography); I’ve been alive almost 43 and practicing, seriously, for three years. Our practices clearly are quite different.

The next obvious question is: Would I have a “better” practice (and a more flexible body and perhaps mind) had I started earlier? Well, taking my “friend” as a model, I doubt I would have stuck with yoga when I was 25. I was no where near touching my toes then, either, and apt to say “this yoga’s only for flexible people” before giving up. Fifteen years later, I had a better perspective on what the yoga was good for and why it was worth the challenge and, yes, hurt and hardship.

Would that perspective have been even better in another 15 years? Surely, though, at 55 starting yoga would have been a daunting physical challenge, perhaps too daunting.

In the end, I’m reminded of the saying, “The Guru appears when the student is ready.” Before 40, I wasn’t ready — even if perhaps the physical asana practice would have been easier — and therefore the Guru hadn’t appeared. When the will was strong enough, and the body not too much of a hurdle, it was time.

Which doesn’t mean I wish I couldn’t travel back in time and give my 25-year-old self a healthy kick in the asana.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

31 thoughts on “Can you be too old to start Ashtanga?”

  1. I’ve been thinking about exactly this topic lately. I turn 36 on Sunday, and although I’ve done yoga and pilates on and off for years, and I’m reasonably (say a little above average) bendy, I’ve only had a dedicated daily yoga practice for just over three months. Can I ever get to Advanced before I start going backwards again? Who knows. (And will I ever get to the point where the practice is all that matters and not ‘how far I get’ with it? Hah.)

    1. Paraphrasing Guruji’s famous quote: “Young man can do Yoga, Old man can do Yoga, Sick man can do Yoga….Only lazy man cannot do Yoga.” And since we are on the subject of David Swenson: i met him at Eddie Stern’s the day after Guruji passed on (Eddie held a puja that day). Eddie invited him to speak and recount some personal memories of Guruji. After the ceremony, i introduced myself and told David that he was partially responsible for my practice because i started practicing at home along with his Primary Series DVD and practice manual. “I am so sad i never got to meet Guruji personally; i wish i had started the practice much earlier.” i said. David smiled at me, put one hand on my shoulder and replied: “The practice finds you when you are ready.”
      It doesn’t matter how bendy and strong you are. There is no achieving anything: achieving means reaching some point in the future at which you’ll be satisfied with your “accomplishment”. Is that Santosha? Merely worrying about being too old to reach some advanced level of asana practice is disregarding the true meaning of Yoga: if you do, you are missing it altogether. Sharath just said it best at a recent conference: “What is the point of having a bendy body if you don’t practice the Yamas and Niyamas? (paraphrasing)” The poses themselves are empty: the energy you bring into the practice is what counts; regardless as to whether you are practicing Half Primary or 5th series. I started my practice at 42, i’m 47 now and i frankly don’t care if i never get to third or fourth series. To me, it means nothing.

  2. First, Happy Birthday, Steve! And, congrats on your third year of practice, too. Remember: you are very, very lucky to have found Ashtanga at 40 – or at any age, for that matter. In Yoga Mala, Guruji stated that old people were those “over 60” – and the very old, those over 90! So, you are young!

    One thing to consider – Kino talks at length and with great candor about her own struggles with developing strength in her practice, and she started “young.” We all have to work with what we are given, and honor the obstacles, the dark side, as much as the stuff that comes easily, I guess.

    Still, I do know how you feel, and have felt similar regretful, wistful thoughts many times in the past 15 years since I discovered the practice.

    The reality is, Ashtanga found me at the right time, and I suspect it does for all of us, right? While I sometimes wish that I started practicing decades ago, I conversely wonder what my life would be like now if I had found the practice in my teens or 20’s vs. at age 30. I do think my life would be very different: I would have become one of the Ashtangis who traveled to Mysore every year for a few months, perhaps. My intensive practice, living amongst other practitioners, and the need to be with Guruji would have changed me in such a way that I would NOT have married my husband, whom I love quite dearly after 22 years of marriage – but who is not and may never be an Ashtanga practitioner. That would have been a deal-breaker for me during my self-absorbed 20s, I suspect. Then, of course, without my husband, I would not have my three beloved children, so… get what I mean. This is the path, just keep going!

    Can I confess, though, my recent wishing and wistfulness surrounding my practice involves having daily access to a good Mysore teacher? In my lonely practice, I wonder “how far along in the series I might be??” if I had the opportunity to practice Mysore with a teacher who could work with me every day. I get this “woe is me, I’d be a better practitioner if I had a teacher” feeling – and then laugh about how ridiculous I’m being, how attached to an idea that is abstract, really. I stop feeling sorry for myself and keep practicing. This is my reality – to practice alone every day. So be it!

    So, I went down to Philly to see David Garrigues a few weeks ago (and loved every minute I spent in his welcoming, fun and funky shala – he is an amazing, passionate and inspiring teacher) and he said something that I took as a great compliment: “You have a good practice for someone who practices alone most of the time! Next time, though, come for more than an few days, and I will give you some strategies!”

    I can’t wait 🙂

    1. Hi Michelle.

      Thanks for the thoughtful post (one of many). You’re absolutely right — looking back, we can fantasize about a change but then need to realize what that change would have wrought.

      It’s timely you mention DG — Bobbie’s been watching his asana kitchens these past few days (getting ready for that little ol’ teacher training with Tim), and she’s really impressed. (That’s not a big surprise, but I think it is our first “deeper” look at him.) Lucky you are able to practice with him when you can.

      And, to take off from your thoughts on looking back, I suppose you could apply the same thoughts to having a teacher at the ready. Maybe it wouldn’t have made for a better practice. Maybe an errant adjustment would have caused an injury that derailed things. (I do note you say “good Mysore” teacher, which may mean that wouldn’t have happened, but you never know.) It sounds from the tone and content of all your posts that your practice is far “better” than most people I know.


      1. 🙂 Thanks, Steve!

        I was really happy to have found David, too, as Bobbie did, through his excellent Asana Kitchen series. In fact, he’s coming to my studio for a weekend workshop in less than a month…it’s just hit met that it’s something we’ve been planning for almost a year – and it’s just weeks away now. Wow!

        Workshops and trainings – like the one Bobbie will be doing with Tim – are always so inspiring, ultimately, even though the lead-up to them is sometimes fraught with anxiety and the experience can be mentaly and physically challenging, too. Afterwards, though, I always find myself saying, “What was I so nervous about?! That was great. I have to do it again next year!” LOL.

        (Good luck and have fun, Bobbie – lucky you! A training with Tim is definitely on my bucket list.)

  3. What an interesting discussion! I began practising in my early thirties, then practise became sporadic over the years of growing my young family. I have now had 3 years of solid daily practise, with a weekly trip to a shala in Sydney to work with my wonderful teacher who I began with 9 years ago.
    Can I bind in the Marachiyasanas? Not without help.
    Am I frustrated by lack of progress in the series given the 9 years invested? Only in the same way that I envy you your nicer home or car, or hair or whatever….do you see my point that my body (ALL of my koshas) has nothing to do with the body practising next to me.

    Our teacher had said to my husband many years ago that however long it had taken him to build muscle at the gym in his 20’s, was as long as it would take him to UNDO what he had done! So progress in his case is going back to move forward.

    I practise with a small group of people at my home, two of them are ex Olympic athletes. They are strong, however, the difference in our practise is that my nervous system is trained in a way that helps me stay solid in the poses, whereas they muscle in, the breath is hard and heavy and there is great strain in what they do.

    For me, therein lies the difference between excercise and yoga, and this is why at 42, I know I will keep practicing. I know the body is plastic, the mind is elastic, and there are many layers to get to know on the path towards those inner worlds.

    Will I ever get my leg behind my head? It doesn’t matter as long as I am a loving wife, mother and member of the community.
    To lose the ego and serve all.

    1. Right on, Sydney! Couldn’t agree more.

      (btw, my daughter is living in Sydney until December – I want her to try Ashtanga while she’s there; any recommendations?)

      1. Michelle, ask your daughter to look up Eileen Hall at Yogamoves in Paddington.

        If she cannot travel to the shala, ask this site’s moderators to pass on my email address and I will talk to her about other recommendations.

  4. I guess sometimes, if we think ourselves into it, we can all feel ‘too old’.

    For anyone younger than 50, who feels they may be ‘too old’, here’s where I’m at:

    I started an Ashtanga primary practice at 40, and I will turn 52 next birthday. The journey through primary was longer than for some of my younger friends and for the first 4 years, it really hurt at times (maybe through my own doing though). At 51, I sometimes wonder if I’m ‘too old’ to finish intermediate, but my mind pops back to when I was 40, wondering if I was ‘too old’ to finish primary, and I’m comforted by that reflection, and my faith in the Ashtanga practice.

    I’m not writing this to ‘beat my own chest’, but I know that there are a LOT of younger people on the same journey, so if it inspires one of them, then it’s job done.

  5. Just turned 50, and i have been practicing ashtanga for 6 years, most of my daily practice alone, but assisting to many workshops and finally last january in mysore. Just this days i was wondering what is the point of such an effort, bending in marichyasana, or in kurmasana, with my short arms! With my age! And i started to compare with all this jong people that are able to complete the series in a month! So thank you for this article and all the comments, i am awake again… Not feeling inferior or superior..we are all one…and the practice i guess is challeging for everyone in different levels.

  6. Really loving this discussion. And it comes home to me again and again that *my* yoga is about learning to hope for the yoga mind rather than the yoga body. I started ashtanga to calm my mind, but it’s so easy to be motivated and inspired by images, videos and personal physical progress. I guess it’s partly because physical progress is so much easier to measure and measuring stuff helps me keep going. I do notice other changes though – they are much slower but I occasionally realise ‘hey, 6 months ago I wouldn’t have reacted in that way in this situation’.

  7. One note of inspiration – a 50+-year old friend of mine was being taught Advanced A by David G. when I was visiting his shala a few weeks ago. She was really amazing. Never say never! Just say, not yet 🙂

  8. Just ran across this interesting discussion. Turned 59 this month. Always a couch potato. Practiced yoga, meaning I took some classes or bought a new book, on and off (mostly off) beginning in the ’70s, but it never stuck. Been a faithful Ashtangi for 3 years now. Will I get my foot behind my head? I think there’s an app for that! Or at least an adaptation. Each practice is better than the last.

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  10. Truly inspiring blog and commentaries. I started my ashtanga journey at age 39, and have been practicing 18 months now. I made my promise to keep on breathing until…. well until its “done” 🙂 All days are hard and some days are harder, but the realizing of the small changes and insights that comes are truly amazing and “out of this world”. Working on my jump backs with DG Asana Kitchen these days, and have the time to do the whole primary(on vacation :-). I sometimes think of what my practice will look like in 10 years…and the insights and equanimity it will bring me…..

  11. Awesome post and discussion! And a Happy Birthday, as well. I began at the seasoned age of 53, and continue to practice recovering from non-related injuries. If I can only use one arm, I’m still on my mat. I hope I will get further in the series, but then again, I’ll take whatever comes. If I were practicing to only “get” the next asana, then I’m truly missing the whole point! Regret that I didn’t begin sooner? I don’t allow myself to waste time like that anymore. My practice has taught me that precious gift, as well.

  12. Ashtanga found my mother at the age of 65. Now, four years later she has a daily (most of the time) practice and is still going strong. She’s recently started some asanas of Intermediate series. Of course she has some age related aches and pains and she has to modify a few things – but not more than other practitioners. She’s been with me to India to practice with Rolf Naujokat in Goa and in 2 weeks time she’ll attend Sharath’s workshop in Copenhagen.
    I believe very much in what many have written here above – that “the practice finds you when you are ready”. The importance is not how many or which asanas one you can do but rather the effect the practice has one one’s health – physical as well as mental. My mother looks 10 years younger today than she did when she started her practice and the practice has given her not only a strong body but also made her much stabler and resilient to stress.

  13. I’m glad to read Isabella’ s mum’s story. I was scared of admitting that I started at 64 and I’m now 68 because of hearing of people thinking they were getting on in years around their 40s and 50s. Anyhow, it’s been “The Secret” for me. I sometimes can’t believe how lucky I have been to find Astanga. The amazing people who turn up because of Ashtanga never cease to astound me. With Love to Everyone from Frank in Townsville, Australia.

  14. I just recently was introduced to The Confluence Countdown and stumbled upon this conversation. I am so glad I did! I am 53 and began my ashtanga practice about 6 months. I have often had the thought that maybe I started too old, but won’t ever think that again after reading the above comments. Already, this practice has done so much for my body, mind and soul. I am very grateful!

  15. I started my ashtanga journey at age 50. I was fairly fit from years of gym workouts and gym yoga but I’d heard about ashtanga and thought I’d give it a try. Now I’m 62 and still practicing with some issues along the way including hip replacement surgery. Anyone can practice!

  16. Just stumbled upon this thread after researching for my father. I think he would greatly benefit from a regular Ashtanga practice as he suffers from depression.

    Some lovely, inspirational comments here from older yogis – much respect to you all.

    I’ve been practicing yoga regularly for 2 years, but found Ashtanga 2 months ago and knew instantly that this was “my” practice. I’ve already noticed subtle, but amazing changes. I’m 31 and looking forward to many more years of practice, no matter whether I stay on primary or become the only person in the world practicing the mythical 6th series (the latter does seem somewhat unrealistic!).

    I can’t see why anyone, at any age, shouldn’t practice. There are modifications to suit all, and, as we all know, it’s the journey not the destination.

  17. Started at 47. Now 57 & preparing for my fourth visit to Mysore. Never think about my age, unless I come across a blog post that needs a testimonial. So there you go.

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