Ashtanga as a Woman Ages

“We’re the groundbreakers,” said Nancy Gilgoff at the last Ashtanga Yoga Confluence, “The first women to practice into our 50s and 60s.”

As yoga in America reaches new peaks of popularity (figures vary, depending on how you calculate it—but I think we can conservatively say it’s in the multi-millions of dollars), the vanguard of Western practioners of the specialty form of yoga that is Ashtanga are aging.

And only a small percentage of them are women—the ones who went to India, learned from Guruji, brought it back, and taught others to teach.

Tim Miller and Bobbie
Tim Miller and Bobbie

If you wander into any given Mysore room in the West, the vast majority of practitioners are also women. So as those Senior Western teachers age, they are discovering how to evolve and grow the practice, how to integrate it into our changing lives as we grow older. My teacher Tim Miller goes before me, and shares his wisdom about age and the practice in an open and honest way, and I feel much gratitude for that. But he is a man.

There are a list of factors that women deal with in Ashtanga that men also deal with, but the dynamic quality of a woman’s body–how frequently and rapidly it changes–highlights these elements, and makes it ever more important that women teach in a way that anticipates and incorporates change. Add to this that there is a long list of factors that only women address as they age.

The menstrual cycle changes as a woman ages. It changes even more with childbirth, during her youth. And more post-childbirth as she ages. These changes are systemic, resulting in repercussions for the whole body: metabolism, bone structure, weight, cardio-vascular performance. As she transitions out of the menstrual cycle, into menopause, all these things change again, in a process that takes years to complete, and the process varies widely. If the woman is childless, different again. And childless by choice—like myself—is different from a woman with fertility issues that had to seek medical help to have children. The number of children also changes the dynamics of her relationship to her body. Years on birth control—also a factor. All these variables mean women’s health is very complex to study, and why we know so little about it in spite of being a little over half the population.

What role does the practice have in this process? I think we can agree that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a very unique form of movement, addressing the mind-body connection in a very rigorous way. Yet there are no Ashtanga studies devoted to women’s health as we age. We only have the teachings of the women who came before us. The anecdotal evidence that amounts to inspiration to continue the practice into the unknown. Anecdotes are all we have.

When I was 28, I was diagnosed with an advanced form of degeneration in my spine—something that is probably genetic, since my mother suffered from severe back pain her whole life. As time passed, the degeneration continued in my whole spine, into the joints of my shoulders, hips, and knees. Conventional wisdom—and many doctors and physical therapists—told me it would never stop, never get better. And when I was 35, my doctor told me I was also losing bone at a rapid rate.

Ashtanga helped me deal with this news in ways I can barely describe. Because I’d been practicing, I’d started the dietary changes that often accompany the practice. When I heard I was losing bone, I changed my diet radically. That helped me improve the practice. Which in turn helped me change my diet more. Which in turn helped me on the road to optimal health.

I’ve been practicing Ashtanga exclusively for 13 years now. When I come in for my annual check ups, my doctor shakes her head. Back pain is in control (but I should note the degeneration continues). Bone loss arrested. Plus there are the other benefits diet and this form of yoga brings—healthy body composition, healthy blood, healthy lung capacity, a strong heart. For me, the greatest benefit is control of the pain. “I’ll never forget,” she told me this last visit, “the day you came in and showed me how you fix your own sacrum when it slips.”  That was eight years ago. It’s the bodily awareness that also accompanies Ashtanga. As I age, that awareness has freed me to focus on things more important than the body.

Now, I’m approaching 50. I’m through perimenopause; I’m way down the road of menopause, and all seems to be going smoothly. I look to those teachers for inspiration. It’s helped, I think, that I started the practice later, and from a very broken place—although that seems like a very odd thing to say–but every pose seems like a miracle to me. I realize how important it is to make sure other women know this is possible, that the seat of the self is still there, at the heart of the practice, calm and unchanging, even while the practice itself is in a constant state of change.

Posted by Bobbie

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theconfluencecountdown

Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

27 thoughts on “Ashtanga as a Woman Ages”

  1. Hi Bobbie, I loved ready this – so much. I wrote to yourself & Steve recently about injuring my lower back (I’d love to know how to fix my own sacrum!)… You write with great sensitivity…. I started ashtanga last September & am hooked…. It’s hard to explain really… I’m 43 & am very curious about your diet…. I too am losing bone mass… I’ve changed much about my diet since I began…. What do you recommend I do re the bone mass loss? Kind regards & thank you, Tracy

    1. Hi Tracy. Thanks so much.

      Well, I can only speak for myself–anecdotally! My doctor was, she admits, desperate about the bone loss. I’d tried supplements, calcium in a lot of forms. My blood was so acidic it was taking calcium from my bones. So she suggested I try a raw diet for two weeks. There’s lots on this blog about the raw diet. But that’s the thing that did it. I gave up dairy, wheat. I don’t take any calcium supplements. I just didn’t absorb it.

      The sacrum adjustment: On the back, knees bent, feet flat. Lift the hips, lower the sacrum onto a rolled up wash cloth. Place a yoga brick between the knees and squeeze as you bring the knees up to the chest, up and down until it slips back.

      Although I don’t need that one anymore. It always slips back in samakonasana, which Tim teaches as a series with hanumanasana after the prasaritas.

      Bobbie

      1. Thank you for replying Bobbie…. Sacrum exercise – magic.
        Wonderful observations by all who have commented. I am really appreciative of how people share – how yoga shares. Thanks everyone.

  2. Great post. Bobbie I would love to know how you fix your sacrum when it slips. I seem to be dealing with that a lot lately. thanks!

    1. I don’t know Bobbie or how she fixes her sacrum moving, but in my own case, though this doesn’t happen very often anymore, a longish hold Supta Vajrasana would usually do the trick. I’d strap my knees and put abut 20/30 pounds on my lap, get into the pose. Once my body relaxed my sacrum would just click right back into place. Felt great.

      1. thank you! and thanks ladies for sharing so much. I’m new to ashtanga at 51 and it’s a real slow go being patient with my practice. Your insights are so helpful!

  3. Thank you for this post Bobbie! I’ll be 50 in two months and am dealing with all the changes as they come—I may tire more easily now that I’m in perimenopause but my mental stamina has increased tenfold from when I started practicing seven years ago. Like you I started late and a little bit broken (nothing compared to what you have on your plate). I feel like this practice is a lifeline thrown to me from my future self, somedays I practice just for the 70 year old lady I will someday be. Don’t want to let her down 😉

    I wish we had more information but we are lucky to have role models like Nancy. Dena is our age so she is learning as we do. Other traditions have had women practicing into old age as well.

  4. I’m so glad someone else sees that we are charting new territory. I began Ashtanga almost 4 years ago…in my 60;s. It’s an amazing process of observation and discovery. I’m also very secretive about my exact age for reasons I discuss in a blog….that almost no one sees. (It just feels good to do it….like Ashtanga without expecting rewards.)

    I have lots of thoughts on the issue of “progress” and injuries and few conclusions which may be as it should be.

    Thank you for posting.

    Namaste!

  5. I asked Nancy about menopause this summer when I saw her….specifically, how does one “deal” with it (I’m 47 and have yet to hit perimenopause. But, it’s looming there, ahead of me!)

    Her answer was this (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have my notes right now):

    “Woman have three times in their lives where their bodies can completely renew themselves: at the start of menses, during and right after pregnancy, and at menopause. Each of these periods of great change hormonally and physically is an opportunity for growth and positive change – not to be considered as a loss or diminishment but an opportunity for renewal.”

    That gives me hope and enthusiasm for the upcoming transitions my body will undergo.

    She also said, “I feel I am getting stronger and healthier every year, even though I am aging. I have yet to see a diminishment – and this is due to my daily Ashtanga practice.”

    I concur with her on that final point. I am stronger, healthier, happier (and perhaps a bit wiser) at 47 than at 30, when I started the practice.

    Just keep going!

  6. Lovely post Bobbie. I read somewhere recently (sorry…where exactly is a blank) a buddhist master quoted as saying the reason he practices is so he can enjoy his old age. It is very reassuring knowing the practice will always be there through whatever changes are ahead. I’m at the point where I can see being an empty nester not too far down the road, but far from dwelling on it a an ending, I see new possibilites and new life. I was turning 44 when I started practicing 2 years ago. Sound like a lot of people find the practice around this time.

  7. Great article and great comments! Michelle I feel like those words of Nancy’s are the most profound I have yet to hear!! I am 50, and have been practicing for about 6 years….I feel stronger, clearer more focused than I have ever in my life! I recently was diagnosed with (age appropriate) cervical spine disintegration. No problem! I have just added a lot of cushions to salambasarvangasana (sorry spelling) or just lie in L shape….I dont feel the whole stress about loosing an asana at this age!!!! And for sirsasana I use John Scott’s “first floor” (He places a cloth under the head supported by the lower arms and then twisted around wrists) This alleviates compressing in the neck and dumping into the shoulders! I call it MY yoga!!

  8. Thank you for a great article. I am now 56 and have been practising ashtanga for 7 years (after about fifteen years of dipping into most incarnations of yoga, randomly). I have never felt better or stronger and am loving living in my post menopausal body. Looking forward to practising ashtanga for the rest of my life.

  9. I totally agree with Nancy. She made these same observations at the last Confluence. Someone also asked about what age each of the Senior Teachers felt they’d reached their peak in the practice, and they all had an age except Nancy, who said she felt stronger than she did when she started. I wonder if it’s because she was weak and ill when she started. I feel I get stronger every year. It’s a remarkable process. The practice will help us all face what’s to come!

  10. I started practicing consistently 5 months ago. I have problems with a bulging disk and sciatia. I still practice but I have serious pain on my left knee and leg. I am currently getting acupuncture, massages and chiropractic work but I still have the nerve pain. Any suggestions?

  11. I recall that panel from the Confluence, too, and was so exhilarated when Nancy said that (she is my teacher). I do agree it is most likely because she was weak and ill when she started, and she found the nature of healing in the practice from the very beginning, using it as such, instead of the “break your backs” way of approaching the practice for some.

    I was weak when started, too, at 30, and not only do I feel like I get stronger every year, I also feel younger every year, too. I once read a card on a kiosk that said, “How old would you be if your heart had to tell your age.” My age: 27!

  12. Bobbie, thank you for this wonderful post. While I haven’t be a consistent ashtanga practitioner — there are no ashtanga classes where I live — I have taken two workshops with Tim Miller. They were mind-blowing. He is so much the real deal. And funny. And devoted.

    I am 60, have a fused right ankle and on Nov. 5, will be one year post back surgery to fuse three vertebrae in my low back. My surgeon was pleased with my speedy recovery and I’m back to practicing. With all these limitations, I have to really focus on letting go of ego. My body objects if I push too much — sometimes it feels as if I will never get back to my previous level and if that’s true, I have to accept it.

    Here’s the thing: I’ve signed up for Tim’s workshop in Tulum, Mexico, and I’m scared to death. Not sure why, except for the above noted ego. Any advice?

    1. Tim Miller wrote in one of his recent blogs: “I am a pussycat.” I’ve done workshops with him—he’s compassionate, easy-going, and powerful physically and intellectually. Enjoy!

  13. Phew..I must say that I am quite happy to read that I am not alone in the undertaking of an Ashtanga practice in later life. I am so grateful for the continued growth, the inner peace, inner strength, outer strength, balance and life in breath I have gained in the few short months since I began. Although I was beginning to wonder if starting an Ashtanga practice at 51 was the wisest thing I could do, even in light of the understanding, patience, peace and joy it is bringing to my life. Everywhere I look I see young beautiful people springing lightly and confidently from Asana to Asana, and the others, although more advanced in years, seem to have been practicing for years and years. At times it seemed quite a daunting task to see myself in this practice years from now. It was such a blessing to see I am not alone on the path to emerging as a new woman in spite of advanced years. I too look forward to enjoying a practice for years to come with deep gratitude to Guruji my teacher and her teachers before her.
    😉

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