Old yogis? Young fitness age

We’ve noted quite a few times that if one maintains a regular Ashtanga practice — five, six days a week, an hour plus each day — it’s fair to consider that person an amateur athlete.

And we’ve written about the uncharted territory that is Ashtanga and aging.

So it seems worthwhile to pass this on as another bit of motivation to keep on keeping on — especially here in the U.S., the day after a holiday that may have compelled some extra indulgence. (Because a country’s birthday is a great reason for too much beer and hot dogs!)

Older athletes are surprisingly young. From the New York Times online piece:

Older athletes can be much younger, physically, than they are in real life, according to a new study of participants in the coming Senior Olympics. The study found that the athletes’ fitness age is typically 20 years or more younger than their chronological age, providing a clear inspiration to the rest of us to get out and start moving more.


The effect was similar for both male and female athletes, he pointed out. Virtually every athlete, in fact, had a lower fitness age than his or her chronological age.

Dr. Peeke and Dr. Wisloff have not yet determined whether athletes in certain of the sports at the Senior Olympics, particularly endurance events such as distance running and swimming, have a younger fitness age, in general, than athletes participating in less-vigorous sports.

But they plan to parse the data extensively in the coming months to answer that question and to look for other patterns among the Senior Olympians. They expect to publish their findings soon.

At the center of this piece and the research it covers is an online calculator that can give you your “fitness age.”

I’ll admit, I started with it and as soon as it wanted to include my info in the research, I bailed. I’ve gotten more concerned about privacy matters; yes, having a blog probably isn’t a great way to maintain that. (The secret is to lie — obviously I never practice yoga and have not been to India.)

But the research still offers an inducement for those of you who do practice to keep at it. (An.d maybe also this proves Ashtanga was designed for old people)

Posted by Steve

How asana practice may help keep you young

We’ve touched on the topic of yoga and aging a few times. (Check the link for a recent comment by our resident “I started Ashtanga after 50” friend. It’s great and right to the point.) Now, we’ll add this spin: Yes, your asana practice may be keeping you young.

That’s the findings of a new study — well, if you are OK equating asana practice (note, I’m saying asana, not yoga) with exercise. Check this out from the New York Times:

Active older people resemble much younger people physiologically, according to a new study of the effects of exercise on aging. The findings suggest that many of our expectations about the inevitability of physical decline with advancing years may be incorrect and that how we age is, to a large degree, up to us.

Aging remains a surprisingly mysterious process. A wealth of past scientific research has shown that many bodily and cellular processes change in undesirable ways as we grow older. But science has not been able to establish definitively whether such changes result primarily from the passage of time — in which case they are inevitable for anyone with birthdays — or result at least in part from lifestyle, meaning that they are mutable.


The researchers compared the results of cyclists in the study against each other and also against standard benchmarks of supposedly normal aging. If a particular test’s numbers were similar among the cyclists of all ages, the researchers considered, then that measure would seem to be more dependent on activity than on age.

As it turned out, the cyclists did not show their age. On almost all measures, their physical functioning remained fairly stable across the decades and was much closer to that of young adults than of people their age. As a group, even the oldest cyclists had younger people’s levels of balance, reflexes, metabolic health and memory ability.

Plus there’s this: “All in all, the numbers suggest that aging is simply different in the active.”

So, I think, that leads to two reactions:

  1. Your asana practice is keeping you young — or, to put it another way, you are only as old as you feel. (As long as you act young, too.)
  2. You can’t be too old to starting a yoga practice, because it will lead to your getting younger. If you start at 50, by the time you’re 55, you might really be just 48!

And maybe there’s a third reaction: Keep up with the vinyasa.

Posted by Steve

The neverending story: More on Ashtanga and aging

The topic of Ashtanga or yoga and aging has been a popular one here. We’ve talked about the practice as a woman ages, yoga as an old people’s sport, on peaking and finally the very popular can you be too old to start Ashtanga.

It is the neverending story. Until it all ends. And then begins again, unless you break free.

Now, Mary Taylor at Ashtanga Yoga Workshop has tackled the question, which I promise I did not ask:

I’m 52 this year and have been practicing Ashtanga for 12 years. This year, more than others I have sensed that my practice is slowing down. There is this rumor going round, that Richard and Mary are over 30, so I was wondering if they had any insights into this process, had had similar experiences, or could advise on how best to distinguish the aging process, from laziness.


Here is part of her answer:

More specific to your immediate question, is that of course the aging process changes the body. It can take longer to recover from an injury or a “tweak” that may have occurred due to misalignment in a pose or outside of the practice. The body takes longer to warm up, and one’s natural flexibility may decrease as we get older, and so on.

But a fundamental reason we practice is to bring deeper and subtler levels of awareness to the body, mind and emotions on a daily basis. A foundation of the practice—beyond the particular poses we might be practicing—is watching changes within these fields of experience, and catching oneself sooner when the mind is “being lazy,” when we’re believing our presuppositions rather than observing what’s actually arising, when we’re trapped by samskaras or overrun by the obstacles that are constantly tossed in our path.

Given I’m still fairly well south of 52, I’m not going to claim to be an expert on this. What I do know is that, as much as I wish I had started practicing yoga when I was a potentially more flexible 25 (or younger), my access to the “subtler levels of awareness” just wasn’t there. (Read: I was too immature and too plain stupid to manage an ongoing yoga practice.) It still may not be there. But during the past few months of my self-enforced back-t0-basics yoga practice, I’ve discovered a little more of those subtle levels, a little more awareness of the bandhas (check Taylor’s full answer for their importance), a little more focus — a little more dristi.

I’m not claiming some fantastic yoga practice, just one that I think is better than it was a few months ago. But one that still sucks, no doubt. So to that extent, yoga and aging are a good match.

Posted by Steve

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

And now, back to aging and yoga

We’re done with the Encinitas yoga trial. For now.

As a few commenters have noted, interesting issues are at the center of the case, some Ashtanga-specific and others more broadly related to yoga here in America.

I suspect we’ll touch on them between now and when the trial resume in a month or so.

For now, though, back to another fav topic: yoga and aging. The New York Times has posted the third and final part of its Q&A on the topic. One excerpt:

Q. Can you recommend a suite of yoga poses that concentrates on breathing and balance (easier to harder) for older yoga folks? Thanks. — Steve G., Baltimore

A. Steve G. of Baltimore, I would begin with the tree (vrksasana), breathing in as you raise your arms, culminating as your hands meet above your head, and exhaling as your arms come down, is a very good start. Use a wall behind you or a chair in front of you if you need it at first. You might follow this with warrior I (virabhadrasana I), inhaling as the arms rise. The downward and upward dog (adho mukha and urdhva mukha svanasana) are good, and reasonably gentle. Then you might try twisting poses like marichyasana and matsyendrasana, where your job is to try to equalize the inflation of right and left lung. Finally, headstand (mirsasana), also with suitable props, is another good balance and breathing posture. For every variation, exhale as you bring your legs down; inhale as they come up.

There are a lot more questions to be read. But are there any topics over the trio of posts that got missed, do you think? Are there Ashtanga-specific issues? (Maybe from all those chaturangas?) Perhaps if you raise a question, someone will be able to provide some useful insight in the comments.

Posted by Steve


Yoga as ‘an old person’s sport’

Tied into the request for questions about yoga and aging we noted yesterday is this piece now up at the New York Times. (In one of those Internet vagaries, I’m not sure how it wasn’t prominently attached to the piece we linked to yesterday.)

Yoga and aging has been a central theme at both of the Ashtanga Yoga Confluences. At this year’s event, I’d hazard a guess that at least a third of the questions on the subject came from people who have yet to face it for real. They’re just getting prepared.

I suppose it is good that it’s on people’s minds. It may be a difference between the first wave of Westerners who took up asana practices and the second, who had the benefit of that first group’s knowledge and guidance (and mistakes).

From the piece:

Dr. Fishman noted that aging brings impairments of range, motion, strength and balance that can require modifications, even among veteran yogis, like using the support of a chair or the wall for many poses. In addition, students may begin to feel the effects of arthritis, injuries and other ailments that may require students skip certain poses altogether.

Someone with osteoporosis, for example, may want to avoid headstands and poses requiring extreme spinal flexion or extension, while someone with glaucoma may want to avoid taking the head below the heart in poses like headstand, handstand, shoulder stand and standing forward bends. When in doubt about the safety of practicing with any specific medical condition, Dr. Fishman recommended working with a doctor.

Fishman is the one who will be answering questions, to be posted next week.

One thing I note is that the only “style” of yoga I see is Iyengar. I assume its slowness and deliberate nature appear more suited to the aging yogi. And that may leave Ashtanga out, a bit. I’ll be curious as to which questions Fishman answers and just how the whole thing seems to define “yoga.”

Posted by Steve

Yoga as you age and yoga to Pink Floyd

I don’t know, are those two things one and the same?

Whatever the answer, two items for you to check out. First, the New York Times’ “Boomers” section (which is geared to exactly whom you think it is) is taking questions about yoga and aging. Answers will be posted next week. Here’s the guy who will be doing the answering:

This week’s Ask an Expert features Dr. Loren Fishman, who will answer questions about practicing yoga in your middle years. In 1972, before applying to medical school, he studied yoga with B.K.S. Iyengar for a year in Pune, India. Dr. Fishman, 72, has now been a practicing back-pain and rehabilitative medicine specialist for 33 years. From the start he incorporated yoga in patient care, and he teaches seminars in yoga nationally and internationally.

And he wears bow ties!

If you click on the above link, you can leave any questions in the comments section. We’ll check back next week and see what he had to say.

Our second item: another yoga trend. Read it and weep for your lost youth:

Pink Floyd Laser Yoga is precisely that: yoga set to Pink Floyd with projections and lasers. Portland, Oregon-based instructor Chris Calarco has been teaching it since last year, aiming to “combine alignment-conscious Vinyasa and iconic musicians to deepen your relationship with the universal pulsation of spanda.” Got that? He’s done Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Bob Marley yoga classes as well, but Floyd’s music hits that sweet spot between party vibes and higher consciousness — even his first class, with fellow yoga teacher Todd Vogt, sold out, and the recap on his blog boasted “righteous live mixing” and “going deep.” Also: lasers. So when he and Vogt brought Pink Floyd yoga to Manhattan’s Vida Yoga studio last week, Well and Good NYC recommended “rock[ing] that tie-dye workout tank you’ve been meaning to debut.” (It’s probably notable that Calarco reserved his Phish yoga class for Philadelphia only.)

Not to start the Ashtanga and music debate again…

Posted by Steve

On ‘peaking’ in Ashtanga

One of the panels at the 2013 Confluence was on “Ashtanga Yoga and Daily Life ” This was right up my alley. I’m 48. I’ve just learned Second Series. I wanted to know what to expect.

Much of the panel discussion was on the shifting emphases as we grow older in the practice. Tim Miller has said he’s no longer interested in the “flourishes” that mark a younger person’s practice–he just wants to do it. David Swenson talks about efficiency over expenditure. Eddie Stern said that some days, “practice” consists of three As, three Bs, and padmasana. Dena Kingsberg discussed the effects of having children and menopause. Then, a member of the audience asked about “peaking”; that is to say, when were you at your pinnacle, in terms of Ashtanga asana practice?

It seems rude to reproduce here everyone’s age when that happened. It’s enough to say they were all peaking at about at the age I started Ashtanga–with one exception.

Now, you might think I’d find that discouraging. Instead, it got me thinking about why they even had an answer (again, there was one exception on the panel). They were young, able-bodied, and athletic when they met Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Dena called that time, “the time of champions.” There were stories of being totally broken down, unable to move they were so sore, and then of going back the next day to get put back together. At some point in fourth or fifth series, they “peaked” and could no longer “collect asanas.” To be fair, the teachers clearly thought this was a pretty superficial question. But at the same time they had ready answers: “I was 30,” etc.

I listened to this, and pondered over my brand new second series practice. Almost every day I roll out my mat, something new, small, and awesome happens. I have no designs on Third, but hey, I didn’t on Second when I started First.

I think two things have made an enormous difference in my attitude toward the practice: I was older when I started, and I wasn’t hale and healthy. I was never athletic when I was younger. I was a sickly kid, and a sickly adult. I’d had tuberculosis, asthma, and pneumonia fifteen times (that I counted). My spine is disintegrating, as are my joints, and I had arthritis when I was 25. The day I touched my toes in a forward fold, I was pretty sure I’d peaked. Turned out I was wrong.

Everyone on the panel felt they’d peaked, except Nancy. Although she started  earlier than I did, she was very weak and sick. She still suffers, but said on the panel that she feels like she gets stronger all the time. (See Steve’s post for more detail on Nancy’s history.)

This made me think about how the idea of “peaking” might effect the teaching of Ashtanga, when so many of us come to our teachers

One possible peak. Mt. Kailash: Siva! via Wikipedia
One possible peak. Mt. Kailash: Siva! via Wikipedia

weak, sick, and broken. It also made me think about my own job teaching–writing, that is. Part of my goal at the University is to foster excellent teaching–to develop teachers, many of whom have been teaching for years. What if we thought of other learned skills in this way?

To be able to do something might not be as important as the context we put that ability in; the greater context of my weakness and illness has made my practice feel…well, peakless (“topless”? “ceilingless”?). The limitations I had in my daily life give it a kind of openness and limitlessness that is precious to me, so I’ve stopped thinking about peaking.

But back to writing. I tell my students that writing is an unpleasant and ugly process that involves constantly coming up against your mental limitations and pushing beyond them. This involves feeling of inadequacy and awkwardness that only practice can work out–practice in the form of constant revision. I tell them that they should feel as if the thing they want to say is just beyond their ability to say it. And that if they are lucky, it will feel that way for the rest of their lives. The minute they get too comfortable…well, that’s the death of writing. Of learning, and the growth of intelligence.

It seems to me that my Ashtanga practice is the same, that maybe because I always felt that this practice is beyond me, I feel amazed that I’m doing any of it, and that it won’t matter where I am in it, that I can still feel that way about suryanamaskara A. And if I’m lucky, I’ll feel that way for the rest of my life.

Posted by Bobbie