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