Stages in your relationship to the Ashtanga practice
Sometime back, I got a question about how to practice Ashtanga for the “over-50’s”. There isn’t one answer to that question of course, so that isn’t really a question I can answer. But I can say that almost certainly, regardless of what age you start the practice, if you keep at it for some years, your experience of practice will change. How it changes is of course each individual person’s story, but it will almost certainly change. So let’s talk about some of the common stages of practice that students go through over the years and how your practice might change as you’re aging.
Changes associated with aging
Our bodies will change as we age. That’s for certain. How and when, as I said, varies considerably from person to person. But, some things that come along with aging which can affect our practice include:
- Loss of bone mass
- Drying out of joints and connective tissue
- More years of ingrained patterns to accommodate or work with
- Can take the nervous system longer to acquire new patterns
Do these factors of aging affect how we practice? Yes, most likely they do. But they don’t need to keep us from practicing at all. They can simply act to guide how we practice. I am a firm believer that practice should fit your life. Age and stage of life are just a couple aspects of that.
There are also many other factors that affect how we practice. Where we are in our relationship to the Ashtanga practice has something to do with not just our age when we begin, but how long we’ve been doing it. When you’re first learning the Ashtanga practice, depending on your age, health, and other circumstances, you might pass through a number of stages with it.
Possible stages in your relationship to the Ashtanga practice
There are many stages that you might experience in relationship to the Ashtanga practice. Physical aging is just one aspect that can influence how you practice.
Some of the stages of practice you might encounter include:
- The falling-in-love-with-Ashtanga stage
- In this stage you read everything you can find about it, never miss an early morning practice, and bore everyone you know with long monologues about why it’s the best thing ever.
- Your first plateau
- You’ve hit this stage when suddenly the last posture you’ve been given doesn’t seem to be changing. You’ve been working on it for weeks and you still can’t bind marichyasana D, get a leg behind your head, or balance in bhujapidasana. At this point, you either get curious and learn patience, or get frustrated and quit.
- Starting intermediate
- If you’ve kept going through plateaus in the primary series, then at some point you’ll likely begin working with the intermediate series of postures. It might feel like suddenly practice is exciting again. You’re breezing through a string of new postures, riding the wave of uplifting backbending energy…and then you come to a grinding halt at kapotasana (or wherever the next plateau comes for you). Again, at this point, you either get curious and learn patience, or get frustrated and quit.
- Doing a very long practice
- If you’ve been learning the second series one by one in addition to doing your daily primary series, somewhere around eka pada sirsasana practice can start to feel very long. You’re forced to acquire endurance, which usually means that you have to learn to breathe (if you haven’t already), and you have to learn to use less effort and be more efficient. This takes will. You have to want to do that kind of work. It’s not warm and fuzzy or easy. A lot of people quit here too.
- Growing into a mature practitioner
- If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably navigated many bumps along the road already. I don’t have to tell you how to practice as you’re aging because you’ve already figured out how to practice on days when work or family commitments take your time and energy, or how to practice on days when your will is low, or how to practice when you’ve injured something either through another activity or through yoga itself.
I’ve seen lots of students now over many years and watched their relationship to their Ashtanga practice evolve as I’ve known them. And of course, I have experienced my own arc while aging myself, and my relationship to my practice has changed. If there is one general thing that I’ve noticed, it’s that mature practitioners hold their practice lightly. They’ve let go of any previous ideas that practice has to be a certain length, done at a “right” time, that there are a “right” number of postures, or that accomplishments in asana are a fast-track to enlightenment. They’ve learned to see the Ashtanga practice as a muti-faceted tool that can be used for many purposes depending on what needs arise.
It’s a little bit of Glenda the Good Witch talking to Dorothy at the end of the Wizard of Oz. You already know how to practice. You’ve had the power all along. Just trust yourself and believe your experience. If you need permission, I give you permission to do less. Do a shorter practice when it makes sense. Do the postures that make sense. Take a day off when you need to. Modify postures, substitute postures, and just generally do the postures in whatever way makes sense for your body in each moment. The sequences are a guide; they’re not set in concrete. Once you’ve put in your time learning the tools, use them in a way that makes sense for you.
My own experience is that my reasons for practice have changed as I’ve been aging over the years. While many practitioners go through a honeymoon period with the practice where they are very motivated to “get” postures, that usually works itself out when the student hits their first physical plateau. When the physical aspect of the postures seems to be stuck for some period of time, we have to find something else to get interested in within the practice, like working the breath or using any of the tools we have in practice (breath, bandha, and dristi) to practice honing concentration. Those aspects of the practice are always available to us, no matter which postures we are or are not doing. While I still appreciate the benefits of the movement aspects of the practice, as the years have ticked by, I’ve actually come to appreciate the breath and concentration aspects of practice as more interesting. Those aspects of practice have become more of a draw to continue with the practice than just trying to accomplish asanas.
Will your practice change over the years as you’re aging, particularly as you move into your 50’s, 60’s, or 70’s? Yes. How will it change? I don’t know. But I do know that if you invest time and focus on the breathing and concentration aspects of practice, there is enough to explore for a lifetime or more. As these are the aspects of practice that we always have access to, cultivate a relationship with these parts of the practice early and you’ll be well-acquainted if and when you want to, or need to, shift focus from the more physical aspects of the practice.
If you stick with the practice for some years, then “why” you practice may change. While many people do initially start with the practice for its physical health and wellness benefits, increased flexibility, increased strength, or maybe to work with chronic low back pain or other discomforts, you may find that as the years go by you become more focused on the mental and emotional effects of practice. Maybe you get more interested in how doing practice is affecting your concentration or ability to stay calm rather than reacting right away to difficult situations. Regardless, the benefits are all there, physical, mental, and emotional, whether we’re doing primary series or fourth series.
Hopefully one thing that is happening as we are aging is maturity. As the years go by we’re a little less stuck to getting a particular outcome in practice and more aware of the process. And, hopefully this means we’ve been learning to be a little gentler with both ourselves and others. This might be reflected in our practice in which postures we choose to do, or it might be reflected more in how we choose to practice the postures that we are doing. The opportunities to explore the parts of the practice that I consider to be the most impactful, the breath and concentration aspects, are still available to us regardless of how many postures, which postures, or which sequences we can do.