Once upon a time I thought I had “all the answers” about how to stay healthy as I got older. Then I actually got older! Despite the best of intentions, life throws all of us curve balls. At some point we wake up and realize we are a little frayed around the edges and not as vibrant as we used to be. Now that I am 60, my game to stay strong has been upped.
Many of us think we have all the answers when we’re young, only to be reminded by life that we didn’t know what we didn’t know. I was in my forties when I started practicing yoga, and younger teachers would tell me to take it easy and be careful. They meant well and didn’t want me to get hurt. In my fifties, I took their fears to heart. As I grew older, I felt more frail, but I didn’t need to be reminded of my fear at every turn. What I actually needed was encouragement. Now the game has changed again and I have different needs—none of which I anticipated!
The yoga world is by and large focused on the youthful practitioner, but older yogis have specific requirements for their bodies, minds, and most of all their spirits. If possible, at all times, my dream is to encourage the older yoga student that anything can be accomplished even if we must be a bit more considerate of our new physical limitations.
I never would have believed this if I hadn’t met Desiree Rumbaugh in 2007. As my teacher, she encouraged me to try inversions, arm balances, and to go deeper into my practice. Together we wrote Fearless After Fifty. What makes Desiree exceptional is that she’s always searching for new ways to live a more vibrant life. Being healthy and happy has been her mission for many years.
Working with Desiree has shown me that as we age it’s more important than ever to challenge ourselves, strengthen our muscles, and hone our skills so that we feel steady on our feet. When we feel stronger and more stable, we can stop worrying about a fall and instead allow our spirit to feel free again.
Now, with Desiree’s guidance, I know some things for sure about what it takes to grow better, wiser, stronger, and braver using yoga. We recently brainstormed about what it takes to stay on this path and grow old together as yogis:
Find Older Role Models
There are many older role models in yoga, but they are not always seen or heard. When I started, I thought all the yogis were in their twenties! Then I discovered Vanda Scaravelli and her book, Awakening the Spine. Many of the photos in it were of her practicing in her nineties. She made me believe that strength and flexibility were possible at all ages.
Desiree’s earliest role model was her teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar. She admired his creativity and longevity with the practice, which he maintained well into his nineties. Patricia Walden and John Schumacher also inspired her.
Today, I look to Desiree and other older practitioners to keep me motivated and inspired in my practice, but to be honest, they are often harder to find as the media in general doesn’t seek them out. (I’ve certainly met many older teachers and fellow students in studios.)
Understand That Things Change
The thing about change is that we don’t often recognize it when it happens. I thought 50 would be my game changer, but really it was 40. I was an avid runner and started feeling stiff and achy in my joints, but I kept running thinking the pain would simply disappear. It doesn’t work that way. If you want a change, you have to make a change. Who knew? That’s when I started practicing yoga to supplement my exercise. I was so stiff that it took awhile, but after just a scant decade I was able to touch my toes! Eventually, my yoga practice brought me more joy than running and I was able to trade one for the other.
Getting older means that every single day when you wake up it’s something new. In my fifties, arthritis led me to two new knees and three fractured cervical vertebrae. But thankfully, Desiree has shown me how to be curious about aging and the physical changes that come along with it. Instead of worrying, I think, How can I work with this? Being aware and willing to try gives you some control over a situation, even if we don’t ever have total control.
As for Desiree, she recognized that her body started to change at 55. She sustained injuries in her shoulders, neck, and spine from years of pushing too hard into deeper and deeper poses. She consulted medical professionals and took apart her practice piece by piece. She had to relearn things and change her habits. “You have to go through that period when you realize you can’t keep doing things the same way if you have pain,” she said.
Don’t believe what people say about aging being all bad. The truth is, you gain a sense of freedom and empowerment when you relearn what you can do in your new body.
Desiree was a flexible dancer when the “bill” for it came in midlife with multiple injuries. She turned to weights and strength training to heal. “If you are flexible, then you have to go to the other side to find the middle ground,” she said. “You quickly realize with yoga that if you only aim for the pose, you may get it, but you don’t get to keep it. The only way to keep your practice for the long game is to strengthen where you are weak.” Now she is much happier with her backbends, specifically urdhva dhanurasana (wheel). She used to push through her armpits, but now she uses her back muscles as leverage in this pose, which feels much safer and stronger for her.
As for me, one thing that got better was my flexibility. The first time I touched my toes with straight legs felt like a miracle. Now I can usually get there with relative ease.
But what has truly brought me joy is shifting my perspective. As I got older, I had to become more forgiving with my practice. I accept and challenge myself with the things I can probably do, and I let go of the things I probably should not. Now that added element makes it finally feel like true yoga. I no longer chase after the pose and instead practice non-attachment to the outcome. Now I’m all about the preparation. I might be on my mat for two hours and only do some very basic things. I work my downward facing dog with straight and bent legs, I focus on spinal mobility with cats and cows. It would have been boring to me years ago, but these days it brings me great joy. Furthermore, the relentless preparation is paying off and I am enjoying hanumanasana, aka “the splits,” and backbends. These things used to be completely out of reach for me, but apparently practice works.
Honestly, some things are harder, or completely out of reach. After suffering a fractured cervical disc in an accident, I have had to consciously uncouple from headstand. With my new titanium knees, I’m also letting go of jumping from one pose to another. Lastly, I practice inversions by a wall, since a fall could break a bone. Aging means weighing risk against reward, and being careful and present like that feels like self-care.
For Desiree, it is harder to do poses correctly by using all her strength rather than relying on her inherent flexibility. “I’m using all my back muscles now when I do a drop back, rather than just floating backward,” she said. “If I do it correctly, I get tired. I move slowly, but what I can do now is much more skillful and feels better in my body.”
The truth about aging is that while some physical things become harder, or even impossible, a lot becomes better and more beautiful. You have almost the same body, even if it’s a little frayed around the edges, but a lot more resilience. After you have lived through some things, the mind becomes understanding and curious and the spirit becomes hopeful.
For Desiree, learning to practice with strength has been a time saver: “I can do poses and get pretty deep more efficiently because my engine is so finely tuned. I don’t depend on sun salutations or repetitions to warm up. I also have gratitude for this body. It’s astonishing. When you’re 60, you have a very wise mind and a fairly youthful body. Too bad we can’t feel this way in our twenties!”
For me, aging has been a true gift of gratitude. I love seeing what I can do. I don’t take as much for granted as when I was younger, and the delight and surprise I experience when I realize what is possible for the human body (for my body) is just overwhelming. I am often brought to tears of joy in my practice. So yes, aging has its challenging moments. We may have to let some things go, but what I’ve gained in return has been this incredible sense of joy and playfulness.
I feel limitless now, and that is a special gift when you are older.