I’m nearing 60 years old, and at this point, I have practiced yoga for more years than I haven’t. One would think I’d know better, and most of the time I do. But when my yoga practice becomes public (like when I’m asked to demo in class, for example) or I notice that hanumanasana (splits) doesn’t feel so great anymore and I worry that I'm "losing it," my ego has her way. This isn't just an age thing; anyone at any age or stage of practice can come face to face with their own mortality. And I keep realizing again and again that it’s through this humility that I’m able to become better acquainted with my divinity.
In the early days of my yoga studies, my teachers referred to me “limber” and often called me to the front of class to demonstrate catching my back foot from overhead in natarajasana (king dancer pose) or to show upright torso alignment in full hanumanasana.
Though when I taught my own classes, I would often repeat the adage ”listen to your body” or admonish students to “respect your capacity,” I was prone to be rather cavalier with my own practice. And for a long time, thanks to my resilient, stretchy body, this never seemed to pose much of a problem.
But today, here I am, after attending a restorative class (of all things) with a little pain about my old knee injury and a cranky hip from eschewing extra support in a restorative pigeon pose. Really? I think to myself, Who would have cared? Even if you skipped the pose altogether, no one would have minded. You are a yoga therapist, and you know better! But having always been the most flexible pigeon in the rookery, I didn’t want to prop myself up high with a bolster and went for a blanket under my thigh instead. While others blissfully moaned their way out of the long stretch, I heard the old “clunk” of my right knee, a clunk that I thought I had nearly eliminated with a therapeutic strengthening practice.
I’m not just talking about the sort of ego that causes us to take photo after photo of the same pose until we have the perfect one to share on Instagram, but the subtler kind—the kind that will keep a practitioner in the meditation room slightly longer than everyone else, or prompt a teacher to memorize long passages in Sanskrit for the purpose of impressing her students. And I sincerely believe that an appropriate amount of ego keeps us on the right path, and that without it we might not see ourselves worthy of yoga’s ultimate goal of liberation. Ego keeps that dangling carrot in front of our sometimes very ordinary practice. But it’s nice to be aware when it’s there so we can smile knowingly at its presence on the mat with us.
I’m not just talking about the sort of ego that causes us to take photo after photo of the same pose until we have the perfect one to share on Instagram, but the subtler kind.
There is room for play in yoga, and I understand the draw of dance-like athleticism and the desire for challenge in the realm of asana practice, especially with the young. And in fact, deeper, stronger physical practice might be needed to harness youthful energy in preparation for the rigors of a spiritual path. But when I contemplate my own personal practice, I must pause and ask myself what it is I actually need at this point in my life. I’ve found it important to ask this question at many points in my life, as sadhana (daily practice) must change if (for example) a person is pregnant, depressed, overworked, graduating, injured, or seeking to deepen their meditation.
I see many people in my age bracket and older in my yoga therapy practice. Some have no yoga experience and some have many years of yoga practice and even teaching under their belts. From a purely physical standpoint, my focus differs between the two groups. For the group with little or no yoga experience, gentle stretching and breathing with movement are a big priority. Though I see joint stability issues within both groups, the long-term yogis often have serious joint problems that aren’t being addressed by their asana practice and, in some cases, they are actually worsened by it. It may be that they are attending (or teaching) classes that only focus on stretching and relaxing without much strengthening and stabilization. They may also be long-time meditators who have not thought about balancing the muscular effects of lengthy external rotation in their cross-leg seated postures. Or perhaps they are being “put through the wringer” by a teacher one-third their age. Here, there’s often the idea that sweatier and fancier means better yoga.
As a young teacher, I assumed everyone in my class needed to progress from upavistha konasana (seated wide-legged forward bend) to kurmasana (tortoise pose), and that all students wanted nothing more than to achieve full (lotus)...in headstand. And students in these deep-stretch type classes do often feel they need to go to their furthest point on the elasticity scale. But when their hip joints and knees are “singing the song of their people” when they step off of their mats, a new strategy is in order. I have found this to be the case for me, and I now know that I need to grow stronger rather than endlessly more bendable.
I sometimes look back at long-ago workshops, taught by me and other teachers, in which people in the 50-to-70 age bracket and fairly new to asana were encouraged to try a full wheel or a handstand; in many cases we thought it was great for the mature student to take home the experience. We’d often hear students say “I was sore later! But wow, was it fun!” And no long-term harm was usually done, but why were we actually asking somewhat unprepared students from an age group that is statistically more at risk for bone fractures to take on poses that were so precarious? It was in the guise of “overcoming fear,” but now I see that it may also have been ego at play: the teacher’s ego in being “the great encourager” and the student’s ego in wanting to have the tale of triumph to tell. Now I would want to see a bone density scan and a full health workup before boosting a 60-year-old into a handstand! (And actually, I’ve become pretty cautious with 20-year-olds, too.)
When I see people of advancing years in very difficult asanas my reaction has turned from Hey, cool! Good for them! to Why? It reminds me of the scene in the mockumentary Spinal Tap when musician Nigel Tufnel is commenting on his amplifiers and states that one amp has better volume because “It goes to 11,” as opposed to his other amps that only went to 10. The truth is, asana is “advanced” when it gives us better “interior alignment”—meaning clearer focus and equanimity under stress—and allows us greater comfort in daily life. Making the outside of our yoga look fancier by “going to 11” needs to be recognized as fun, or sport, or skill, and only occasionally as a catalyst to begin the interior growth of yoga. Maturity gives us a glimpse of why moving more inward and less outward is so very important—the body is finite.
The truth is, asana is “advanced” when it gives us better “interior alignment”—meaning clearer focus and equanimity under stress—and allows us greater comfort in daily life.
There is a Buddhist story of the young musician who wanted to follow the great master’s teachings and gave up his instrument as an act of devotion. The Buddha came to him and picked up the instrument and unwound the strings, “No! Beloved One. You cannot play it if it is too loose!” exclaimed the young man. Whereupon the Buddha tightened them to the point of breaking. ”My Teacher! That is far too tight and the instrument will suffer!” The Buddha handed the instrument to the musician. The young musician got the messages loud and clear: (1) Take the middle path, and (2) You were given a gift and you were meant to play.
What I’ve learned in regard to yoga practice and ego is this: I love my asana practice and will always love the strong and vital body it permits me to enjoy. But I am not this body; I am merely allowed to play it. When my ego wants to stretch it too tightly, I must be a smarter, more skillful tuner of this fine Stradivarius. I must also never become so busy or disheartened that I become slack in my care. Not too loose, not too tight. When I adhere to this wisdom my ego cannot own or take hold of my practice.
And for today, I’ll drink some anti-inflammatory turmeric milk and smile at my own folly. For a moment the ego is quiet.