Needless to say, that while some things are still the same, my practice requirements in my sixties are vastly different from my needs at age 11, when I began to practice yoga. As a young girl, yoga gave me a feeling of gracefulness in my always “chubby” body and some respite from depression. I still want my practice to feel as fun as it did decades ago, and the desire to feel good still motivates me to breathe, move, and relax. I still want to look as vibrant and feel as confident and skillful in my practice as I did as the young yoga teacher of yore. However, I’d be lying if I said that the me of my childhood or teens or twenties and the me of today have the same needs.
After a few decades of practice, a strict regimen of essential poses, breathwork, or meditations of a certain length or difficulty no longer apply; hard-earned experience has proven to be a better guide during times of change.
For example, I’ve often mentioned that many older students of yoga (like me) benefit more from weight-bearing and strengthening movement than from pushing beyond our functional flexibility. My own body has cued me time and again that grounding those vattic (dry, airy) tendencies of age with strength (even adding weights to my practice) and focus help me also anchor my spacey mind. And the age-related arrival of osteoarthritis and osteoporosis make moving more mindfully key to maintaining the healing benefits of yoga.
But age isn’t the only factor that has shifted the focus of yoga for me. Other life detours have as well. Illness, surgery, pregnancy, parenting, psychological changes, relocation, and so many adventures on the human journey practically insist that we reevaluate how we practice. I can share what has worked for me and can therefore recommend what might work for you, but bear in mind that these are broad sweeps and for personal fine-tuning you might want to consult with a yoga therapist.
In January of 2020, I was traveling across the country to teach when COVID got me and I ended up in the E.R., where I was put on an albuterol inhaler and steroids for six weeks—a double (maybe quadruple) whammy that made me wonder who I was. Afterward, aches set in, my breath felt shallow, and my mind was unfocused. All of my scheduled teaching events went out the window. Between more than six weeks of illness and several months of program cancellations, all but very gentle movement and breathwork had gone by the wayside. I had to remind myself of what I espouse in teacher trainings about establishing your own practice first. It took renewed self-discipline to nourish my mind and body. I even resorted to forcing myself to watch my own videos to remember what is important to me!
In transitional times, self-criticism can really get in the way of adjusting our yoga routines. We may need to reframe our perfectionism, our refusal to adapt, our pace, a tendency to overfocus on physical achievement or conversely on spiritual progress. But life helps us make those choices and sometimes just shoves us through the door into new yoga terrain.
When I took a fall on ice that required surgery to put a titanium plate in my shoulder, maintaining diligence in my movement allowed me to keep almost the same range of motion post-surgery as I had pre-surgery. Physical therapists and doctors gave me plenty to do, and I did it, but the rest of my (uninjured) body needed love, too. Carefully using the “cause no pain” method, I’d gently and sequentially move my joints to alleviate stiffness and then work more vigorously in areas that felt good. This approach worked well for me following gallbladder surgery as well, when I was given little or no movement instruction.
The takeaway from my experiences? Let professionals guide you, and let your body heal. Remember, bodies mend—this could be an opportunity to nourish your mind in the meanwhile.
I especially encourage people to be less harsh about body image during and after pregnancy, particularly tuning out their inner weight critic, and to find a softer, maybe even dance-y, personal practice that celebrates their fertility. I’ve seen too many parents-to-be attend standard classes, just as I did over 30 years ago, and push themselves beyond safety. So do think about taking prenatal yoga classes, which are specifically geared to pregnant students, and do heed your instructor’s guidance.
Our children are little for only a short time and as yoga-practicing parents we have to adapt every day. One day our kids are practicing beside us on their own mats and sitting adorably in meditation and the next we need to save the cat from a tail-biting toddler before we’ve finished both sides of triangle pose.
In chaotic times at home it’s good to remember that the niyama santosha can be translated as “contentment,” and that implies acceptance of your circumstances as they are. When I was a young mom, my way of practicing santosha was to rise early to get on my mat and try not to get bent out of shape if a young someone apprehended me in the act. (With twins and an older singleton, the odds of interruption were pretty good!) Others may manage to get to in-studio classes and return home more able to smile at the wild rumpus awaiting them; parent-child classes are also an option in some cities and always available online.
Ayurveda’s theories involving doshic concepts of stress (pittic anger, vattic anxiety, kaphic depression) have certainly proven true for me over the years when it comes to managing overwhelm and treating its root causes. While it’s tempting to push through, there tends to be a recoil over time when I’m maxed out.
At various times my stress reaction has been to become depressed, sometimes anxious, other times angry. When I’m depressed, my general rule is to add vigor to my practice or do a little more than I feel like doing (usually one or two more repetitions) as ways to kindly activate my inner fire. When anxiety is the culprit, I’ve benefited from a slow, grounding standing practice and seated postures with long, slow breathing. Where anger is concerned, I’ve hurt myself by pushing beyond wise boundaries and have learned over time to quell this tendency. I may feel like burning it out with fierce exercise, but that only stokes the flames. Fluid movements and cooling breaths, on the other hand, are like rain on that inner wildfire.
The notion that everyone must practice a certain set of poses every day or practice for a certain period of time proves false a bit more every day.
A wise person once said, “One thing is certain, nothing is certain.” The power of resilience during times of change is one of yoga’s most important benefits. And even as yoga asana entails becoming more physically flexible, yoga philosophy asks us to become flexible in mind: The notion that everyone must practice a certain set of poses every day or practice for a certain period of time proves false for me a bit more every day. If we allow ourselves to go with the flow, to be present to what arises by the day, year, and decade, and adapt our practice accordingly, our yoga will become as unique and resilient as we each are.