Ashtanga Yoga after 50 years old
How you approach it will depend on how long you have been practicing. First I want to address this to those of you who have been practicing over 10 years. Then I will touch on if you are new to ashtanga after 50.
For those over 50 who have been practicing ashtanga yoga 10 years or more, the two most important factors:
#1 NO RULES!
#2 Let go of what you used to do
Now is time for your Rishi series. Rishi series is the last series of ashtanga yoga. Rishi means “one who knows”. Rishi series is for those who have been practicing a long time and have learned multiple series. The ashtanga syllabus is a 10 years course. If you have been practicing longer than 10 years you know primary, second, and maybe even some third series; you now have a basket full of poses to choose from. Tune in, what do you need today? Do you need to sweat or nurture yourself? Do you need forward bending on back bending?
Choose a few poses, or part of a series and just practice that. Go slow and easy and focus on your breath and moving in rhythm with your breath. Hold poses a little longer, but only if comfortable. You don’t have to do a full series, but its ok if you are taking a class or just want a full series. At this point a full series 6 days per week would be too much (and personally I feel a full series 6 days per week at any age is overtraining and leads to overuse injuries). FEEL GOOD AFTER YOUR PRACTICE! Most practices can be 30-60 minutes, shorter is ok – longer is not necessary.
Include Pranayama in your practice time. Some days do more pranayama and less asana and some days do more asana and less pranayama based on your need for that day.
Focus on the most important parts of yoga and what makes yoga, yoga:
Most important are your breath and your thoughts. Toning your vagus nerve is also important, most of yoga practices are about your vagus nerve.
What are you thinking as you do your yoga? What are thinking as you go through the rest of your day? This is the true roots of your yoga. Realizing how your thoughts effect your physiology and your life — literally your reality is what you think.
Pay more attention to what makes Ashtanga Ashtanga? It’s not the sequences.
Ashtanga means 8 limbs, and asana is only 1 of those 8 limbs. Time to go deeper into the last four limbs;
- sense withdrawal – our senses take a lot of energy
- concentration, start to settle the mind, filter your thoughts, choose your thoughts. Don’t let the monkey mind run rampant.
- meditation – being able to keep the mind focused on the object or task of choice
- and the 8th limb is samadhi or bliss which arises naturally out of working with the previous three limbs.
Yoga is a state of mind, not an asana. Now is the time to follow your bliss 🙂
The Yoga Korunta (the text Pattabhi Jois speaks of that outlines the practices of ashtanga yoga) did not outline primary series, intermediate, or advanced — according to Manju Jois (Pattabhi Jois’ eldest son). Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya researched and intelligently put together the sequences.
What they learned from the Yoga Korunta is how to do your yoga asana, these elements include:
Vinyasa – synchronicity of breath and movement — this is a key element of ashtanga. Setting the habit of being aware of your breath and moving your body in rhythm with a smooth deep breath. Eventually this becomes a habitual way of moving and pieces of this will come off your mat and into your daily life with profound benefits. Vinyasa increases our awareness.
Bandha – bandhas are about the nervous system, by engaging bandhas you are stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system — especially with your uddiyana bandha you are stimulating your vagus nerve. In addition to breath awareness, our nervous system balance is a very important part of our health. Bandhas also teach us how to move with lightness, and bandhas support energy flow in the body; I like to call them “little movers”. They support the movements of lymphatic fluid, blood, neurons, white blood cells and more improving circulation.
Drishti – drishti is about controlling your mindstuff by reigning in your sense of vision to keep the mind from looking around and stimulating more thinking. Your mind expends a lot of energy deciphering what your senses are sending in. By resting the eyes on the looking place with a soft hazy out of focus gaze you are sending the signal to your nervous system to relax and allowing your brain the energy to engage its prefrontal cortex where we make better decisions. This part of our brain is also our area of higher understanding and connect-iveness.
These elements give us a way to approach our practice of postures. Aside from these elements, ashtanga does give us a framework for asana — but it is not so rigid! It’s a loose framework:
A rishi series practice will look something like this:
- Start with some sun salutes, you can do a mix of As and Bs, seated sun salutes or the therapeutic sun salute. Just start with a sun salute of some kind where you set your moving and breathing synchronization, warm up your body and get things moving.
- Choose some standing poses or all of them.
- Then to the floor for some forward bending, spinal twisting, and some back bending. You can do part of a series, a mix of the series, or all of a series. If you are mixing forward and backward bending poses start with some forward bends, do some twists to reset the spine, then move on to back bends. One of my favorite practices now is to do the first three poses of primary, first six poses of second, and the first two (or more depending on what I want that day) of third.
- Then on to inversions before finishing with the 3 finishing lotus flowers. If you comfortably do headstand that’s a key pose to always include. If not you can do shoulder stand or legs up the wall pose.
- End with a nice rest pose.
It’s a framework and you need to figure out how and what you need in your practice for that day. That takes a little time, and experience, which you have by now.
If you are including pranayama which I recommend, at this point in our life it is usually best to do pranayama first. However you can do it before or after as you like.
What else makes it Ashtanga?
Intensity — at intervals. And some Sweat too …
Sweat is emphasized in the ashtanga practice to help with detoxing the body. When our blood gets hot enough to sweat, we release a lot of toxins and impurities from the body. The intensity has to be just enough to break a little sweat. But don’t overdo it as most tend to!
In these interviews with other yogis in Mysore outside of the Jois family who studied ashtanga yoga in the 30s and 40s with Krishnamacharya a big point throughout the yoga practice is to “work, relax, work, relax”. In the west it seems the relax part has been forgotten.
We still need some intensity; but less as we get older. The western mind gets carried away… we don’t need or want the entire practice to be intense. Instead we want a few short intervals of intensity.
We need those intervals of some intensity to help the body detox and strengthen both in cardiovascular and muscular development. Too much intensity for too long, you lose benefits and increase your risk of injury.
Consistency … within reason …
Many who have been in the ashtanga community of heard the “rule” you have to do ashtanga 6 days per week or its not ashtanga… don’t believe them. It’s just someone pulling a power play on you.
Let’s put this in perspective; 6 days per week of 1-1/2 hour intense practice is too much for most people. 2-3 days per week with some intensity would be more appropriate with 1-2 days per week of a softer / shorter more meditative practice, and extra time for pranayama would be a better balance.
But really consistency is important. You don’t get fit after one workout. You don’t eat a healthy meal once and improve your health. Consistency, persistence or both! We do need a consistent mostly daily yoga/exercise/meditative/deep breathing practice of some type. SHOW UP … and do something!
Basically we just need to show up most days and tune in to what we need for our practice that day. Consistently.
And lastly Community is a big part of Asthanga
Ashtanga yoga seems to build community! Maybe because with all the “rules” I just outlined above we can only hang out with each other, or maybe the consistent practices bring us close, or just sharing in the depth of the ashtanga practice — who knows! But I do know community is an important part of our health and is inherent in those who brought Ashtanga yoga to the states.
Here in Maui the initial group of ashtangis that brought Ashtanga Yoga to the states started practicing together in the 70s and are still friends. They still practice something — some together, some in their own homes. They still celebrate times together, and share in community — for over 50 years now. They were all brought together by the practice of Ashtanga Yoga and still have their community.
And in my world it is similar, many of my friends that I met in the late 90s and early 2000s are still part of my community — and what’s fun is half of them are not in the states! And then theres all of you that have been in my yoga classes for over 20 years. You are my yoga family! And we care for each other just like we do our families. We still have our community after all these years.
Starting ashtanga after 50??
- Find a teacher that is over 50, and who is compassionate! Learning from someone who is over 50 is important because you don’t think you will need to change as you get older until you get there!
- Go slow. Learn the series.
- Learn all of primary, you can split the practice if you don’t want to do a full series. Do up to navasana one day, and then go from navasana to the end of primary the next day.
- Learn the first half 2nd, and maybe up to pincha mayurasana if that pose sounds fun to you.
- Learn Pranayama!!
Any other questions about how to practice after 50? Contact me! I am 57 at the writing of this (in 2023) and am living it!