Septuagenarian Kathy Cooper, practising since the 1970s, pictured on a recent visit to Ireland.
One of the joys of ageing (yes, younger readers, there are a few – and turning sixty in lockdown gave me plenty of time to reflect on them!) is that the discipline to practise comes more easily. When you’re young, you can skip practice for days and still bounce back onto the mat, maybe even whipping your leg behind your head or dropping back to grab your ankles, if that’s your thing. But as the decades stack up, you notice that the flexibility you took for granted, if you’re the bendy type; or worked so hard to achieve, if you’re one of Richard Freeman’s “Blessed Stiff People”, takes a little longer to come back. There’s nothing quite like the certainty that your body will seize up after a few days without practice to make you drag yourself onto that mat, even when you feel tired or distracted. All you need to do is flash forward to the stiffness you know will kick in if you don’t. It’s a damn fine motivator.
The irony is, though, that just when you feel that elusive discipline – what yoga philosophy calls Tapas – firmly entrenched in your psyche, your body is much less inclined to play ball. If we’re lucky enough to grow older, our bodies will inevitably age and slow down. Our cells multiply more slowly, our muscle mass declines and with it, our strength. Elastin, the protein that pops our faces back into shape after we smile or frown, depletes, which is why we wrinkle. Collagen loss makes our skin sag. Cartilage degenerates in our joints, making them less mobile. Not to be grim, but the list, as anyone over fifty knows, goes on. It all starts well before we hit fifty. We’re quietly going downhill in terms of strength, energy, and regeneration from our mid-thirties. Our biological and physical peak is between the ages of 20 and 35 years old, which is why you don’t see many top athletes over 40.
This reality can be hard for Ashtangis, in particular, to accept. But letting go and accepting how things are is the greatest lesson yoga teaches us. If you haven’t got a little better at that after many years of practice, something’s up. If you’re really paying attention, your practice itself will point you in the right direction and teach you to respect your limitations as time goes on. It’s easier to be happy with those limitations when you start to see that the practice has so much more to offer than just the next asana. Age should take care of the darker side of Tapas – that over-fiery Tapas that might have kept you focusing obsessively on your asana practice to the exclusion of the other limbs of yoga (never mind life in general). But some will find it very hard not to keep pushing their bodies to try and replicate (or even go beyond) the practice they had five, ten or even twenty years ago.
Ignoring the signals from your body telling you to slow down is a risky business. Monica Gauci, renowned Ashtanga teacher, anatomist and chiropractor (in her sixties, with a lifetime of practice behind her), explains why: “You cannot reverse the arrow of time, but you can help offset age-related disability and physical decline. If you have not yet developed the sensitivity to sense and respect your body’s limits, you will inevitably suffer pain and injury. These will then become your stern, uncompromising teacher”.
The good news is that maintaining flexibility throughout the ageing process is possible. It’s one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves as we age and an excellent way to do it is through regular asana practice. Challenging yourself is still a good idea, and there’s always somewhere you can do this in your sequence, wherever you may be. I love a strong asana practice as much as I ever did (I think that’s in the DNA if you’re the Ashtanga type). But the idea that you must keep practising the entire sequence, wherever you are in the series, maybe even hoping to go further, is unrealistic, even dangerous. Krishnamacharya didn’t teach like this; he adjusted his teaching according to the age of his students. We should be as kind to ourselves (and our students, if we teach).
Kathy Cooper, an Ashtanga teacher in her seventies and one of the first women to complete all series, is an extraordinary example of what a lifetime of practice can do for you and how to modify it as you age. She radiates youthful energy, stepping lightly across a room like a prima ballerina. She’ll still take you through the advanced series if that’s where you’re going, and practises some extraordinary poses herself. But she manages her energy. She chooses from her vast repertoire to make what David Swenson calls a “sandwich” of practice, starting with some standing, ending with finishing, and filling that sandwich with whatever works for her, from whatever series, on the day – usually for an hour or so.
Kathy Cooper practising in 1978
That’s not to say it’s ok to play fast and loose with the sequence from the start. There’s a huge value in working through the asanas as they are laid out, especially when you are new to the practice. That doesn’t mean “mastering” every pose. Your genetic range of motion, no matter how enhanced by practice, may never allow you to manoeuvre yourself into the full expression of Marichyasana D, for example. But you do what works for your body and your age. Facing your mental and physical obstacles on the mat is what it’s all about. It teaches you to let go of the conditioned ways of thinking and being that are doing you no favours. Your body will get stronger and more flexible, but that’s just a bonus. The real gift of practice is the clarity it gives us on how we think and who we are.
If things are too easy from the start and you stick to the poses you like, then that key “obstacle-facing” element of the system is missing. But with many years of practice under your belt, you’ve done your time. You deserve to reap the rewards and create a practice that works for you, instead of grieving the letting go of the next asana or the one that doesn’t work for your body anymore (and maybe never really did).
There is so much more to explore, and this starts to become more appealing. In my early days of practice, teachers would tell me of the value of meditation and pranayama and how it was important not to neglect these limbs of Ashtanga. That teaching undoubtedly lands with plenty of young students with more good sense than I had. The truth is, it went over my head somewhat while I focused firmly on the physical, loving the way the long, hot and sweaty practice made me feel. But the asana practice works its magic if you stick with it. A meditation and pranayama practice crept up on me as I got older. I still love my asana practice, and I couldn’t imagine life without it, but I can hold it in a more comfortable place these days. I’m not striving to move on to a new series or a more elaborate expression of any particular pose. I’m happy to get on the mat and connect to my breath, move my body into those familiar shapes and find that stillness and quiet that was so hard to come by in my younger days. I can finally work with Patanjali’s definition of asana, which is sitting in meditation.
Practising wisely gives us a fighting chance of staying limber and agile into old age if we’re lucky enough to get there. As the great French singer, Maurice Chevalier said: “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternatives.”