January 29, 2012

21 Things That Will Help You, if Over 40, get Started with Ashtanga Yoga.

I am over 40 and started to practice Ashtanga yoga not that long before that age mark.  I can tell just by obvious gaze-browsing that there are differences in learning before and after the four-zero.

I can see people in their 20s and early 30s getting to place their legs behind their necks with an ease and a speed I envy, in a good way, but envy still.  “God bless them” I find myself saying.

This is strictly referring to the asana part of course, to the poses, or the third limb of ashtanga (Ashto =8 Anga=limb). All other limbs, for example the first two, or even just one of the subdivisions of the first one, that of being kind, is as hard for the younger as it is for the older. There is no age where being non-violent in mind, action and thought becomes easier.

Being a source of peace…That is graduate work! But since I was posed the question I thought I would start with the issue at hand, that of what could help someone over 40 specifically, when it comes to learning Ashtanga yoga.

Now of course, there are exceptions, some people are very flexible and some people have never moved much.  You could argue these 21 would also help someone under 40, and that would be true, however when coming up with the ideas I thought about James and me in particular, two 44 year old people, and what has helped us.  Or, as James just reminds me, I am still 43. Hope it helps you too.

She goes slow…

1.- Going slow:  This is the one area where the saying “infinite patience delivers immediate results” holds more than anywhere else.  The primary series of Ashtanga (the starting point and yoga therapy, yoga of healing) is challenging and demanding.  It is a daunting enterprise, but as we transition from the days of ambition to the days of meaning, as W.Dyer would say, it might be better to approach the work in the mat with an eye to exercising the minutia of patience, and see the miracles sprout. Because they will.

2.- No pain, no asana, no come: I wrote a post on that. It is what Pattabhi Jois used to say.  If someone is over 40 and not very in touch with his or her body there will be lots of discoveries along the road.

For example, James (who started yoga in his early 40’s) recently wrote a post on how yoga shamed him due to back pain. He then said that through that episode he learned that he had not been using his legs so much, he had relied on his upper body much more than it was needed and had not realized he could use his legs a whole lot more!

Insights like those which sometimes come due to pain, are worth gold. Imagine? Suddenly finding your legs?

3.- Regularity: Getting on the mat six times a week might be challenging for a person over 40 for whom it is very likely that routines are set, or it might be difficult to change due to family life, work etc.  That is OK.  However, doing the practice regularly and setting in on a routine of whatever it might be, say 3 times a week, and then respecting it, is critical.  There is no way to see the changes or learn from the practice if there is no regularity.

I’ve noticed that Ashtanga yoga has the seeds for a daily practice built into it.  As we begin to feel some of the benefits we just want to keep feeling them.

For example, as of today I cannot go more than 3 days without practicing and not getting mad.  Yoga centers me, balances me, clears my head and makes my body feel healthy. This in turn brings peace and poise to all other areas of my life. Then I have a foundation from which to build into how to be peaceful towards others.

4.- Having a Teacher: Yes we can all open Swenson’s book (which is fantastic) and go through it, or get a great DVD and start the practice from the privacy of our living rooms.  It is difficult to face going to a yoga studio at first because all those youngsters look so much better than us.   I know I had that fear and I was not even 40 yet.

I understand that, I actually started it that way, got the DVD, hit play and practiced along, lonely and at home.  It might work to get the idea, but after a while it might prove profitable to get over the feeling of shame and just head to a studio.

If a good teacher is available in the area and you ‘click’ with the teacher then, gosh! That is lucky!  A good teacher will make good recommendations, hear you out, do good modifications and give you the courage to tackle that next pose when he or she feels you are ready, and if you trust them…. you will simply continue on.  Within a few months you will surprise yourself.

No more leaks!

5.-Plugging the leaks in life: The practice takes care of the beginnings of this because it is intense and hence priorities need to be arranged so that the limited energy we have can be used on the pursue of it.

But Ashtanga yoga is much bigger than just that, and hence it is important to be aware of the areas in life where we are in the red, where we leak energy.  For example, we can begin by identifying who are our real friends and who are the energy drainers?  Who are asking for advise or our time and energy then not follow through and come back for more. Who are the people who uplift us and who are those who leave us ready for sleep or rest.

Get rid of the drainers at once and at all cost.

6.-Accepting that life will change. The re-arranging of priorities and the noticing of where our energy goes followed by actions taken to improve that, will change life.  At first in subtle ways (maybe we do not return a call to follow through with an argument knowing full way there is no way to win or to bring peace), but eventually in big ways.

Some people might drop out of our lives, others will not understand what we are doing and feel threatened.  That is OK.  Change that comes through the practice is positive change.

7.-Hydration and Nutrition.  Keeping hydrated is something we need to work on.  Having a job means many times we forget or postpone drinking water and even going to the bathroom, especially when in back-to-back meetings. We need to recognize the insanity behind this and respect our bodies.

Nutrition is another area that needs revision.  Investigating what we put in our bodies and in what  quantities has a tremendous effect in our level of energy and practice outcome, on how we feel, on how clear we are.

8.-Plenty of rest:  Having a regular time for bed, with a ritual behind it to support it and a regular time for waking up trains the body to be ready for practice (and the day!)

9.-Skin BrushingSee here on the benefits and how to do it.  I now brush my skin daily, I can even see the particles of old, dusty dead skin coming out, making space for new, and for greater absorption of oils and air.  Skin brushing also improves criculation of the blood.

10.-Rubbing back the sweat into the body and proper savasana.  Pattabhi Jois says in his book, Yoga Malathat it is important to rub the sweat back into the body. He also advises not to expose the body to cold or heat right after practice. B.K.S. Iyengar, the master yoga teacher from Pune, has said that it is important to take 5 minutes of rest for every half hour of asana practice.

We must respect that, or be willing to pay the consequences which means having a day filled with nervous tensions due to the nervous system not having had enough time to cool off.

11.-Oil-ing the skin: There are several practices recommended in yoga circles. One is the Saturday Castor Oil Bath which was pointed out by Pattabhi Jois himself. I also use almond oil or sesame oil after bathing daily and after skin brushing.

Some practitioners mentioned to me that in the Ayurveda science of healing people use different oils depending on their type.  You may want to give a gift to yourself and invest in an Ayurveda consultation, show some self-love and feel pampered by using the right oil for you.

12.-Acupuncture: This is not very expensive and it helps reconnect meridian points within the body that may have disconnected.  Finding a good Chinese practitioner has done wonders for me and will do for you too.  You can also see this post for ancient Chinese secrets I have found and use practically daily to keep the body sharp.

It has worked miracles for me!

13.-Massage:  I find deep tissue massage to be a revelation.  The pressure applied to knots (when done by someone who can do it well) releases tension and pain. It is to be experienced and it takes time to come across the right practitioner.

I recently also heard of the Theracane from Susan, a very knowledgeable yoga blogger and advanced yoga student/teacher, who showed it to me, and has promised to write a post (to which I will link when ready) on the benefits of using it.

She recommended to get started by getting  booth the cane and the manual that goes with it (Amazon suggests you buy them together).  I have placed the order after just playing with it for a few minutes.  I can tell it is a good tool to have around already.

14.-Vegetarian meals or less red meat: Changing diet violently is unlikely to work, however opting for vegetarian meals when possible, and slowly moving towards a more grain and veggies diet helps as red meat tends to make the body bulky and harder.

Vegetarian meals are more conducive to flexibility and suppleness.  I find that using ghee (clarified butter) helps me with flexibility, and I love the taste.  It feels as if I am greasing of the engines.

But of course, every body is different and you will have to learn about your  own body, more and more, and get more in touch with it to find out exactly what works for you.

15.-Mysore: James has been to Mysore, India (the headquarters of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute) twice now to study with Saraswathi, daughter of Pattabhi Jois, and he loves the “focused energy in the room,  as well as the practicing among such “dedicated practitioners”.  I have come to Mysore three times now and studied both with Saraswathi and in the main studio with Sharath and can say the same thing.

Mysore may not be for everyone but if it calls you then you are lucky.  There is a level of dedication here as well as the factor of being surrounded by so many very advanced students/teachers that inspires one to keep on going and to go deep.

There is not much else to do unless you chose to socialize heavily, which I would discourage.  When the time is used wisely here in Mysore, then the practice can bring huge benefits.

16.-Mula bandha: The concept of Mula bandha is explained as tightening of the anus or perineum during practice (and afterwards when remembered as well).  It is one to get into our heads and remember before practice so that we can start engaging it.

Personally I find that the concept of mula bandha extends way beyond the mat and into all of life.  We engage this lock while on the mat to prevent leaks of energy, and we continue to notice leaks as we walk through life, and hopefully plug them.

17.-Deep breathing with sound: The deep, slow, loud breathing with sound (Darth Vader sounding breath), is a key component and it helps going deeper into a meditative state.  Good to start focusing on it early on.  I find that becoming very aware of this element of the practice is great especially when we start late in life as it will aid in the slowing down and letting go of the mind that tends to reach outwards into the perceived inmediate responsibilities and demands of daily life.

18.-Focusing: Each pose in the primary series (and all series) has an eye-focus point.  It is critical to use this tool from the start. Of course it is not easy to remember all the focusing points (there are nine) but when in doubt you can always make sure to send the eye-gaze alongside the nose line.

This will send you within and bring you into connection with your own body during practice rather than following the hyper flow of the eyes that want to constantly go outside and look, judge, criticise etc.  Remember we are looking to go within, to be in touch with the body to reach higher and higher levels of awareness and come to peace.

19.-Led classes:  In the Ashtanga Yoga tradition, once a week (or twice in Mysore) there is a “led” class. One in which the instructor does the counting and students follow as opposed to the Mysore style where everyone arrives in their own time and go at their own rhythm.  Led classes are fantastic tools to:

a) Surrender.  Many people do not like to ‘give the reins away’

b) Learn the proper vinyasas, or transitions in between each one of the poses.

c) Slow down (or speed up) the count. It acts as a reality check

d) Challenge us.  In Mysore for example, the count for the last pose Utpluthi, in which you are in the lotus and lift yourself up with both hands and count to what seems to be a thousand counts is always exaggerated.  I have come to the conclusion that I need to hold it for 25 of my counts to make what in Mysore would be 10.

20.-No cheating:  Following up on the above point.  There is a pose where it is easy to cheat, and that is in the transition between chaturanga and upward dog.  When you go from the plank pose, as we call it in the west, to the pose where you arch your back right before going into downward dog.

In Mysore, Sharath is fond of having us wait, maybe for three counts in chaturanga and then say “Why you hurry? You Have somewhere to go? You hungry?”  Which results in laughter.

But there is a point there to be respected.  No need to rush in the pose just because it can become automatic and repetitive, great opportunity to notice how the mind wants to “get it done” or thinks it “already knows” something. It never does, the mind cannot know anything.

Of course on the other side of this it is good to respect our bodies and build at our own pace, just not get complacent and fall on the other side. Always strive for a healthy balance.

21.-Reading the Yoga Sutras:  Reading the sutras helps put things in perspective and for us to understand why it is we do the asanas in the morning.

It helps us identify what is real and what is not, to follow the real purpose of yoga, that of bringing peace so we can get to happiness with strong discrimination.  How it is a practice that can get us out of delusions.

It also has some really good advise, very practical, on how to deal with all sorts of people, including crappy people.  And of course, it has an in-depth explanation of the goal of yoga and how it happens, how the higher and finer level of concentration bring peace into our lives.  How it might feel to be in, or reach a state of yoga.

This commentary on the Sutras is one my favorites.  Others I find  either too scholarly or that they differ a bit too much to how it was taught by Kristnamacharya. I was fortunate to take a course with Ramaswami (a student of Krishnamacharya for 35 years) and I am grateful as it helped me distinguish among good versions of it for the interpretation.

You may also want to look at:
32 Suggestions on How to get Started with Ashtanga Yoga
My Book (free for prime members) 21 Things To Know Before Starting Ashtanga Yoga

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