The mostly unspoken truth is that nearly all yogis suffer injuries from time to time, usually minor, but occasionally major ones that become chronic or permanent.
Yes, even skilled yogis sometimes lose their balance and tweak something. For men, getting hurt is almost inevitable. Why so?
From childhood, men have been brainwashed by the “no pain no gain” approach to strength and fitness, a foolhardy attitude that invites injury. Most men grow up believing that physical fitness means going to war with oneself. In contrast, most women intuitively understand the lunacy of this impulse.
In truth, those who seek pain will surely find it.
I did and it was my pain that first led me to yoga, a route shared by many of my fellow yogis. When I first unrolled my mat 10 years ago, I was convinced I was paying the price for a lifetime of physical abuse, first as an athlete and later as a lumberjack, ironworker, concrete former, ranch hand, and oil field roustabout. The intense physicality was great until it wasn’t. My back began to hurt and kept on hurting for the next 25 years…until I tried yoga and found immediate relief.
The physical benefits of yoga have been astonishing for me, but I also learned the hard way there are risks practicing yoga, and the risks increase with age.
Yoga may truly be the fountain of youth, but yogis should take care how much they drink of its magical waters. Men in particular have difficulty understanding this simple truth, misled by a “no pain no gain” mentality, a compulsion that often leads to injury. For me, it was a ruptured tendon, but I finally got the idea.
The whole point of yoga is to make friends with our bodies, not the bodies we once had or wish to have, but the bodies we have right here and now. It took me 10 years and a scary injury to understand this. After all, loving and caring for our physical selves should be among our primary goals in the practice of yoga.
So what have I learned? How should older yogis like me modify their practice to honor advancing age? Here are 10 guiding rules:
Rule One: Drop into your body and out of your head.
The practice of yoga requires the focused awareness of your body and all its moving parts and pieces. Since the mind tends to wander and distract, you must continually return to your body, using breath as the bridge, visualizing breath moving into the areas of the body where you feel the most sensation. Relying on breath to connect mind and body will keep you present.
Rule Two: Bring softness and sweetness to your practice…like a confident and attentive lover with all the time in the world.
Older yogis should not concern themselves with perfection, and instead lose themselves in the sensuality and beauty of the moment, calmed by controlled breathing and cleansed by profuse sweating.
Rule Three: Never ever strain when practicing yoga.
The surest way to get hurt in yoga is to strain, particularly for older yogis. Sadly, “hurt yogis” often become “former yogis.” Always bring a balance of effort and ease to your practice. Once effort outweighs ease, strain often occurs. A perfect balance of strength and softness will result in a yoga practice that tones the body, increases flexibility, and leaves us feeling peaceful and relaxed.
Rule Four: Never hold a pose. Explore it.
Holding a pose results in a stagnant, rigid practice. Instead, stay in flow. Older yogis should move ever so slightly, gently, and pleasurably exploring each pose, making subtle adjustments by small degrees.
Rule Five: Know the difference between pain and fatigue.
Older yogis must stop whatever they are doing the instant they feel pain. On the other hand, fatigue is something to be pursued, embraced, and enjoyed. For me, completing a challenging yoga class has the same satisfaction as my reaching the top of Mt. Jackson in Colorado, just on a smaller scale.
Rule Six: Take whatever the teacher says more as a suggestion than a directive.
Certain poses are potentially dangerous and the risks vary from person to person. Older yogis must be hypersensitive to the possibility of injury. For example, I never do headstand any more. Evidenced by my shrinking two inches in height, my connective tissues (cartilage, ligaments, spinal discs, and tendons) have weakened over time. Just as I would not stack 175 pounds of weights on my head, so too I will not go upside down. A ruptured disc in my neck is not something I need and will not risk. As an alternative to headstand, older yogis can recline on their backs and raise their legs in the air, which leads to…
Rule Seven: Modify and customize your practice for the body you have right here and now.
Growing older, I find my capabilities fluctuate day by day, particularly my balance, which is tough to accept. As a young man, I could bound along concrete forms and steel girders high in the air like a mountain goat, supremely confident in my balance. Now I can only sometimes do Tree Pose…kind of…and never for long. Mountain Pose is my default standing pose when my balance just isn’t there on a given day. Older yogis should have a full repertoire of alternate poses should the moment require them. Drop into a safer or more comfortable alternative without embarrassment or hesitation.
Rule Eight: Select your teachers and classes with care.
I admire all of my yoga teachers, but some of their classes I can no longer attend. Older yogis like me should probably avoid classes that are hot, fast, and choreographed. The young and talented love these classes. If I were much younger, I would too! But generally, older people have difficulty with high temperatures, fast movements, and dance-like choreography.
Rule Nine: Do not fixate on the aging process and instead be grateful and joyful for what you still can do.
This is the toughest rule to master and I am still working at it. In truth, I am surprised by my age and physical changes. Life does indeed come at us fast! Young and strong one moment and old and unsteady the next. But whatever our age, we should welcome the moment—happy to be alive and as true friends with our bodies. And for those younger yogis reading this article feeling dismissive given their age, please think again. You will be stunned how time flies.
Rule Ten: Incorporate meditation into your practice and daily life.
Both on and off your yoga mat, take time to close your eyes, be still, and focus on rhythmic, restorative breathing. As a recovering stress junkie, I have found that meditation reduces stress, lowers anxiety, and confers a sense of tranquility and peaceful acceptance. Indeed, the benefits are more than just psychic. Recent studies suggest meditation actually slows the aging process. For me, yoga and meditation will forever be my trusted guides in aging gracefully.
Author: Christopher Eiben
Editor: Taia Butler