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Better With Age

YJ asked six venerable teachers to share their thoughts and words of wisdom on how their practice has changed over the years, what they've learned about themselves along the way, and why they still roll out their mats every day.

By Marisa Guthrie

Llias Folan, 67, brought yoga to the masses three decades ago with her popular PBS-TV series Yoga and You. She has published numerous books and best-selling videos and currently teaches classes in Cincinnati, Ohio. Folan constantly travels around the world conducting seminars and workshops.

"A student recently asked me, 'Lilias, has your practice changed as you've gotten older?' I'm 67 now, and I had the chutzpah to say, 'No, it hasn't changed at all.' And then I thought about it and I said, 'Yes, it has changed in some ways. The postures are deeper and stronger."

"I took so much for granted in my 20s. Today, I don't take my practice for granted. I'm far more attentive to the joints and connective tissues of my body. I do positions that really help the joints and improve strength and flexibility. I move from position to position more conscientiously, listening to my body more deeply."

"Warm-ups are really, really important, because as you get older, the stiffness starts to creep up on you."

"The yoga postures aren't the end-all and be-all. I've got to supplement my practice with different sorts of stretches and, yes, some weight work."

"Something's really bubbling in me to write about how my yoga gets better as I age, and these changes are definitely part of that. I'm not embarrassed to talk about these things. As yogis we're supposed to keep it together as our bodies and lives change. Eventually we will all go through these changes."

"After 35 years of yoga, its power is just kicking in. Yoga gives you powerful tools to know yourself and enables you to go inward through the layers of the body, mind, and emotions."

"Yoga promises a great deal and has given me far more than it has promised. What do I mean by that? The promises that yoga makes-that we can still the mind, heal the pain, and reconnect to the heart center-well, on paper they're like promises. But when you begin to experience them through your asana, breathing, and meditation practices, it's a different ball game. And those are some of the things that have deepened in me."

"Years ago, I didn't see the big picture. I just wanted to learn Scorpion Pose. And I got quite proficient at it." "When you start the asanas, you're going to change, yet you often resist it. You're dragged to change. However, you can learn to change like a flower opening; gradually the petals open, and there's no pain."

"Consciousness evolves slowly. I'm able to assimilate the lessons of yoga now. I couldn't understand one word of Ramana Maharshi 35 years ago. Today I understand, and to me that means consciousness deepens slowly."

"The body changes every seven years on a cellular level, and as you get older you notice stiffness that wasn't there before. I really listen to what my body needs each day. I hold the poses longer. I try to do a nice rounded practice with some challenging poses, but nothing too intense. I don't do Wheel Pose anymore because I must take care of my cranky shoulders."

"Trying to stop being perfect in the postures was a huge revelation to me."

"We're all longing for spiritual food, but we have to be ready to take it in. The real excitement and the passion comes from the inner practice."

"The revelations to me have been experiencing the promises of yoga. I can quiet my mind and link my heart with bliss. I have a witness self, and it gets stronger every day. Wisdom lies in stillness."

Dharma Mittra, who turns 64 in May, has been practicing yoga since the 1950s. He began teaching yoga daily in New York City in 1967. In 1975 he opened his own school, The Dharma Yoga Center, which is located on East 23rd Street. His Yoga Course Chart and the Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures, which he published in 1975, are a staple at most ashrams and yoga centers worldwide. His first book, 608 Asanas, published by New World Library, will be out in May.

"I would say my practice is almost the same. I don't see much of a difference. I am more careful with diet because of age, and that has helped. As you age, your body becomes more sensitive and you must learn to follow the rules of proper diet. If one eats junk food, you will feel it in the joints, but if one keeps the right diet and does the right poses, you will be fine."

"You just have to be more cautious and more constant in the poses, especially practicing Shoulderstand and Cobra Pose regularly to keep your spine flexible."

"I don't feel that I need as much practice. I'm not doing as much as when I was younger. The main difference I notice is that I have to warm up a little longer." "I practice every day, and I teach almost every day. But I don't just teach—I also participate. I do all the demonstrations of the poses. I have noticed that as you get older, you become more sensitive to your body, so occasionally it hurts a little more."

"In the late 1950s when I was in the Air Force, I hurt my knees practicing judo. Now after all these years, my left knee is starting to bother me a little more. So I do special poses to strengthen the ligaments around the knee. I like Utkatasana (Chair Pose) and Virabhadrasana I and II (Warrior Poses I and II); these are good for strengthening the knees."

"Through many years of self-surrender and constant practice, I don't have to practice meditation on its own anymore. I am already in a state of meditation. The postures are meditation; everything is meditation. I am no longer looking for spiritual knowledge. I'm at the point where I believe I don't need that anymore."

"When you remove all the doubts in your mind, you are always in a state of meditation. But I sit quietly to calm the mind because we are in a world of constant movement."

"I like to be quiet. I love to be alone. But I don't sit in a special position. I might just sit in a chair—that's all."

"I think the only difference between my practice then and now is that I do the poses without expecting anything from them. I do what has to be done."

"For a long time I would practice the poses to get some higher psychic power. Now all I need is to maintain good health without expectations, and I do a pose just because it has to be done-just to keep good health."

"My practice is much simpler. I don't have anything to achieve anymore. Everything is achieved already."

"Younger people are more interested in living. They see ahead of them. They can do more poses. But the seniors are there just to maintain their good health. They see me at this age, moving just like a young person, and they feel more excited and enthusiastic about it; they have more hope. And occasionally I tell them that age is nothing."

"When I talk to my younger students about reincarnation, I tell them: Now I am getting old, and you're young, but see into the next life. When I am reincarnated, I'll be young again, and I'll come back to the studio, carrying my yoga mat under my arm, and you will all be old. But I tell them not to worry about that."

"I tell my older students not to look in the mirror too much. As soon as you close your eyes, you are young."

Beryl Bender Birch, 60, has been teaching Ashtanga Yoga for nearly 30 years. She coined the term "power yoga" as a way for Western minds to relate to Ashtanga Yoga. She is founder and codirector of The Hard and Soft Ashtanga Yoga Institute in New York and wellness director of the New York Road Runners Club. Her books (Power Yoga, Fireside, 1995; and Beyond Power Yoga, Fireside, 2000) and videos have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

"I have always told my students that I'm going to press up into Handstand from Bakasana (Crane Pose) on the beach in Hawaii when I'm 60 years old. I haven't made it there yet, but I'm moving in that direction."

"What started me in asana? I was searching for God."

"When I was younger and newer to Ashtanga Yoga, the asana was very important. It's a strong practice, and I took a lot of pride in it. I was definitely arrogant about the fact that I did a strong practice and other people did softer yoga. Of course, I never let them know that, but honestly, deep in my heart, I felt a little superior. Certainly that has dissipated a great deal—thank goodness. I now practice having equal respect for the various authentic schools of yoga."

"I haven't missed a day of practice in 30 years. I realized that practice isn't just cranking out the asanas. If you're really a student of the Yoga Sutra, there is a natural evolution that goes from yama (restraint) to niyama (observances) to asana (posture) to pPranayama (breath control). So practice comes in many different forms-pranayama practice, asana practice, dhyana (meditation) practice, chopping carrot practice."

"There's a common misconception out there about Ashtanga Yoga. People say to me, 'Why don't you do the more spiritual kind of yoga?' My hair stands on end, and I look at them and I say, 'This is the spiritual kind. This is the traditional kind.' "

"The thing is, just because a practice is physically strong people assume it's therefore not spiritual. It's important for people to learn that there are different paths of yoga. When I was younger, I may have thought there was one true way. But this is something I have gotten over. There are many different paths, and one isn't better than another. It's a practice. Some people like strong asana practice and some people don't, and it doesn't matter what you do as long as you do something.

"There are many postures that I do now that I didn't do 30 years ago."

"I'm still getting better at my asana practice, and I just turned 60. I don't know when I'll begin to go backward or get less proficient at asana. Maybe when I die?"

"It's important to be patient. Many people have a strong asana practice when they're younger. That's great. They do the tricks. But are they paying attention? That's something you learn as you get older."

"I have a friend; he's a runner. For years I've been telling him he needs to do yoga. He has these tight hamstrings, and in the last several years, he's been having chronic back pain. I would tell him over and over, 'You know you should be doing yoga.' But, of course, he didn't listen to me. He goes to the doctor and then tells me, 'You know, my doctor told me my legs are too tight and that's why my back is bothering me. He suggested yoga.' What's that saying? Save your breath to cool your porridge."

"It's heaven to put your brain on beginner's mode, which is where it should be most of the time anyway. Know the asanas, but don't push them; know the form, and adjust without violence, injury, or ego."

Tony briggs, 58, has been practicing and studying yoga for 25 years. He is the founder of Turtle Island Yoga in San Rafael, California, where he teaches and offers an extensive teacher-training program. He began his studies at the Iyengar Institute in San Francisco and directs the teacher-training program at Yoga Tree in San Francisco.

"I began to study yoga in 1978. I was 33 and unhappy. For me it was much more about the psychological and emotional stuff. It wasn't like I had a bad back or pain in my neck that the doctors couldn't fix. It was more to do with my state of mind, and that's been true all along."

"I used to do 108 Sun Salutations some mornings. It took about 45 minutes, and that would be my practice for the day."

"According to some traditions, on your birthday you should do one drop-back from standing to Urdhva Dhanurasana for every year of your life."

"In general, I hold the poses much longer now. For me holding poses longer is a natural progression of your practice moving more inward. Everyone moves more inward as they get older."

"My practice is more spiritual now, but I shy away from the word 'spirituality.' I'm much more interested in what the breath does—how the breath affects the mind."

"When I first practiced yoga, I did little pranayama. It was maybe 10 percent of my practice. Today it's about 40 percent."

"Now my asana practice is much more about connecting to the poses using the breath. I do fewer standing poses and more inversions. The backbends tend to be more supported."

"As you get older, your practice becomes more subtle, and that automatically leads to more meditative states." "Many of my students who are in their 20s and 30s are quite limber and serious about their practice. Superficially the poses are strong and impressive. But I think, well, it looks great, but there's no depth. It looks great in 2-D, but there's no 3-D."

"People who are much more experienced yogis—you can just see it. Their emotional center of gravity is much lower down. The real source of the pose is coming from somewhere much deeper. They are more grounded and connected with the earth. They just get it."

"I had a very exact sequence to my practice. It was a 14-day cycle—a different sequence each day—so I covered all the poses every two weeks."

"I don't see the need to do the really fancy poses, the ones at the back of the book, so to speak. I find the same benefit in the simpler poses."

"In terms of a personal practice, my advice is to simplify. You don't have to practice all 200 poses. You can get everything you need out of 50 poses."

"Some people come to yoga for the physical benefits, and then they kind of sink into it a little more."

"Experience brings knowledge, but if you're tuned in to what the practice can do for you, it doesn't matter what age you are or when you begin."

"One day I asked one of my older students, 'Francis, what's it like being 75 years old and practicing yoga?' She said, 'Look, Tony, I know I'm never going to be able to do a Headstand in the middle of the room. But I started yoga when I was 50, and now I'm 75 and all of my friends have gotten old.' "

Erich Schiffmann, 49, has studied with B.K.S. Iyengar in Pune, India; T.K.V. Desikachar in Madras, India; and Joel Kramer of Bolinas, California. A yoga instructor who teaches at Sacred Movement in Venice, California, he also contributed to actress Ali MacGraw's best-selling video, Yoga: Mind and Body. The title of his own book, Yoga: The Spirit of Practice and Moving into Stillness, perfectly encapsulates the evolution of his personal practice.

"When I was a teenager, I was playing baseball and surfing, and I really wasn't interested in touching my toes. But I stuck with it, and after a while it just became fun."

"I was reading books by Krishnamurti, and in one of them he said if you wanted to get your head together, you should meditate, become a vegetarian, and get your body as sensitive as possible by doing yoga."

"My technique pretty much all along has been to do what feels right for me."

"For a long time I was very structured with my practice. I got up at 5 a.m. and began my practice at 6 a.m. Lately I've been doing my personal practice in the evenings. I like it then, because I've finished everything I need to do for the day. I've fed the cats and paid the bills, and I can just go into the yoga room and totally immerse myself in the practice for as long as I want."

"I'm more of a minimalist in my practice. I make it as simple as possible. It feels more skillful, and you don't get hurt as much."

"I used to do 108 backbends once a week. I got to the point where I could do them in 15 to 20 minutes."

"Backbends are still my favorites, but not 108 of them and not as deeply as I used to. I'm more content with doing more midrange poses and feeling more comfortable in my body."

"If it hurts, it's wrong. The body is like plastic in the sense that it's malleable like plastic. If you apply gentle, steady pressure, you can mold it, and it will become more flexible. If you try to bend it too fast, then like plastic it will break in the weak spot."

"I was practicing in Italy, and one day my back began to hurt. So I asked the teacher, 'Don't you think I should stop?' And she said, 'Don't stop. Go through the pain.' I was new to the practice and thought there was something on the other side of the pain, so I kept going. The next day I couldn't walk."

"My whole deal is getting into the meditative state as many moments in the day as you can. And that simply means listening inwardly, relaxing as much as you can, and daring to do what your deepest feelings prompt you to do."

"When I first started practicing, I had to discipline myself to keep doing it. Now it's just how I'm wired. It's how I'm built. It's something I'll probably always do, like brushing my teeth."

"A little bit every day is much better than an excessive amount one day a week."

"When you catch yourself imagining an undesirable future like 'My health will probably just get worse,' be aware you are thinking this, pause, cancel the thought, and take a moment to feel the creative life force that is what you are. Don't believe the negative projection; instead, feel the energy that constitutes you. This way you leave a space for the miraculous to occur."

Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, 60, is cofounder and director of Golden Bridge, one of Los Angeles's premier centers for Kundalini Yoga. She has been studying and teaching for 30 years. A child of the 1960s, Gurmukh embraces the benevolent spirit of the era, volunteering her services at prisons and community centers. One of her specialties is yoga for pregnancy. Her video series, The Method, offers a natural approach to pregnancy and childbirth. She is also author of The Eight Human Talents: The Yogic Way to Restoring the Natural Balance of Serenity Within You (HarperCollins, 2000). She is married and has a 19-year-old daughter who teaches yoga and attends school in New Mexico.

"You know how they say postmenopausal women lose bone density? Well, it's just a phrase until you literally feel it happening. And I felt it happening to my body, especially in the legs and hips."

"I've always been flexible and strong, but I began to lose strength. I began running and taking a natural progesterone cream, and that has been amazing because I have my strength back."

"Kundalini Yoga is so much about meditation. My meditation has gotten much deeper, and my teaching more spontaneous. I can move and flow better than I did 10 years ago."

"I actually feel better, not just physically but also emotionally. I have more patience, spontaneity, and humor. I sit and meditate, and the answers come more easily." "Your body is the manifestation of your mind."

"I work with many pregnant women and new mothers and their babies. It keeps me and my body young."

"As yogis we always say, 'You probably will die, but you don't have to grow old.' "

"I think what also keeps our bodies really young is if we don't wish to be other than what we are."

"As yogis we are continually clearing our subconscious mind. The practice of clearing out the old stuff gives us a brand new day every day."

"My feeling is we must meditate. Yoga is missing so much without meditation."

"As we get older and we add meditation to our practice, we get a deeper insight into what yoga is really about."

"Yoga is not about self-improvement. It's about self-acceptance."

"I do as much yoga now as when I first began. I teach about 18 classes a week, and I travel, teaching all over. Looking back, do I do it as hard as I did? No. When I lived in an ashram we would do marathon yoga. We would do it all day, three days in a row. We would do 31-minute kriyas from 5 a.m. until 8 p.m. and drink nothing but water for three days. We had a lot of time years ago."

"Age can make you either stupid or wise. Stupid means you still hold on to lots of resentments; you wish you weren't growing old. Yoga can lift that and bring wisdom and peace."


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Reader Comments

mary redd

I am starting YOGA for the first time ever. I used to workout years ago, but I am unable to start again related to work schedule. I am 59 years old and have some stiffness. Where can I find effective stretching exercises to help me with my YOGA?

anny

i will be 80 in august...(it only SOUNDS old!); have been doing yoga since 1965 and teaching since 1974. my students range from teens to 50's. some day, in the far-distant future, i plan to teach "seniors".....but-not-yet! i have had several severe health issues, most of which have been resolved thanks to yoga.

Elaine

I have only recently found yoga,I struggle with the balance at time,I am 65 years young,but I'll be darned if it will beat me.I am loving Yoga,thank you for the wise comments,I do not see myself as older,in fact I feel as good as when I was 45.

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