For Jaki Nett, a 68-year-old Iyengar instructor and former Playboy bunny, yoga at first was a path to salvation. "It gave me an escape from my wild life," she says with characteristic bluntness. Over the decades, it has sustained and enriched the trailblazing practitioner through marital strife, illness, menopause, weight gain, and, now more than ever, the process of aging. Today, Nett is grateful for her practice and feels quite comfortable in her own skin.
"Yoga is absolutely essential to my aging with grace—physically, emotionally, and socially," Nett says. "Now, I'm moving into that role as an elder teacher, maybe even a role model for older women, and I take pride in that. I accept the role with relish!"
In a culture that frames aging as a process of loss, a lifelong yoga practice offers myriad benefits. On a physical level, yoga can give you a strength and a suppleness that make it more likely you'll enjoy an active life as you age. On a deeper level, it can provide a sense of self-acceptance and gratitude that is often missing in one's younger years, as well as a gradual quieting of the ego as perfection ceases to be a goal.
The physical benefits of the practice over time—maintaining flexibility, lowering blood pressure, easing chronic conditions such as back pain and arthritis, and potentially helping to prevent major health crises like heart disease and strokes—are matched by an equal number of benefits that are less tangible. Yoga sharpens the mind, helps cultivate acceptance, hones discipline, and fortifies a sense of self.
As they reflect on their lives, dedicated yogis point to the internal gifts of practice as the ones they have come to value the most. Flexibility, skill, and vitality continue to sustain their bodies as they get older, but the self-acceptance, self-knowledge, and forgiveness that deepen and grow through yoga practice make aging a process of more, not less, enjoyment.
"I believe I'm practicing now for my old age—to keep movement and suppleness in my shoulders, my hips, my spine; to retain strength," Nett says. "The intensity of practice that I sought in youth isn't as appealing to body or mind, but I can still play in my body and enjoy my asana."
Jaki Nett's life in yoga began decades ago while she was in the midst of nearly a dozen years of serving drinks at the Playboy Club in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and 1970s. She had a shapely size-zero body and a snappy style, but she led a chaotic life of "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." She says, deep down, "I knew I had to get out of the lifestyle."
Driving to work every day, she would pass a little studio with a huge sign that said, simply, "Yoga." It always caught her eye. Finally, in 1973, Nett went to a class and began to let go. "I cried in every class for two months," she says.
"It came from that surprising depth where tears of joy flow. It's like when you reunite with an old friend or return to the comforts of home and realize how much you have missed it," Nett explains.
Coming home to yoga can exert a powerful, positive influence from the beginning, overwhelming habits that conflict with yoga philosophy. In Nett's case, her self-destructive desire to dabble in drugs and alcohol was replaced by a desire to deepen her practice.
She went to Mexico for teacher training with Indra Devi in 1977, and in 1978, Nett met a man at a Kripalu Yoga teacher training in Pennsylvania. They fell in love and were married eight months later. She and Allan Nett settled in California's Napa Valley, where they opened a private Iyengar studio in their home.
Eight years ago, she became an intermediate senior Iyengar instructor, the highest certification of any African American woman in the United States.
"Yoga became my rudder and, ultimately, my way of life," says Nett. "It was a part of me I was looking for."
Yoga grants no immunity from life's inevitable calamities, but the practice cultivates the courage and calm, as well as the acceptance and humility to help transform rocky moments or full-blown crises into periods of growth. Nett credits her practice, and her belief in yoga, with getting her through a difficult time in her marriage and for helping her to maintain a sense of self through a bout of physical and emotional health issues.
When she was in her 50s, Nett recalls, her marriage was on the brink of collapse. She went to India to continue training with Geeta Iyengar and poured out her troubles to her teacher. She told Nett, as they planned for her to return in a year, "Come back with your husband."
Nett realized that she had to reconsider her position and accept Geeta's suggestion in the same way she had learned to accept adjustments in her asana. The willingness to let go and to stay with an idea without judgment is a foundation of yoga philosophy that applies on and off the mat. Her teacher's instruction "made me stop and look," Nett says. "It was the turning point when I could say, 'I'm going to see this through.'"
Around the same time as the marital rift, Nett hit menopause. She reeled from that double punch emotionally and physically, and her weight soared. She grew from a slender 135 pounds to nearly 200. "I was not feeling good about myself," she recalls. "I ballooned so much that I would go into stores and people would ignore me, like I had disappeared." In her practice, Nett says, "I would do poses, and I would run into my own body."
Once again, Nett turned inward and saw a need to reconnect with her teachers. She prepared to make a retreat to India and to use her practice, as she always had, to make deeper contact with her body and her Self. When she got there, Nett immersed herself in yoga, finding the time and desire for only one meal a day.
Fed by her practice, sated by rich spiritual sustenance, she shed her extra pounds rapidly. "It made me feel good about myself," Nett recalls. "I saw that having that weight on my body got in the way of my even wanting to practice."
These days, Nett no longer has the tiny waist and Playboy curves of her youth, but that is perfectly OK with her. "Each era of life presents something to let go of," she says, "and letting go with grace is what aging, and yoga, is to me."
Just as the body, supported by yoga, adapts to limitation, the practitioner's mind accepts the inevitability of aging less as something to fear and more as an experience with the potential to strengthen the true Self. Nett, like so many of her peers, focuses less these days on physical prowess in her practice and more on the value of going deep. A regular vigorous Ashtanga class "would kill me," she says. "But I can do—and prefer to do—hours of my yoga. I can do very strong poses. Practicing in the precise anatomical way of Iyengar Yoga continues to serve me."
When she teaches, Nett encourages her students—young or old, supple or stiff—to accept their bodies and reap the benefits of asana. She invites them to look squarely at their feelings on aging, to consciously place their awareness there, as they would on an injured shoulder, even if they don't like what they see. If you feel angry about aging, she says, look openly at that anger. Over time, Nett predicts, your frustration will give way to acceptance.
The Iyengar instructor can easily offer herself as proof. Just a few years shy of her 70th birthday, Nett is physically strong and spiritually grounded—proud, she says, "of my best, authentic, 68-year-old self." For this, and for the fullness of her life so far, she credits yoga, a practice that she believes will help her become "a spry old woman" full of energy and poise.
Interview With John Schumacher
Home: Washington, DC
John Schumacher is a certified advanced junior I Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded Unity Woods Yoga Center in 1979 in the Washington, DC, area. It is now one of the largest Iyengar Yoga centers in the US, with three locations serving more than 45,000 students.
Yoga Journal: What are the key ways that yoga has helped you in life?
John Schumacher: Most important, yoga has clarified my purpose in life—the process of awakening to what is real and true and aligning myself with the flow of Being. It has provided a means to maximize my physical health and well-being. Many of the minor ailments I had as a younger man—colds, headaches, strep throat, seasonal allergies—have disappeared. I experience health as a positive state. Breathing is sweet, and I have plenty of energy.
My practice also tunes me in to my physical, mental, and emotional states and provides tools to respond effectively to what I perceive. If I'm tired, stressed, or depleted, the right sequence of asanas, pPranayama, and sitting can help me find my balance. I still get a bit wacky at times responding to stress—the balance between family, practice, and teaching continues to be challenging. But my practice has given me much more of a sense of equanimity. I deal with what I have to deal with and move on.
YJ: How has your practice changed as you've aged?
JS: I don't do as many of the whiz-bang poses I used to do. I can't. I am not as strong as I was and lack the stamina. I still work hard, still do advanced asana and pranayama, and still love and enjoy my practice, but now I'm studying the effects of my practice on my state of mind and my nervous system, as well as my physical body. I guide my practice toward developing awareness of more subtle and internal actions and states, and I adjust my practice to balance intensity, depth, and inner equilibrium.
YJ: Has your teaching changed as you have matured?
JS: I am much more patient with students now, especially beginning students. All students come to yoga for different reasons. They all have challenging circumstances in their lives about which I am unaware. I try to take all but the most advanced students into poses more gradually now, taking time to create openings and supports that will allow the final pose to come with less physical and mental resistance.
YJ: How do you imagine your life would be different if you had not found yoga?
JS: As a child of the '60s, I was curious about the more cosmic, mysterious aspects of life. I was a musician, and yoga appealed to the more organized aspect of my nature. At the same time, yoga addressed the transcendent quality of experience that music provided. I doubt I would be as healthy or focused now had I not been introduced to yoga.
Interview With Dona Holleman
Home: Soiano del Lago, Italy
Deeply influenced by Krishnamurti, B.K.S. Iyengar, and Vanda Scaravelli, Dona Holleman began teaching globally in the 1960s, and she has instructed many of today's senior teachers. She is the author of Dancing the Body of Light.
Yoga Journal: What early lessons have served you best?
Dona Holleman: Fortunately, I had early preparation to make me independent: I grew up in war zones, lost my father in childhood, and was moved between schools, countries, and languages several times by age 14. I was lucky to meet Jiddu Krishnamurti in 1961 and to spend many summers at the Krishnamurti gatherings in Switzerland. He urged me to explore life and myself on my own terms, to follow my heart, to own my head and take good care of it, and to be responsible.
YJ: How is yoga most helpful in aging?
DH: Hatha yoga is one of the best methods to keep the body healthy, the joints moving, and the muscles pliant, but we must be careful not to overdo it, especially in the joints. The body likes to move in a way that respects the tenderness of the tissues. I believe yoga asanas are not enough for many people to maintain strength as they age. Older people can benefit by adding weight training, guided by an expert, to their yoga practice.
YJ: Tell us about your practice today.
DH: My career has been that of a yoga teacher. I'm now exploring balancing out that specialization to reconnect with early passions, to dive into unknown waters. I took up horse riding, a love from my youth, at 60. For my 70th birthday, I began working with a piano instructor again. The definition of yoga is skill in action; that is my yoga now. All of life can be yoga if you make it so—it takes conscious attention. Now I am more interested in nature and the metaphysical side of life and in keeping my life simple.
YJ: Is this shift present in your teaching?
DH: I still teach the asana—not in such a strict way as I used to, but in a way with more vitality. The perfect Trikonasana doesn't exist. Everybody is different and must interpret the idea of Trikonasana in a unique way. Someone might say, "I do Iyengar Yoga." I say, "Not true!" Only Iyengar does Iyengar Yoga. I do Dona Holleman yoga—I take the idea of a pose and then have to fit it to myself. Students, too, must find their own expression.
YJ: What intrigues you now?
DH: The idea of becoming more heart-centered. I believe the next step in human evolution is to raise the heart intelligence to the same status as we now hold the brain intelligence.
Anne O'Brien teaches yoga and practices daily. She is currently writing a book about the role of Western women in modern yoga. Grace Rubenstein is a journalist and multimedia producer in the San Francisco Bay Area.