Yes, your yoga practice is inevitably going to change as you age, but whatever you do, don't give up, say internationally known yoga teachers Desiree Rumbaugh and Michelle Marchildon, authors of Fearless after Fifty: How to Thrive with Grace, Grit and Yoga (published by Wildhorse Ventures, LLC, August 2017).
"Many teachers say, 'Go to the back of the room, get on blocks, don’t hurt yourself,'" says Marchildon, 56, an E-RYT 500 certified teacher who started practicing with Rumbaugh at age 40 with no previous yoga experience. "Desiree gave me this tremendous gift of knowing that as an older student I could do or try to do many things."
Rumbaugh, 58, a former Yoga Journal cover model and creator of the Yoga to the Rescue DVD series for back, neck, and shoulder pain, says her mission is to help yogis understand that there is no reason to quit yoga as you get older.
"It happens all the time ... [as people age] they back off their practice or [just] do meditative practices or restorative yoga. Sometimes it’s the right thing to do ... some are just afraid, and I want to yell from the mountaintop that there are things you can do."
We chatted with these two ageless ladies to get their tips on how you can not only practice yoga well beyond age 50, but even continue to advance.
6 Ways to Fine-Tune Your Yoga Practice as You Age
1. Incorporate exercise into your practice.
Rumbaugh says she relied on yoga as her "workout" until she was older, when her personal trainer daughter and son-in-law taught her that it was time to complement her practice with strength training.
"In 2010 when I turned 51, my daughter said, 'Let’s go to the gym.' I was bendy, but I couldn’t even run on a treadmill or do pull-ups or anything that required core strength. You need to do some kind of resistance training, some kind of cardio. After 50 it is harder to retain muscle tone. Do [some kind of exercise] you enjoy, every day."
Marchildon agrees that exercise is important for yogis as they age. "In your 20s and 30s you can get away with eating poorly or sleeping less, but as you age cannot get away with more abuse of your body. You need all kinds of fitness for your body and spirit to soar. I've had to supplement much more with weights—5 and 10 pounds twice a week—and add Pilates on the Reformer for my core. The battle is with gravity—the muscles deteriorate, and you need to up your game to stay where you are."
2. Remember: It's never too late.
Not only can you continue to thrive as a yogi beyond age 50, you can even advance, Rumbaugh says. "Your body will constantly tell you, 'You are weak over here, fix this,'" she says.
Marchildon chimes in that she just did arm balances last week that previously hadn’t been attainable for her. "It's absolutely never too late. You can start at 60 or 70 if you're willing to do the work. I just came back from retreat with Desiree in San Diego ... there were younger people and people all the way up to their 70s, and the ability and most of all the resilience of the students was so inspiring. Not one person gave up or didn't work to the edge of their abilities."
3. Practice alignment-based yoga.
Rumbaugh says that after 50 it can be easier to get injured in a standard flow class that rushes from pose to pose, as opposed to an alignment-based style of yoga like Iyengar.
"Vinyasa is wonderful, but it's not a good place to start as an older yogi," Marchildon says. "As a flexible person, I would have thrown myself into it wildly and not have done very well." To avoid injury, seek out teachers that prioritize alignment and know how to place things properly, Rumbaugh advises. This training will help you stay safe in a quickly moving class, she adds.
4. Learn from your past and move forward.
In Fearless after Fifty, Rumbaugh also shares the inspiring story of how she found joy again after the tragic murder of her son. "You're just a small speck in the universe, so don’t take your problems so seriously and don’t think you’re the only one," Rumbaugh says. "You can learn from [your misfortunes] and offer your help to others."
As you age, you recognize that everyone has been through something, Marchildon adds. "You don’t want to wallow the rest of your life in things that happened in the past. You have to move forward ... things that happen to us change us, and with God’s grace they change us for the better."
5. Find friends.
One major problem that older people face is aging in isolation, Marchildon says—which is a big reason to take a yoga class rather than just practicing alone at home. "If you're interested in health and vibrancy, get out to a yoga class, find someone else who shares those interests, make new friends," she suggests.
Taking yoga classes is also a way to stay current and make younger friends, Rumbaugh adds. "The 'I miss the good old days' attitude takes older people downhill," she says.
6. Have a sense of humor.
Life can be serious, but yoga is a chance to remember what it's like to play, laugh, be creative, and feel like a kid again, Marchildon and Rumbaugh agree. "We take yoga seriously, but we try to take ourselves lightly,” says Marchildon.
Sure, we all want to master the poses, but the "play" element of yoga is less about being "good at it" and more about having fun and trying new things with your body, Rumbaugh adds. "Having a sense of humor, being able to laugh through the tears, that’s what we’re all about," she says. "It’s the secret ingredient to aging well on the mat.”